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Disclaimer: Through this article, we have addressed the reaction of certain portions of the student populace, and our own opinion towards the institute’s apparent inconsideration for their choice of the Chief Guest and the implications that it might have. If you feel that you are opposed to the opinion we have stated here, or would like to state your own thoughts for discussion, we invite you to contribute on Insight Discussion Forum, so that more people take notice of this topic and contribute towards a constructive discussion on the issue and its consequences. Use the following link to join the group (Only for IIT-Bombay students):  https://m.facebook.com/groups/316254398968753/

 A couple of weeks have passed since the 57th convocation ceremony was conducted by the institute. For the graduating batch, it was a wonderful coming of age ceremony to mark the successful completion of their college years. An important chapter of their lives being closed, sealed with a degree from one of the most enshrined technical institutions of the country. However, the sheen of the occasion was slightly diminished by the controversy stirred by the Chief Guest, Union HRD Minister Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”, after he made some rather questionable statements in his address, two of which were :

“NASA has confirmed that if talking computers were to become a reality, it will only be based on the foundation of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a scientific language, incomparable to any other. It is the only language where the words are written exactly the way they are spoken.”

And

“Who did research on atoms & molecules? The one who researched on atoms and molecules, discovered them, was Charak Rishi”

Now before we dive into opining on the topic, let us look at the premise of the statements. Starting with the first one, the Ministry of HRD said that he was referring to former NASA scientist Rick Briggs’ paper from 1985, which demonstrates that a natural language can serve as an artificial language also, and that much work in AI has been reinventing a wheel, millennia old. Sanskrit has been cited as one such language.

There is no literary evidence to verify the second statement either, although it is widely accepted that Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher is credited with proposing the concept of the atom. Although some Sanskrit scriptures do refer to ‘anu’ and ‘parmanu’ as the building blocks of all life 

Hence, it is presumable that he made these statements to kindle a sense of pride in the cultural identity of Indians and advocated the concept of modern development rooted in traditional values.

Credits: http://www.iitb.ac.in/sites/default/files/story/2019-08/Convo16.jpeg

However, facts and feelings should not be intertwined. In claiming that Sanskrit is the only scientific language in the world, Dr. Pokhriyal has twisted facts in order to stoke the students’ patriotic feelings. One tends to wonder how a person can misquote academic literature in one of the premier technical institutions which produce, according to him, some really sharp scientific minds. It is a mild form of scientific blasphemy. That is precisely why there is discontent among the graduating batch as well as the student populace. When a statement like this is met with applause and left unchecked, it provides fodder to the propagators of pseudo-science everywhere. This sentiment was reflected by Nikhil, a graduating student who was present at the time – 

“I feel our Institute is somehow complacent in its supposed immunity from the impact of this invitation. Isn’t inviting him to these important events giving him a platform to air this pseudo-science? I think a lot of people will read it as validation, seeing these comments made from the supposed altar of IIT Bombay. Nandan Nilekani was there, why couldn’t he have been the chief guest?”

Some students are criticizing this on public platforms like Twitter in a blithe manner, implying the growing indifference of students towards the administration. A statement by Dhrumil, another student who graduated this year, searches for the repercussions of this attitude, which can have a seminal impact on the alumni-institute relations in the future.

“Convocation could actually be the best place for them to establish a long term relationship between alumni and institute. If they think about such factors for convocation, it sometimes makes the students feel that they are probably better off being connected to people they know than being connected to the institute, because the institute doesn’t care about our opinions which could finally affect their alumni connections, one of the most significant factors that make the institute what it is.”

IIT Bombay certainly did not endorse Dr. Pokhriyal’s views, but nothing was done to discredit them either, opting to simply brush them under the carpet. It is understandable that this was done in order to maintain the dignity of the event and the institute, and is hence justified to an extent. But one can certainly question the choice of the Chief Guest in the first place. An esteemed individual who recognizes, endorses and embodies the scientific and moral values that are associated with an institute like IIT Bombay is certainly not too big of an ask, considering that there are several alumni who are well placed today and are apt to be considered for the role of Chief Guest.