Meghnad Saha : The Ambedkar of Modern Indian Science

The Golden era of modern Indian Science in the first three decades of the twentieth century had a Dalit star also in the form of Meghnad Saha. His contribution to astrophysics, made while he was still in his twenties, was path breaking, as it made it possible to study the spectra of radiation from the stars to know more about their composition. So important was his contribution that he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1927. He rarely specifically raised the issue of caste oppression, even though he suffered from it to a great extent throughout his life, as  he believed that this would be better overcome by the spread of science in Indian society and so he strove all his life to achieve that.

He was born in a village, in what is now Bangladesh, in 1893 in the Dalit Namashudra caste in a poor family. In those days there was no free schooling and so his father, who was a small time grocer, was reluctant to send him to school. However, a relative provided some help and he went to school first in his village and later in Dacca and thereafter got scholarships on the basis of his excellent results to study mathematics in Presidency College in Kolkata. He switched to physics after completing his masters and thereafter went to the United Kingdom for further studies and research. After coming back to India he got a job as a teacher in Kolkata University and began working in the area of astrophysics making seminal contributions in that field. He was of the opinion that path breaking fundamental research in science can only be done if the scientists made their own research equipment instead of importing them from abroad. This brought him into conflict with the Nobel Laureate C V Raman who not only opposed sanction of university funds for his instrument making but even prevented the American Nobel Laureate physicist, Robert Millikan, from giving funds to Saha. So Saha accepted the offer of the University of Allahabad to head its department of physics and began his research and instrumentation there. The mass spectroscope that he built there is still in use today.

Throughout his school and college days Meghnad Saha had often to suffer untouchability and this continued even after he became a teacher and researcher. He had a particularly tough time in Allahabad because of the greater casteism that prevailed there as compared to Bengal. So unlike other Indian scientists he did not remain content to do scientific research only but drawing from his own difficult experience of school and college, began working to popularise teaching and research in science. He said that given the very low level of education right from schools to colleges, India had a very poor scientific base and human power and this could be rectified only by universalising state sponsored free quality education. He believed that the problems of social and economic oppression and the medieval mindset from which they emanated could be eradicated by the spread of science education at all levels even more than by social and political mobilisation. He also believed that modern industrial development would be necessary for removing poverty but cautioned against a total discard of the traditional methods of agriculture and rural cottage industry.  To this end he founded The National Institute of Science in 1935 and began publishing the journal “Science and Culture” to propagate his views.

Right from his school days he was involved in politics and he took part in the freedom movement and was rusticated from school on a couple of occasions. However, his excellence in studies got him admission in other schools on both occasions. After coming to Kolkata he got involved with the “Anushilan Samiti” which was bent on armed insurrection against the British. Later, he dissociated himself from this organisation because he disliked the casteism that was rampant in its leaders. Instead he joined the Indian National Congress and began lobbying within it for modern industrial development as opposed to Gandhi’s insistence on village industry. He said that while village industry and traditional agriculture would have to continue and be modernised but without modern industrial development, India would fall behind even further from the rest of the world and would not be able to eradicate poverty. So he prevailed upon Subhash Chandra Bose to constitute a National Planning Committee (NPC) within the Congress in 1938 with Jawaharlal Nehru as the Chairperson. This NPC, which had scientists, industrialists and economists, including the Gandhian J C Kumarappa, as members in it, drew up detailed reports for comprehensive planning covering all sectors for self reliant development, which would also ensure the improvement of the economic condition of the masses. Saha was well aware of the fact that industrial development invariably resulted in displacement of people and caused misery to them and so advocated that people living in proximity to the sites of industrial plants must be taken into confidence and compensated and rehabilitated well by the state.

However, after independence the NPC reports were sidelined and instead the recommendations of the “Bombay Plan” proposed by a group of Mumbai industrialists which stressed on Government investment in industrial development at the expense of the masses, who were to be exploited to contribute the surpluses for this development, was pursued. Saha found that his proposals for self reliant development based on a massive expansion of science education to create a wide scientific and technological base were rejected. The industrialists were only interested in earning super profits from the opportunities for import substitution created by tariff barriers and not in ploughing those profits back into research for self reliant developmentt and this greatly disgusted him. Unfortunately, despite many letters written to Nehru criticising these retrograde developments, he could not influence him to adopt his suggestions.

Disillusioned by this, like Ambedkar, he resigned from the Congress and stood for election to the first Lok Sabha in 1951 from the Kolkata Northwest constituency. Unlike Ambedkar who too stood for election from a constituencly reserved for the Dalits in Mumbai and lost, Saha won with a huge majority against the Congress candidate from an open constituency. He  continued his crusade for the spread of scientific education and self reliant technological development in Parliament. He said that the policy of funding exclusive research centres and laboratories while depriving the universities of adequate funds for carrying out research and the lack of a policy of building instruments for conducting this research in India itself, would result in a slow growth of science in India. Later developments have borne him out as India has not been able to produce even one Nobel laureate after independence, has a very low patent count and none of its universities feature in the top two hundred in global rankings. People of Indian origin who have won Nobel Prizes or gained international renown in scientific research, have done so while working in universities abroad. He also suggested that all agreements for building modern steel mills, fertiliser plants, thermal power plants and the like with foreign firms must include a technology transfer cum training component so that India could develop its own expertise in these fields. This too was ignored. He died a disappointed man in 1956 from a cardiac arrest.

Thus, Saha, like Ambedkar, was a crusader for the establishment of an oppression free modern India but unlike the latter he believed more in the power of science than in political organisation and struggle for achieving this. While Saha is well known as a giant of modern Indian science, very few people know that he was a Dalit and that he was perhaps the greatest visionary of modern development in India whose ideas were ignored. Indeed I too came to know that he was a Dalit only last year on reading a book on the history of Indian science. Unfortunately, Saha was unable to get implemented his path breaking ideas for building a self reliant and oppression free India and so we as a country are still languishing at the bottom of global rankings in many per capita human development indicators.

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Rahul Banerjee Written by:

Rahul Banerjee, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (B.Tech in Civil Engineering) and Centre for Environmental Planning and Techonology University, Ahmedabad (Ph.D in Environmental Planning and Management) is a social activist and development researcher. He works along with the Bhil Adivasis (indigenous people) to synthesise their traditional qualities with modern skills and contribute to equitable and sustainable development as architects of their own future. Through the organisations Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, a trade union and Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (dhasgraminvikaskendra.com), a public trust. He blogs at http://anar-kali.blogspot.in/

One Comment

  1. Krishanu Roy
    December 12, 2020
    Reply

    Hi this article is wrong . He was not from Dalit caste, if that is what you are implying.

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