Remembering C V Raman 

by B Chandrasekaran - Mar 23, 2019 04:23 PM +05:30 IST
Remembering C V Raman Sir C V Raman pointing to information on a large blackboard as he gives a lecture, 5 August 1958. (Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • Contemporary India has poor memory, and one of the victims of it has been the ideas, the life, the works, and the legacy of Sir C V Raman.

The nation is almost muted on 7 November and 21 November, which are the birth and death anniversaries, respectively, of one of India’s greatest scientists, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970) who won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1930) at the age of 42 "for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the effect named after him". It was said to be a simple experiment which he refused to patent. His Nobel Prize winning research was done on equipment that cost just Rs 500. Within six months of Raman’s discovery of Raman Effect in February 1928, the term “Raman Effect” was coined in Germany by scientists Pringsheim and Rosen.

Unlike others, C V Raman is remembered on the anniversary of his great scientific breakthrough. It is for this the Government of India had declared 28 February as National Science Day in 1986. The theme for the National Science Day this year (2019) was “Science for the People and the People for Science”.

It is here that we find that Raman’s objective of ‘science for people’ is yet to touch upon all the lives in the country and the world.

We need to remind ourselves here of the apathy faced by the legacy of our eminent scientists who had strived for promoting science for economic and social well being of all sections of people. C V Raman and countless other yesteryear scientists, who were acclaimed internationally were ignored at home. The planners who formulated science policies soon after independence unfortunately did not bother to take note of the suggestions of someone like C V Raman.

Making of Nobel Raman

C V Raman was the India’s first and Asian Nobel Laureatein science. Quick reading reveals that scientists around the world were delighted with Raman’s discovery except the elite group of scientists known as Calcutta-Allahabad School of Science!! Raman was nominated 10 times either as single candidate or along with others scientists for the award of Nobel Prize in physics, Raman works published in the period 1907-1917 was entirely out of his spare time! In this period, he published 30 research papers in journals like Nature, Philosophical Magazine and Physical Review on original works he had done in physics, in addition to his job at the Finance Department in the British Raj. Over the years he trained hundreds of students and many of them went on to do groundbreaking works on various aspects of physics.

At the age of 14, Raman completed his B A degree in Presidency College, Madras with English and Physics; in both subjects he secured gold medals. During his Master Degree in the same college, he had begun to work on research problems. He obtained the highest distinctions in M A degree in physics. He was barely 18 years old when he published his first research paper in 1906, in the November issue of Philosophical Magazine. Thereafter, very soon he also published another paper in the Nature.

In 1907, Raman joined Financial Civil Service with First Rank in the exam. He was first posted in Calcutta as Assistant Accountant General. Some days later, on his way back from office he figured out the existence of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), founded by Maherdra Lal Sarcar (1833-1904). At first, he was delighted as he was always interested to do research in basic science. But until Raman took over, the IACS was almost dysfunctional in all respects. He revived the IACS by spending 25 years attracting students who came from all over the country to work with institute. Raman was working on his research problems back and forth from office and home and at IACS. In April 1909, he was transferred to Rangoon as Currency Officer and was reposted back to Calcutta in 1911.

During the period 1907-1917, Raman worked with the Finance Department of British Administration in Calcutta. At the same time he had worked independently and established himself as one of the reputed scientists in India and the world. In 1917, Raman resigned from government job and joined as the inaugural Sir Taraknath Palit Professor in Physics in Calcutta University. He was elected as Fellow of Royal Society, London, in 1924 and that followed several other coveted awards/degrees both from India and abroad.

Raman’s work on vibrations of strings of violins and other musical instruments led him to bag the F.R.S. in 1933. He then joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, as its Indian Director. He was forced to resign from IISc directorship on false grounds but remained as professor of physics until his retirement in 1948. He founded Raman Research Institute (RRI) in the same year and remained with RRI in the rest of his life. He tirelessly worked with students and often lectured around the world.

Raman’s Vision of Free Enterprises Systems for Independent India

Sir C V Raman’s thoughts on economic and science policies were quite different from that of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. There seems to strong evidence that Raman’s vision on science policy and its nexus with industrial and social development has continued to be ignored. Raman’s “dissenting voice” on science policy in independent India comprised mainly of his comments on Jawaharlal Nehru’s flawed initiatives of lopsided science policies.

Raman questioned the approach adopted by Nehru and his associates (or “cronies” as Raman called them) to advance science and industrialisation in the country.

Raman’s works in science have more to do with how science contributes to society at large both for peace and prosperity. Raman endorsed the free enterprise economic system over the Soviet style centralised planning. When he visited the United States, he attributed the prosperity and efficiency of the country to the free and unfettered private enterprise and said that that was what was needed for the nation’s prosperity.

Scientist Dhirendra Sharma vividly questioned in his article on “India’s Lopsided Science” (May, 1991) that “why has Indian science, for all its early promise, failed to become a vector of social change? Although it is not easy to do so, much of the blame for this failure must be placed on two men whom history has set on a high pedestal: Homi J. Bhabha, tsar of Indian science policy during the 1950s and 1960s, and his patron, Jawaharlal Nehru.” He further pointed out that “in the days before Indian independence, scientific activity depended mostly on the interest of individuals and required only small funds. In practice, scientific activities were open and universal, and publication of results was considered a scientists most important function. In this situation, Indian, scientists were able to contribute directly to the advancement of science, and they did so. The gap between European and Indian science was relatively small.”

Raman’s biographer Uma says “Raman faulted Nehru for not having the knowledge, the intuition, what you will, to find the right people for the advancement of Indian science” and therefore “Raman felt that newly independent India was taking the wrong road in its science planning and Nehru was responsible for it”. According to Uma, Raman rejected the idea of communism and never believed in it. Though he was awarded Lenin Peace Prize in 1957! But this prize was awarded to him “beyond the lines of political ideology” says Uma.

It was not surprise to many in those days that Raman did not attend when he was awarded the First Bharat Ratna in 1954 (jointly with Rajaji), the highest civilian award in the country, due to PhD viva voce of his student at Calcutta.

As Uma points out Nehru was “instrumental in awarding first National Professorship and the Bharat Ratna to Raman. But Raman was of the firm opinion that the government policies being pursued would not benefit scientific progress but merely build facades run by the bureaucracy…Raman felt that Nehru had allowed Indian science to be hijacked by self-serving people who were given control of policy making” and thereby destroyed the zeal and quest for advancing the basic science independently pursued by hundreds of scientists in the country.

Raman wrote quite startlingly in an article published in Indian Express’s Special Issue for August 15, 1952 that “there is a school of thought in our country which regards the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as an example to be quoted and followed on all matters. There is another school which thought not of the same persuasion, is nevertheless largely inclined that way and believes in leveling down as well as leveling up as the pathway to liberty, equality and fraternity, and would label as reactionaries all those who are not prepared to line up with them. Looking round and sizing up the situation, it seems to me that the real changer before our country in the days to come is the crushing down of individual freedom and initiatives by the steam of roller of government authority. Already, we see indications of this in the popularity of legislative measures having an expropriatory character and the passage of taxation and other bills calculated to kill private enterprise in the field of industrial development. To those who have no faith in personal liberty or personal initiative…the way of maximum freedom of the individual is also the way to the maximum prosperity of people. Indeed, democracy without freedom for the individual is a sham and a delusion…nothing in our present set-up in India disturbs me more profoundly than the manner in which the plea of communal justice is allowed to suppressed individuals of particular communities”.

These warnings were miserably ignored by Congress Party under the leadership of both Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi who made catastrophic blunders and led the nation to peril.

Raman envisioned the future of India with science as ultimate antidote to the social and economic ills of the country. He was of the firm view that new knowledge could be amplified in natural sciences if only the scientists are given absolute autonomy to pursue the truthful and self-motivations triggered by complexities of sciences unfettered in nature.

Raman observed (December 1968) that “the simple reason that his is an example of something you do not have to go to the laboratory to see. …And I think it is also an example of the spirit of science. You learn science by keeping your eyes open and ears open and looking around at this world. The real inspiration of science, at least to me, has been essentially the love of nature…To me everything we see is incredible absolutely incredible. We take it all for granted…the essence of the scientific spirit is to look behind and beyond and to realize what a wonderful would we live in. And everything we see presents to us not a subject of curiosity, but a challenge, a challenge to the spirit of man to try to understand something of this vast mystery that surrounds us…The greatest thing in life is not the achievement but the desire to achieve…Ultimately the aim of scientific knowledge is to benefit human life.”

Raman reportedly declined to be a Member of the National Planning Commission set up by the Indian National Congress. He also declined to be on the Board of Scientific and Industrial Research (now CSIR) set up by the Government of India.

Raman believed that scientific excellence was the direct outcome of personal dedication to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Raman’s contributions to Indian science are unfortunately not remembered by everybody, the main reason being that the historians of independent India have done immense injustice by ignoring his vision and ideas.

B Chandrasekaran is interested in studying the history of Indian economic, social, political and scientific development.

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