No Indian Science Congress this year? Why it has missed its annual date

The 109th edition of the Indian Science Congress event, which was scheduled to begin today, has been postponed. The event, which has been held every year since 1914 barring two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a lightning rod for controversies these past few years

FP Explainers January 03, 2024 15:18:39 IST
No Indian Science Congress this year? Why it has missed its annual date

The event, which has been held every year since 1914 barring two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a lightning rod for controversies these past few years. Image courtesy: X

The Indian Science Congress meet might not take place this year.

The 109th edition of the event, which was scheduled to begin today, has been called off.

The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), the organisers of the event, have appealed to universities across the country to host the event.

But what do we know about the event? Why is the Indian Science Congress not being held this year? What’s the controversy around it?

Let’s take a closer look:

What do we know about the event?

The ISCA has been organising the Indian Science Congress since 1914.

The Prime Minister of India has been inaugurating the annual gathering of scientists since Independence.

As per Indian Express, the meet is the prime minister’s first public event of the year.

The meet did not take place in 2021 and 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, its 108th edition was held from 3 to 7 January in Nagpur.

The 108th edition of the Congress was held in Nagpur from January 3-7, 2023.

Its theme was “Science and Technology for Sustainable Development with Women Empowerment.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the gathering via video-conference last year, paid homage to India’s scientific strength.

“When the spirit of national service gets infused in Science along with passion, results are unprecedented. I am sure, India’s scientific community will ensure a place for our country of which it was always deserving,” Modi said.

Why is it not being held this year?

As per Indian Express, the reason for the event not being held this year is a tiff over money between the ISCA and the Union Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Science (DST)

The DST, which is a key funder of the event, contributed Rs 5 crore to the Indian Science Congress in 2023.

However, in September, the DST claimed there were “financial irregularities” and abruptly pulled its backing of the event.

The DST in a notification to all secretaries of scientific departments said, “It has also been decided that DST support from all its resources for the forthcoming ISC event in 2024 will be discontinued.”

The DST also accused the ISCA of making “unilateral decisions.”

In truth, there have been differences between the government and the ISCA over the organisation of the event for years.

The Centre since 2015 has been promoting the India International Science Festival (IISF).

Meanwhile, the ISCA has taken the DST to court and claimed that the government is trying to ‘interfere in its functioning’.

This year’s event was slated to be held at Lucknow University.

However, the university then told the ISCA it would be unable to host the event.

No Indian Science Congress this year Why it has missed its annual date
The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), the organisers of the event, have appealed to universities across the country to host the event.

Lovely Professional University (LPU) then offered to host the event.

As per Indian Express, the DST seemed to be displeased with the ISCA’s selection of the venue – which previously hosted the Congress in 2019.

The ISCA countered that its executive committee does not require permission from the DST to choose the venue.

It added that a DST representative was in attendance during the venue being picked.

However, the LPU had seemingly seen enough and it too pulled out of hosting the event.

The ISCA has now formed a five-member committee to scout for possible venues to host the event.

“The Executive Committee of the Indian Science Congress Association met this evening and decided to put the 109th Congress on hold. We have also decided to post an appeal on our website for universities keen to host the event,” ISCA president Arvind Saxena told PTI.

Saxena said the ISCA will wait till February to see whether any university was interested in hosting the event.

What are the controversies surrounding the event?

The event has seemingly been a lightning rod for controversies.

A lot of attendees in recent years have made unscientific and downright ridiculous claims.

In 2014, Captain Anand J Bodas, the retired principal of a pilot training facility said the ancient world could be understood through Hindu epics and not modern evidence or research.

Speaking to Mumbai Mirror, Bodas claimed that the aeroplanes existed during the Vedic age.

“In those days aeroplanes were huge in size, and could move left, right, as well as backwards, unlike modern planes which only fly forward,” Bodas claimed.

That same year a NASA scientist submitted a petition asking officials to cancel the Congress due to it “questioning the integrity of the scientific process”.

“We as scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudo-science in science curricula with backing of influential political parties. Giving a scientific platform for a pseudo-science talk is worse than a systematic attack that has been carried out by politically powerful pseudo-science propagandists in the recent past. If we scientists remain passive, we are betraying not only the science, but also our children,” the petition by Dr Ram Prasad Gandhiraman stated.

In 2015,  a paper presented at the Congress claimed “Indians had developed 20 types of sharp instruments and 101 blunt ones for surgeries, which largely resemble the modern surgical instruments,” as per The Times of India.

Dr Harsh Vardhan, the Union Minister for Science and Technology who attended the event, claimed, “Our scientists discovered the Pythagoras theorem, but we … gave credit to the Greeks. We all know that we knew ‘beejganit’ much before the Arabs, but very selflessly we allowed it to be called Algebra. This is the base the Indian scientific community has maintained.”

“Whether it is related to the solar system, medicine, chemistry or earth science, we have shared all our knowledge very selflessly,” Vardhan added.

While Vardhan did not present any evidence, another speaker offered the same theory.

“In the Sulbha Sutra written in 800 BCE, Baudhayan wrote the geometric formula now famously known as Pythagoras theorem. It was written by Baudhayan 300 years before Pythagoras,” Dr Gauri Mahulikar, head of Sanskrit department at Mumbai University, was quoted as saying by The Hindu.

Another paper also claimed “ancient Indian engineers had adequate knowledge of Indian botany and they effectively used it in their construction.”

That same year, Bodas claimed, “There is a reference of ancient aviation in the Rigveda.”

Bodas said Maharishi Bharadwaj spoke 7,000 years ago of “the existence of aeroplanes which travel from one country to another, from one continent to another and from one planet to another. He mentioned 97 reference books for aviation.”

“History merely notes that the Wright brothers first flew in 1904,” he said.

Bodas also spoke of the “huge” aeroplanes which flew in ancient India.

“The basic structure was of 60 by 60 feet and in some cases, over 200 feet. They were jumbo planes,” he said. “The ancient planes had 40 small engines. Today’s aviation does not know even of flexible exhaust system,” he said.

The ancient Indian radar system was called ‘rooparkanrahasya’. “In this system, the shape of the aeroplane was presented to the observer, instead of the mere blip that is seen on modern radar systems,” he said.

As per India Today, another speaker claimed the cow carries a bacteria within it which allows to turn whatever it eats into pure 24-carat gold.

Scroll quoted a speaker called Kiran Naik as claiming that during the Mahabharata war a chase in one of those Vedic planes from the Earth to the Moon and then to Mars saw a king attacking his rival and breaking his helmet.

“If you don’t believe me, will you believe the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) of the USA? If you search on Google for ‘helmet on Mars’, it will tell you that even NASA has found this helmet on Mars and it will give you evidence for it,” Naik was quoted as saying.

Naik also claimed heated sugaoar was used in the plastic surgery to affix Lord Ganesha’s elephant head to his human torso.

Vardhan later defended the papers being presented.

“So if a paper shares the experiences of the past and integrate them with what is happening today and what is our future goal, I think we should not mind that,” Vardhan said.

In 2016, scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan had slammed the Congress as a ‘circus’.

The Indian-born Nobel laureate had earlier condemned the Science Congress and said that politics and religious ideologies shouldn’t be mixed with science.

No Indian Science Congress this year Why it has missed its annual date
Dr Harsh Vardhan had defended the papers being presented at the event.

Speaking to reporters, Ramakrishnan said, “I attended one day (of an earlier Congress) and very little science was discussed. It was a circus. I find that it’s an organisation where very little science is discussed. I will never attend a science congress again in my life.”

Ramakrishnan added, “The idea that Indians had airplanes 2,000 years ago sounds almost essentially impossible to me. I don’t believe it. The point is that if that technology was produced in a method so described that anybody could replicate it, then it becomes science.”

In 2019, Andhra University vice chancellor Prof G Nageswara Rao – a professor of inorganic chemistry – claimed that the Mahabharata’s Kauravas were born out of nearly 1,000-year-old stem cell research and a test tube fertilisation process “that this country had known thousands of years ago”.

Rao also referred to the 24 different types of aircraft that Ravana was supposed to have possessed, and claimed that Sri Lanka — at that time — had airports.

He even challenged Darwinian Theory, claiming that the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu were much more advanced in explaining evolution.

“Dashavatara is better than Darwin’s theory because it also plans for what comes after the humans,” he said as per Hindustan Times.

“Gangajal is considered to be very holy and today it has been proven scientifically that irrespective of the impurities of the Gangajal it does not give any infection because bacteriophages kill the harmful bacteria,” Rao added.

Another scientist — a Dr KJ Krishnan — claimed that Newton and Einstein had little knowledge of physics and misled the world with their theories.

Krishnan claimed that his own theory of gravitational phenomenon would provide a better understanding of gravitational waves – which he suggested should be renamed “Narendra Modi Waves”.

He  further recommended that gravitational lensing should be known as the “Harsh Vardhan Effect.”

What do experts say?

That the event is a shell of its former self.

A piece in Indian Express noted that the event’s best days are behind it and that it has been tapering off for years.

“Random speakers have used the platform to make outlandish claims and promote pseudoscience, which have drawn ridicule. The papers that are presented or the talks that are delivered, hardly reflect the latest advancements in science,” the piece noted.

“Most of India’s credible scientists now avoid the event. Leading scientific institutions and laboratories have only a token presence, if at all. Most attendees are from colleges and universities with limited scientific credentials. Several top scientists have, in fact, said that the event should be discontinued, or the government should withdraw support to it. There has been talk of reforms for the past couple of decades, but nothing much has changed.”

An op-ed in The Hindu, arguing for a need to consider the event’s relevance, added, “…in the past few years, the ISC’s reputation has been in tatters after it offered itself as a platform for a few members of the scientific community to advance pseudoscientific claims, particularly those that dovetailed to hyper-nationalist narratives in other sphere.”

It noted that while some high-profile scientists who have, since 2014, dubbed the event a circus that hurts the cause of science may not be bothered.

However, it also noted that the event plays host to thousands of school and college students every year and talks by researchers.

“This is not as straightforward as a plea to throw away only the bathwater, not the baby,” the piece concluded.

With inputs from agencies

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