A Lesser Known Story Of A Glorious Triumvirate

Amal Chakraborti

A monk, a businessman and a disciple laid the foundation of Science and Technology in India.

Success in science and technology programmes in the fields of space, defence, atomic energy, agriculture and biology will surely make every Indian proud. But little do we know about the contribution of those great men, who more than a century back, had dreamt of a developed India through various missions in science and technology. Interestingly, many of the visionaries didn’t have any scientific background, but their determination, commitment and love for the nation made them fight against all odds and establish a strong base in science and technology in India, keeping pace with the advancement of civilisation.

One such story of seminal initiative is that of a triumvirate – a monk, a businessman and a disciple.

A chance meeting

Those who believe in destiny will relish it. Those who don’t, may ask an expert statistician to calculate the probability of a meeting between two individuals of diverse interests, far away from our mainland, on the majestic promenade deck of the luxurious steamship – S S Empress of India, sailing across the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean. The two wrote the script of developed India, about a century ago when Indians were struggling under the foreign yoke.

SS Empress of India embarked upon the historic voyage on 31st May 1883 from the port of Yokohama on its way to Vancouver. The monk was none other than the youthful Swami Vivekananda in saffron robes and a turban, tied in Rajasthani style, and the businessman was middle-aged Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, hailing from a Parsi Zoroastrian family. They had met by a strange twist of fate on the deck of SS Empress, owned by Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. While discussing about the purpose of his visit, Vivekananda explained his mission to preach about universality of all religions in America and his scheduled address on 11th September 1983 at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago Art Institute. Jamshetji, in turn confided about his plans to secure steel manufacturing technology from abroad.

Alasinga Perumal, the dearest disciple of Vivekananda from Triplicane, had proposed to Swamiji that he should attend the Parliament though at some point, perhaps, he had considered about making the trip himself. Later, he changed his mind and considered Vivekananda to be a far more suitable candidate. Funds for the trip was collected by Perumal, especially from the poor, as instructed by Vivekananda, and also from the princely states of Mysore, Khetri, Ramnad, Nizam of Hyderabad and other individual donors. It was Maharaja Ajit Singh Bahadur of the princely state of Khetri, who proposed the name, ‛Swami Vivekananda’ – ‘the bliss of discerning wisdom’ to Narendra.

During the voyage, the monk and the entrepreneur discussed a wide range of subjects that included philosophy, metaphysics, sufferings of their countrymen and plans to build the nation strong, spiritually and scientifically. Later, these conversations were the subject of research for scholars. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India wrote: “Swami Vivekananda blessed him. He suggested steel technology had two components – one is steel science and the other is manufacturing technology. What you can bring in the country is material technology – you have to build material science within the country.” Viveknanda had also suggested, “How wonderful it would be if we could combine the scientific and technical achievement of the West with asceticism and humanism of India.”

On 25th July, they disembarked at Vancouver and took leave of each other. They never met again.

Monk ignited the businessman’s mind

Though the two were no longer in touch but the advice of the monk kept resonating in Jamshetsji’s mind with the idea of creating an institute to combine spirituality and science for building modern India. Sourcing of funds, and, thereafter, to ensure its continuity, were major issues. Jamshetji had few friends to help him prepare the draft plan. Notable amongst them were his scholarly friend Burjorji Jamspji Padshah and his sister Jerbai. In November 1898, after a gap of five years Jamshteji wrote to Vivekananda about the plan to set up the institute, and invited him to take lead.

Jamshetji wrote: “I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read. It seems to me that no better use can be made of the ascetic spirit than the establishment of monasteries or residential halls for men dominated by this spirit, where they should live with ordinary decency and devote their lives to the cultivation of sciences –natural and humanistic. I am of opinion that, if such a crusade in favour of an asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science, and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda. Do you think you would care to apply yourself to the mission of galvanizing into life our ancient traditions in this respect? Perhaps, you had better begin with a fiery pamphlet rousing our people in this matter. I would cheerfully defray all the expenses of publication.”

Vivekananda declined due to his active involvement in setting up the Ramakrishna Mission. His deteriorating health too did not allow frequent travelling.

Arrival of the disciple

Margaret Elizabeth Nobel, a Scots-Irish social worker, author and teacher, came to Kolkata in 1898. She had met Swami Vivekananda for the first time in 1885 in London. It was also a chance meeting. She wrote to a friend about this meeting:

Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something. I always said that a call would come. And it did. But if I had known more of life, I doubt whether, when the time will come, I should certainly have recognised it. …. The arrow has found its place in the bow. But if he had not come! If he had meditated on the Himalayan peaks! I, for one, had never been here.”

Vivekananda asked Sister Nivedita to follow up the matter with Jamshetji and his team.

The brilliant proposal meets its first roadblock

The draft proposal was prepared by Jamshetji and his team in keeping with the vision and advice of Vivekananda. This was perhaps the most brilliant proposal ever made for an academy where the students would be taught philosophy, metaphysics, psychology and ethics along with natural and biological sciences.

Jamshetji and Padshah met the Viceroy Lord Curzon on 31st December 1898, the very next day of his arrival in India. The proposal was rejected by Viceroy, stating that it is impractical to teach philosophy and metaphysics along with science subjects. The Viceroy also questioned about steady flow of students, job opportunity for the students after finishing their studies, and availability of competent teachers. Jamshetji was disheartened, and quickly sent Padshah and his sister, Jerbai to Kolkata to seek Vivekananda’s advice. Sister Nivedita held discussion with the team and decided to write articles in the newspaper, and meet several intellectuals both in India and England for a wider publicity of this grand initiative.

Jamsetji and his team never gave up

It is surprising but understandable, that under British rule no Government approval was required to start an industry or business as it added to the revenue, but opening an academy required mandatory approval of the Government. The idea of this institute was not only rejected by the authorities, but also was not favoured by many British intellectuals. Perhaps, the British was concerned about growing number of talented Indian youths such as Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, Dr Mahendralal Sarkar (established Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in 1876), Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy and so on.

Jamshetji wanted the institute to be run by a joint trust for three major advantages- guaranteed minimum income, absorbing the depreciation and the prospect of increment of the income. Though Jamshetji very categorically indicated that the Tata family will not interfere in the running of the academy, the Government insisted that the family settlement and the endowment of the academy should be delinked. Jamshetji accepted it and submitted the revised proposal.

The revised proposal was discussed in October 1899 at Simla conference. Thomas Raleigh was the chairman. Major recommendations included priority to scientific, technical and medical branches, that the title will be an ‘Institute in place of an University’ and a bill was to be enacted by Government of India in support of the scheme. The generosity and public spirit displayed by Tata were appreciated.

A Provisional Committee was set up by Jamshetji following the advice of Vivekananada. The Provisional Committee, with the approval of the Government, invited Prof. William Ramsey, of University College, London to review the proposal. Prof. Ramsey visited India for two months in December 1900 and studied the proposal. (Prof. Ramsey, an outstanding chemist, was Knighted later, and received Nobel prize in 1904 for discovery of Inert gas).

Prof. Ramsey’s report included following recommendations: liberal scholarship of Rs 40 to Rs 50 per month for the students, industrial units will be created while training young men which, if commercially successful, could be managed by junior faculty and students. They could eventually leave the institute and become proprietor, managers and scientific consultant.

The departments recommended by Prof. Ramsey included general chemistry, engineering technology and industrial bacteriology, electrical department with practical training in large industry like Siemens. The primary objective of the institute would be to start as a school for experimental sciences.

Delaying Tactics

Despite strong recommendations made by Simla Conference for enacting necessary legislation, there was no progress in next three years. Swami Vivekanada passed away on 4th July 1902. BJ Padshah, the scholarly friend of Jamshetji, wrote a very strong letter to HH Risley, Secretary of Govt. of India, stating that:“An institute at Bangalore, step-mothered by the Government, may languish for lack of fund, students, appliances and professors, if all are seduced from it by institutions of same kind handsomely planted somewhere.” Lord Curzon was unhappy with such remarks. Prof. Ramsey wrote to Lord Curzon,“ it appears to me that matters are not progressing as they should…”

The proposal got into two major hurdles. Firstly, the bureaucratic loop, and secondly, many in the Government didn’t like the ambitious proposal of Prof. Ramsey which could benefit Indian academia, industry and the people of India in a big way. There was an urgent necessity to attract the attention of intellectual community within the country and in England.

Part of the story of IISc. is buried in Kolkata

Sister Nivedita took a lead role to campaign in support of the Institute in India and England. An interesting article,‘IISc looks to Belur for seeds’ by Anil Budur Lulla was published in The Telegraph, 3rd September 2007. S Venkadesan, IISc chief librarian, believed that part of the IISc’s history is buried in Calcutta. Venkadesan commented, “As the then Indian capital had many scientists, we are quite sure that if old published works are dusted down from the shelves, the IISc’s history will become clearer.”

When the movement for establishing a world-class science institute grew stronger with support from Sister Nivedita and Bengali intellectuals, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India opposed it.These developments were reported in the Bengali and English press of that time.

It is very surprising that Jamshetji, the great philanthropist, and one of the pioneers to build modern India, was not spared by a section of intellectual community. Articles appeared in the newspapers maligning, him questioning his intention or business interest in creating such an institution. Sister Nivedita opposed such views strongly and wrote many articles in The Statesman drawing the attention of the intellectual community.

In 1890 Vivekananda had visited England accompanied by Swami Turyananda and Sister Nivedita. The latter knew many of the intellectuals and important personalities in England. She along with her friend, Ole Sera Bull, a disciple of Vivekanada, organised several gatherings. In one such gathering, Sir George Birdwood, a key figure in the education department was invited. After discussing some other issues, the proposal of the institute was presented. Birdwood rejected it stating that it is not possible for an Indian to run such institute. He argued that universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were in bad shape and failed to produce a good student. Sister Niveditda dispelled his wrong impression by citing the example of JC Bose who already presented a paper in the Science Congress in Paris.

Nivedita was not discouraged and went on writing letters to create public opinion. She received encouraging replies, notably from William James, the celebrated psychologist and Patrick Geddes, the famous town planner, biologist and educationist ( who later wrote the biography of JC Bose).

Jamshetji was not fortunate enough to see his dream institute turn into reality. He died in Germany on 19th May 1904. The proposal was still pending, mired in the messy bureaucratic network. However, pressure was mounted on the Government of India through the untiring efforts of Padshah, supported by the relentless campaign by Nivedita and other intellectuals in Calcutta and England.

Light at the end of the tunnel

It took thirteen long gruelling years but finally it happened. The proposal to establish The Indian Institute of Science was approved by Viceroy Lord Minto. Government of India published the resolution on 27th May 1909 which contained the scheme of administration, management of the properties and the fund of the institute. Accompanying the resolution was the Vesting Order. Sir Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, Maharajara of Mysore and a disciple of Vivekanada, donated 372 acres of land to set up the institute in Bangalore.

On July 24th, the first batch of students was admitted in the department of general and applied chemistry under Norman Rudolf and electro-technology under Alfred Hay. Between 1909 and 1947, the institute had five eminent scientists as its directors, namely, Sir Morris A Travers, Sir AG Broune, Sir MO Foster, Sir C V Raman and Sir J C Ghosh.

Today, IISc is the premier institute of our country. It has made exemplary contribution in advancement of science and technology, particularly in the major national programmes of aerospace, defence and other core sectors. Two other premier institutes that followed IISc are Tata Institute of Social Sciences (1936) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (1945). It is indeed strange that a chance meeting of two brilliant minds marked the beginning of India’s journey towards advancement of science and technology.

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