Unequal Eminences

A book that highlights what is not really news: the dominance of the upper caste male over Indian science in the first half of the 20th century

Nobel Laureate CV Raman, who discovered that when light traverses a transparent material, some of the deflected light changes in wavelength. COURTESY RAMAN RESEARCH INSTITUTE LIBRARY
01 November, 2011

IN THE PREFACE to his book, Alternative Sciences, Ashis Nandy observed how determined many Indian scientists and those writing about them have been to uphold the image of science as a “bloodless affair”.

One would imagine this to be a natural corollary of the valorisation of science, from the Age of Enlightenment onwards, as an activity professedly divested of human imperfection by its ability to create order through systems and laws, and by its emphasis on exactitude, rigour, empiricism, objectivity and rationalism.

The idea of science as a modernising force, symbolising the triumph of reason over irrational beliefs and practices, gave the activities of the British colonial administration in India in the 19th century—including the introduction of Western education; the production of surveys, studies and censuses; and the building of irrigation canals, railways and so on—the aura of a civilising mission.

The idea was further perpetuated in the post-Independence era and enshrined in the ‘temples’ of modern India: in power plants, hydroelectric dams, steel factories, institutes of technology and national laboratories. Jawaharlal Nehru, a powerful votary of science’s transformative capabilities, urged scientists to think not only of the pursuit of truth but of bettering the lot of India’s people.

This idealised view of science, however, has been repeatedly challenged by postcolonial scholarship and by a growing interest in the social history of science in India, evident among both scientists and humanities scholars. We no longer think of the British, for instance, as mere disinterested reformers but understand their efforts as part of a highly-charged political enterprise. We also question the progressive claims of the developmental model adopted by independent India, raising concerns over the deleterious impact on the environment and on various communities.

But to judge the encounter between modern science and a native environment purely by motive or consequence is to blind oneself to the creative possibilities of the phenomenon and the unexpected forms it can take. And perhaps the best place to consider Indian science from the latter perspective is the first half of the 20th century.

The early 1900s saw the emergence of indigenous modern science, especially in the form of scientific publications and a demand for scientific institutes entirely under native management and control. To be a scientist in India in the early 1900s, however, was to deal with a plethora of difficulties: low pay, inadequate resources and bureaucratic obduracy and thoughtlessness that undermined even individuals of distinction. To add to these handicaps was a strong element of racism that revealed itself in various subtle and not so subtle forms.

These hurdles notwithstanding, the period saw world-class research being carried out by Indian scientists. Botanist and physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), having conducted successful wireless signaling experiments in the late 1800s—possibly ahead of Guglielmo Marconi, who is credited as the inventor of radio—was doing landmark work on plant growth and sensitivity. Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944), known as the ‘father of modern chemistry’ in India, was building on his work on the compound mercurous nitrite. Homi J Bhabha (1909-1966) distinguished himself with two startling papers, on positron physics and the cascade theory of cosmic showers.

Jagadish Chandra Bose with his former pupils in 1930. Seated (L-R): MN Saha, Jagadish Chandra Bose, JC Ghosh. Standing (L-R): S Datta, SN Bose, DM Bose, NR Sen, JN Mukherjee, Sri NC Nag. COURTESY MN SAHA ARCHIVE, SAHA INSTITUTE OF NUCLEAR PHYSICS

Indian scientists were also caught in a wave of nationalism that manifested itself in many ways, one of which was an inclination to design research so as to highlight peculiarities of the indigenous environment. The young Vikram Sarabhai (1919-1971) observed cosmic rays in tropical latitudes; Bhabha conducted experiments in the Kolar Gold Fields mineshaft, one of the longest in the world; and CV Raman (1888-1970) took advantage of India’s abundant sunshine to study the scattering of light.

To read about those times is to enter a world of excitement, eminence and discovery. It is also to encounter rivalry, difficulty and competitiveness. At one level, these negative experiences stemmed from India’s relative disadvantage in a Western-dominated world; at another level they reflected inequities closer home.

The latter point is one that Abha Sur seeks to forcefully make. Her book claims to be “a socially informed micro-history of physics in India in the first half of the twentieth century where caste and gender are the primary analytical tools for understanding knowledge production and institution building in science”.

The pivotal figure in Sur’s exposition is the formidable CV Raman, distinguished physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. Juxtaposed with him—the ‘subordinated populations’, as Sur would have it—are the eminent Bengali scientist Meghnad Saha (1893-1956) and three women graduate students in CV Raman’s laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore: Anna Mani, Lalitha Doraiswamy and K Sunanda Bai.

Posing with the Cyclotron at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in 1948 (L-R, front row): AP Patro, BM Banerjee, Meghnad Saha. COURTESY MN SAHA ARCHIVE, SAHA INSTITUTE OF NUCLEAR PHYSICS

CV Raman was born in a village in the Tanjore district of Madras Presidency. In 1907 he joined the Financial Civil Service, conducting scientific experiments on the side at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Calcutta till 1917, when he moved into physics fulltime. His strength was the study of waves, which he pursued through research in optics, vibrations and musical instruments. He was best known for his discovery of the effect, or scattering, named after him and for which he won the Nobel: ‘scattering’ refers to the discovery that when light traverses a transparent material, some of the light that is deflected changes in wavelength. Raman was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1924 and received a knighthood in 1929.

In 1933, Raman was appointed director of the IISc—a premier institute in Bangalore founded in 1909 by Jamsetji Tata to promote scientific research. In his lifetime, Raman would train more than 100 physicists, including eminent scientists like Bhabha and Sarabhai who both came to IISc from Cambridge during World War II. Raman’s experience at IISc was, as Sur recounts, not an entirely happy one, however: blamed for behaving in an autocratic manner, he was forced to give up the directorship, though he continued as a professor of physics; in 1948, he founded his own Raman Research Institute.

Sur’s portrait of Raman shows him to be a flamboyant, dominating personality—a guru to his students, reliant on rhetoric and tending towards the polemical, imperious and often unfair in his dealings with peers (notably the German physicist Max Born and fellow scientist, Meghnad Saha), and driven, according to his biographer G Venkataraman, whom Sur quotes, “by a deeper urge—a quest for the aesthetics of natural phenomena”. Here is a picture of a person shaped by his high-caste background, its classicist inclinations and the cultural and social privileges associated with it. Sur’s portrait of Raman draws from a penetrating reading of the disagreement between Born and Raman that arose over their theoretical and spectroscopic studies on diamonds, Raman’s laboratory practices and his relationship with his students. Her picture does not deviate widely from previous descriptions but is coloured by her lack of approbation for high-caste dominance.

CV Raman lecturing at the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore in 1962. DINODIA PHOTO LIBRAR

SUR’S RENDERING of Meghnad Saha, on the other hand, is distinctly sympathetic. Saha, the son of a grocer (whom she identifies as belonging to a financially mobile but socially backward caste), hailed from a village in the eastern part of Bengal in undivided India, and rose to become a distinguished astrophysicist. He developed ionisation equations that are credited with the significant achievements of unifying astronomy and atomic physics and transforming astrophysics from a largely qualitative to a quantitative discipline. An ardent advocate of India’s large-scale scientific and industrial development, he also pioneered nuclear research in India in 1941 but found himself marginalised in its later development, a factor that has been held by some to be the motive for his critique of the government’s approach towards the development of atomic energy in the country. He believed that the development of an industrial and technological base should have preceded the launch of a nuclear programme, and was concerned about the possibly harmful effects of the secrecy surrounding the Atomic Energy Commission.

He took his dissent to the Lok Sabha in 1952 where, as an independent member of Parliament, he raised sharp and informed questions on matters relating to industrial policy and technology. As Sur writes, Saha, more than any of his peers, “is defined by his oppositional imagination”.

Sur contends that the propensity to treat Saha’s perspective on the atomic energy programme with disdain reflects his predicament at a more general level, which is that of an individual uniquely placed, by virtue of his extraordinary talent, in a sphere traditionally dominated by upper castes and having, consequently, to battle an adversarial attitude, masked and underscored by the much touted value neutrality of the scientific pursuit.

Sur’s use of the caste lens makes for some interesting insights. Previous biographers have tended to emphasise a connection between Saha’s humble class and rural origins and his subsequent interest in the utilitarian aspect of science—that walking 10 km to school through a flood-prone terrain might have spurred his later interest in finding ways to harness the power of rivers, for instance. Sur is more interested in how the caste-related privations that Saha suffered could have led to his preoccupation with the subject of selectivity in nature: through the 1920s and 1930s, the thrust of his research programme was an attempt to understand why atoms react differently to external stimuli, the reason why calcium, for instance, has an exalted position in the sun’s atmosphere. She perceptively compares Saha’s scientific and social writings to tease out a certain hurt and embarrassment at the reality of caste injustice—which, in her view, drives him to be strictly professional, unpretentious and grounded strongly in the empirical.

At the same time, her overall schema is weakened by a number of things. One is the apparent disregard for other potentially significant factors such as class bias, regional identity and personality traits. Second is the oversimplified contrast between Saha and Raman. In attempting to build Raman into a hegemonic axis of sorts, Sur appears to lessen the weight of his own struggles and professional disappointments, or of other complicating features such as his advocacy of the value of applied science even as he gravitated towards ‘pure’ science. In Saha’s case, on the other hand, whatever he may have endured due to his caste (and Sur builds a persuasive case in this regard), it is difficult to see, as Sur wants us to, a scientist of his enduring stature in the role of the ‘subordinated’.

The other set of protagonists in Sur’s book are the three women graduate students in CV Raman’s laboratory at the IISc in Bangalore: Anna Mani, Lalitha Doraiswamy and K Sunanda Bai.

When it comes to gender, Sur is on surer ground. The expansion of education in the late 19th century provoked a limited but growing openness towards the education of women. The nationalist and socialist environment as well as role models like Sarojini Naidu encouraged women to also work. As far as a career in science was concerned, however, discrimination against women was a universal phenomenon; in India the obstacles were evident. According to Sur, the three women she has looked at were relegated to the lower levels of laboratory practice. Raman enforced a strict separation of sexes, so they worked alone, snatching a few hours of sleep under tables in the lab during overnight experiments. Mani put in long hours recording and analysing fluorescence, absorption and Raman spectra of 32-odd diamonds. Bai did pioneering work in recording and analysing the composite nature of the scattered spectrum of liquids. Neither was awarded a doctoral degree—apparently on technical grounds. The former never married and made a career in meteorology. Bai would commit suicide in late 1944, a little before her intended departure for Sweden to do postdoctoral work in experimental physics. Doraiswamy gave up her work aspirations to marry the eminent scientist S Chandrasekhar.

The dominance of the upper caste male over Indian science in the first half of the 20th century is not really news. Indeed, Nandy in his preface goes on to suggest a possible correspondence between caste and the projected image of science, writing that the image of a ‘pure’, affectless science seems to endorse the Brahminic concepts of uncontaminated knowledge and purity of vocation. A discussion on the wider implications of this dominance, its impact on shaping the culture and preoccupations of Indian science and its social ramifications would have been of widespread interest. Sur brings a great deal of sensitivity to bear upon her subject and suggests ways of interpreting social biases in modern science, but fails to bring her multiple arguments to an eloquent conclusion. In terms of impact what we are left with is the dull, petty wrangling of grown men.