Science Wars: The Saffron Villains – Aravindan Neelakandan

Aravindan Neelakandan“There is no doubt that Sangh Parivar organizations have an over-fixation with cow-based formulations and Vedic mathematics. However, the Hindutva movement, represented especially by the much-maligned Dr Joshi, has made a strong contribution to India’s science landscape, and much beyond Vedic astrology. What is truly unscientific is the media fixation and left wing obsession with certain questionable aspects of the Sangh worldview rather than its unique as well as overall role in promoting science in India, and Indian science.” – Aravindan Neelakandan

The building was buzzing too, with a human hum. I followed the sound and found most of the staff gathered in Professor Habib’s office and his desk littered with placards: UNITE AND FIGHT SAFFRONIZATION – THE SAFFRONIZATION THE MAIN DANGER TODAY – DON’T COVER UP SAFFRONIZATION IN THE MOCK FIGHT AGAINST ‘GLOBALIZATION’. I wasn’t enlightened. Another imperative, leaning against a cupboard, offered a clue: SAY NO TO VEDIC ASTROLOGY DEPARTMENTS IN UNIVERSITIES. In a lull in the debate one of the lecturers explained. A conference on higher education was taking place, and many of the faculty had been picketing it in protest at government plans to fund the teachings of astrology and other occult Hindu sciences in universities. It had even been suggested that the new course components should include palmistry and levitation.

Hand-reading would be a devil to examine, at least in its applied form; but levitation?… Somebody had been reading too much of Harry Potter. “You’re joking.” I said.

 He wasn’t. Serious money was being earmarked for the scheme and the inspiration behind it was not Hogwarts School for Witches and Wizards but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Organization of National Volunteers. In a sensible world, the RSS too would be a joke: with their uniform of forage caps and Boy Scout shorts, they look like some offshoot of P. G. Woodhouse’s fictional foot-bagged fascists, the Black Shorts. But they too are deadly serious and with the Prime Minister and many of his party elite as members immensely powerful. Sartorially Stanley Matthews and ideologically Joseph Goebbels, the RSS are Brahminical supremacists who regard India’s 140 million-odd Muslims – not to mention all other non-Hindu minorities – as at best aliens to be tolerated on sufferance, at worst insufferable parasites.[1]            

Tim Mackintosh-SmithNo, this is neither from some left wing propaganda pamphlet, nor from an academic tome by a ‘South Asia scholar’ from some ivory league university in the United States studying Hindu ‘right wing’ politics in India. This is from a travelogue written by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, British Yemen-based Oxford-educated Arabist, writer, traveller and lecturer. The Hall of A Thousand Columns is a travelogue in which Smith follows the footsteps of Ibn Batutta, 14th century Muslim traveller in India. The above passage is when Smith comes to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and meets historian Prof Irfan Habib.

The extract provides the kind of negative caricature that the left wing indulged in and the outside world bought with glee. The fact that even a travelogue contains such a visceral critique and negative caricature of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Human Resource Development Minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government, making the situation sound like an Indic return of Nazis should make one realize the quantum of propaganda that the left wing assiduously carried out against the ‘Hindu nationalists’ in office.

But what is it about the truth itself? Did Dr Joshi and his team try to turn the wheel backwards and introduce ‘occult Hindu’ pseudo-sciences funded by the taxpayers’ money? What exactly is the legacy of Dr Joshi and broadly the Sangh Parivar with respect to science and technology when NDA ruled India for six years? To find the answers, we have to start at least three years earlier than 1998 when the NDA came to power.

Murli Manohar JoshiVedic Astrology and Dr. Joshi    

September 21, 1995 saw a mass religious phenomenon across India. Kiran Bedi, then an IPS officer, offered milk to the statues of Hindu-Buddhist deities in her house and they all accepted the milk. “The milk just disappeared into thin air,” she stated. Vishnu Hari Dalmia, then president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), called it a “divine miracle.” Many Congress leaders like Vasanth Sathe and V.N. Gadgil charged the Sangh Parivar for starting a fake miracle “to exploit religious feelings for political ends.”

However, Gopinath Munde, then deputy CM of BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra, declared unequivocally that neither his government nor he believed this milk drinking by idols to be possible. Even more remarkable was the statement by Dr Joshi. A qualified nuclear physicist, Dr Joshi declared: “As a physicist, I have to conclude that it’s due to capillary action and surface tension. Nothing more.”[2]

It was the same Dr Joshi, when he was HRD Minister in the NDA government, who was savagely targeted by leftists as well as anti-BJP media houses and cruelly caricatured as an anti-scientific obscurantist trying to introduce Hindu mumbo-jumbo into the curriculum taking modern scientific education thousands of years back into Vedic dark age. The propaganda against Dr Joshi centred on the allegation that he was the brain behind the University Grants Commission (UGC) decision to allow the introduction of ‘Vedic astrology’ in the university curriculum.

In an article published in the Marxist magazine Frontline, theoretical physicist Dr T. Jayaraman alleged that there was a “high-profile and pro-active campaign” by Dr Joshi and the then Chairman of the University Grants Commission “for the introduction of Vedic astrology as a ‘scientific discipline’ to be pursued as a subject of study in universities in India.”[3] Eminent citizens and scientists signed petitions and issued public statements against the pseudo-science of astrology and saffron propaganda.

Far from indulging in any ‘high profile pro-active’ statement, Dr Joshi distanced himself from the UGC decision. In an interview to India Today, he categorically stated: “The astrology course isn’t my policy. That’s UGC’s baby.” The former physics professor of Allahabad University clearly knows his physics well enough not to defend astrology as a ‘science’. Hence he spoke in the interview about the larger issues of what is science and invited a debate among scientists on the issues of reductionism and holism etc.

In short, with regard to Vedic astrology, Dr Joshi was not so keen to defend the decision unequivocally, leave alone indulge in any ‘high profile’ campaign. But there was one strong defender of the decision of UGC to allow universities the introduction of Vedic astrology. Just as Dr Joshi denied his role in the introduction of astrology, this leader defended the decision categorically: “Astrology is a science, so there is nothing wrong if some do research in astrology.” That was Digvijaya Singh, the arch-secularist and then the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.[4]

DhanvantariThe Real ‘Saffronisation’

However the period under the NDA regime saw some very important milestones with far-reaching consequences not only for India but also for the so-called Third World in science and technology.

On August 13, 2014, two days before India’s celebration of her 68th independence day, the European Patent Office (EPO) withdrew patent application no EP2419508. The application, “Method for the induction of a reward response by modulation of dopaminergic systems in the central nervous system” had been filed by US-based Somalab. It proposed the use of lotus and cowhage in the treatment of obesity and hunger control. However there was a third-party intervention. The third-party claimed that this formulation was already part of the traditional medical knowledge of India. Three ancient Indian medical texts were shown as evidence: Vangasena, Kaiyadevanighantau by Kaiyadeva and Aryabhisaka by Smkaradajisatrapade.[5]

The third-party intervention was made by Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL).

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) was initiated in the year 2001. An inter-disciplinary task force, it has been vigorously documenting traditional bio-cultural knowledge of Indic communities and has been at the forefront of fighting patents of these community knowledge bases by pharmaceutical companies – mainly based in the West.

One important member of the core team for this endeavour, starting from the recognition of the need for the creation of a traditional knowledge database to the presentation of the vision and concept was Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, the then Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), with an immense knowledge in the field of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).[6] If there is another person whom the left wing propaganda machine hates as viscerally as Dr Joshi, it is Dr R. A. Mashelkar.

R. A. MashelkarMaligning Mashelkar

Communalism Combat, the militant pseudo-secularist tabloid run by Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad, in an article published in 2001 (written by Setalvad), screamed: ‘The director general of the CSIR, R. A. Mashelkar was felicitated by the RSS’s Rashtriya Suraksha Mahashivir last month. This created some public discomfort for the ministry because it was more evidence (if any were needed) of the growing influence of swayamsevak Joshi’s influence over the orientation of the CSIR.’[7]

Even after the NDA lost power, CPI(M) mouthpiece People’s Democracy ranted thus about Dr Mashelkar in 2005:

The Director, R. A. Mashelkar was busy attending the RSS shakhas and defending his actions. The HRD minister, who happened to be the vice-president of CSIR was busy implementing the agenda of saffronisation. The prime minister, the ex-officio president of CSIR was proclaiming himself to be a Swayamsevak! [8]

In 2007, historian Ramachandra Guha wrote:

The report, submitted after Dr Mashelkar demitted office, was found by two eagle-eyed researchers to have lifted chunks, without attribution, from a report prepared by an Oxford researcher at the behest of multinational pharmaceutical companies. In the resultant furore Dr Mashelkar withdrew his report, while claiming that the error was accidental, and unprecedented. Soon it turned out that in a book on intellectual property that he co-authored with another Indian in 2004, Dr Mashelkar had based some of his findings, again without attribution, on a paper written by a British academic in 1996.

In his time at the CSIR, Dr Mashelkar had a reputation for dynamism, for infusing life and energy into a somnolent organization. To be sure, he did things scientists were not supposed to do. For example, he was felicitated in a function hosted by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. [9]

The facts of the case. The so-called non-attributed original source mentioned in the first allegation was a report by Prof. Shamnaad Basheer. Prof. Basheer himself made it abundantly clear that there was no case of plagiarism as alleged: “Those with the patience to read the entire report including the Annexures would have gathered that some of the Committee’s observations were borrowed from my report and not plagiarized.”[10] Another expert Cara Bradley points out:

In other words, the appendices to the Mashelkar report had included an overview of relevant practices in other countries, and had provided a brief summary of Basheer’s work, although it did not give a complete citation and rather than mention Basheer himself, referred to the institute for which he was commissioned to produce the report. [11]

In the case of the other book Guha mentions, Intellectual Property and Competitive Strategies in the 21st Century, the non-attribution was more an error than a case of intentional plagiarism. Incidentally, Mashelkar co-authored the book with Shahid Ali Khan, and it was Khan’s name that appears as the first author. But Guha hides that name under the blanket ‘another Indian.’ But in the very next edition of the book (2006), the error was corrected and the proper attribution was done.[12]

Guha’s piece appeared in the newspaper The Telegraph in March 2007.

Traditional Knowledge Digital LibraryThe Success of TKDL

TKDL is of course the result of sustained and innovative team work including regional TK experts, scientists and software professionals. Dr V. K. Gupta was particularly instrumental in the conceptualization of TKDL. But it was the Joshi-Mashelkar synergy that was instrumental in the spirited speeding up of things. India’s renowned experimental and reverse pharmacologist Dr Ashok Vaidya pointed out in a 2011 interview how Dr. Mashelkar’s in-depth knowledge of patent and IPR issues immensely helped in infusing a new culture to the scientific establishment.[13] Since then, TKDL has stopped many patents on herbal formulation of Indic origin in both US and European patent offices (even though, unfortunately, Indian immigrant techies have been instrumental in providing the West considerable leads). In the process TKDL has taken on multinational giants like Johnson & Johnson’, Nestle and Unilever.[14]

In 2014, Prithwiraj Choudhury, assistant professor of business administration in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School (HBS), along with Tarun Khanna, the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at HBS, published a report on TKDL’s impact on patent applications. They studied each and every patent filed at the US Patent and Trademark Office and the European Patent Office between 1977 and 2010. They conclude that the overall trend of herbal patent filing did not decline in the face of litigation in the mid-1990s but does flatten out once the TKDL project started gaining momentum in 2003. They also report that starting 2006, there was a shift from herbal patents towards patents that are a combination of herbal and synthetic formulations. As Choudhury points out, TKDL has stimulated new research globally.[15]

In an unbiased media, it is this initiative that would have been celebrated as the most important achievement of the Indian science establishment under the ‘saffron’ regime. TKDL combines swadeshi, science and traditional wisdom as well as international IPR issues like never before. It is this aspect which Dr Joshi promoted vigorously that should have defined the swadeshi agenda which under his regime concretized into a global fight against bio-piracy as well as verifying and validating traditional knowledge through modern science and conserving it for posterity through digital technology.

Yet the questionable allegation of Dr Joshi promoting “astrology and other occult Hindu pseudo-sciences” is what the media and left wing propaganda churned out and they did it so effectively that the general educated psyche both in India and abroad bought it without questioning and without caring to see what he actually did.

Vigyan Bharathi Sangh Parivar and science …

These words often bring to mind an obsession of allied organizations with selling cow products and the not so Vedic ‘Vedic mathematics’. However, the Sangh Parivar approach to science, technology and society go far beyond the media stereotypes of ‘Sangh science’ as peddling cow-urine based products and even their own cadre fixations.

Vigyan Bharathi (VB) is the Parivar organization associated with popularizing science in society and reviving what it considers the ancient traditional knowledge systems of India. Though Vigyan Bharathi came into existence at a conceptual level as early as 1982, it was only in 1990 that VB started functioning with new blood. On 29th  December 1990, a consultative meet was organized at Bangalore. It was attended by RSS leaders with a science background, and also Dharampal, the extraordinary Gandhian historian who had documented the status of traditional science and technology in India at the commencement of the colonial era. Dr Joshi was also present. One of the offshoots of the conference was the Swadeshi Science Movement. Its Kerala chapter started functioning with vigour during the NDA rule, and launched a magazine, Science India.

A random walk through the issues of Science India provides a clue as to what kind of science popularization culture the Sangh Parivar was attempting: whether it was genuine popularization of science for a democratic society or a peddling of religion-oriented pseudo-science promoting fundamentalism.  Here are two examples:

In the August 2004 issue, there is a moving tribute to American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, calling him “Darwin’s worthy successor”. Here is an excerpt:

Gould has studied the relationship between physical development of an organism and its evolution. Spandrels of spaces in corners above arches in the buildings are not an architectural necessity but exist by virtue of simply unpurported design. Likewise, he warned that all physical features which exist in an organism should not be taken to be adaptational in origin.[16]

The tribute also points out how Gould exposed the fallacious theory of intelligence quotients as “based more on political witchcraft than on scientific knowledge.” This is from a magazine from the house of those labelled as ‘Brahminical supremacists’!

In 2005, Science India ran a two-part paper by Arpita Subash titled Gender and Science. Among other things, the paper states:

The conservative society in India forces loneliness and professional exclusion of women scientists from informal groups, committees and science societies which impinges on their contribution and productivity. … Bal (2002) opines that discrimination against women practitioners of science may not be due to conscious efforts from male colleagues. However, cultural upbringing and values do contribute to the discrimination observed…. Various studies found that class, caste and religion play important role in women’s representation in science.[17]

This, in a magazine published by a group accused of having regressive reactionary values.

The Swadeshi Science Movement received the Jawaharlal Nehru Prize for the year 2005-2006 instituted by the Indian Science Congress Association for the popularisation of science from then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.

In 2007, it received the national award for ‘Outstanding Efforts in Science and Technology Communication’ from Ministry of Science and Technology.

There is no doubt that Sangh Parivar organizations have an over-fixation with cow-based formulations and Vedic mathematics. However, the Hindutva movement, represented especially by the much-maligned Dr Joshi, has made a strong contribution to India’s science landscape, and much beyond Vedic astrology. What is truly unscientific is the media fixation and left wing obsession with certain questionable aspects of the Sangh worldview rather than its unique as well as overall role in promoting science in India, and Indian science.

Naseem AhmadTailpiece

I began this piece with an excerpt from The Hall of A Thousand Columns by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Let me end with another. Before he entered the hall of Habib at AMU overflowing with placards fighting the ‘Hindu occult sciences,’ the writer had tea with the Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University.

The VC enthused about the new  medical faculty, which ran courses in both modern Western medicine and ancient Tibb Unani  ‘Ionian physic,’ the science of the humours developed by Avicenna out of Galen. The VC’s wife enthused about the mystical physic of Nizam al-Din: some ‘dirty looking’ water from his shrine in Delhi had apparently remedied their son’s incipient blindness, pronounced incurable by both Western and Unani doctors. [18]

So it is only the ‘occult Hindu sciences’ that get opposed by Habib and company but not the ‘science of humours’ practised predominantly by Muslims.

Yet, under that Hindutvaite Dr Joshi’s ‘saffronisation’ regime, AYUSH, the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, came into existence. TKDL protects more than 100,000 traditional Unani formulations. – Swarajya Magazine, 1 November 2014


  1. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, The Hall of A Thousand Columns, John Murray, 2006, p.120
  2. The Miracle of Ganesh?, Sunday, 1-7 Oct 1995
  3. T. Jayaraman, Vedic Astrology and All That, Frontline, Volume 18, Issue 10, May 12-25, 2001
  4. Sumit Mitra, Star Wars & Interview with Dr M.M. Joshi, India Today, 17 September, 2001
  5. Examiner(s) Comments in the Examination Report Dated: 07.03.2014 on TKDL Submission Dated: 20.03.2013 in the context of Patent Application No. 10765276.0 (EP2419508) at EPO (URL:
  6. Caroline Ryan, Patent to protect ancient knowledge, BBC News, 19 February, 2002
  7. Teesta Setalvad, Education with values, Communalism Combat, January 2001
  8. Santosh Das, Agenda of Desaffronisation a Casualty, People’s Democracy, Vol. XXIX, No.03, January 16, 2005
  9. Ramachandra Guha, Public Office, Private Gain, The Telegraph, 31 March, 2007
  10. Shamnad Basheer, Empty allegations, DNA, 25 February, 2007
  11. Cara Bradley, Plagiarism, Education and Prevention: A Subject-Driven Case-Based Approach, Elsevier, 2011, pp.59-60
  12. Dr. R. A. Mashelkar’s response to queries by Society for Scientific Values, communication dated 28 March, 2007:
  13. Ravindra R. Pandharinath, “Science means learning to say—I don’t know”: An interview with Dr. Ashok D. B. Vaidya, Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, October-December 2011, pp.211-216
  15. Prithwiraj Choudhury & Tarun Khanna, Codifying Prior Art and Patenting: Natural Experiment of Herbal Patent Prior Art Adoption at the IPO and USPTO, February 28, 2014, Working Paper, Harvard Business School, Boston
  16. V. G. Rao, Stephen Jay Gould: Darwin’s worthy successor, Science India, Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2004
  17. Arpita Subhash, Gender and Science II, Science India, Vol. 8, No. 2, February 2005
  18. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, 2006, p.117