New Delhi: On the sidelines of the week-long Sixth Science Conclave at the Indian Institute of Information and Technology, Allahabad, which started on 8 December, Abha Sur, a science historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and author of Dispersed Radiance, spoke in an interview about caste and gender undertones in science in India—the subject of the book. Edited excerpts:

Why is it important to study science in a historical context?

I think what is needed is (a) socially informed history of science and how deleterious gender and caste discrimination is. How there are structural barriers despite an individual’s best attempts to try to address these problems; there are factors that continue to impede progress... Most times, people just talk about individual merits, but most times our evaluation of merit is completely gender-biased or caste-biased.

How did you decide to become a science historian?

When I was doing my research in spectroscopy, I was concerned that before 1960s there was a lot of reference to Indian scientific papers in the field that I was working in. After the advent of lasers, I was doing laser research in the 1980s, there was a sharp drop. So obviously something had changed about the field that made Indian science irrelevant to global research. So I was interested in tracing the history of the field, even though I was still a scientist then. And I was here in India on sabbatical for a year and I thought it would be good to study about scientific fields.

So I became more concerned with external factors like how do gender and caste enter science. Not just the organization of science in a laboratory, but how it affects knowledge production itself. Over the years, when I began to read the social literature around it, I thought that external factors do affect science, when we’re looking at a new framework.

You have extensively written about the scientific career of C.V. Raman and Meghnad Saha to draw parallels between gender and caste in the field of science. What led you to these stories?

I was in Bangalore on a sabbatical, and I had read this book on C.V. Raman, Journey into Light, and I was so impressed that he had three female students. I was very curious as to who these women were, and that led me to very different ways of thinking about science. The experiences of these women were quite devastating even though there were success stories too.

My book on C.V. Raman and Meghnad Saha talks about how Raman comes from a somewhat privileged government family, and Saha comes from what we would today call a Dalit background. Although he himself never talked about his own caste identity, he talked against caste discrimination quite solidly. I found that Saha was very concerned about the selectivity of nature and it is very important to him that the Sun does not discriminate.

I thought out of all the problems that he could have thought of, why is he so concerned about this particular problem? Of course, it’s a bit of a stretch because Meghnad Saha never writes that this is why he did his research. But if you read his scientific papers and social writings of the time, you see a correspondence; you see a similar use of language, so it is a conjecture on my part that it is very important to Saha to establish that the larger body should not discriminate.

Some people at time had claimed that calcium rose so much higher in the Sun’s atmosphere where there were selective activities by the Sun, whereas Saha said the Sun gives the same radiation to everything, it’s how it’s received that is the discriminating factor between the atoms. Of course, you can read it anyway, he talked about how caste discrimination should be avoided at any cost.

So, according to you, has India improved for female scientists since the era you wrote about in your book?

Absolutely. The world is never static and this has improved mainly because there is greater participation of women. It is wrong to say that problems have disappeared, far from it. It’s always the women who have to manage both the professional work and the household, sometimes professional women have poorer women to transfer their responsibilities to.

But invariably, women carry the burden of the ‘care economy’, if you will. You can see systemic ways, and structures of discrimination vis-a-vis gender. If you look at the larger scale, recently we have been hearing a lot more in India about sexual violence and I can’t imagine this field is devoid of that. So what kind of pressures women face and how women deal with it, is important. When there is an active women’s movement, when there is awareness, then women also find ways to resist better. Otherwise, it becomes an individualist struggle and people employ different tactics.

The department of science and technology has started various schemes to encourage mid-career scientists to return to active research after a few years’ break. Do you think such steps will help the abysmal female-male ratio in active research?

It would certainly help, but these transformations will be slow. Women after three years of child caring, or to look after ageing parents, often have to give up their careers. If it allows them to come back, that can only help, in my opinion. But what it doesn’t address is how we would like to see men taking more responsibilities in households. The big problem is managing two careers, most often the institutions are not particularly sympathetic towards women who have household pressures. But the scheme of getting back women after a break, I am all in support of such steps.

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