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Presidency University votes for 3D wall to honour Amartya Sen & Abhijit Banerjee

Varsity debated whether celebration of Nobel would mean disrespect for others

Subhankar Chowdhury Calcutta Published 30.10.19, 08:57 PM
Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen Telegraph Picture

Presidency University had internally debated a fortnight ago whether a 202-year-old institution should do something special to honour two former students, an official said. Those who said “no” were finally outnumbered.

Presidency decided to build a 3D wall with embossed images of Nobel winners Amartya Sen (1998) and Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee (2019) side-by-side in the university’s main building.


The debate has revived after a letter from Sen was published by The Telegraph on Wednesday.

“I am somewhat alarmed to read that my alma mater, Presidency College, is making some very special arrangements to honour the two Nobel Laureates in economics who studied there. Celebrations are typically great fun, and the immediate occasion — Abhijit Banerjee’s getting the Nobel — is a very happy event. (I certainly got much delight from his award). But my pride in my college makes it necessary for me to point out that the social prominence of Nobel should not be, in any way, at the cost of our remembering Presidency’s brilliant intellectual history, going back to Henry Louis Derozio, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Swami Vivekananda, Jagadish Bose, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Subhas Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha, Satyendranath Bose, Prashanta Mahalanobis, Fazlul Haq, Humayun Kabir, Jyoti Basu, Satyajit Ray, and a great many other luminaries. They have had achievements that no social award — the Nobel included — can, in any way, dim. Any new celebratory event should be an occasion to remember the history that makes Presidency stand tall,” Sen wrote.

A Presidency official told Metro on Wednesday they had debated at length between October 15 and 17 the point, which was raised by Sen, in an internal meeting before finalising “some very special arrangements”.

“In the meeting, someone pointed out that Satyajit Ray, also an alumnus from the economics department, had got Oscar in 1992 and in terms of recognition that is as big as the Nobel, if not more. He argued that we should not do anything that would give out the message that Presidency is showing any less regard to these alumni,” said the official.

Another official referred to Meghnad Saha and said the astrophysicist had been nominated for the Nobel as many as seven times.

“Thrice he was nominated when India was under British rule. Satyedranath Bose was also nominated for the Nobel. We should not seem to undermine their achievements while honouring the two Nobel winners,” the official said.

French mathematician Cedric Villani, the 2010 winner of the Fields Medal, an award considered equivalent to the Nobel, had paid his tribute to Bose during his visit to the Presidency campus in September 2016.

Villani had told Metro: “We all know how important Bose, an alumnus of this institution, was as a scientist. There are particles called Bosons — world famous, and a matter of national pride. People will talk about Bosons for thousands of years, even long after these politicians will be forgotten.”

Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis had founded the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta.

In an interview to this newspaper, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee had said last week: “At that time (in the 1950s), if you had to name four world centres of work in statistics and a particular type of mathematics, the ISI was one. Kolmogorov (a Russian mathematician who revolutionised the study of probability) would come there and spend weeks working with people there. It was like the centre of the world. The ISI is the only institution we ever created that was world-dominating.”

Then why did the university settle for a wall of fame for its two Nobel winners?

An official said those in favour of celebration contended that it was “a rarest feat in the country” that a single department of an institute had produced two Nobel winners and the celebration would be a fitting way to recognise this.

“Students studying here are required to be reminded about this recognition. A celebration is a way to convey the message. The university is sticking to the plan of celebration,” said the official.

Contacted, Presidency registrar Debajyoti Konar, who had announced the celebratory plans, declined comment. Vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia could not be contacted.

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