There is no better occasion for recalling the contribution of stalwarts of the Panjab University to the enrichment of scientific tradition in India than the 150th birth anniversary of Ruchi Ram Sahni (1863-1948) - a moderniser and a pioneer in the popularisation of science in this region. Having a reputation for 'muscle and brawn' culture, Punjabis have been undervalued as intellectuals.
Formally established in 1882, the Panjab University underwent a fairly long process of growth and expansion. Before partition the development of modern sciences at the university demonstrated clearly that a number of constraints such as the imperialist ideology and goals, as well as the lack of grants for establishing science departments and building the essential infrastructure had slowed down the process of diffusion and cultivation of scientific knowledge in India.
Despite these handicaps, a number of talented Punjabi young men worked hard to contribute substantially to the growth of sciences, particularly in the fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, botany and zoology globally. It also includes the contribution of those scientists who joined various departments of science and enriched the legacy of their teachers through their scholarly works in the post-partition phase of the Panjab University despite problems of dislocation, rehabilitation in a new environment and resource-crunch.
Sahni, an alumnus and later a teacher at the Government College, Lahore, has recently been retrieved from obscurity for his innovative contribution to the popularisation of science in pre-Independence India. Professor JC Oman, who established the departments of physics and chemistry in that college, not only influenced Sahni deeply, but also helped to shape his professional career. Despite Sahni's deep interest in mathematics, he had been motivated to choose physics and chemistry for his MA.
On his mentor's advice, Sahni joined the meteorological department and worked under Sir HF Blanford (brother of Sir WT Blanford of the Geological Survey of India). The Pioneer of Allahabad carried articles criticising his appointment, arguing that Indians were not fit for such a prestigious responsibility, which involved the preparation of 'daily' and 'monthly' reports. His critics were silenced when he carried out his duties efficiently, and also predicted an impending cyclone originating in the Bay of Bengal.
For many Indians, including Sahni, living in a big city like Kolkata was in itself a continuous source of inspiration. It proved useful in two ways. First, his interest in chemistry grew into a passion under the inspiring guidance of Professor Alexander Pedler in the classroom and laboratory of the Presidency College, where he was a student. During this period, he not only forged a lifelong association with his aforesaid mentor, but also with his class fellow Ashutosh Mukherjee, who later became the vice chancellor of the Calcutta University.
Second, the idea of his future role as a crusader for scientific awareness crystallised while listening to the public lectures of Jagadish Chandra Bose, PC Ray and Father E Lafont at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta. This institute inspired Sahni to set up the Punjab Science Institute in collaboration with JC Oman, his colleague at the Government College, Lahore, in 1885.
The original aim and objective of this institute was the popularisation of all kinds of scientific knowledge throughout the Punjab by means of lectures (in both English and vernacular languages) illustrated with experiments and lantern slides, as well as publication of tracts.
Among other notable scientists who were also the alumni of the Panjab University, Lahore, but did not have a long stint as either teachers or researchers were Piara Singh Gill, Sunder Singh Hora and Karm Narayan Bahl.
Scientists from the Panjab University had distinguished themselves at the national and the international level. Indeed, they had advanced the cause of scientific knowledge in various fields. We are here to celebrate their contribution.