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ANTENTOP- 02- 2003, # 003

Jagadis Chandra Bose

 

In May 1901 he wrote to his friend Rabindranath Tagore: "...the proprietor of a reputed telegraph company...came himself with a Patent form in hand...He proposed to take half of the profit and finance the business in the bargain. This multi-millionaire came to me abegging. My friend, I wish you could see that terrible attachment for gain in this country, that all engaging lucre, that lust for money and more money. Once caught in that trap there would have been no way out for me."

Exasperated by Bose's "quixotic" approach towards money, two of his lady friends, British-born Margaret Noble (better known as Sister Nivedita) and American-born Mrs Sara Bull on their own initiative obtained in 1904 an American patent in Bose's name (for his " galena single contact-point receiver"). Bose, however, remained unmoved and refused to encash the patent. The irony of the situation seems to have gone unnoticed. Here in Nivedita we have a spiritualist advocating the cause of patents and royalties and a physics professor dismissing the idea. The reason must be sought in their backgrounds: Nivedita was a product of industrial Europe while Bose was a child of the orientalised East. There can be no doubt, as P.C. Ray reminded the audiance assembled in 1916 to greet Bose on his knighthood, that "If he had taken out patents for the apparatus and instruments which he had invented, he could have made millions by their sale". More importantly, he would perhaps have become an Indian role-model for production of wealth through science. As it is, Bose abandoned radio waves altogether, there were no trained students to continue the research; and India's tryst with technical physics came to a premature end.

 
Bose's anti-patent position is explained in his authorised 1920 biography written by his close friend Patrick Geddes, "Simply stated, it is the position of the old rishis of India, of whom he is increasingly recognised by his countrymen as a renewed type, and whose best teaching was ever open to all willing to accept it." Bose carried on his shoulders the full weight of his country's defensiveness. He was the proof,

 

 because proof was needed, that Indians could do modern science. As Tagore wrote to him, Bose was God's instrument in the removal of India’s shame. Bose did not want want to make hay for himself in the European sunshine.        

 It is not often realised that the European recognition won by J.C. Bose and P.C. Ray on the scientific front was the first tangible proof that Indians could be equal to, and command respect from, the Europeans. It thus had  a political dimension. Bose illustrates Henry David Thoreau's aphorism: "A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance", with the added proviso that the same calenderic time can denote different cultural times. For Europe (modern) science was the key to prosperity. To India, science was the cause of its misery and humiliation. Industrialisation artisanised the European society. In contrast, in India, since the new middle class was derived from upper castes, science itself was Brahmanised.


 Insistence on the addition of Bose's name as a foot-note in Marconi's biography will be an exercise in historical nitpicking. There may be some solace in the invention of an unhistorical J.C. Bose who would mirror our current economic and technological frustra- tions. But what is needed is the positioning of J.C. Bose in a temporal context and the discovery of a new J.C. Bose who would be active and relevant in the present context.

Prof Rajesh Kochhar is Director, National Institute of Science, Technology & Development Studies (NISTADS) and Director-in-Charge, National Institute of Science Communication (NISCOM).

Originally published in The Economic Times (18 March 1998) under the tit. "Time warp as an escape from the future"

 

  

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