Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee (1901-1953) is very well known as the person who founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951 but what is not so well appreciated are his contributions as an academic, especially in the context of the development and growth of science and technology in modern India.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee was truly a multi-faceted personality, who in his short life span, was deeply involved in an entire gamut of activities that bridged culture, academics, politics and administration.
The continuous thread that ran through all these activities was an intense nationalism, coupled with a strong sense of anti-communalism, for he believed that communalism was the veritable enemy of the larger concept of nation. That he could achieve as much as he did in a working lifespan of just 30 odd years just goes to show that it was this continuing thread of nationalism that inspired and guided him throughout.
He applied this same paradigm of nationalism in each of his seemingly different fields of activity.
On the one hand, it is impossible to view his very considerable contributions to scientific activity in pre- and post-independence times outside of his cultural, political and administrative personae. On the other hand, his political acumen derived substantially from his scientific bent of mind and his experience as an academic: his was an essentially holistic existence with no internal contradictions.
His was truly a fortuitous synergy of nature and nurture. The worthy son of a worthy father, he was born and raised in the cradle of the Bengali renaissance.
Intellectualism was the cry of the hour and he was right there at its very ramparts, the Presidency College and the University of Calcutta. From there, he was able to translate the Bengali identity into a national identity.
This was undoubtedly because of the freedom struggle that was building up to a climax by the 1920s. Bengal by then seemed to be a harbinger of a glorious undivided Bharat, as evidenced by the words of Gopal Krishna Gokhale on Bengali thinking leading the way for India, but tragically the seeds of sorrow had already been laid: Bengal also had the latent features of a divided, partitioned land.
In the end though, Dr. Mookerjee was a pragmatist. When partition did occur 25 years later, he realised that it was the lesser of the evils: he is believed to have said that while the British had partitioned India, he had partitioned Pakistan. The credit for achieving a Hindu-majority West Bengal in an independent India must go to him and to him alone.
Let us now consider his contributions to science or in essence, to the educational system of modern India.
The University of Calcutta was the laboratory for the young Vice Chancellor and many of his experiments and plans for education indicate that he felt strongly that these would be needed in what presumably would soon be a free India.
His ability to look deep into the future gave rise to a proposition for education, which was badly needed in the country. Ironically, this sound proposition is still largely unrealised 70 years after his death, largely because those in authority wilfully ignored many of his wonderful plans and ideas. Because these were never brought properly to fruition we are still grappling with profound issues in the science and education sectors.
We have moved from one educational policy report to the next without addressing the essential issues at a policy level that can be legislated upon and executed.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s ideas contain the kernel of much that needs to be urgently done in the area of higher education.
The Radhakrishnan committee report of 1948 draws considerably in its inspiration from measures that had actually been implemented by Dr. Mookerjee in his tenure as Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University nearly ten years prior to that report. And other reports that have come out from time to time including the present National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 draw heavily from the Radhakrishnan report.
In a sense, much that needs to be done urgently in the aspect of higher education can be taken directly from Dr. Mookerjee’s actions 85 years ago.
Dr. Mookerjee correctly felt, way back in the 1930s, the need for science and technology and their linking with industry. A decade later he was Vice President of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in an independent India in his capacity as our first Minister for Industry and Supply.
In particular, he was responsible for the creation of the National Physical Laboratory, Delhi and the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, Kolkata.
Among the major projects that owe to him directly are the Sindri fertiliser plant, the Chittaranjan Loco Works and the Damodar Valley Project. He rightly observed that industrial development is not conditioned only by research; it is highly dependent on finances, a feature that sadly seems to have escaped many persons in scientifically responsible positions in our government today.
In the post-COVID scenario of 2020, this nearly exclusive dependence on finances is even more true, and the constraints and limitations we face are to that extent all that more formidable.
It is not well known that science departments in our universities were practically unknown in Indian universities till Syama Prasad Mookerjee started introducing them in the University of Calcutta.
While the Science College was already in existence before he became the Vice Chancellor, it is appropriate to mention here that it was he who started the Applied Science departments as also the departments of Anthropology, Botany, Experimental Psychology and Physiology, as well as Zoology. He also emphasised that practical classes are as important as theory lectures.
He did not stop here. To him goes the credit of introducing science subjects down to the Intermediate examination level.
One of the problems we are still struggling with in our education system today is the question of the medium of instruction and what we should use as a link language. Some states have highly polarised positions on this matter even as cool, rational analysis will reveal that the greatest innovations and scientific discoveries in a country are only possible if students have for their medium of instruction, their mother tongue.
That we are still very far away from this ideal is testimony to our lack of dispassionate thinking on the matter.
NEP does raise this issue and recommends that basic primary education should be carried out in the mother tongue or local language.
In the end, say in 10-15 years, we should have education up to the M.A./M.Sc. level in the local language retaining English as the language of high-level communication within and outside the country. Hindi can and will be the link language for ordinary communication between widely diverse parts of the country.
This had been pointed out even by the Radhakrishnan committee. But will the government have the nerve to initiate and pass suitable legislation this this regard?
Any deep-seated structural reform is necessarily disruptive. It is up to the government of the day to convince the people that reform is not possible without disruption and the inevitable pain that accompanies such change.
In today’s context, real reform that leads to big progress simply cannot happen with a system of gradual incremental changes. This is more so true in the education sector, especially with respect to science and technology, where a ruthless prioritisation of quality is needed, even at the expense of (if it comes down to it) quantity.
Quality science can originate from anyone in any walk of society or station in life. It is the duty of the government of the day to be able to identify such quality and suitably nurture it, the so-called needle-in-the-haystack problem.
In this context of the medium of instruction, Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s introduction of Bengali as a language in the core education system must rank as one of his most revolutionary moves in the education sector. It also needs to be mentioned that he specified that English would be a compulsory second language in this scheme of things.
Unless students are taught science in their mother tongues, he averred that science would remain a ‘foreign’ activity that youngsters would tend to avoid.
Today, many students are indeed slightly scared of science. How much of this is due to a simple lack of familiarity with its medium of propagation?
He had a keen eye for public opinion and his inviting Rabindranath Tagore to give his convocation address in Bengali in 1937 was the move of an astute politician. Not many know that he also initiated the use of Bengali in research studies. He went as far as allowing a student to submit a PhD thesis in the Bengali language. Truly, he was a man far ahead of his times.
Dr. Mookerjee believed that education was the strategic first step towards nationalism and he pushed the concept of free and compulsory education for all; according to him education was not the exclusive privilege of the elite.
Among his innovations were the setting up of exchange programmes with scientifically advanced countries which included technical and industrial training and inviting foreign experts to India for shorter and longer spells.
One can easily discern the imprint of such thinking in the setting up of the IITs, and in particular the influence he seems to have had on his illustrious contemporary, Jnan Chandra Ghosh, the founding director the first IIT in Kharagpur.
With regards to medicine and engineering, Dr. Mookerjee revised the syllabi completely so as to extend their range and usefulness.
So many of our leaders since his time have paid but lip service to the employability of science graduates. Syama Prasad Mookerjee on various occasions roused public interest and attention on the paramount necessity of creating new occupation and career opportunities for students.
In this context he was responsible for setting up an Employment Exchange for the University of Calcutta. This idea of setting up a reliable and trustworthy link between the employer and employment seeker really needs to be strengthened in the context of today’s India of 2020.
The list goes on: he proposed for the first time new vocations and avenues for employment in the armed forces, in trade and commerce, and in industry. It is almost as if he, as a Vice Chancellor in pre-independence days, was our minister for science and education in a free India.
Realising the drawbacks of a developing economy, he highlighted the problems of diet, health, hygiene and sanitation as well as the necessity of developing sound agricultural programmes in specialised universities.
He wanted students to explore science and technology with respect to agriculture, so as to increase productive efficiency, and proposed that economics and banking would be very important in relation to foreign trade in a free India.
In many of these suggestions he seems to have inspired another of his eminent contemporaries, Bidhan Chandra Roy.
His efforts both in the University of Calcutta and later as a Union minister to improve library facilities, increase vocational education and college autonomy, make education a mass movement, and empower women through education are too numerous to detail here. Suffice it to say that he considered education, and in particular science education, to be the bedrock of a modern and progressive India.
He envisaged primary education, secondary education, and university research as a seamless whole that was inextricably linked to the development, and strengthening of a feeling, of nationhood.
Contrast this with the artificial and ill-advised separation of teaching and research under the Nehruvian dispensation that has caused incalculable damage in the education sector; damage from which we have still not recovered.
Whom the Gods love, they take away soon and the circumstances of his peculiar death under highly suspicious circumstances are too well known to bear repeating here. And yet, this man of indefatigable energy was able to find the time to synthesise several political thought streams and found a fledgling party in 1951, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which, while it was briefly subsumed into the Janata Party in 1977, metamorphosed into the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980, and which in turn has gone on to become the largest political organisation in the world.
Unless its original founder had a true and correct grasp of the essential character of the inhabitants of this sacred land, it would have been impossible for this party to have gained an absolute majority in our lower house of Parliament in 2014 and even more convincingly in 2019.
And fittingly, with this unquestionable mandate that the people of India have finally given to his political creation, the dreams and aspirations of Syama Prasad Mookerjee in the fields of science and education may yet see realisation in the not too distant future.
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