History of Science in Modern India -Part II

By D.C.V. Mallik (Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Retd.)

With inputs from Procheta C.V. Mallik

Institution Building by Indians in India

A more mundane necessity led to the spread of Western college education. The regions where the East India Company had firmly established their rule were to be administered effectively. New territories were being acquired rapidly. The vastness and variety of India did not make matters easy, a certain homogeneity had to be brought in for administrative convenience and a common language of communication between the natives and the rulers had to be established. There was a need for the rulers to know and understand the people they governed and to be familiar with their customs and culture. At the same time they had to seek help of the natives in running the administration. With this twin purpose in mind, the East India Company made provisions for an educational grant in 1813 and in 1823 the General Committee of Public Instruction was appointed. However, the major thrust to the introduction of Western learning was given by the Christian missionaries, who founded a Missionary College in Serampore in 1818, the Wilson School in Bombay in 1834 and the Christian College in Madras in 1837. In Calcutta the pioneers of modern education were David Hare and Raja Ram Mohun Roy. Through their untiring efforts a Vidyalaya (home of learning) was established in 1816 for the ‘tuition of sons of respectable Hindu parents in the English and Indian languages and in European and Asiatic science and literature.’ Its name was later changed to Hindu College, and finally in 1855, to Presidency College. The Committee of Public Instruction was divided on the question of the medium of instruction — there was an Orientalist viewpoint which wanted the engrafting of European education on the indigenous system and there was the contrasting Anglicist viewpoint which wanted to devote all available funds to disseminating literary and scientific information necessary for a liberal education through the medium of English. In 1833, the educational funds of the General Committee were enhanced by an order of magnitude and the following year Macaulay came as Legislative Member of the Supreme Council and President of the General Committee. In his famous minute, he strongly advocated the Anglicist viewpoint of teaching in English saying ‘What Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is more valuable than that of classical antiquity.’ The Governor General, Lord Bentinck, endorsed Macaulay’s dictum and his Government laid down its educational policy through a resolution which said,

“The great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science amongst the natives of India.”

It took nearly forty years since the establishment of the first colleges, for the British Government to finally decide on the founding of the first universities in the Presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. All three universities were started in 1857.

When Sir Asutosh Mookerjee took over the reins as the first Indian Vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, he took it upon himself to transform the institution from merely a degree-awarding one to one of higher learning and it was through his efforts that graduate teaching and research were introduced into the regular activities of the University. While Sir Asutosh was soon able to establish several humanities departments, he was unable to do the same for science, mainly due to lack of funds. The Government was apathetic to his plea for extra money for establishing a College of Science where graduate courses would be taught and scientific research could be carried out. While he was getting frustrated in his efforts, help arrived from an unexpected quarter. In 1912, Sir Tarak Nath Palit, an eminent and highly successful Barrister of Calcutta made a munificent gift of one and a half million rupees to the University. The Endowment provided for the creation of two Chairs, one in Physics and the other in Chemistry. The purpose was, “the promotion and diffusion of scientific and technical education and the cultivation and advance of science, pure and applied, amongst the countrymen by and through indigenous agency”. According to the terms of the Endowment, “Such chairs shall always be filled by Indians (persons born of Indian parents as contradistinguished from persons who are called statutory natives of India) to be nominated by a Governing Body”. The University was suddenly flush with funds and the creation of facilities for training in science and technology seemed within reach. Within a year of the Palit gift, the funds were further augmented by another equally generous gift from Sir Rash Behary Ghose, a great patron of education and a leading luminary of the legal profession in Bengal, who was also Sir Asutosh’s teacher as the Tagore Professor of Law at Calcutta University. The Ghose Endowment allowed Chairs to be created in Botany and Mathematics, in addition to more Chairs in Physics and Chemistry. Sir Asutosh was overjoyed as his dream of establishing science education was about to be realised. The foundation of the University College of Science and Technology was laid on March 27, 1914 at 92, Upper Circular Road.

Much before the beginning of formal science education in the University of Calcutta, an institution was established, purely through private efforts, for the purpose of disseminating scientific knowledge among the native Indians and creating in them a scientific temper and outlook. Dr. Mahendra Lal Sircar, a leading medical practitioner in Calcutta and an illustrious product of the Bengal Renaissance had advocated the idea of starting an Association for the Cultivation of Science in an article published in the August 1869 issue of the Calcutta Journal of Medicine.

Thanks to the support of the enlightened citizens of Calcutta, the generous contributions of the rich, and last but not the least, the encouragement from the Government of Bengal, Mahendra Lal was able to establish the Science Association in 1876 with Sir Richard Temple, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, as its first President. The Government purchased for the institution the premises of 210 Bowbazar Street, not far from College Square, where the University of Calcutta and Presidency College were located. The Association organised regular science classes, started a library with books on a variety of science subjects and purchased some basic apparatus for lecture demonstrations.

Sir Asutosh was an astute judge of men and applied an exacting standard of evaluation to assess their worth. The men he chose to fill in the positions created by the Ghose and Palit Endowments, were among the best to be found anywhere in the country. For the Mathematics Chair, he invited Dr Ganesh Prasad, then teaching at Queen’s College in Benares. Prasad had studied under famous mathematicians including Felix Klein in Göttingen. Prasad came to the Science College in 1914. Prafulla Chandra Mitter was invited to occupy the Ghose Chair in Chemistry. Mitter was the first Indian to obtain a doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of Berlin. Debendra Mohan Bose was appointed to the Ghose Chair in Physics. Bose, a graduate of the Royal College of Science, London, had already worked at the Cavendish Laboratory under the guidance of J.J. Thomson. He was a direct witness to C.T.R. Wilson’s first experiments on the detection of ionising particles in a cloud-chamber. But he did not have a doctoral degree. So, soon after he assumed his responsibilities in Science College in 1914, Sir Asutosh organised the award of a Ghose Travelling Fellowship to him to go to Germany for advanced studies. The anticipated period of absence was two years. But the First World War broke out and four long years were to elapse before Bose could return to India. Thus while the Chemistry and Mathematics Departments had their leaders, the Physics Department was without one.

The College was already functioning and there were regular students to be taught. But owing to the peculiar circumstances, the crucial job of putting together a proper curriculum in physics and identifying competent people to teach the subject was hanging in the balance. It was to the good luck of the Science College and the Physics Department that a group of three young men, who had just then obtained their Master’s degrees in Mathematics and Physics, were looking for suitable academic opportunities. They were keen to help. All three had brilliant academic careers and were excited about the great things that were happening in the world of physics. When they approached Sir Asutosh with an offer to teach modern physics in the newly established Department, he asked, “What subjects are you competent to teach?” and they responded by saying, “We’ll try our best to teach whatever you want us to, Sir.” They were hired, the two of them with M.Sc. degrees in Mixed Mathematics as Lecturers in Mathematics and the third, an M.Sc. in Physics, as a Lecturer in Physics. Soon after, the two mathematicians obtained transfer to the Physics Department since they found it irksome to work with Ganesh Prasad. A short time later the Lecturer in Physics had to leave the country in a huff for his anti-British political activities, while his two friends, largely self-taught in physics, strove hard to give shape to the physics curriculum. Within a few years they were writing original research papers and the scientific world was alerted of their arrival on the scene. Thus Satyendranath Bose and Meghnad Saha introduced modern physics to India through the curriculum they devised for the graduate physics programme in the Science College.

In 1916, after the legal problems of the Palit Endowment appeared solved, the University renewed its invitation to the two Palit appointees. The Chemistry Chair was to be adorned by Prafulla Chandra Ray, then Professor of Chemistry in Presidency College. Prafulla Chandra was already a highly respected figure, both for his scientific achievements and his humane qualities. He was called ‘Acharya’, a title accorded to a revered teacher in the best of the Hindu tradition. He was surely the most eminent chemist in the country at the time. Ray, who still had a year to go in the service of the Government, took an early retirement and moved over to the Science College. Sir Asutosh made the unusual move of inviting Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, at the time an accountant by profession but a part-time research worker at the Science Association, to adorn the Palit Chair in physics. Raman accepted. A year was to pass before Raman could actually join the Science College. When he finally arrived, he found a good teaching programme was already in place and he needed to add little to it. He got down to organising the experiments to go with the theoretical training. Sisir Kumar Mitra, who was working with Raman at the Association then, was also hired in the Physics Department by the University. In retrospect, one must say that a comparable collection of talent in any one department of an Indian university was never seen before and has not been seen since. When the physicist and noted science writer William Blanpied says, “Indeed, from 1915 until 1921, the activities of J.C. Bose, P.C. Ray, C.V. Raman, S.N. Bose and M.N. Saha made Calcutta for a few years one of the most intense sites of scientific activity outside of Europe”, he can hardly be faulted for exaggeration. Within a tram ride of each other were concentrated some of the greatest scientific minds in the world, rivalling any scientific group in modern history, be it Cambridge, Göttingen or Boston. The seeds were sown and the above individuals were collectively responsible for ushering in the Golden Age of Indian science. Rather unfortunately, Sir Asutosh himself did not live to see the most glorious fructification of his efforts.

It is during this period that CV Raman and KS Krishnan discovered the “Raman Effect” in 1928, for which Raman won the Nobel Prize in 1930, which to this day remains India’s only Nobel Prize for science. That is not to say the others listed above didn’t deserve similar recognition. They would all have been worthy recipients of the most hallowed global award in science or maths, but remember, it was still a time dominated by the Europeans, and the selection processes of the Nobel Prize have not always been the most noble.

JC Bose did pioneering work in biology as well as invented the first wireless radio (he never wrote it up as a scientific paper, so Marconi got the honours slightly later); Mohalanobis founded the Indian Statistical Institute and used his statistical sampling techniques to explain real-life situations in anthropology and agriculture; Ray was a chemist of high repute, who also had a keen interest in history and literature and wrote books on ancient Indian chemistry; Raman and Krishnan worked on scattering and won the hallowed prize for India, then went their separate ways, Raman to Bangalore to become the first Indian Director of the Indian Institute of Science, and then later the founder-director of the Raman Research Institute; Krishnan all over the country from Calcutta to Dhaka to Allahabad to Delhi (where he was the founder-Director of the National Physical Laboratory), during which time he studied the magnetic properties of various materials like crystals; Saha, most famous for his ionisation equation describing the degree of ionisation of a substance as a function of temperature, relevant mainly in astronomical plasmas, which remains the most fundamental and famous modern scientific discovery made in India; and SN Bose, famous for his “Bose” statistics, sometimes called “Bose-Einstein Statistics” thanks to his correspondence with the great German, who helped Bose get his works published in a German scientific journal, and propelled him to global scientific fame, immortalised in terms such as the “Bose-Einstein Condensate” and “bosons”, describing the fundamental particles that follow “Bose-Einstein Statistics”.

Since independence, that golden age of Indian science has slowly withered away due to various reasons, and we are suffering the consequences today. There have been only a handful of people over the last 70 years that have done world class research in India. To name a few: GN Ramachandran in molecular biology; AK Raychaudhuri and PC Vaidya in general relativity and cosmology; MK Vainu Bappu in building up optical astronomy from scratch in India; and V Radhakrishnan and Govind Swarup in making India one of the leaders in radio astronomy research. These remarkable people have risen above our system to establish small pockets of scientific excellence and institutions in our country, but most of that happened in the first few decades after independence. Since then, we’ve fallen away further with science research and teaching not among the sought after careers for the modern Indian.

Our education system and priorities are perhaps the main culprits, and it is to arrest that slide that we must do something right NOW! Other nation states, like China, are taking the lead role today in defining the global future, but with our potential and constitutional, pluralistic and democratic superiority, we should ensure that we don’t remain irrelevant in global affairs. Our history and diverse heritage has always been our strength, and we must strive to protect and propagate that vision, of peace and prosperity for all, rather than fall into the trap of narrower political considerations, which seems to be afflicting our modern society more and more…

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