Saint in the tiger’s shadow

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 08, 2016

The man and his times: An artist’s impression of the interplay of politics and science in the world around JC Bose. Photo: Partha Pratim Sharma   -  Partha Pratim Sharma

Rohit Gupta

Rohit Gupta   -  BUSINESS LINE

A stillborn science during India’s war for Independence

Fire can only sustain itself on Earth as a chain reaction due to the delicate proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere, which emerged in the wake of photosynthetic organisms about 2.3 billion years ago. From the scientific control of air in combustive reactions issued forth the development of powerful explosives, an accelerated kind of fire — which outlined the cataclysms of early 20th century. A convenient list of these can be found in The Explosives Act of 1884, which was meant to regulate “...gunpowder, nitroglycerine, toulene, fulminate of mercury…” and so on.

One of the important chemical documents from the late British Raj is a bomb-making manual, which reached every corner of India thanks to Vinayak Savarkar, the revolutionary who remains a controversial figure to this day. The printing, distribution and aftermath of this 70-page tutorial (acquired by Hem Chandra Kanungo from Nikolai Safransky, a Russian anarchist in Paris) was part of a larger Hindu-German conspiracy which spanned the entire globe. While helping organise rebellious subterfuge against the British, Kaiser Wilhelm II had begun to fancy himself as the future Emperor of “free” India.

Savarkar and his fellow students of chemistry practised the procedures in London itself, at a hostel called India House — where he often emerged “with telltale yellow stains of picric acid on his hands”. These booklets and manifestos were wrapped and smuggled in the jackets of western literature classics such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (a cryptic wordplay on “picric papers” is possible). These DIY recipes used specific materials that could be acquired with relative ease from local sources in India, such as a pharmacy. The unusual bomb that mangled the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge in 1912, for instance, was stuffed with gramophone needles.

The suicidal zeal of the rebels — or ‘terrorists’ as the British police would call them — can be summarised in a war cry by the Jugantar group’s charismatic leader Bagha Jatin, “ Amra morbo/ jagat jaagbe” (We shall die to awaken the world). Having killed a tiger with a knife and his bare hands, he had acquired the nickname ‘Bagha’. Had Jatindranath Mukherjee not fallen in a police encounter, scholars contend, he would have been the Father of the Nation, instead of Mahatma Gandhi.

Some of the explosives were assembled in the laboratory of chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray and physicist JC Bose with their implicit permission, under the direction of Sister Nivedita, leading up to the Alipore bomb case of 1908. Only 11 years ago Bose had demonstrated his radio waves or “invisible light” by exploding a small charge of gunpowder from a distance, by remote control. This raises an interesting question — why were the revolutionaries oblivious to such a mighty and untraceable weapon that could have changed the course of history? A little scientific awareness could have saved these patriot moths from the fire of martyrdom.

Bose himself had turned away from nationalism; electromagnetism was moving beyond invisible waves and invading all matter after the discovery of the electron. Bose was close on the heels of Einstein who explained the photoelectric effect in 1905, only four years after Bose observed it in lead sulphide (galena). It was the flow of electrons in solid state matter that led him to investigate semiconductors, without which the Information Age would be unimaginable. And it was solid matter which led him to investigate the physics of plants. He was no more a physicist; but a cosmologist (wrote physicist DM Bose): “His model of an electric eye which records with electric signals messages received from outside world, his physical model of memory as a mechanism for storing information justified this being considered a precursor of the modern discipline of cybernetics.”

Here was this invisible light of electromagnetic waves, the language of all matter bringing messages across galactic voids into the heart of every living creature. Here was the hidden fire inside every plant and living cell, stirring the cauldron of life. Beyond the human world, the trees themselves were weeping and praying with awareness. Even the stones and the sand were alive, drinking from the rivulets of light flowing from the stars. It was this invisible light that had cast a spell upon the chlorophyll of the first photosynthetic cells 2.3 billion years ago, and the Earth had breathed out oxygen for the first time; the oxygen without which, no Prometheus could steal flames from the Sun.

As the poison of religious nationalism devastates the planet yet again, we should be wiser to remember the words of the man who understood it deeply: “They would be our worst enemy who would wish us to live only on the glories of the past and die off from the face of the earth in sheer passivity. By continuous achievement alone we can justify our great ancestry. We do not honour our ancestors by the false claim that they are omniscient and had nothing more to learn.”

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on July 08, 2016
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