The Incompatibility of Authoritarian Regimes and Scientific Research

The constitution of India, adopted by the constituent assembly 70 years ago on November 26, 1949, is the world’s longest sovereign document.

The document and its contents continue to play an important part of public conversations today, and a part of this persistence owes itself to the document’s physical form.

The original English version weighs about 13 kg, has 221 sheets and was calligraphed by Prem Behari Narain Raizada. The Hindi version weighs about 14 kg, has 252 pages and was calligraphed by Basantrao Vaidya.

The government tasked the National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi, with preserving these versions and protecting them against “oxidation, microbiological deterioration and air-pollution damages” – a significant charge considering the state of Delhi’s air and water these days.

In response, the NPL developed “hermetically sealed”, or airtight, glass cases with the Getty Conservation Institute in 1993 and installed them at the Parliament Library in March 1994.

It is wonderful that one of the country’s premier labs is watching out for the physical constitution but, at the same time, the allegories the endeavour presents for the India of 2019 are inescapable.

I’m sure someone has said this before, but it seems to me that the first casualty of an authoritarian regime is always history – in more ways than one. It is not just that history must be rewritten to whitewash their grotesque and illegitimate rise to power, but also that when they do take power, their rhetoric is peppered generously with talk of a return to an ancient, glorious past – one that may very well never have existed, but whose existence is insisted upon emphatically.

“We must,” it is argued, “pick up from where we lost our way.”

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The time then comes to atone for the sins we committed along the way. So every redemptive motion, every step we took towards a more equitable, just, and kind society, must now be taken in reverse, so that we may once again return to our barbaric past.

Hatchets that were buried must be dug up, olive branches must be burned, and doves must be shot.

Progressive movements find themselves hermetically sealed, their oxygen supply cut off so that they are perfectly preserved in stasis. Mute, unresponsive, impotent, and trapped behind glass, they remain curiosities from a poorly remembered time.

Scientific research does the opposite. It embraces the right to revolt, and welcomes new generations of disruptive and playful children. It preserves ideas by disseminating them, by pouring the ideas in its journals into the minds and onto the lips of young men and women – not by encasing those sheets of paper in glass.

It embraces the inevitable rot and decay, the processes of oxidation and reduction. It recognises that what withers away must do so as necessarily as the planets keep orbit around the Sun, and attempts to understand why.

Authoritarian regimes and scientific research are incompatible. Because the former keeps building glass cages to fight change, and the latter is really, really good with a hammer.

Madhusudhan Raman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Vlad Kutepov/Unsplash