Exploring Ideas and Practices of Democracy through Indias Anti-Nuclear Movement
Monamie Bhadra, PhD candidate in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology Program
The rule of experts--the belief that technocrats are trustworthy custodians of national welfare--shaped India's infrastructure development and politics since Independence. The last four decades have shown this notion to be embattled on multiple fronts, most vehemently in Indias renewed anti-nuclear protests on the heels of the US-India nuclear deal of 2008, and Fukushima thereafter. Fishermen, farmers, uranium miners and elite activists articulate a broad suite of sociopolitical, economic and technical concerns spanning livelihood destruction, cultural disintegration, new forms of colonization, and anxieties about risk and safety. What does this fresh injection of public participation into previously-cloistered, expert domains mean for India's energy policies and its democratic future, when India is marked by an unequal and socioculturally heterogeneous public sphere, weaker institutions, government secrecy, and a drive toward technological centralization?
In this talk, I place contemporary Indian anti-nuclear protests in the context of Western European and American anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s and 1980s to illustrate the similarities in scope, agenda, constituents and strategies, but also critical differences, particularly the Indian protests anchor in the environmentalism of the poor and the Indian states relationship to science. Through these comparisons, I argue that because of the historical instrumental use of science to legitimate public actions in liberal democracies, the sweeping, alternative social imaginaries animating early Western protests have narrowed considerably in the present day to standard concerns about risk and safety. In contrast, the Western preoccupation with depoliticizing power through technical objectivity was weak in Indian political culture; Indian political thought is grounded in the moral and contextual uses of arbitrary power, where the attestive gaze of Indians is rooted more in religious and moral discipline than in scientific rationality. This, combined with the colonial legacies of caste politics, make elections, and not regulatory agencies, sites of democratic contexts, complete with corruption and violence. Moreover, Indian environmentalists viewed science as an instrument of state-sanctioned violence through development projects. As anti-nuclear activists try to carve out a deliberative and rational space for discussions about nuclear energy, they face opposition from both the rural protesters they seek to represent, as well as the nuclear establishment, who view non-state science as illegitimate. The normative question remains as to the rightful place of science in these messy democratic spaces.
Monamie Bhadra is a PhD candidate in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology Program working on issues of science and democracy as part of her dissertation. She received the American Institute of India Studies fellowship to conduct 9 months of fieldwork in India, and hopes that the wealth of data will translate into publications sometime soon.