In a small lane off Prashanti Nagar in Hyderabad's Uppal area, the fifth floor of 'Manorama House' is abuzz with activity as the phone rings non-stop.
The door is wide open and veteran scientist P M Bhargava sits in his armchair - behind him, the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian honour awarded by the Government of India.
An accomplished scientist, Bhargava is best known for establishing the Centre of Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), a research organization in Hyderabad in 1977.
On Wednesday, the 87-year-old joined a list of more than a hundred other scientists in signing an online petition addressed to President Pranab Mukherjee against the "climate of intolerance" and "a rash of bigoted acts."
"The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country. It is the same climate of intolerance and rejection of reason that led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq and the assassinations of Prof (M M) Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society," the statement read.
But the veteran scientist has also decided to return his Padma Bhushan. As the news broke out, I managed to get his appointment fornoon, between two phone interviews to various media organizations.
I arrived at his residence to see two large media vans departing. I reached the fifth floor, and was asked to make myself comfortable, as the scientist finished a telephonic interview with BBC India.
A tall rack behind him was lined with books and abstract paintings dotted the walls. It was evident that he was being asked the same questions by the media and I decided to skip the pleasantries and get straight to the point.
When he was finished, I asked him "Why now?"
"Because there is no space for dissent in our democracy today and I fear expressing my dissent. We face an undemocratic government that revolves around Hindu fundamentalism,” came the answer.
He added: "The BJP is acting at the behest of the RSS and they want to turn India into a Hindu nation from the democracy that we are today,” a sentence which was repeated several times during the course of the interview.
Throughout his career, he has received many awards, including the Legion d'Honneur, France’s highest civilian honour, which is equivalent to India's Bharat Ratna. The Padma Bhushan was however, the only award that he got from the Government of India. “I truly valued it. It was an honour for me and I felt very proud when I received it. But considering the atmosphere that we live in today, I'm returning one of the things most precious to me and that accounts for something, at least subjectively for me."
Returning the award was a very “personal choice”, a decision he took in his capacity as an individual. “But, we both know that people identify me as a scientist. I'm not seeking to spark a revolution, but I could not sit back and watch the growing intolerance in my country and do nothing about it."
When asked about the NDA government in the past under Vajapyee’s leadership, Bhargava said that he felt the Vajpayee government was “far more tolerant and it definitely had a grip over these fringe elements. That government never made me feel personally insecure."
Responding to my question on the timing of these protests and why were there no protests after the anti-Sikh violence and the Emergency, Bhargava said, “As far as the Sikh riots and the Emergency goes, we had protested then as well. I have always been the biggest critic of the UPA government and I have even come down harshly on them in some of my books. But, not once did I feel threatened to voice my opinion, because there was always space for dissent."
As someone who had been promoting rationalist views for several years, I asked him what he thought of the present government’s relationship with science.
"The BJP is against scientific temper, and for superstition,” he says. “Some of the statements that ministers in Mr Modi's cabinet make are absolutely ridiculous. There is an urgent need, now more than ever, to promote scientific temper in this country."
Was there any way he would consider taking the Padma Bhushan back? Pat came the reply, “If the government takes steps to tackle the rising intolerance, then I may take it back. But there it has to be a major change in policies and approaches to various issues plaguing the country.”
I put forward my last question: What, in his view, was the need of the hour for the people of this country?
A silence followed, and he looked up at me and smiled for the first time during the 20-minute conversation. "That's a tough one," he said. When the answer did come, it reflected his scientific temper.
"The need of the hour is change. The government can change its approach, and it should. Drastic steps are needed if India is to progress forward in terms of rationality and scientific temper. All indicators show that we are turning into an intolerant 'Hindu Rashtra’. There would be nobody happier than me, if I'm proved wrong."