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Why Nobel laureate CV Raman resented Nehru (and even took a public swipe at him)

The physicist’s life was marked by administrative battles, cutthroat rivalries and politics.

The physicist Chandrasekhar Venkataraman became the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences in 1930 at the relatively young age of 42. This feat was all the more remarkable considering the fact that CV Raman had been a professional scientist at the time for barely 13 years – he resigned from the Indian Finance Department in 1917 to accept the Palit Professorship in Physics at Calcutta University. Prior to this, he had devoted much time to research at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. The decades after Raman won the Nobel Prize proved most testing for his administrative abilities, as he sought to build and shape scientific institutions in India.

In 1932, Raman was selected as the first Indian director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. As he began to wrap up affairs in Calcutta, anonymous letters in the press alleged that he favoured South Indians over Bengalis and physics over other disciplines. His decision to appoint KS Krishnan to the newly-created Mahendar Lal Sircar Professorship did not go down well either. Raman and Krishnan had together discovered the so-called Raman Effect. Meghnad Saha, then based in Allahabad, wanted to be picked instead of Krishnan to enable his move to Calcutta – which was becoming known as the metropolis of physics in the colonial world.

In the following year, Raman was mired in controversy once again, when his plans to control the membership of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science were leaked to the press. At the next annual general meeting of the association, Raman was stripped of his secretaryship through a move engineered by Syama Prasad Mookerjee. As his biographer Uma Parameswaran wrote in her book CV Raman: An Autobiography: “The combined forces of Bangla nationalism and individual rivalries exiled Raman from the city he thought of as his own.”

The veteran chemist PC Ray apparently commiserated with Raman’s wife. He said: “My blood rises to fever pitch whenever Bangla nationalism is an issue. If it is so even for me, surely you can understand what it is for all those others when they think that Bangla nationalism is being undermined.”

 Image credit: Videograb via
Image credit: Videograb via

Founded in 1909 in keeping with the then extant idea that chemistry and electricity were heralding a second industrial revolution, the IISc in Bangalore had four departments: Applied Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry and Electro-Technology. With the rising stature of physics in the interwar period, Raman was appointed as director with an explicit remit to set up a Department of Physics. He attempted to recruit German physicists fleeing the new Nazi regime, managing to attract Max Born to Bangalore in 1935 on a temporary readership, which Raman intended to convert into a new chair in Mathematical Physics.

The appointment raised hackles among the faculty. An English professor of Electrical Engineering described Born as a “second-rate foreigner”. Others with nationalist commitments wanted an Indian appointed – Mookerjee, who was on the IISc council, was campaigning for a Bengali candidate.

But the real reason for friction was the resentment building against Raman’s emphasis on physics. Amidst budget cuts in the era of the Great Depression, the physics department was established with a capital that nearly equalled the combined annual contributions of the Tatas, the Government of India and the Government of Mysore to the Institute. The resulting reorganisation of the other departments, together with an emphasis on hands-on workshop training also caused resentment among the the class-conscious faculty members.

Richard Bär with C V Raman. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY public domain]
Richard Bär with C V Raman. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY public domain]

Trial by committee

As Raman scholar Rajinder Singh documented in his book Nobel Laureate CV Raman’s Work on Light Scattering: Historical Contributions to a Scientific Biography, there was much turmoil on campus orchestrated in part by Mookerjee, though Raman’s famously ill-tempered, autocratic and arrogant approach was probably also responsible for some of the antagonism.

It was in this atmosphere that a Viceroy-appointed quinquennial committee to review the IISc went about its work in 1936. The review was routine, but the committee’s report, although it did not directly accuse Raman of any specific wrongdoing (apart, perhaps, from poor financial management), sided with his critics on many issues. The committee argued that the institute was straying from what it saw as Jamsetji Tata’s vision of focusing on applied rather than fundamental research.

The report provided much fodder for Raman’s critics. While Mookerjee tabled a no-confidence motion against Raman’s directorship, only a weaker resolution indicating “strong disapproval” was passed. Raman was eventually forced to resign under humiliating circumstances in 1937 as director, although he continued to teach as a Professor of Physics.

As noted by the physicist-biographer Ganesan Venkataraman in his book Journey Into Light: Life and Science of CV Raman, the review committee had no member recommended by the IISc Council as was customary, lending credence to the notion that its tone, if not it conclusions, were fixed, in a manner of speaking. The institute’s prime benefactors, the Tatas, conscious that some of the British faculty resented taking orders from an Indian, did not want to offend the colonial state by standing with Raman.

Refusal to network

Raman’s life might well be seen as an anachronism in the standard narratives of history of 20th century physics. He spent long years as a hobbyist at a time when science (even in India) was increasingly professionalised, as a classical physicist trying to keep up with quantum physics, and as a low-budget experimenter at a time when experimental physics was making the transition to Big Science or science that requires huge expenditures, machines and large teams of experts (examples include cyclotrons, space rockets and research reactors).

As the historian Jahnavi Phalkey narrates in her book Atomic State, his embryonic attempts at Big Science through a proposal to build a particle accelerator with RS Krishnan in Bangalore in the 1940s came to naught. A report co-authored by Homi J Bhabha played a key role in the rejection. The young, dynamic Bhabha, who was connected to the Tata family and whom Raman had hired just a few years earlier as a reader at the IISc, succeeded where Raman failed – at getting massive state and corporate patronage for Big Science and fundamental research.

Photo credit: Simply Decoded/via
Photo credit: Simply Decoded/via

Unlike many of his contemporaries (most notably, Meghnad Saha), the knighted Raman did not wear his nationalist commitments on his sleeve, having declined to serve on the Congress Party’s Raj-era National Planning Committee. Nevertheless, the new government bestowed the title of National Professor upon him in 1947, just before Raman retired from the IISc in 1948. The title meant that he would receive a full salary for the rest of his life.

This warmth was seldom reciprocated. On a visit to Raman’s laboratory in 1948, Nehru was tricked in front of an audience into identifying copper (glowing under UV rays) as gold. Almost as if he were identifying a character flaw, Raman boomed “Mr Prime Minister, everything that glitters is not gold.”

Raman resented Nehru’s policy of concentrating research in specialised institutions such as the Atomic Research Establishment at Trombay and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories, while apportioning a smaller chunk of research funds to universities. He coined the phrase “Nehru-Bhatnagar effect” to describe the mushrooming of CSIR laboratories in the 1950s, predicting they would achieve little despite the massive sums spent.

Incidentally, the brilliant chemist-bureaucrat Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar had been one of the members of the IISc review committee which had aided his downfall. Feeling vindicated in the late 1960s, Raman quipped that like Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to bury his wife, Bhatnagar built laboratories to bury scientific instruments.

Raman and his wife. Image credit: Videograb via
Raman and his wife. Image credit: Videograb via

But Raman’s critique of Nehruvian science policy went beyond grievances directed at the Bhatnagar-Bhabha axis.

He saw Nehru’s emphasis on “useful applied research” as misplaced, and argued that fundamental science needed to be insulated not just from government, industrial and military pressures but even from instructional pressures. When Nehru called for scientists to step out of their ivory towers, Raman said that the men in the ivory towers mattered the most, they were the “salt of the earth” to whom humanity owed existence and progress.

Science without strings

At least in part due to the previous run-ins with politics and the establishment, Raman was cautious towards all things that had to do with the government – in 1948, he famously rejected generous government funding for the Raman Research Institute that he set up in Bangalore after retirement. Accepting the money would have meant that he was required to send in an annual statement of accounts, which was to him, science with too many strings attached.

Raman’s critique also developed into one against particular features of Big Science. In 1970, a few months before his death, he was asked about Apollo 11’s moon landings. Instead of using the landings as evidence of success to make the case for more funding for science, he said: “Why do they want to waste money going to the moon? Are they not already lunatics?” To him, only those born poor realised the value of money. The affluent threw money away.

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