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Hatred on the rise in India: Laureate

Ignorance behind fanatical nationalism, says physicist

David J Gross in Calcutta on Tuesday. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta 

Calcutta: Religious hatred is on the rise in India, with many politicians inciting violence and hate to win power, Nobel-winning American physicist David J. Gross said here on Tuesday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the annual convocation of the Indian Statistical Institute, he said it was depressing that the country that produced Mahatma Gandhi was still grappling with the caste system in the 21st century.

"Fanatical nationalism, racism and bigotry" were as much the subject of Gross's convocation address as their opposite - the spirit of scientific enquiry - with the physicist regretting the rise of regressive tendencies in his own country.

"The cause of many of these problems is sheer ignorance - the ignorance of the science that could solve many of the world's problems, the ignorance of basic facts, such as the fact that all of us had a single mother only a few thousand generations ago - that makes racism and bigotry still possible and the ignorance of other cultures that promotes fanatical nationalism," Gross, chief guest at the event, said.

But he added that ignorance itself was "not so bad", and that the "driving force of science is the questions we ask, which are the embodiment of ignorance".

"The reason that fundamentalists are so dangerous is not so much that they are ignorant but that they are certain that they possess the absolute truth. It is this certainty that can lead to repression, bigotry, racism and fanaticism," the professor of theoretical physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said.

Later, asked whether fanaticism and bigotry had become more visible in India in the past few years, Gross said: "These trends are not uncommon in India. It's common throughout the world; certainly in India.... Many politicians try to incite violence and hatred so that they can get to power."

To another question, he said: "Unfortunately, religious hatred is on the rise here as it is in many places."

Gross, who said he had been visiting India for the past 30 years, praised the country's progress in tackling hunger and enhancing life expectancy.

Asked if he was disappointed that the progress had been accompanied by a regressive embrace of fanatical nationalism and hatred, Gross said: "You had great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi who propagated the idea of non-violence and was successful in creating a new country on the other idea, the opposite idea. But now there is a reversion to old hatred."

Gross credited Gandhi with inspiring mass movements in the US and said the Mahatma had fought hard to eradicate caste atrocities in India.

"But even he was not entirely successful. Maybe you could explain why the caste system is still prevalent in India. It is depressing," he said.

When this newspaper asked whether he was referring to the recent caste flare-up in Maharashtra, he said: "Yes, in Maharashtra."

Maharashtra's Dalits had on December 31 celebrated the bicentennial of the 1818 Battle of Koregaon, where predominantly Dalit colonial troops had defeated the Brahmin Peshwa's army. The following day, Ambedkarites visiting Koregaon were attacked by Sangh parivar-linked mobs. A passer-by was killed, and the resultant bandh on January 3 witnessed another death.

Gross castigated President Donald Trump's "only America first" policy. "I'm not sure what it means. What it seems to mean is racism, bigotry and fanaticism," he said. "America's greatest treasure is its absorption of people from all over the world.... Saying America first and keeping everyone else out is very stupid and harmful for the United States."

But Gross cautioned against blaming every ill on leaders like Trump, underscoring that they had been elected through a democratic process.

"Leaders only represent the people. They have been elected through a democratic process. There are possibilities for good; there are possibilities for bad; people have to decide," he said.

Mathematician S.R.S. Vardhan of New York University, an Abel Prize winner, was the special guest. Gross was awarded the Nobel jointly with H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek in 2004 for discovering asymptotic freedom.

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