Every large-scale conference on science usually has a tradition and identity of its own. The Indian Science Congress is no exception. Conceived by Ashutosh Mukherjee, its first session was held in Calcutta in 1914. With time, the structure of the Science Congress changed radically. As the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru took considerable interest in the Science Congress and made sure he attended the first session, which set a new tradition.
The glamour of the prime minister’s presence attracted an unusually large crowd. Unfortunately, over the years another unholy trend changed the nuances of the Congress. It is now the tradition that the prime minister would inaugurate the Congress. The hall or pandal is full at that time. Then, immediately after the prime minister leaves, the delegates start departing in large numbers. After two or three days, the halls turn hauntingly empty. I have experienced this phenomenon quite a few times. It becomes hugely disappointing, if not heart-breaking, especially if one happens to be a speaker. Over the years, I also noticed that quite a few speakers barely make the mark. So, the Indian Science Congress has turned into a huge and not so well-organized mela.
It was abundantly clear, however, that the recent Calcutta Science Congress was a rare exception. It was a historic event. The prime minister himself was the general president, a resounding echo of Nehru chairing the session in the old days and the president of India inaugurating. The wonderful exception, this time, was that most of the delegates stayed back long after the president and prime minister left. I was the first speaker on January 5, with my talk scheduled at nine in the morning. There was the same sinking feeling of expecting poor attendance.
But no, it was full. Braving the cold, lots of old and new people were present. By the time, Rolf Heuer, the director-general of CERN and the last speaker, stopped, the entire pandal had a carnivalesque feel. Despite contrary rumours, all the sessions were almost full. The attendance at A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s session on children’s education, for which I was present as well, was truly historic, with a crowd at least double the capacity of the pandal.
All the sessions I managed to attend had a considerable number of delegates standing patiently, and the level of science being presented, together with the standard of the speakers, was well above average. I am happy and proud to say that the talks were deeply engaging and, hopefully, inspiring for the young — those given by the Nobel Laureates as well as the other delegates, who spoke with serious involvements.
Yes, there were problems. Food ran out at times; some with one food coupon were helping themselves four times at least. Communication was another problem — especially, where to go and how. The scale of this congress was so large that I am tempted to call it “beyond the limit scale”. The level of science was high, the quality of speakers impressive, and nobody died of starvation — and that was the dream Sir Ashutosh had nurtured a hundred years ago. I take this opportunity to thank the organizers and heads of all institutions, who did a splendid job. This congress sticks out as extraordinarily successful if one compares it with the other science congresses I have attended. On January 6, Sushanta Dattagupta, the vice chancellor of Visva-Bharati, organized a session on Tagore and J.C. Bose. The level of erudition, blending science and humanities, was beyond any expectation.
I end by saying “Stop Bengal bashing!”. Bengal can easily still boast of being the cradle of the best scientific and creative minds. This science congress was the litmus test, which Bengal or Calcutta passed brilliantly. It was not really a science congress, but a Science Festival, a celebration of science.