By Pervez Hoodbhoy
19 February, 2005
Pakistanis get to visit India, the so-called "enemy country",
and fewer still to independently assess the development of science and
education across its hugely diverse regions. I had the exceptional good
fortune to make such a visit recently, made possible by the award of
UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science. One part of
the Prize included a 4-week lecture tour that took me around India:
Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bhubhaneswar, Cuttack,
Calcutta, and then back to Delhi again before I returned home to Islamabad
in mid-February. Although the Prize was awarded in 2003, frosty Pakistan-India
relations had made my tour impossible until 2005.
It was a relentless
schedule from the first day onwards with several lectures daily at schools,
colleges, universities, research institutions, and peace groups. I chatted
with children from excellent schools as well as those from rather ordinary
ones; had long sessions with students and professors from colleges and
universities; met with the "junta" (cooks, taxi drivers, and
rickshawallas); and was invited to see ministers and chief ministers
in several states, as well as the president of India.
· Many Indian
universities have a cosmopolitan character and are world class. Their
social culture is secular, modern, and similar to that in universities
located in free societies across the world. (In Pakistan, AKU and LUMS
would be the closest approximations.) Male and female students freely
intermingle, library and laboratory facilities are good, seminars and
colloquia are frequent, and the faculty engages in research. Entrance
exams are tough and competition for grades is intense. Some universities,
"deemed universities" and other research institutions I visited
(TIFR, IISC, IITs, IMSC, IICT, IUCAA, JNCASR, IPB, Raman Institute,
Swaminathan Institute,...) do research work at the cutting edge of science.
A strong tradition of mathematics and theoretical science forms a backbone
sustains progress in areas ranging from space exploration and super-computing
to nanotechnology and biotechnology.
· The rural-urban
divide, and the class divide in education, is strong. Schools and colleges
in small towns have a culture steeped in religion. Here one sees hierarchy,
obedience, and even servility. The national anthem is sung in schools
and religious symbols are given much prominence. Some students I met
were bright, but many appeared rather dull. Although most Indian colleges
are coeducational (unlike in Pakistan), male and female students sit
separately and are not encouraged to intermingle. It
is sometimes difficult to understand the English spoken there. Where
possible, I spoke in Hindi/Urdu. This enhanced my ability to communicate
and also created a certain kind of bonding. There is an evident desire
to improve, however, and at least some college principals go out of
their way to organize events and invite guest speakers. My lecture at
the Basavanagudi National College, a fairly ordinary college in Bangalore,
was the 1978th lecture given by academicians over a period of 30 years!
thought in India's better universities is alive and well. Office bearers
of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students union in Delhi were requested
by the university's administration to present flowers to President Abdul
Kalam at the annual convocation. They flatly refused, saying that he
is a nuclear hawk and an appointee of a Hindu fundamentalist party.
Moreover, as young women of dignity they could not agree to act as mere
flower girls presenting bouquets to a man. Eventually the head of the
physics department, also a woman, somewhat reluctantly presented flowers
to Dr. Kalam but said that she was doing so as a scientist honoring
another scientist, not because she was a woman. Bravo!
I have not seen comparable boldness and intellectual courage in Pakistani
students. Student unions in Pakistan have been banned for two decades
and so it is a moot question if any union there could have mustered
similar independence of thought.
science to the masses has become a kind of mantra all over India. My
columnist friend Praful Bidwai - a powerful critic of the Indian state
and its militaristic policies - counts among India's greatest achievements
the energisation of its democracy and refers to "our social movements,
with their rich traditions of people's self-organisation, innovative
protest and daring questioning of power". These movements have
ensured that, unlike in Pakistan, land grabbers in Indian cities have
resistance when they try to gobble up public spaces - parks, zoos, playgrounds,
historical sites, etc. Praful should also include in his list the huge
number of science popularization movements, sometimes supported by the
state but often spontaneous. These are sweeping through India's towns
and villages, seeking to bring about an understanding of natural phenomena,
teach simple health care, and introduce technology appropriate to a
rural environment. There is not even one comparable Pakistani counterpart.
I watched some science communicators, such as Arvind Gupta at IUCAA
in Pune, whose infectious enthusiasm leaves children thrilled and desirous
of pursuing careers in science. Individual Indian states have funded
and created numerous impressive planetariums and science museums, and
local organizations are putting out a huge volume of written and audio-visual
science materials in the local languages.
of Indian scientists towards science are conservative. Progress through
science is an immensely popular notion in India, stressed both by past
and present leaders. But what is science understood to be? I was a little
jolted upon reading Nehru's words, written in stone at the entrance
to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Advanced Research in Bangalore:
"I too have worshipped at the shrine of science". The notion
of "worship" and "shrine of science" do not go well
with the modern science and the scientific temper. Science is about
challenging, not worshipping. As a secular man, Nehru was not given
to worship but his metaphorical allusions to industries and factories
as temples of science found full resonance. Indeed, science in India
is largely seen as an instrument that
enhances productive capabilities, and not as a transformational tool
for producing an informed, just, and rational society. Most Indian scientists
are techno-nationalists - they put their science at the service of their
state rather than the people. In this respect, Pakistan is no different.
nuclear and space programs are nationally venerated as symbols of high
achievement. This led to India's nuclear hero, Dr. Abdul Kalam, becoming
the country's president. When Dr. Kalam received me in his office, after
the usual pleasantries, I expressed my regret at India having gone nuclear
and causing Pakistan to follow suit. Shouldn't India now reduce dangers
by initiating a process of nuclear disarmament? Dr. Kalam gave me a
well-practiced response: India would get rid of its nuclear weapons
the very minute that America agreed to do the same. He displayed little
enthusiasm for an agreement to cut off fissile material production.
However, he did agree to my suggestion that exchange of academics could
be an important way to build good relations between
Pakistan and India.
society remains deeply superstitious, caste divisions are important,
and women still have a long way to go. While I found myself admiring
the energetic popular science movements, I was disappointed that they
pay relatively little attention to the anti-scientific superstitions
widely prevalent in Indian society. After I had given a strong pitch
for fighting irrational beliefs at a meeting of science popularization
activists from villages in Northern India, a young woman asked me what
to do if "koi devi aap pay utr jayai" (if a spirit should
descend upon you). The jyoti (astrologer) dictates the dates when a
marriage is possible, and even whether a couple can marry at all. When
I was in Bangalore, hundreds of thousands had thronged to be cured by
an American faith-healing quack, Benny Hinn. Inter-caste marriages are
still frowned upon, and usually forbidden. In local newspapers one typically
reads of tragic accounts such as that of a boy and girl from different
castes who jointly commit suicide
after their families forbid the match. Although Indian women are freer,
more visible, and more confident than their Pakistani counterparts,
India is still a strongly male dominated society. However, the rapidly
increasing number of bold and well-educated young women gives hope for
in India remain at the margins of scientific research and higher education.
Hamdard University in Delhi is distinctly better than the university
bearing the same name on the Pakistani side. Jamia Millia, a largely
Muslim university, appears to be doing well and probably better than
any Pakistani university in the field of physics. But, although Muslims
form 12% of India's population, I met only a few Muslim scientists in
leading Indian research institutes and universities. Discrimination
against Muslims does not appear to be the dominant cause. A professor
at Jamia told me that an overwhelming number of Muslim students were
inclined towards seeking easier (and more lucrative) professions in
spite of special incentives offered to them at his university. In general,
Muslims in India appear more modern and secular than in Pakistan. However,
Hyderabad astonished me. Is it a total exception? In the lecture that
I gave at a government women's college, there was only one young woman
without a burqa in an audience of about a hundred. These women were
surprised to learn that Pakistan - at least in most places - is more
liberal than Hyderabad. The extreme conservatism in the Muslim part
of the city reminds one of Peshawar.
· There was
a remarkable lack of hostility towards Pakistan. Indeed a desire for
friendly relations was repeatedly expressed in every forum I went to.
This is not to be taken lightly: many of my public lectures were either
about (or on) science, but others dealt with deeply contentious issues
- nuclear weapons, India-Pakistan relations, and the Kashmir conflict.
Various Indian peace groups and NGOs organized public discussions and
screenings of the two documentaries that I had made (with my friend
Zia Mian): "Pakistan and India under the Nuclear Shadow",
and "Crossing the Lines - Kashmir, Pakistan, India". To be
sure, my views on Indian policies and actions in Kashmir occasionally
provoked knee-jerk nationalistic responses and accusations of pushing
"a Pakistani line". But these were infrequent and even heated
exchanges always remained within the bounds of civility.
about Pakistan is widespread. In most public gatherings, and certainly
in every school that I spoke at, people had never seen a Pakistani.
A puzzled 12-year old girl asked me: "Sir, are you really a Pakistani?".
Many Indians have a misconception of Pakistan as a medieval, theocratic
state. In fact, only a few parts of Pakistan are really so. I also encountered
the belief that Pakistanis have been totally muzzled and live in a police
state. This is untrue - articles in the Pakistani press are often blunter
and more critical than in the Indian press. An Indian friend hypothesized
that knowledge of the other country is inversely proportional to the
geographical distance between our countries. Unfortunately this will
remain true unless there is a substantial exchange of visitors.
are deeply nationalistic and may dislike particular governments but
they only rarely criticize the Indian state. This is not difficult to
understand: the democratic process has given a strong sense of participation
to most citizens and has successfully forged a national identity (except
in Kashmir, and parts of the North East) that transcends the immense
diversity of Indian cultures. But this has an important downside: nationalism
is easy to mobilize and highly dangerous in matters of war and conflict.
I found the Indian elite (especially the former heads of nuclear, space,
and technology programs) condescending and irritatingly smug. Even if
India has done well in many respects, in most others it is still behind
the rest of the world. Fortunately, Pakistani intellectuals are less
attached to their nation state and therefore more forthright. The reason
is rather clear: three decades of military rule have dealt a serious
blow to nation building and firming up the Pakistani identity.
between the two countries exceed the differences. Cities in both countries
are poisoned with thick car fumes and grid-locks are frequent; megaslums
and exploding populations threaten to swallow up the countryside; electricity
supplies are intermittent; and water is fast disappearing from rivers
and aquifers. The rural poor are fleeing to the cities, and wretched
beggars with amputated limbs are casually accepted as part of the urban
scenery. There is little long-term planning, and none at all for coping
with the inevitable changes that global warming will soon bring.
India is upbeat
about its future and the feeling of optimism is palpable down to the
lower middle class. The steady improvement in educational quality and
outreach, the growth of social movements that keep excesses of power
and authority in check, and a sense of participation among people are
among India's most significant gains. But its problems are no less than
its accomplishments. Will India's poor be able to find a voice, get
help in fighting superstitions and notions of caste, and be spared the
marginalization that accompanies globalization? Will India's leadership
have the wisdom to arrive at some reasonable accommodation on Kashmir,
cease obsessive militarization, and divert resources to pressing social
needs? These larger issues, and not just advances in science and technology,
will decide just how high India can rise.
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy
is professor of physics at Quaid-e-AzamUniversity, Islamabad.