This is neither an attempt to provide a short summary of Prafulla Chandra’s biography, nor an account of his chemistry research. These will not do justice to the man who confessed that he “became a chemist by mere accident”.
Instead, let us look at his views on education and to a lesser extent, economy. He correctly identified many of the problems of Bengal and Bengalis and prescribed several methods to remedy them. It is lamentable that eight decades after the publication of the first volume of Life and Experiences of A Bengali Chemist, a large number of those problems endure and continue to plague the people and the state, showing that little has been done to provide remedies.
In spite of being a professor in both Presidency College and Calcutta University, he had a low opinion of university education, calling them “factories for mass production of graduates”. He mentions a “degree-hunting mania” that plagues the people of the country, leading to a “colossal waste of energy and national intelligence “since the degree-holders are little better than “licensed” ignoramuses who know little and “care to know less beyond the irreducible minimum required for passing the examination”. He then proceeds to cite data indicating that only two-three per cent degree-holders are absorbed “in the services and the professions” and the remaining 97 per cent “enter the world utterly unfit for the battle of life”.
He also cites the massive expense the state has to bear in order to provide subsidised university education in order to cater to this 97 per cent. He goes on to say: “If those students who now go to a university or a college without being really fitted for higher work, were diverted in large numbers at an earlier stage to careers better suited to their capacity, money would be set free for more profitable educational uses, and the training of the best men could be appreciably improved. The overcrowding of universities and colleges by men of whom a large number fail and for whom there is no demand had vitally affected the quality of university education.”
He thus spoke against the system of averaging that seems to define Indian education, where people only seek to bring everyone to the average level without giving any regard to creativity, individualism and talent. One may argue that opportunities have increased a lot since 1932 but so has the number of colleges and universities. In a hurry to give “education” to the maximum number, policy-makers are ignoring the utility of such “education” and the extent to which quality has been compromised.
It’s a shame that no person working in Independent India won a Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or physiology (both Ronald Ross and C.V. Raman worked in British India while S. Chandrasekhar, H.G. Khorana and V. Ramakrishnan all won it for work done outside India).
We only seem to care about getting into one college or the other (preferably an engineering or medical college), without any thought about the quality of education or career prospects. Many of us do not even know what we want, though we are certainly good at passing vague ideas and conceptions of relations and neighbours as our reasons. Very few actually research the ground situation before signing up for a particular course in a particular institution. It’s no surprise that India is super-saturated with people without any practical knowledge about their fields.
There are other aspects of the education sector in India that he found troubling. Chief amongst them was the fact that people were unwilling to donate to educational institutions. He mentions the donations made by the alumni to their alma mater in the west, which is an important source for university funds. He contrasts it with India where rich merchants are willing to spend millions on marriages and religious ceremonies but grudge small donations to schools and colleges. He does cite Sir Taraknath Palit and Sir Rash Behari Ghosh as rare exceptions of individuals who donated their whole life’s savings to Calcutta University, but laments the fact that few high-earning alumni bother to contribute. He also had little faith in the notion of technology preceding industry, considering it to be as ridiculous as the cart pulling the horse.
Perhaps Prafulla Chandra is best known for his views on entrepreneurship and industry. He firmly believed that no race could actually progress without entrepreneurship and industrial development, citing examples illustrating the development in Japan, West Europe and America.
He gives considerable space to Japan, our neighbour in Asia that has made immense progress. He mentions how Japan developed Industry, by giving full control of the plant to experienced foreign manager to whom a Japanese assistant was assigned, whose main duty was to learn to do the job as well as the westerner and thus take over in future.
Though he places the lion’s share of blame at the door of the British (for not doing enough to help Indian industries grow), he is also quick to illustrate several of our own failings and show how our situation has actually worsened with time.
There is a tendency to label APC Ray a regionalist. His writings however, do not appear to indicate such an attitude. It’s true that he wanted Bengal to progress but his writings do not encourage bias and prejudice. Admittedly, his assessment of the status of Bengal and its people is hardly very positive but it is not exactly undeserved. The treatment he prescribes is rather harsh and unpalatable for most people leading stable, secure lives and unwilling to improve their lot.
It’s easier to play the role of the noble nationalist who disagrees with “regionalistic” sentiments about improving the conditions of one state. However, they conveniently choose to forget that Bengal too is a part of India and Bengal’s progress is a part of India’s progress. If we refuse to move on with the rest of the country, we will end up holding India back, which should not agree with any “nationalistic” view.
Prafulla Chandra’s views are still very relevant. He diagnosed many of the diseases that had plagued Bengal, several of which sadly have continued into the present age. The only difference is that the buck can no longer be passed to the British and we ourselves must take responsibility for our failings
Diptarka Hait, a winner of two golds and a silver at the International Chemistry Olympiad, lives in GD Block. He is headed for Massachu-setts Institute of Technology in the US for higher studies.