Editorial Articles

Issue no 48, 26 February-04 March 2022

Great Scientists Who Contributed To The Freedom Movement

Nimish Kapoor

As we celebrate 75 years of India's independence, we remember the contributions of freedom fighters who dedicated their lives to earn this independence. Some took the path of non-violence and some opted for direct confrontation. However, very few people are aware of the fact that our scientists also contributed in their own way in India's freedom movement. The British authorities applied every possible means to humiliate their efforts and belittle their contributions. They were challenged to build their own laboratories and develop their own instruments. Our scientists bravely faced the disdain of the British rule and developed the infrastructure on which the nation built its own path post-independence. India's scientific heritage is centuries old, but the foundations of scientific institutions that we see in the country today were laid by our scientists by fighting the British.The list of such scientists is very long. We would explore here four early scientists who laid the foundation of indigenous science in the country. Several Indians working in the Geological Survey, Botanical Survey, Zoological Survey, Archaeological Survey, and Survey of India had worked on scientific research and made valuable contributions. Their researches were published in the journals in England. The knowledge from India was used for the advancement of science in England. The scientific advancement was not used for the benefit of India. The British didn't want the Indians to do any research in India and never acknowledged their achievements.

Mahendra Lal Sircar (1833-1904)

Mahendra Lal Sircar was born in 1833 in a poor family at Kolkata. He was brilliant in studies and in 1835 started studying in the Medical College in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In the absence of the English lecturers his classmates used to ask him to teach them. He completed his MD and started practicing medicine. In 1863 a branch of British Medical Association (BMA) was opened in Calcutta and Sircar was made the General Secretary of the Association.

At that time Homeopathy was already practised in India, but the British were disdainful towards it. When Sircar was unable to cure one of his patients and that patient got cured with Homeopathy, he became curious to know more about this form of treatment. He started studying Homeopathy scientifically and in 1867 presented his study in the meeting of the BMA. But his appreciation for Homeopathy agonized the British. As a consequence, he was expelled from the Association. His practice also got affected and the authorities tried their best to stop his practice. He was deeply saddened by this development. He felt that the British gave him the scientific vision, the reasoning, and with this he could see the truth and had the courage to stand for it. For one year his clinic was almost closed. The BMA's journal stopped publishing his articles. This started a sort of churning within him and consequently in 1868 he started 'The Calcutta Journal of Medicine', India's first scientific research journal. He started it with a special mention of Charak Samhita where Maharshi Charak says, "that alone is the right medicine which can remove disease; He alone is the true physician who can restore health."

Mahender Lal Sircar established the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in 1876 with the objective to enable Indians to cultivate science in all its disciplines. With a collection of Rs.61,000, Sircar pleaded that the work of IACS should be carried on with our own efforts, unaided by the government. In a timespan of only few years, IACS set-up seven sections in general physics, chemistry, astronomy, systematic botany, systematic zoology, physiology, and geology. The establishment of the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) in 1914 was another major landmark. ISCA was a common forum for scientists working in different parts of the country.

Pramatha Nath Bose (1855-1934)

P.N. Bose was a geologist and one of the pioneers to ask for more extensive science education. In 1894, he wrote 'A History of Hindu Civilisation Under the British Rule'. He was appointed as a graded scientist in the Geological Survey of India. He was the first Indian to get this job in the organisation. He graduated in Science from London University and passed out from the Royal School of Mines in 1878. During his years as geologist with Geological Survey of India (GSI) he discovered, along with many other remarkable discoveries, iron ore mines in Dhulli and Rajhara in Madhya Pradesh.

The then Director of Geological Survey of India, H.B. Medlicott was not pleased to see an Indian appointed as a graded scientist. After his retirement, Pramatha Nath was to become the next Director; but the post was given to a British officer who was ten years junior to him and much less qualified. Medlicott at that time had said, "Indians are incapable of any original work in natural science. So let us exercise a little discretion with our weaker brethren and not expect them to run before they can walk." This was an insult for the country which had an abundance of scientific brilliance. Consequently, Bose resigned from his post in 1903.

After resigning from Geological Survey of India, Bose came in contact with Jamsetji Tata. The Maharaja of Mayurbhanj was also interested in the mining industry. Pramatha Nath was appointed by the Maharaja as his geological adviser. The most remarkable achievement of Bose's life was to discover deposits of iron ores in the Gorumahisani Hills of Mayurbhanj. The Maharaja of Mayurbhanj, along with Pramatha Nath, got in touch with Jamsetji Tata. It was Bose who had shown the location to Tata where Tata Iron and Steel Company at Sakchi(now Jamshedpur) was to be established. In 1907 Dorabji Tata fulfilled his dream and established the company.

Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937)

          Sir JC Bose should be considered the first non-violent freedom fighter. As the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was the First War of Independence against the British rule, the protest of Jagadish Chandra was the first non-violent protest against British misrule, which he won. Bose fought both with the British administrators and the European scientists to establish himself as a plant physiologist. He was not easily accepted in Oxford. He manufactured his own instruments and appointed local artisans to develop the instruments he needed.

Bose received his bachelor's degree from St. Xavier's College, Calcutta. Father Lafont, a Belgian priest and professor at the college, initiated Bose in the study of natural sciences. Physics was earlier called natural philosophy. After getting his B.Sc degree from Calcutta University, he went to England to study medicine, which he could not pursue because of his ill health. He shifted to Cambridge to study Tripos in the natural sciences, namely, physics, chemistry, and botany. He graduated in 1884 and simultaneously also graduated in Bachelor of Arts from the University College of London.

In 1904, Lord Rayleigh received Nobel Prize for the discovery of argon gas. He was the president of the London's Royal Society. He had sent a letter of recommendation for his brilliant student, Jagadish Chandra Bose, and suggested that he should be allowed to teach Physics. When he applied for the job, he was told that Indians are incapable of having any rational thoughts and that is why he couldn't be permitted to teach a subject like physics! Though Bose was much more qualified than most of his European colleagues, he was appointed in the Provincial Service, and that too on a temporary basis. His salary was one-third that of a professor. Bose refused to accept the salary but continued to teach at Presidency College. After three years, finally the government relented and he was appointed as a full professor with both rank and salary. This was one of his first peaceful non-violent protests that he won! His fight against injustice and discrimination was a Satyagraha like Gandhiji's Satyagraha in 1917 in Champaran, Bihar.

1894, Bose started his research work. He didn't receive any help from the British. He had set up his own laboratory and incurred all the expenditure. The research conducted by him was unparalleled; even the scientists from the European countries could not achieve the success he received. James Clark Maxwell had propounded the principle of electromagnetic waves and he needed to verify it through experiments. Till then no one in the world had generated microwaves. This was done by Jagadish Chandra for the first time in the world. He then went to London and presented his research there. However, Marconi later received the Nobel prize for the invention

Jagadish Chandra reiterated the fact that if we do not succeed in creating knowledge, we would not be honoured in the world. The British wanted to suppress this. Today, he is not only called the 'father of microwave' but also the 'father of Biophysics'. He is also considered the father of Plant Neurobiology. Jagadish Chandra can also be considered the 'father of Chronobiology', which is an emerging field. The 2017 Nobel Prize was awarded in this, and it involves researches on circadian rhythm. It was Bose who had studied this for the first time. He was the first to imagine that plants also sleep. Today the modern science accepts this, but the British tried to suppress it with all their might.

Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944)

Acharya PC Ray, the father of Indian chemistry, can also be considered the father of Indian history of science. In 1902 and 1908 he wrote two volumes of History of Hindu Chemistry. The main objective of these volumes was to show that there is a continuous scientific tradition in Chemical science running right from modern period to the medieval and the ancient periods. He also founded the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Limited. He was also a great Sanskrit scholar who translated the twelfth and thirteenth century chemistry texts Rasendra Chintamani and Rasaprakasa Sudhakara.

Ray wrote these books to raise self-esteem in Indian people. One cannot have self-esteem without being self-sufficient. Ray thought of this in 1901. For building modern industries one needs the help of science. In 1892, with a small capital of Rs.700, he established the first swadeshi industry, Bengal Chemical Works. The company initially manufactured herbal products and indigenous medicines. In 1901, the enterprise became a limited company, Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works Ltd (BCPW). This was India's first pharmaceutical company

Ray was a staunch nationalist,and the deterioration of the Indian society due to suppression by the British pained him. He was sympathetic towards the revolutionaries and often provided them shelter and food at his factories. After his death, many revolutionaries and his colleagues mentioned his indirect support and help in manufacturing explosives.The contemporary government records mention him as a "Revolutionary in the garb of a Scientist"

In 1905, the Swadeshi Movement rose against Lord Curzon's proposed division of Bengal. However, scientists like PC Ray had already started the mission to make the country selfreliant, free, and independent in the field of science. Prafulla Chandra met Tata and told him that sulphuric acid was required for the production of steel. The country which produced a large amount of sulphuric acid had bigger GDP. He wanted to produce sulphuric acid in India so that the GDP could be higher.

In 1901 Prafulla Chandra met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time in the house of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Prafulla Chandra developed great reverence for Gandhiji at this very first meeting. Gandhiji's simplicity, patriotism and devotion to duty appealed to him very much. Gandhiji also had great regard for Prafulla Chandra. He knew how hard he worked to help the poor and the needy.

Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray created a new generation of Indians that included Satyendra Nath Bose, Meghnad Saha, Shanthi Swarup Bhatnagar, and Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman. These luminaries dedicated their lives developing science in the country. This second generation of the scientists made the Golden Period of Indian Science a reality. From 1910 to 1930, the modern science rose to the new heights. In 1924 Satyendra Nath Bose published his research paper which drew Einstein's attention. On the basis of that Bose-Einstein condensate was developed and it helped Quantum Physics immensely. In 1928, Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman presented his research work to the world and received Nobel Prize in 1930. This period is also remembered for other great scientists like Srinivasa Ramanujan, Meghnad Saha, Sisir Kumar Mitra and many more.

(The author is a Sr. Scientist in Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous organisation of the Department of Science & Technology, Govt. of India. Email: nkapoor@nkapoor.gov.in )