Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The bridge thing

Abi (following Krish and Sujai) asks: where is the Indian academic community on the current Rama Sethu / Sethusamudram Project debate? It is a fair question. What should be a non-controversial statement by the ASI -- that there is no archaeological or other evidence that the underwater "bridge" connecting India and Sri Lanka is man-made -- has been turned by the Parivar into a club with which to beat "pseudo-secularists". Some -- like Tarun Vijay of the RSS -- go so far as to say that "we had a different tradition of recording events and writing history", by which argument, presumably, the entire Ramayana and Mahabharata are the literal truth.

So why are scientists and the academic community silent? One reason could be it's pretty pointless arguing logically with these people. But another reason could be that many of us have doubts about the project anyway, and don't want support for the ASI's position to be construed as support for the dredging project.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the Sangh Parivar has found itself on the same side as (sections of) the left. The first was the nuclear deal. On the one hand, the BJP, which did much of the spadework for it in the first place, has decided to oppose it apparently because they are now the opposition party. On the other hand, to the hard-left, any alliance with the US is verboten. So we have the spectacle of The Hindu, for example, first editorially supporting the deal, then backtracking, then twisting itself into contortions in an attempt to explain why it is not backtracking. We also have the spectacle of the communists doing their best to threaten the government without being seen as joining hands with the BJP to bring it down.

This time, the communists have not been terribly vocal; but the environmentally conscious among us are not enchanted by the idea of destroying the rich marine ecosystem and coral reefs in the interests of better shipping. And, anyway, this project is hardly going to compare with the Suez or Panama Canal. Most international shipping will continue to circumnavigate Sri Lanka, and as for domestic shipping, small ships can already pass through the channel (and there's always the land route, which is very likely faster). As Natasha points out, we should make our arguments on such grounds. But we live in a world ruled by strawmen; maybe we are nervous that opposing the BJP-types on this will defeat the larger purpose, or that speaking out on the environment aspects will be construed as supporting the BJP.

That apart, was it advisable for the ASI to file such an affidavit? My opinion is this: like it or not, people in this country have strong religious feelings. And, unfortunately, many people (who are not necessarily sympathetic to the Parivar) seem to think -- rightly or wrongly -- that Hindu sensitivities get less importance than minority religions'. They would point out, probably correctly, that no Government department would dare observe that there is no evidence of the strand of hair at the Hazratbal shrine belonging to the Prophet. So, in this case, given all the other very relevant issues to be discussed, this particular provocation was quite unnecessary.

We do need to introduce some rationality into public debate, and keep religious bigotry out of it. But we should pick our battles carefully. In this particular case, I think fighting the BJP-types directly isn't worth it. Changing the terms of the debate, by focusing the discussion on the very real environmental concerns, is a much more useful idea.


km said...

Led zeppelin were so prescient. Just where is the confounded bridge?

//I routinely block people who forward me that email which has "proof" that this bridge was constructed by the monkeys.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

If the Vanara Sena did it, then maybe we can all agree that it wasn't man-made, and then change the subject?

Szerelem said...

Mountain out of a molehill no?
Though I do agree with you that the ASI should have treaded a bit more carefully if only to avoid provoking the loony types.

Questionable though if there can ever be a reasonably scientific debate about such issues don't you think? The BJP/VHP sorts I'd venture to guess would totally evade the debate and focus on the mythological/religious aspect of it....and probably get enough mileage and support for that....

Anonymous said...

Obviously lost in the brouhaha is the fact that the conflict over the Sethusamudram project - whether or not to go ahead with it - is a political one. It is a scientific one only to the extent that "science" is used incorrectly by one side or the other in this conflict. In that case, the scientific community can get involved - but only to point out that "science" is being used incorrectly. Otherwise, there is no call for the science community to get involved. (As individual citizens, obviously all, including scientists can have opinions.)

If those opposed to the project on religious grounds had simply said that the Ramar Sethu has religious significance for them (and many others in the country) and ought not to be tampered with on account of that, then I would view the claim sympathetically. Those who are not religious themselves may never understand fully what it means to be religious, but that does not mean that we can simply dismiss their beliefs. We are, after all, a democracy. As Rahul notes, religion does mean a lot to many people in our country.

Two things bother me about this issue. On the "religious" side, those using science to support their arguments better note that you cannot pick and choose what you want to believe in science. You cannot just use "science" when it happens to support your position and discard it when it does not. Even less excusable is the wrong use of science. To that extent, I think the people who brought the current court case and phrased their arguments invoking "history" and "science" really cannot complain. They asked for trouble and got it.

On the "secular" side - which is most of the indian blogosphere - the contempt of such people for religion (esp. the Hindu variant) is palpable. That is fine, but the question is what happens when political decisions hinge on religious beliefs like in the present case. Most bloggers seem to argue that religious beliefs should play no role in making political decisions. In my opinion, this amounts to disrespecting millions of our countrymen/women. It is a position which is deeply anti-democratic and something I find disturbing. [After all, the religious also pay taxes and this project is going to come out of taxes. They might as well ask why they should support a project which runs roughshod over their cherished beliefs, no matter how "silly" it sounds to others. This is not to say that the religion ought to be given a veto, just that in a democracy, these things also should be given due consideration.]

Tabula Rasa said...

not so prescient - it's the bridge under troubled waters.

- tr
who's feeling happy no one's ever sent him any such email till date.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Szerelem -- indeed one can't debate with the BJP-types, but there are fence-sitters who may be swayed. But in this case, as I said, I think it's better to focus the debate on other issues.

Anonymous -- nice comment, deserves to be a posting of its own.