D. D. Kosambi: in memoriam

31 July 2008 is D. D. Kosambi’s 101st birthday.

This is surely an occasion for historians to remember, because of Kosambi’s stature as a historian. His as-yet unmatched knowledge of languages and Indian culture (both “high” and “low”) gave tremendous depth to his pioneering account of Indian history from a Marxist perspective, which was refreshingly free of jargon, and so robustly down-to-earth.

However, Kosambi’s primary job was as a mathematician. So, this is also an occasion for other academicians in India—particularly mathematicians and scientists—to introspect. The recognized big names in Indian science (Ramanujam, S. N. Bose, K. S. Krishnan/C. V. Raman, S. Chandrasekhar) did their work in the pre-independence era. Why so few science achievers in post-independence India? Has science changed so that there are no more any individual achievers? That cannot be true, for there are post-independence science achievers of Indian origin, but they mostly did their work abroad.

So, could it be that it is our post-independence science policy that is at fault? that our science and technology management has gone seriously wrong? This question has been waiting far too long to be asked.

So, Kosambi’s centenary is also a time to reflect on the post-independence decline in Indian science. There are two key aspects here: (a) the systematic exclusion of talented and knowledgeable people, and (b) the complete lack of public accountability of the top science managers who are regarded as demigods (like godmen) in a scientifically illiterate society which is gullible to boot.

How was someone as obviously talented as Kosambi thrown out of the system and practically left to starve? How odd that this has never been publicly discussed by any academic in India in the last half-century! Why has no one else commented on the peculiar science policy of post-independence India, in which control of key state-funded research institutions was handed over to private capital by appointing as their heads the scions of industrial families?

What were the consequences of this policy? In contrast to Kosambi, whom he threw out, who were the people whom Bhabha encouraged? Insecure with Kosambi, and seeking to sideline him, Bhabha first promoted K. Chandrasekharan. A former director of TIFR provided an interesting thumb-nail sketech of the two. “Kosambi was a great intellect, but K. Chandrasekharan’s boast was that, as deputy director, he could meet the director without a prior appointment!”

 The result of this pitiable attitude was that K. Chandrasekharan pitched for the the sort of mathematics that would fetch social approval from the West—which was what Bhabha craved. No one bothered that this mathematics had no practical value whatsoever but was funded under the false pretence of being useful for atomic energy. This method of persistently fooling the taxpayer of vast sums of money remains one of the well guarded secrets of our atomic energy programme!

There are other matters that need to be enquired into. While Bhabha looked the other way, Chandrasekharan also spread the poison of casteist and regional biases, which poison has now percolated to many of our leading national institutions in mathematics. Even Andre Weil, a member of the Bourbaki group, who spent time in Aligarh as a refugee Jew during the second war, has commented on this in his autobiography. How come no one in the last half a century has discussed these managerial blunders whether for mathematics or for atomic energy?

Again, in contrast to Kosambi, whom he sacked, Bhabha encouraged Raja Ramanna, who could publicly try to bluff (in response to my question) that “every matrix has a diagonal—even a rectangular matrix has a diagonal”. (See the cartoon at http://ckraju.net/ppthtml/img77.html and http://ckraju.net/ppthtml/img78.html.) This point concerns not only our science managers, but also our scientists: this piece of nonsense was received in abject silence by the rest of the house which included some top scientists from our leading institutions.  Their silence was an admission that the truth—even the most elementary sort of truth—often has no place in the Indian system of science management.

Has the Indian science manager become just another sort of politician who tries to con the society to “pocket considerable research grants”, as Kosambi said? If so, it is easy to understand why knowledgeable and upright people, like Kosambi, have no place in the Indian system, which systematically promotes incompetence as the means to protect the lifelong power of the science manager. Those critics who are not linked to the West, and resist exile, howsoever talented they may be, have nowhere to go, like Kosambi.

How come we are still pumping vast resources into atomic energy despite half a century of consistently failed promises of cheap and plentiful energy? Kosambi was sacked for publicly raising questions about the real costs of atomic energy: where the money for the research came in, who benefited, and what would be the long-term costs in terms of cleaning up the mess of radioactive and genetic fallout.

Those questions still remain unanswered. So should we abandon atomic energy and shift to solar energy as Kosambi advocated? Our “experts” do not engage in such debates. Instead, like the mafia, they silence critics.  As Kosambi said, “in a stagnant pond it is the scum that rises to the top”.

But why should we trust “experts” who lack moral fibre? Because of total dependence on cliques of experts, science in India lacks public accountability even more than the judiciary or the police. The truth is simply what the experts say it is whether the opinion originates from self-interest or ignorance or any other reason. Is this acceptable? Think of the huge amounts that are spent on research?

Isn’t it important to check both the ethics and scientific credentials of experts on whose opinion so many wide-ranging decisions are based, especially in a knowledge society? Certificates from the West, or other measures of social acceptance in the West, are a thoroughly improper measure of the real scientific credentials of an expert, for the West has a habit of issuing the warmest such certificates to just those of its lackeys who best serve its interests.

In the case of mathematics, for instance, as I have pointed out the theorem-proving sort of mathematics is religiously oriented, and based on Christian theological principles (the theorems of present-day formal mathematics would mostly fail with Buddhist or Jaina logic, for example). So, such theorem-proving mathematics is of no secular value and only pushes the Western agenda of hegemony. If we still do it, it is because we are being adviced by bad experts who are pushing Western propaganda because their whose financial interests are tied to West.  What a secular state needs to be concerned with is only the practical value of mathematics.

Let these experts show how their contributions have benefited our interests —the practical interests of people in this society. How has the work of these experts helped to improve the standard of living of anyone (other than the experts themselves, that is). If they can’t show that, or can’t show it publicly, then these “experts” are just parasites. They can’t be expected to quit on grounds of public decency, so they perhaps need to be forcibly shown the door. If the bureaucrats won’t do it, the people should.

The managers who went horribly wrong about the people they kept and the people they threw out, were they perhaps equally wrong about the technology whose mimicry they advocated? What does history say about the future of a civilization that throws out its creative soul and survives on mimesis?

These are some of the neglected questions that, in my opinion, ought to be discussed on Kosambi’s 101st birthday. These questions have become all the more pressing today, because of the recent events concerning the nuclear deal.

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