Saturday, January 10, 2009

Remembering Vignan Vivek Vartul, Valsad

Spare a thought for a short story of Vignan Vivek Vartul, an ephemeral movement to popularize science in a small coastal town in the Southern Gujarat called Valsad in the nineties. Vignan Vivek Vartul literally means the Circle of Discerning Science Lovers. It organized talks of renowned scientists like Dr JJ Rawal, a famous astrophysicist from Science Centre, Mumbai, on 24 November 1998 and Prof P.C. Mehta, a well known physicist and mathematicians on the subjects like 'Life of Stars' on 28 April 1999 .

It arranged sky watching programs at the time of eclipses (1995 and 1999), comets like Hyakutake (26 Feb 1996) and Hale-Bopp (1997)and meteor showers like the Leonids. It also carried out a survey on the cause and effect of stress on the students of twelfth standard (science) in the schools in Valsad. It collaborated with Science Centre in Dharampur and organized various events for school and college students. The Circle met occasionally and discussed things like the relationship between science and spirituality. The movement fizzled out towards the end of the millennium. 
It was started by motley of young science enthusiasts sheerly out of their interest in science. The spearhead was Vikas Upadhyay, a bright psychology student, amateur astronomer, who presently works as the chief editor of a local Gujarati daily and the spear chiefly consisted of people like Satish Kulkarni, a chemistry graduate, Hitesh Parekh, an economics graduate, Kalpesh Desai, a chemistry graduate, Kandarp Trivedi, a lawyer and poet, Sunil Agarkar, an amateur aero-modeller and professionally a legal consultant, and Sachin Ketkar, a not-so-bright writer among others. These men were in their twenties or thirties then.

The unusual assortment of animals that constituted `V4’ had only two things in common: friendship and an unceasing itch for discussions on just about anything under the sun- and very often foraying into the things that lay beyond the sun too. The discussions were the usual young collegians’ discussions which frequently began with the Special Theory of Relativity and ended with sex. Very often the discussions were triggered off by the writings of a renowned Gujarati columnist Raman Pathak in the daily called the Gujarat Mitra. He called himself a 'rationalist’ and was an inspiration for an organization named Satya Shodhak Sabha in Surat. The work of this Sabha was eradication of superstitions by exposing the all too common 'miracles’. Pathak’s column ' Raman Brahman’ (literally 'Rovings of Raman’) consisted of sweeping, outrageous and often silly generalizations. Nevertheless it managed to be provoke and challenge the traditional thinking. He is a communist, a rare thing in Gujarat, an atheist and proponent of science and his writings propagated atheism. Unfortunately, his megalomania and arrogance usually got better of his ' rationality’. Science was presented as counter-traditional and anti-religious,which it very often is, but not always). Therefore it perturbed most of the intellectuals of southern Gujarat. Many of the 'intellectuals’ were Gandhians, who saw 'spirituality’ as something unproblematic and given. There was a lot of resistance to Pathak and Satya Shodhak Sabha and there was lot of verbiage regarding ' Synthesis of Science and Spirituality’. Spirituality, for most of the intellectuals of region meant Hindu Spirituality and more specifically Brahmin Spirituality. Gujarat, lest we forget it, is also the laboratory of Hindutva. I have witnessed how some version of Gandhism merges seamlessly into Godseism.
Many youngsters who started V-4 were dissatisfied with the polemical and negative approach of Raman Pathak and his followers. They rightly felt that this approach was only interested in ideological quarrels and was doing absolutely nothing about science which was something far more wonderful. They thought science was too important to be labelled as being merely a counter-traditional ideology of promoting atheism. Science, obviously, is not counter traditional for sake of being counter traditional. It is counter-traditional because the traditional framework very often fails to come up with a satisfactory explanation of phenomena under consideration. The term 'Vivek’ or 'Discernment' was an ingenious way of distancing itself from the Raman Pathak-Satya Shodhak Variety of looking at science
The Upadhyay-Kulkarni- Ketkar crew decided to make the organization more formal by making late Dr. BG Naik, a very retired lecturer and the principal of the science college, Valsad, the president of the circle. Late Prof Naik was a respected figure in Valsad. He was a veteran Gandhian and a science teacher. Interestingly, people hardly noticed a contradiction here. Gandhi was extremely allergic to things like Science and Technology and considered them as symbol of the Evil Western Civilization. Hence, Gandhian Scientist is in many ways a contradiction in terms. However, he was elected as president for many reasons. He had a background in academic science as well as certain reputation in the town. Both these things, we hoped, would make things smoother for us to gain access to the schools and colleges in the town. He had also written on various topics like the clich├ęd  ' Synthesis of Science and Spirituality’ etc.
The senior members of the group consisted of people like Mr Meghraj Bhatt, a senior teacher of mathematics in Sheth RJJ School, Valsad, Mr. Sikligar, a retired science teacher and an amateur radio expert, Prof Lipsa Adhvaryu, a lecturer in Psychology in the Chikli College and Mr Bhatt of Dharampur Science Centre among others. The group met infrequently and discussed and planned the programmes. This went on for around almost a decade or so.
The movement fizzled out due to various reasons. The first and foremost reason was that it was a movement in a wrong place. Valsad, being a small town, displays a typical small town mindset consisting of laziness, complacency and careless self-contentment. 'Cultural Activities’ are mostly evening pass time entertainment, comparable to going to the Tithal Sea Beach. Valsad has never been very enthusiastic about genuine intellectual activity. Many people used to call it a 'quiet town for retired people’ and most of its cultural and intellectual activities were of 'retired people’ variety. Vibrant youth culture was largely absent. As a result except for the team that started V-4, other youngsters did not involve themselves with the movement. Science requires some sort of intellectually keen, passionate and rebellious spirit which was absent among the young Valsadians. Hence, as soon as the group that had founded the movement was scattered in all directions , it was not replaced by another young group of science enthusiasts.
The second reason as I see it is that the lack of interest in pure science, as opposed to applied sciences like engineering etc, is a characteristic of the Indian society. Thousands of years ago, Indian society was keen on theoretical as well as applied aspects of science. One has only to think of celebrated names like Varahamihir or Aryabhatt or Charaka. The intellectual traditions in India dried up with time and were replaced with cynical anti-intellectual outlook which is characteristic of most of the educated Indians today. The decline of interest in science coincides with the rise of religious fanaticism and bigotry in the nineties.
The third reason is that though V-4 ideologically distanced itself from the Leftist leaning Satya Shodhak Sabha, it did not categorically distance itself from the hegemonic Brahmanism (read Hindutva). Most probably because the nuclear group of V-4 consisted largely of middle class Brahmins. Brahmins are fond of speculations and debates, but science is not merely speculation and debate. Its nucleus is the spirit of critical inquiry, experimentations and actual physical involvement in the laboratory. Arm chair science cannot go very far. The group was not really very 'counter traditional’, though it opposed the things like 'superstitions’ etc. Brahmanism too is not very sympathetic to 'superstitions’ which are mostly non-elitist and folk traditions. The movement would have greater significance had it been openly critical of Brahmanism.
However, the most important thing about this movement that it actually happened in an unlikely place and it was fuelled by unlikely people. It carried out many interesting activities which others would not have taken up in those times. Valsad, however, is not likely to remember such things. And more importantly for me- I was part of it and I cherish the memories.

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