Director of nanotechnology centre removed after alleged casteist comments

I am covering this because the study of science does not insulate anyone from issues of discrimination. In fact, there is a long standing use of science to defend discrimination and, in some cases, the elimination of some groups perceived as substandard. Eugenics and race science come to mind.

For any Canadians who may still feel a little smug, it might be useful to note that the highly revered Tommy Douglas (1904 -1986), the father of universal health care in Canada, had an interest in eugenics and wrote a master’s thesis proposing its use. From his Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Douglas graduated from Brandon College in 1930, and completed his Master of Arts degree in sociology at McMaster University in 1933. His thesis, entitled The Problems of the Subnormal Family, endorsed eugenics.[15] The thesis proposed a system that would have required couples seeking to marry to be certified as mentally and morally fit. Those deemed to be “subnormal”, because of low intelligence, moral laxity, or venereal disease would be sent to state farms or camps; while those judged to be mentally defective or incurably diseased would be sterilized.[16]

Douglas rarely mentioned his thesis later in his life, and his government never enacted eugenics policies, even though two official reviews of Saskatchewan’s mental health system recommended such a program when he became Premier and Minister of Health. As Premier, Douglas opposed the adoption of eugenics laws.[16] By the time Douglas took office in 1944, many people questioned eugenics due to Nazi Germany’s embrace of it in its effort to create a “master race”.[17] Instead, Douglas implemented vocational training for the mentally handicapped and therapy for those suffering from mental disorders.[18][a]

Douglas seems to have quietly abandoned eugenics as a solution to social problems at some point after 1933.

Before moving onto the alleged casteist comments, a little bit about the caste system.

Caste and science

Here’s what I found about the caste system and race science in the Caste system in India Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Castes are rigid social groups characterized by hereditary transmission of life style, occupation and social status. The caste system in India has its origins in ancient India, and was transformed by various ruling elites in medieval, early-modern, and modern India, especially the Mughal Empire and the British Raj.[1][2][3][4] The caste system consists of two different concepts, varna and jati, which may be regarded as different levels of analysis.

The term caste is not originally an Indian word, though it is now widely used, both in English and in Indian languages. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is derived from the Portuguese casta, meaning “race, lineage, breed” and, originally, “‘pure or unmixed (stock or breed)”.[30] There is no exact translation in Indian languages, but varna and jati are the two most approximate terms.[31]

Race science

Colonial administrator Herbert Hope Risley, an exponent of race science, used the ratio of the width of a nose to its height to divide Indians into Aryan and Dravidian races, as well as seven castes.[164]

Highly charged

A November 7, 2021news item in The Times of India breaks the story, Note: Links have been removed,

Mahatma Gandhi University on Saturday [November 6, 2021] removed Dr Nandakumar Kalarikkal from the post of the director of the International and Inter University Centre for Nano Science and Nano technology (IIUCNN) for alleged caste discrimination against a research scholar.

The vice-chancellor of the university Sabu Thomas has taken charge as the director of the centre.

The university is learned to have made the decision based on a directive from the state government. Deepa P Mohanan, a research scholar, who has been on an indefinite hunger strike in the varsity, had demanded Kalarikkal’s removal from the department alleging that she faced discrimination based on caste from him and that he prevented her from doing her research.

The action against the faculty member has been taken even as the hunger strike by the student entered the ninth day on Saturday [November 6, 2021].

Thomas said that Kalarikkal has stepped down and that the decision was made after holding talks with Kalarikkal based on a directive from the government.

“Kalarikkal is a brilliant faculty member. He was willing to step down,” the vice chancellor said. He also said that nobody can remove Kalarikkal as a faculty member, adding that he will be [sic] continue to serve in the centre as well as in the Physics department.

Earlier in the day, minister for higher education R Bindu had signalled her support to the student.

In a Facebook post the minister said that the government has asked the university what is stopping it from removing the professor and conduct [sic] a probe.

A November 8, 2021 news item on The Quint provides a followup to the story,

Deepa P Mohanan, a Dalit PhD scholar at the Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU) in Kottayam, Kerala, on Monday, 8 November [2021], finally withdrew her hunger strike. …

… Mohanan claims that for the last 10 years, her progress is being scuttled by the director of the institute, Nandakumar Kalarickal, allegedly because she is a Dalit.

Professor Nandakumar who was earlier removed from the director’s post, has now been removed from the university’s nanoscience department.

A few thoughts

Mohanan certainly found a very powerful way to protest; her hunger strike at the Mahatma Gandhi University had to have resonated with officials and bystanders.

For anyone not familiar with Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), he was India’s first prime minister after leading India to freedom from British rule with nonviolent protests (including hunger strikes).

With regard to the allegations, I imagine there will be some further investigation. Should I hear more about the matter, I will update this posting.

In the end, this situation is a reminder that science is not practised by flawless people and can be prey to the same social problems one encounters everywhere.,

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