Ex-Padma Bhushan Pushpa Bhargava's Half A Century Of Dissent

29/10/2015 8:10 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Pushpa Bhargava, who's perhaps become the first Indian scientist to return the Padma Bhushan, has a long history of being opposed to the government. Whether it was filing a writ petition in the Supreme Court contesting Murli Manohar Joshi's attempt to introduce astrology in universities, or being a strident critic of the UPA's push to launch genetically-modified food crops in India, the 87-year-old Bhargava has ridden research and controversy in almost equal measure.

His career as a scientist roughly began with that of Nehru's as Prime Minister. Keeping with the zeitgeist of socialism, there was in the 40s and 50s such a thing as the Association of Scientific Workers of India (ASWI), which was registered as a Trade Union, and with which Bhargava was closely associated with.Tellingly, Bhargava himself notes that the association "fizzled out" because several leading scientists of the time themselves lacked a "scientific temper."

The ethos of scientists working to solve India's problems of disease, malnutrition and poverty hand-in-hand with government marked several scientists of Bhargava's vintage. Though he did pursue post doctoral studies in the United States at the McArdle Memorial Laboratory of Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison (US), Bhargava has spent most of his professional tenure in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories and--especially after eschewing active research--been a critic of American corporations.

But his intransigence with governments, socialist and centrist, has been consistent. There was a spat in 1998 between him and eminent scientist, former IISc director, P Balram over a book review. Balaram took Bhargava to task for giving a charitable review to author, Dilip Sawli's book, who argued that Indian science had fallen to mediocrity. Balram criticized this view in Indian science journal, Current Science and saliently called Bhargava as "being with the establishment." Bhargava's rebuttal in the same magazine listed his own run-ins with the Janata government over its stand on cow protection.

In Bhargava's own words:

As regards my being a part of the Establishment, I do not know where to begin to contradict this. Shall I mention the parliamentary inquiry against me in the 1960s when I gave a talk on the Soviet arms aid to Pakistan; or my close links with the large number of NGOs which I thought were doing very well but which were black-listed by the Government of that time; or my being summoned by the Sarkar Committee in Delhi to give evidence on the statements that I had made against the then Government’s stand on cow protection at the time of the cow protection agitation in the late 1960s

Both Balram and Bhargava are today united in their protest against the Narendra Modi government and are signatories to the online petition by scientists expressing solidarity with the writers protesting the death of Pansare and Kalburgi.

While most contemporary history has been contemptuous of the influence of Sanjay Gandhi on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, they oversaw a milestone amendment to the Indian constitution in the matter of science. A phrase, once used by Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India, 'scientific temper,' became part of the constitution less because Indira Gandhi discovered the joys of science but because of an economic drive, not unlike the current 'Make In India' clarion call, to step up manufacturing in the country and catch up with Japan and South Korea.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘...develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.' Bhargava claims to have played a role in introducing that clause into the Constitution though there's little--other than his own testimony--to back that up.

In the throes of the Emergency of 1975-77, Bhargava with support from Indira Gandhi established the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, where he was director until 1990. It would be almost decade later that Rajeev Gandhi would formally inaugurate the CCMB and 'dedicate it to the nation.' Though he played a pivotal role in steering it as among the premier institutes of its kind in the country he's been critical of the functioning of the CCMB and of the CSIR as a whole. He famously was the lone backer of Shiva Ayyadurai, a controversial American-Indian entreprenuer who was brought in by Samir Brahmachari, ex-Director General of CSIR. Brahmachari sacked Ayyadurai after his criticism of the CSIR's organisation structure and in the scandal that followed Ayyadurai's lone sympathiser was Bhargava who wrote a letter to PM Manmohan Singh defending him.

Even though Bhargava was in terms of advancing age close to retirement, his engagement with scientific dissidence was unabated. American seed company Monsanto's entry into India's market with its variety of genetically-modified cotton was perhaps the biggest scientific controversy of the fading 90s and most of the early 2000s. Bhargava has almost consistently maintained that Monsanto is a 'for-profit' monolith only interested in exploiting Indian farmers.

Genetically modified cotton first appeared in Indian fields illegally and then--due to its popularity--became legal to the unprecedented extent that governments of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra now mandate that Bt cotton not be sold above a certain threshold. However when it appeared that GM food crops such as brinjals and tomatoes might too find its way to farmer fields, there were a new set of wars involving Bhargava and several NGOs on one side and Deepak Pental, of the Delhi University, and G Padmanabhan of the Indian Institute Of Science on the other. The latter maintained that GM technology was adequately established and safe for both farmers and consumers to which Bhargava has maintained that these are insufficiently tested. Bhargava, who controversially claims to have coined the term 'genetic engineering' in 1973, has usually been the acerbic critic in committees of the environment ministry deliberating on the release of GM crops.

Bhargava was also once a part of the National Knowledge Commission headed by telecom-czar, Sam Pitroda. With him too he had pretty-public fallout with him. This was during the days when the UPA government survived on the back of the support by the Communist Party of India and Bhargava felt that the NKC was an "elitist" club. Matters came to a head and when Pitroda asked for his resignation, Bhargava first refused citing that he was appointed by the PM and would do only if asked to do so by Manmohan Singh himself.

In an interview to Rediff, just after announcing that he was giving up his Padma Bhushan, Bhargava notes that while previous governments too have been frequently intolerant and unscientific, the current Modi government stood out. "Among all the governments till date, this government is least committed to scientific temper. Other governments have also not been committed to scientific temper but not to the extent of this government."

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