Editorial / Metamorphosis
The good scientist
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / METAMORPHOSIS 
 
 
 
 
Indian politicians tend to mature only with age. They thus tend to make their mark on national life at an age when most people, in other professions, are thinking of the comforts of retirement. A very good example of this trend is the career of Mr L.K.Advani, the Union home minister. Mr Advani, ever since he became politically aware and active, has been a loyal member of the sangh parivar. The notion of Hindutva caught his youthful fancy in the same way as the idea of communism fired the imagination of young men and women across the globe in the Thirties. His performance in electoral politics and on the floor of the Lok Sabha was lacklustre. There were many like him, and quite a few much better than he was. Mr Advani broke out of this groove in the middle Eighties when he embarked on his rath-yatra to rally Hindus all over India under the saffron flag. The results did not look very good on Mr Advani’s curriculum vitae, especially when he became a candidate for India’s prime minister-in- waiting. He became identified, willy-nilly, with the more extreme elements of the sangh parivar, and his name became associated with the destruction of the Babri Masjid and with the communal violence that came in the destruction’s wake. In the public perception, Mr Advani’s name became synonymous with the politics of hate.

Mr Advani’s activities and utterances over the last few months would suggest that he is trying to slough off this image and project himself as a middle-of-the-road responsible politician who can be trusted as a leader not of the Hindus but of India. He has been vocal in advocating the position that being in power in New Delhi means pushing forward not an ideological agenda but a programme of good governance and its implementation. In his statements before the Liberhan commission, Mr Advani has very carefully distanced himself from the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the campaign to build a Ram mandir on the mosque’s site. His utterances show an increasing awareness and respect for the multiracial and multicultural nature of Indian society and for the strand of religious toleration embedded in the Hindu tradition. This idiom is welcome in somebody whose rhetoric, in the days of yore, was always coloured by more extreme ideological positions. Mr Advani, it would appear, has graduated, at long last, from being a militant rabble-rouser to being a statesman with the potential of representing India.

Such a conclusion is strengthened by Mr Advani’s performance in the United States of America where, even his critics will admit, he did not utter a phrase out of place. Advani watchers have also noted his willingness to come out these days to dinner parties and social gatherings. Mr Advani’s world has, presumably, moved beyond the enjoyment of the Bollywood blockbuster. All these are very good signs for those who do not want to see Mr Advani as India’s permanent prime minister-in-waiting. Among his critics there will be the hope that Mr Advani’s recent discovery of the world beyond the saffron flag will have a lasting impact on his consciousness and career.

   

 
 
THE GOOD SCIENTIST 
 
 
BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA
 
 
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.

[email protected]

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

A friend in deed

Undoubtedly the lady’s man. As war diaries come to light, the woman factor seems to have saved K Govindacharya from political death as surely as it had once assured his political oblivion. The sangh parivar retraced its decision to strip the former BJP gen-sec of his last honour of being a RSS activist with the same speed that it had announced it. Apparently, this flip-flop was the result of a tug of war between two ministries of the Vajpayee regime, one of them, hold your breath, headed by a lady. According to her camp, the plan to snub Govindacharya — who incidentally had been in hiding ever since the mukhota episode, barring the time he surfaced to recall his love story with another fiery sanyasin — had been hatched at 9, Ashoka Road, at the behest of a powerful man. But the benefactress seems to have played her cards well. She simply refused to campaign in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP is still desperately looking for people to hold its flag high. The pressure worked. Last heard, there were also promises from the parivar for Govindacharya’s rehabilitation. But that is for now. What after the UP elections? Will Govindacharya be fetched from his cave?

Who’ll bring down this chief?

Another man waiting to reach his political end is Rajnath Singh, the UP chief, who claims that he will form the next government in the state. The BJP Brahmin lobby has other things in mind. The four top Brahmins in UP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi, Kalraj Mishra and Kesrinath Tripathi have reportedly assured Singh’s bete noire, Mayavati, to stay relaxed. They would accept her with open arms as UP’s CM if there were a hung assembly. All four are said to be in direct touch with the Shahnaz Husain treated leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party. But why the peccadilloes? That is because the BJP top gun wishes to clip the wings of a CM who is soaring high. Another man who apparently thinks the same way is the Haryana CM, Om Prakash Chauthala, who is trying to work out an alliance with Mayavati in UP, where he has plans of fielding candidates in some 168 seats. The beginning of the end, Singh?

Inviting a trouble

Madam is extremely upset. Not so much with the condition of the country as with the BJP government’s not inviting her to the major functions connected with the visits of foreign dignitaries. The Vajpayee camp, not unsurprisingly, has a different story to tell. It believes that whenever the leader of the opposition has been invited, she has sent someone in her stead. So last week, the South Block asked Ambika Soni to attend an important function instead of madam. The AICC chief is said to have been made deeply unhappy by the gesture. While Soni made profuse apologies to madam, one of Sonia’s emissaries went to AB Vajpayee to find out about the communication gap. Vajpayee doesn’t seem to have picked up any of madam’s public relations art. Remember Sonia’s famous phone call to Vajpayee on December 13?

Small package from India

While there was actually nothing exemplary about LK Advani’s almost monosyllabic response to all questions at the US of A — “cross-border terrorism” — the travel group was. Prabhu Chawla, group editor of the Living Media India Ltd, was the sole journalist accompanying him. All expenses of Chawla will reportedly be borne by his group and not by the government, although in the past scribes accompanying ministers have had their bills paid by the government. And although business and first class passengers are allowed to take a companion at a fraction of the cost of the ticket, no member of Advani’s family is travelling with him. Surely, Advani will not remain very popular among his colleagues.

The flip side of affection

One more exception. Usually, dignitaries never go to airports to receive or see their wards off. KR Narayanan is obviously not like everyone else. He allegedly not only insists on putting his diplomat daughter on her aeroplane, he is also invariably there to receive her whenever she is back from somewhere. The presence of the president quite naturally disturbs the normal functioning of airports. Narayanan, however, seems unfazed. The last time he repeated his act was a few weeks ago when a thick fog delayed the daughter’s plane by over two hours, forcing the president to cool his heels at the VVIP lounge. If only presidents would stop making things more difficult!

Running on prime time

The rather unsavoury drama between the Nehru-Gandhis and the Vadras shows promises of beating Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in the number of episodes. Uncle Vadra is supposed to have said, “Since we have been dubbed as RSSwallahs, we will explore the possibility of teaching the Congress a lesson”. Really, endless possibilities.

How to carry a baby

Endless modern-day problems. Glamorous VJ, Malaika Arora, is apparently wanting to become a mother without spoiling her figure and destroying her career in modelling and films. A long gap from Bollywood might ruin her chances, particularly when sister Amrita is rearing to go. Amrita is said to be interested in a fulltime career in films. A truly modern dilemma.

Footnote / Give me a lift

A place for fanatics. So the existence of Asim Dasgupta in the Writers’ Buildings does not come as a surprise, nor his being a stickler for protocol. There have been innumerable times when he has stopped policemen or employees from having a puff, or yanked out sick personal assistants from VIP lifts. It was natural, therefore, that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should show some concern about how his daughter, Suchetana (who had come visiting), had come to his room. By the VIP lift, was Suchetana’s answer. That was because the DG Dinesh Vajpai, who was also coming up, had asked her to. A concerned father asked the daughter not to do that again. He also instructed his men outside to not pay any special attention to his family. They would have to come up by the ordinary lift, and stand in queue if they had to. A few days later another daughter came visiting her father — Asim Dasgupta. She was seen coming down from his room in the VIP lift. Asim also seems to have had no qualms about his daughter travelling up with him in the same lift. What? Are some daughters more equal than others?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Handful of mud

Sir — India continues to wait for decisive action from Pervez Musharraf on the issue of cross-border terrorism. While the diplomatic campaign has been long drawn out, it has been gratifying to note the dignity with which Indian politicians have portrayed Musharraf. This is in stark contrast to Israel’s presentation of Yasser Arafat, recently described as a liar by the justice minister, Meir Sheetrit (“Israel minister calls Arafat a cheat, liar”, Jan 9). Hardly a helpful strategy for reducing tension. One hopes our leaders will avoid such mud-slinging.

Yours faithfully,
Jayanta Sinha, Patna

Everyday terror

Sir — Another day of hopelessness, another day of crores of rupees going down the drain, another unproductive day: another bandh (“Bandh hit or flop, Mamata is a loser”, Jan 10) If the attack on Parliament was an assault on democracy then what is a bandh? Isn’t it an attack on democracy when a handful of unproductive people dictate to so many productive people? Isn’t it a dictatorship when an efficient worker cannot think of adding value to his nation because some organization has threatened him with dire consequences if he leaves the house?

Let’s ask the organizers what purpose a bandh serves apart from fulfilment of political ambitions. Let’s talk of a rickshaw puller who lives hand to mouth, toils hard everyday to feed his family. He will tell you that a bandh is a curse, it keeps him and his family hungry. Why is he being penalized for an increase in the power tariff when probably he doesn’t even use electricity? We belong to the country of Gandhis and Nehrus, but nobody draws from their teachings that there can be a salient and efficient way of protest without disrupting normal lives.

How can our government allow a bandh when there’s a clear high court ruling declaring them illegal? It becomes a moral responsibility for us, the citizens, to shun this malpractice by continuing with normal life, as well for the government, to crack down on such organizations. If banning organizations for terrorism is a good idea then why not ban organizations which call bandhs? True, we are the citizens of a free country and can do anything we like. But if any free act of ours hurts even a single citizen in moral, financial or physical terms, then such acts of freedom must be opposed with an iron hand.

Yours faithfully,
Asheem Kapoor, Calcutta

Sir — Thank goodness Mamata Banerjee’s party lost in the last polls. I had thought, she is a person with common sense. Her actions, particularly since losing her job at New Delhi, seem to belie even that simple expectation from a politician. Does she not know that a bandh is enforced by people who have nothing else to do, by those individuals who are functionally illiterate or unemployed (“Bandh hit or flop, Mamata is a loser”)? The people who enforce bandhs are neither believers in democracy, nor freedom fighters: they and the parties supporting bandhs are just terrorists. Seen like this, it is not a far fetched analogy to compare the bandh organizers with the taliban: they can both be accused of terrorizing peace loving people. When will we wake up?

Yours faithfully,
Debu Sen, Cambridge, US

Parting shot

Sir — The common European currency has proved again how homogenous European culture is in comparison to that of Asia or Latin America (“Europe enters a new coin-age”, Jan 1). Diversity of race, religion, culture and the enormous size of the Asian continent may be preventing us from having a common currency, or even a “union” of nations. We may never get beyond a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, an Association of South East Asian Nations or the Asian Games. But it is exactly these diversities that make Asia so interesting and unique.

Yours faithfully,
Indrani Bhattacharya,Howrah

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