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The Good Scientist, The Telegraph

In India’s halting march to modernity, Bengal and Bengalis were for a very long time in the forefront. Then, in the early decades of the last century, three unconnected events helped deprive the province of its vanguard status. First, in 1911, the raj shifted the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Later, in 1920, the supporters of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi shouted down C.R. Das’s opposition to non-cooperation, this presaging a more general shift of nationalist passion westwards. Finally, in 1933, Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman left his chair in Calcutta University to take up a job in Bangalore.

The consequences of the first two events are long known, and perhaps too long complained about. But what about the third? Till the Twenties, the only decent scientists produced by India had been Bengalis. One generation gave us Prafulla Chandra Ray and Jagadish Chandra Bose; the next generation, Satyen Bose and Meghnad Saha. Before all these men there had been Mahendralal Sircar, founder of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. True, Raman was a Tamil, but his great early experiments had all been done in Calcutta. In retrospect, his departure for Bangalore seemed to signal a more general decline of the scientific spirit in Bengal. J.C. Bose and P.C. Ray were dead. Saha had moved out, to Allahabad. Satyen Bose stayed, but his best work lay behind him.

Raman had left Calcutta to join the Indian Institute of Science. In a country where centres of learning rise and fall with their founders, this institute has managed to maintain its high standards for close to a century. In my fairly wide experience of Indian research institutes and universities, I would place the IISc comfortably at the top. Possibly 80 per cent of its faculty are engaged in serious research; absorbed in their work and in their students, these men and women are found in their laboratories on weekends too. Recruitment to posts in different departments is hardly ever affected by considerations other than intellectual merit. Many of the scientists are genuinely world class. There are some members of faculty who take it easy, but these are made to feel low and shameful.

In the history of the IISc there are perhaps three men who deserve special mention. The first was the philanthropist and patriot, Jamshedji Tata, in whose mind the idea was born and through whose money the first buildings came up. (In grateful recognition, the common citizens of Bangalore still refer to the place as the “Tata Institute”.) The second was C.V. Raman, whose presence in the institute first endowed it with the respect and reputation it has since enjoyed. The third was the scientist, visionary, and institution builder, Satish Dhawan, whose recent death in Bangalore has been widely and justly mourned.

Born in Lahore in 1920, Dhawan took degrees in engineering and English literature – a lovely combination – before proceeding to the United States of America for higher studies. After being awarded a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, he returned in 1951, to join the IISc. Here he did important work in fluid dynamics and led the building of India’s first supersonic wind tunnel. In 1962 Dhawan was appointed director of the institute, and a decade later was persuaded to also serve as the chairman of the space commission. This was an executive, hands-on job, which he held and executed while simultaneously serving as the full-time director of the IISc. He retired from both positions in 1981, but not before being awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. Such are the bare facts, but there is more to be said.

It was during Dhawan’s long tenure that the IISc truly consolidated its reputation, and made secure its standing as the finest centre of scientific research in all of Asia. He encouraged the creation of new interdisciplinary laboratories in areas such as molecular biophysics, microbiology and atmospheric science. He was much concerned with promoting work of quality in established areas of science, but, at the same time, sensitive to the relevance of the institute’s work to Indian conditions. It was Dhawan who recruited the young and at the time relatively unknown Madhav Gadgil; an act of faith rewarded in due course, as Gadgil founded a first-rate school of field-based ecological research. It was also Dhawan who supported the electrochemist, A.K.N. Reddy, in the creation of a centre for the development of technologies appropriate for rural areas. This centre, named ASTRA, has since done pioneering work in the promotion of low-cost housing and renewable energy. Dhawan’s interest in ecology and rural technology was characteristic of the man. So far as I can tell, he was interested in two kinds of science: the science that advanced the frontiers of human understanding, and the science that helped augment human welfare or mitigate human suffering. As a patriot, he would have appreciated the use of advanced technology in the defence of our national security. But he must have been disgusted at the way in which some of our scientists crowed at the nuclear tests, putting on military uniforms and posing for photographs in them.

So long as Dhawan guided the space programme, its orientation was clear: satellite technology must be used to garner information useful in agriculture and other sectors of the economy, and to promote distance learning in remote areas not easily served by other forms of communication. His humanitarian instincts were deep and finely honed. It is no accident that one of his closest friends in the scientific community was Vikram Sarabhai, who had the same, that is non-militaristic, expectations of space research, and who was the only chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who had no interest in bombs whatsoever.

Growing up in Bangalore in the Sixties and Seventies, I admired Satish Dhawan, from a distance. My father and grandfather had both studied at the IISc. I did not study there only because I displayed, at a very early age, a colossal ineptitude with regard to science; a failure that, of course, made me venerate the place all the more. In those pre-globalized times the state and the better kind of public institution had a glow and prestige that is almost impossible to convey to the young Indian of today. As the director of the IISc and as the head of our space programme, Dhawan commanded a unique position among the conscious middle class of this science-minded city. Yet he wore his honours lightly. Unlike the techno-icons of the present time, he did not use his status in one sphere to assume expertise in another. He knew his limits, whereas his epigones are always willing to explain to the rest of us how the economy might be better run or how to improve our personal conduct. In this respect, Dhawan might have endorsed the dictum of his near-contemporary, the anthropologist (and fellow Bangalore resident) M.N. Srinivas, that “media attention is the enemy of scholarship”.

The one time I recall Dhawan appearing in the media was when he was interviewed along with other leading Indians on the golden jubilee of our independence. Two remarks he made then have stayed with me, not least because they contrasted so sharply with the platitudes offered by the other featured luminaries. Why do Indians so admire Singapore, he asked, and why would they like to exchange life in a culturally diverse and robust democracy for a boring homogeneous little country that was autocratic to boot? And, addressing the non-resident Indian in general, he said that whenever he heard NRIs criticize their native land, he asked them to come back and help improve the functioning of its institutions. I suppose that in most cases Dhawan’s request would have been met with an embarrassed silence.

In his last years I got to know Satish Dhawan. Our acquaintance was very slight, and we met not more than half-a-dozen times: each occasion, however, adding to my knowledge and understanding. I was impressed by his concern for the displaced of the Narmada Valley; alone among our top scientists, he signed a petition circulated in 1988 asking for a fair and independent review of the dam project. I was moved by his concern for the villages that, willy-nilly, had come to share the same territory as the space station in Sriharikota; one of his last initiatives was to urge an anthropological study of what impact, positive and negative, this high-tech endeavour had had on traditional lifestyles. Most of all, I was struck by the complete absence of cynicism, his hopes for our land, his vital interest in the young and his willingness to be challenged by their ideas. A German thinker once suggested that while a patriot is someone who loves his country, a nationalist is someone who scorns other countries. It was a distinction that Satish Dhawan would have appreciated. He was a patriotic and, in his time, much celebrated Indian, but also a very good man.

Ramachandra Guha
(first published in The Telegraph, 13th January 2002)