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Scientists pursued research despite odds

In line with the ongoing political project to rewrite or re-tell history, there is a concerted effort to portray some Indian scientists as active participants in the freedom struggle and as nationalists who rejected the notions of western science the British introduced in India.

Scientists pursued research despite odds

Constructive: Indian scientists engaged with nationalists and the British. File photo



Dinesh C. Sharma

Science commentator

The celebrations to mark 75 years of India’s independence have provided an opportunity to review the country’s journey in different fields. India’s achievements in the sphere of science and technology have naturally attracted the attention they deserve. The role played by different strata of society, including scientists and academics, in the freedom struggle is also being discussed. After all, India had a robust scientific community in the pre-independence era that included a Nobel winner, CV Raman and a galaxy of internationally known scientists. Did Indian scientists actively participate in the freedom movement, particularly during its intense phase from the 1920s to the 1940s? Or they kept themselves engaged in laboratories and were focused on building their professional careers under the British patronage?

Historians of science have addressed these questions over the decades and found no black and white answers. Scientists were deeply concerned about the British oppression and remained connected with the freedom movement while being engaged in their scientific pursuits. Leading scientists like Meghnad Saha had direct links with the leadership in the Indian National Congress during the phase when the party was elected in provincial assemblies and was formulating policies for an independent India. Scientists played a constructive role through the National Planning Committee (NPC) constituted by Subhas Chandra Bose as the Congress president in 1938. A majority of them accepted the idea of evidence-based modern science and supported rapid science-led industrialisation propagated by Nehru and Bose. There was no clamour for a revival of ‘ancient science’.

The present discourse on the subject, however, altogether ignores this critical phase of science-based planning for national development. In line with the ongoing political project to rewrite or re-tell history, there is a concerted effort to portray some Indian scientists as active participants in the freedom struggle and as nationalists who rejected the notions of western science the British introduced in India in the 18th century. Vigyan Bharati, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), is running this campaign with help from bodies like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Science and Technology (DST), and cheerleaders in the media.

For decades, a myth was being propagated that Raman felt humiliated and was in tears as he had to receive the Nobel prize under the British flag. Based on historical documents and accounts of the award event in the European and Indian press, historian of science Rajinder Singh has debunked this. Lady Raman gave detailed accounts of the event to the media, and there was no mention of any humiliation Raman had reportedly felt. Documents show that Raman, who was knighted in 1929, was keen to receive the honour from the King in England though eventually the ceremony was held in India. Raman felt that his Nobel-winning work had ‘helped more to raise the estimation of India in the world than recent political events’, referring to the salt satyagraha.

Another myth being propagated is that Jagadish Chandra Bose pioneered the concept of satyagraha much ahead of Mahatma Gandhi by refusing to accept a salary lower than the English faculty in the Presidency College. Yes, Bose protested the attitude of the university authorities but by no means this amounted to a protest against the British. The evidence, as provided by biographers of Bose, is the following: His application for the post in the Presidency College was endorsed by Lord Ripon himself; Bose joined the Imperial Service as a professor and remained in service till his retirement in 1915; during this long tenure, he received handsome research grants and scholarships for his students; the British sponsored a six-month deputation of Bose and his wife to England in 1896-97 — during which his research work became known to the world; post-retirement, he was made emeritus professor with full salary (not pension) and research facilities for five years.

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, another leading scientist, quit his position in the nationalist Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1924 to join as the director of the British-controlled and run Chemical Laboratories at the University of Punjab in Lahore. In pre-war years, research and consultancy work of Bhatnagar helped British chemical and petroleum firms that were suppliers for the armed forces. This work helped him get the job of heading the industrial and scientific research board when the war broke out. The board eventually became CSIR. When the Quit India movement was in full steam, Bhatnagar was lobbying for more funds for industrial research while Homi Jehangir Bhabha was planning his institute with help from the Tata Trusts and Bombay Presidency.

In effect, all these scientists were building their scientific careers and, in the process, laying the foundations of the S&T infrastructure of a future India. They perfected the art of balancing nationalist sentiments and the need for British support for research. They did so by developing ‘working alliances’ with NPC as well as the British. All of them, including JC Bose and PC Ray, accepted British honours and titles like Knighthood and CIE (Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire), yet participated in political deliberations related to planning for the future. They clamoured for the Fellowship of the Royal Society where selection panels often considered active anti-British stance as disqualification. All this does not mean that scientists were not patriots or were not committed to the idea of a free India.

Only some working scientists joined the national movement, like Syed Husain Zaheer, a German-trained chemistry professor from Lucknow University who in free India became the director general of CSIR. Zaheer was imprisoned in 1940, along with Vijay Lakshmi Pandit and Asaf Ali, for offering satyagraha at Bharosa village near Lucknow. Zaheer’s is arguably the only case of a working scientist spending time in prison during the freedom struggle. This, however, does not find a mention in the present discourse on Indian scientists and the freedom movement. Even the CSIR has not acknowledged Zaheer’s active participation in the freedom struggle. It’s time our scientific institutions learn about their heritage and heroes.


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