I am a fanatic rationalist

Rana Nayar speaks to Meera Nanda on her life, interests, passion for science and her book Prophets Facing Backward

Meera Nanda
Meera Nanda — Photo by Pradeep Tiwari

The US-based Meera Nanda did her M.Sc. in microbiology from Panjab University in 1979, before moving on to I.I.T Delhi for a Ph.D. During her stay at this premier institution, she woke up to glaring contradictions between scientific teaching/research and scientific temper. She was aghast to see how science was only taught by, but not practised among the scientific elite. This was one of the reasons why she chose not to enter the academia; but work as a science reporter for The Indian Express. During her three-year-long stint from 1980 to 1983 as a reporter/columnist, she did what she loved doing the most, popularising science. But as her heart always lay with science and not journalism, she migrated to the US to pursue further research in the philosophy of science. After a year at Indiana University, she opted out and in 1993 enrolled for another PhD, this time in the department of scientific and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. Her second Ph.D thesis has now been published in form of a much talked about book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism.

Tell us about your Chandigarh connection?

I was born here, into a very conservative family, and had a traditional upbringing, too. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Chandigarh was a very conservative city, which, in many ways, it still is. It’s modern only in infrastructure, not in spirit. Though I have been away from it for over 25 years, I keep coming back to it. It hasn’t really changed much, at least, in terms of mind-set.

Your subject was microbiology. How and at what point did you develop interest in the philosophy/history of science?

I was trained to be a microbiologist. My first Ph.D was in this very subject. But during my research I’d begun to move away from microbiology. In the early 1980s, we had a debate in India, in which I also participated in my own small way. Though it largely had to do with the project of modernity, it specifically led to the questioning of the role of science and scientific worldview in our lives. Around this time, I began to think seriously about the discrepancies between the scientific training and scientific temper, which, though endemic, was totally unacceptable to me. I found that even an institution like the IIT was quite feudal, hierarchical and patriarchal. It was intriguing how even the best of professors only expatiated on science in their public role, refusing to integrate it into their private lives, which continued to be dominated by conservatism, even reactionary orthodoxy. This was a disturbing trend. Besides, this is where the natural sciences wouldn’t have been of much help. So I took a plunge into the philosophy of science.

You’ve come up with an interesting thesis in this book. Can you sum it up for our readers?

This book is a culmination of my long-term conviction that the truths of science are universal and so should not be interrogated, arbitrarily. With the appearance of post-modernist philosophers, Enlightenment notions of scientific progress came in for serious re-consideration, even hasty rejection in certain cases. Once room had been created for indigenous, alternative and ethno sciences, a new kind of trend began to emerge. A good number of retrogressive and traditional sciences, rooted in superstitious beliefs and occultism, especially in the developing world, began to don the mantle of sciences. This is what led us away from modernity and toward what I describe as ‘re-radicalisation’ of local traditions. In turn, this created cultural space for the revivalism of Hindutva, which is nothing but a deviant, political expression of monistic, Vedantic, Neo-Hinduism we often associate with the 19th century Indian Renaissance.

Hindutva, as a political force, is a phenomenon of the late 1980s or early 1990s. If we go along with your thesis, wherein you trace its history back to Indian Renaissance then why did it emerge only when it did?

Of course, Hindutva as an aggressive, fascist force emerged only in the early 1990s, for which there are political and empirical reasons. But my book is about ideas and their history. Its primary interest is not empirical and political, but philosophical. My effort is to engage with the metaphysics of Hinduism and show how it has appropriated the space of modern science and is now claiming the status of science, as also modernity for Vedantic thought. This trend is particularly dangerous. This wholesale rejection or denial of modernity has to be guarded against.

On reading your book I had this feeling that you are quite passionate about your defence of scientific universalism. So much so that you go ahead and tar post-modernism, post-colonialism and eco-feminism with the same brush, critiquing them all for promoting what you call ‘anti-science’ attitude. Your wholesale, somewhat radical denunciation of all alternative modes of thought/discourses arouses suspicion about how your brand of scientific universalism could potentially turn totalitarian. Any comments?

Yes, I’m a ‘fanatic rationalist’ or a ‘fundamentalist scientist,’ if you prefer. I find it hard to accept the way science is being re-traditionalised, balkanised and indigenised. In India, we are into what I call ‘reactionary modernism’. For a variety of reasons, we aborted our belief in scientific universalism, and therefore, liberalism and secularism much before we could complete the project of modernity. We haven’t really had excess of liberalism or secularism, as some people claim. On the contrary, we have had too little of it. The seductive logic of post-modernism is not for us. We must give modernity another, much longer lease. Perhaps, that’s our only chance with secular India.