Rationalism & its role in a democracy: An Interview with Dr. Narendra Nayak

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Concern interviewed Dr. Narendra Nayak, the president of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) on the role of rationalism in a modern democracy. A medical biochemist by profession, he has toured all over India many times over demonstrating the “supernatural” tricks performed by godmen and has been a vocal opponent of superstitions and pseudoscience.

You have been involved in the Rationalist movement in India for a long time. Can you briefly give us its history and how you got involved?

The history of rational thinking in India goes back to ages! But, as a movement in the present form, we can say that it started in Mumbai, Kerala and Tamilnadu early in the 20th century. The early figures in this were M. N. Roy, Sahodaran Ayyappan, E. V. Ramaswamy etc. The Indian Rationalist Association was one such body which gained prominence and they brought out a periodical called as Freethought. In Kerala there was this magazine called as Yuktivadi and M.C.Joseph and Joseph Edamaruku were prominent figures. In Andhra there were a number of organizations and Ravipudi Venkatadri was a prominent figure who continues to write even today at the age of 90 plus. H. Narasimhaiah was another prominent figure who had constituted a committee for the scientific invstigation of so called miracles in the 1970s in his capacity as the Vice Chancellor of the Bangalore University. There are many other important personalities like Justice Jagirdar, Ramamurthi, U. Kalanathan and others associated with our movement.

The movement in its present form that is investigations and exposure of so called paranormal phenomenon was started long ago but brought into prominence by Abraham Kovoor who started activities called as the divine miracle exposure campaigns. His modus operandi was to speak about rational thinking, throw challenges to those who claimed to have supernatural powers and a magician would perform the tricks done by them to cheat people and explain them as things which any one could do. Kovoor had been invited to Mangalore by us in 1976 and I joined the movement then as a twenty five year old young man. Later on in 1978 Kovoor passed away and the movement was dull.

Later on in around 1981 stepped in Premanand and continued this campaign in a different form. He started doing the godman tricks and explaining the scientific principles behind them. I had first met him in 1981 or so and joined him in this movement. Later on 1990s a number of public awareness campaigns like the Bharath Jan Vigyan Jatha and Bharath Gyan Vigyan Samiti started and making people think critically was a central theme in these and our program was a big hit with people. We started training others to perform them and it became a type of people’s campaign.

What is, in your view, the role of critical thinking and rationality in any democracy? Why does it need to be encouraged?

Critical thinking and rationality should be the driving forces of any democracy worth its name. The voters should analyse the manifestos of the parties/candidates, their past performances, their ideologies critically before electing them. It needs to be encouraged so that people can choose the proper candidates to represent them in the elected bodies. This is an absolute necessity in any democracy.

How does rationality influence the power play between the state and the citizenry? Does it empower the citizenry?

Rationality should be the major factor in the interactions between the citizen and the state. The decisions which affect the day to day lives of the citizens in the short or long run, should have a rational basis. A rational citizen and an equally sensitive state would constitute an ideal democratic state. In fact every decision taken by a democratically elected govt will affect the citizen and so must be taken only after a considered, rational process.

Dr. Nayak with his American counterpart: magician-skeptic James Randi

Whom do you hold responsible for fostering it? Education system? Parents and other players too?

The Indian society is a primitive one with a sixteenth century mind set superimposed on a twenty first century technology. This society wants every benefit of science and its offshoot technology except the scientific thought process. We use the latest advances in technology to promote age old superstitions and even rationalise the use of latest technology by claiming that it has its roots in our subcontinent and it would not have taken birth but for some event that happened here. This sort of rationalisation evidently comes from an inferiority complex. Our whole system is responsible for it starting from the parents, the society and even the educators.

Dr. Nayak busting the myth of "mid-brain activation".

It is said that rationalists offend religious/cultural sensibilities and/or practices. What would you say to that?

This canard is spread by those who stand to benefit from such obscurantist practices. The priestly class, the shamans, the fortune tellers, peddlers of worthless unproven concoctions spread such rumours. If one talks of offending cultural sensibilities those of one region may offend those of another, of one religion those of the other and so on. The very fact that we deny the existence of any supernatural power would offend all followers of all religions who in turn get offended by the monopoly of the supernatural powers of their own religious beliefs. So, one has to be tolerant to other peoples beliefs or lack of them. The constitution of our country has bestowed upon each citizen the right to believe or not to. The section 295 A of the IPC has no place in any civilised democracy.

Intolerant orthodox groups have been threatening dissenting voices such as yourself, with violence and murder. What is your response to these threats?

These have existed since time immemorial and are not going to stop us from expressing our views or continuing our activities. Let those fools who think that they can silence our voices by threats realised that they are sadly mistaken. Murders of Dhabolkar, Pansare and Kalburgi have not shut us up. In fact we are more vehement in expressing our views.

What is in your view the agenda behind such groups that oppress rational thinking in the society?

They are like a cancer to the society. They want to grow fat by exploiting the gullible people. These unemployed, unemployable riffraff who are the dregs of the gutters are showing off as if they are the very keepers of morality, national integrity and the order in the society. In fact they are doing the opposite.

Would you like to say something to the readers of Issues Of Concern in IISc and to the general public that are prone to pseudoscience and religious fraud?

I ask the scientific community to get out of their cocoons, ivory towers and speak out against the non-science and pseudoscience in the society. If I can point out some issues right now the claims of the proponents of so called yoga, the unproven systems of medicine, things like mid-brain activation need to be taken up by the scientific community and exposed.