by Praful Bidwai

If there’s one thing that the 102nd Indian Science Congress, held in Mumbai, will be remembered for, it’s the outrageous claims made at it about the achievements of science in ancient India, including the assertion that Indians between 7000 and 6000 BC knew how to make airplanes that could undertake “interplanetary travel”, and fly backwards and sideways, as well as forwards!

Similarly, Indians had invented differential calculus, knew about viruses and developed advanced techniques of plastic surgery—well before anyone else. These claims confuse mythology with science, concoct history, and are based on pure fantasies of insecure ultra-nationalists who assert that ancient India’s accomplishments in the arts or sciences put even the modern era to shame.

The claim about airplanes was demolished 40 years ago by Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore aeronautical engineers in scientific journals. Yet, such claims are now made with brazen confidence. This speaks to the power of example, one set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no less, when he cited the mythical figures of Ganesha and Karna as proof that Indians knew about genetics, in-vitro fertilisation and complex surgery thousands of years ago!

Such self-glorification and myth-making can only make India the laughing stock of the world, but is an integral part of the Sangh Parivar’s distinct self-identity and obscurantist agenda. Its impact is now becoming visible in the Parivar’s Long March through the Institutions of the State.

Led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and enabled by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government, Parivar activists are reshaping, changing, and subverting institutions, especially in education and culture. Their aim is to influence their working to reflect the Sangh’s specific brand of “cultural nationalism” by promoting Hindutva icons, engineering long-term changes in programmes and priorities, and making key appointments of personnel who will loyally execute such changes.

The imposition of observing Christmas Day as “good governance” day on Central educational institutions—including thousands of schools, 45 Central universities, the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)—was only one step in that direction.

The latest move is the award of National Research Professorships to Sangh sympathisers: Kannada novelist SL Bhyrappa, Mumbai-based economics lecturer Ashok Modak and Hindi journalist/writer Suryakant Bali. Such Professorships were held in the past by physicists CV Raman and Satyendranath Bose, musician Ravi Shankar, writer Mahashweta Devi and sociologist Andre Beteille.

Bhyrappa is an accomplished and successful novelist, but he controversially accuses Tipu Sultan of being a religious fanatic! According to former BJP functionary Sudheendra Kulkarni, who doesn’t hide his pro-Sangh bias, Bhyrappa nurtures a “fevered hatred of Indian Muslims”. Modak isn’t a distinguished scholar. And Bali’s claim to academic distinction is unknown, but the launch of his last book was attended by human resource development minister Smriti Irani and RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal. Both Bhyrappa and Bali had endorsed Mr Modi as PM-candidate.

The larger Sangh agenda includes substantive changes both in the content of education and appointments in prestigious institutions. Ms Irani has announced that the government will soon formulate a whole new education policy. It has appointed pro-Hindutva or pro-BJP individuals to head the apex-level Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the renowned Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) at Shimla, and Banaras Hindu University (BHU), established in 1916.

This sends out an unmistakable signal about the shape of things to come in other Central universities including Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), some of the IITs and IIMs, and the Central Board of Secondary Education, among other institutions where new appointments to top posts or councils/governing bodies are due soon.

An even stronger signal emanates from the manner in which Parvin Sinclair, the upright and independent-minded director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), was ousted more than two years before her term ended, aborting at the last stage the improvement and updating of the National Curriculum Framework-2005, which she had initiated.

The NCF was itself the product of a long, broad consultative process of “de-saffronisation”, which led to the production of NCERT’s widely acclaimed, secular-liberal, pedagogically vastly superior, school textbooks, adopted by many state textbook boards and schools.

On May 22, even before Mr Modi was sworn in, the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas run by Dinanath Batra (he, of book-pulping fame) demanded a “total” overhaul of the education system and rewriting of textbooks so they inculcate “patriotism”, reflect “Indian tradition, social consciousness… and spiritualism”, and help build a “strong and vibrant India”.

Mr Batra insisted that Ms Irani reconstitute the NCERT. When Dr Sinclair refused to toe Ms Irani’s line on the NCF and other issues, she was reportedly falsely charged with financial irregularities, not allowed to defend herself fully, and asked to resign.

Another recent Irani casualty is IIT-Delhi director RK Sheogaonkar who resigned in protest against her blatant interference in the institute’s affairs. The faculty has strongly supported Dr Sheogaonkar.

There has been no similar purge in other institutions so far. But the government has used three other methods to favour the Parivar: appointing RSS functionaries or sympathisers to high academic positions although they manifestly lack scholarly competence, leave alone distinction; nominating mediocrities who are BJP fellow-travellers to major institutions; and co-opting appointees of the previous regime by striking questionable deals with them which benefit the Parivar.

The appointment of Girish Chandra Tripathi as BHU vice-chancellor, a post held earlier by luminaries like S Radhakrishnan and Acharya Narendra Dev, falls in the first category. Mr Tripathi, a longstanding hardcore prant (province)-level RSS official, was earlier a professor of economics at Allahabad university. But going by a google-scholar search and other available biographical entries, he has published no books or papers, at least recently.

According to a former colleague of his, Mr Tripathi “probably never taught a full 50-minute class”. But he has shrewdly played Uttar Pradesh-style Brahmin politics as a loyalist and understudy of Giridhar Malaviya, Madan Mohan Malaviya’s manipulative pro-RSS grandson and a former judge.

Mr Malaviya famously nominated Mr Modi as the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Varanasi. He also headed the search-cum-selection committee that recommended Mr Tripathi, his own acolyte, for the VC’s post—a blatant conflict of interest!

The appointment of Y Sudershan Rao, a singularly undistinguished historian close to a spiritual guru (who mediated with the RSS-BJP on his behalf), as ICHR chairman is a similar, if somewhat less sordid, story. Prof Rao rails against Western and Marxist scholars and defends the caste system. He wants to prove the historicity of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Prof Rao emphasises the relevance of the Puranas: “The ICHR has to play a catalyst role in taking to people their history” through the epics. According to distinguished historian Romila Thapar, Prof Rao fails to distinguish between epics and historical texts. He has published no articles on the epics, or on Ayodhya as Rama’s birthplace, in peer-reviewed journals.

One of Prof Rao’s first actions was to invite a Belgium-based, rabidly pro-Hindutva scholar, SN Balagangadhara, to deliver the Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture on November 11 (available at Balagangadhara drew serious criticism from distinguished historians like Rajan Gurukkal.

The nomination by the MHRD of Chandrakala Padia as the chairperson of IIAS-Shimla, and by the foreign ministry of Kavita Sharma as the president of South Asian University, belong to the second category. Dr Padia, who comes from Varanasi, does have some published work, but its quality is not commensurate with her position at IIAS. Ms Sharma was director of the India International Centre, Delhi and earlier principal of Hindu College, but can claim little academic accomplishment.

Third, the Parivar has cut deals with various UPA appointees, who have turned pro-BJP-RSS, including University Grants Commission chairman Ved Prakash and Delhi university VC Dinesh Singh. They both attended a lunch hosted by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Delhi on October 12. Mr Prakash in anxious to continue in his post till 2017 despite vigilance and other inquiries against him.

Dr Singh’s favourite, but mindless, scheme (Four-Year Undergraduate Programme) was recently shot down by Ms Irani. Sensing the wind, he capitulated. He now plays Bhumihar-cum-Parivar politics and recently made more than 20 questionable appointments in university departments, according to teachers. He has also provided a platform to senior RSS functionaries on the campus, including Indresh Kumar and Krishna Gopal.

A dark presence behind some of these appointments and related decisions is said to be MHRD’s officer on special duty Sanjay Kachroo, who has worked with several corporate houses, including Reliance, and had access to secret MHRD files even before he received intelligence clearance.

With such players in key positions, the Parivar is intruding into education—probably with nasty communal consequences. A future article will discuss its interference in the field of culture.