Science and the Indian politician

If India conducted its first nuclear test many centuries ago, why did we wait till 1974 AD to conduct our second test in Pokhran? Where did all that knowledge go?

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 19 December 2014

If India conducted its first nuclear test many centuries ago, why did we wait till 1974 AD to conduct our second test in Pokhran? Where did all that knowledge go?

The crater formed after Pokhran I blast and then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, visits site. A senior BJP leader claims the first nuclear test in India was conducted by an ancient sage named Kanad who conducted a nuclear test in 2nd or 3rd century BC

The new regime at the Centre is said to have given fresh momentum to growth in the country. Meetings between established policy makers and idle chat among people at the local chai shop—all gatherings of people are abuzz with ideas and debates.

They discuss how India is now asserting itself on the global platform with its potential market, efficient leadership and of course, the knowledge and achievements of the “golden age”.

Interestingly, leaders of the ruling party are continuously unearthing achievements by Indians from the past and almost all of these achievements are related to health and science, my areas of work at Down To Earth magazine.

As a journalist reporting on these issues, I am bemused. With every such assertion, leaders hurl new challenges at journalists like me for we are expected to track their statements, establish them with facts and figures and also, meet our deadlines.

This is a big concern. Even before I have begun attempting to deal with one assertion about our ancient scientific achievement, a new one stands in the way. I often find myself perplexed while trying to balance contradictions in the nature of facts that come to light.

For instance, former chief minister of Uttarakhand and now Member of Parliament from BJP, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, claimed on December 4 that an ancient sage named Kanad had conducted a nuclear test during his time. This sage was believed to have lived during the second and third century BC.

While this MP was asserting the wealth of nuclear knowledge in Indian tradition, his government was nervously preparing to welcome Vladimir Putin, premier of the Russian federation. It seemed they were simply working towards the target of convincing Putin to give India more nuclear reactors.

This is quite confusing. If Nishank is right, why do Indian leaders seem to be pleading to leaders of other countries for nuclear reactors? What happened to those nuclear tests done by the Indian sage? Why did he not he pass the information and knowledge to his next generation? Why did he not ensure that the next generations learnt from his experiments?

If we were to give our “great sage” the benefit of doubt, we are left with only one assumption—that the entire body of information was blown away in the nuclear test itself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also left me distressed with similar statements. While inaugurating a private hospital in Mumbai in the last week of October, he bombarded the country with several pieces of information.

Here is a loose translation of his speech: “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We have all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we gave it more thought, we would realise that Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at the time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.”

He added, “We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at the time who placed an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

The prime minister, while a very good orator, did not tell us how he unearthed these facts. How are we to ascertain whether this information is fiction or reality? He made big claims but left us a puzzle. If these scientific developments were already a part of our culture, why did they not percolate down to us as traditional knowledge? Why do they exist only in religious texts?

Instead of revelling in the glory of assumed scientific achievements of the past, the government would do well to focus on the present and evolve a system that encourages scientific research and innovation by trained scientists.
Millions of Indians are still battling for access to nutritious food, employment, health and education. Instead of investing in a misguided sense of nationalistic pride, the government should use the available science to ensure a better standard of living for its people.

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