Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Research scholars and Dr Bhabha

One realises one's age when every new occurrence brings back a memory. In this case, the occurrence was the Foundation Day lecture at TIFR this morning by His Excellency A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India. Dr Kalam started his talk by recalling how he had gone through a file at Rashtrapati Bhavan which documented an invitation from Dr Rajendra Prasad, first President of India, to Sir C.V. Raman to receive the Bharat Ratna award. In his reply Raman regretted he could not attend the award ceremony because he was guiding a Research Scholar whose thesis was due for submission. With this story Dr Kalam emphasised the importance of Research Scholars in the scheme of things, and deservedly won the hearts of those who were in the audience today (the rest of his talk was a fairly generic utopian vision of the future).

Now for the memory this brought back to me. A mere fourteen years ago, in the same auditorium, TIFR celebrated its Golden Jubilee with a glittering function that included the then chief minister, Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, and the then union telecommunications minister Sukh Ram who released a postage stamp of TIFR. There were also speeches by TIFR Council Chairman J.J. Bhabha, younger brother of TIFR's late founder, and some other major figures. When about to enter the hall, I discovered that three entire batches of Research Scholars at TIFR were not allowed into the auditorium for the function, supposedly because of a lack of space. In protest I did not enter either, and watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in a lecture room.

Thereafter I penned a somewhat melodramatic missive to our late founder Dr Homi Bhabha and put it up on a notice board in the TIFR lobby. It was removed by the chief security officer who scolded me and warned me not to put it up again. Today he is retired (and moreover Manohar Joshi is in the political wilderness and Sukh Ram has been sentenced to three years in jail for corruption!!) so this may be a reasonable time to exhume the letter. I reproduce it below.

Dear Dr Bhabha

February 9, 1996

Dr Homi J. Bhabha
c/o God

Dear Dr Bhabha

I am writing to tell you about the Golden Jubilee celebration that took place at TIFR this evening. I did not enter the Auditorium, but watched the function from outside on closed-circuit TV. If they have closed-circuit TV in Heaven then you might have seen it yourself, but somehow I think you were not watching.

Dr Bhabha, this was a function on a grand scale. The elaborate arrangements would have impressed you. The dignitaries all looked suitably important and spoke with seriousness (except the Chief Minister, who looked bored but spoke with humour). And the audience contained all the important people in this Institute, in their finest clothes.

Some people were turned away at the door. They had invitation cards, so they thought that they were invited. Not so. There was a complex and subtle system to make sure that only the right people got through.

The cards came in three colours of envelope: white, blue and pink. This meant: big shot, medium shot and small shot. Then the white and pink envelopes were further divided into those with the Stamp and those without. (No, not the postage stamp, that was only worth 2 rupees! The Registrar's Rubber Stamp was priceless.) A foreign visitor to TIFR remarked that this looked like an elaborate caste system.

On a white envelope, the Stamp meant: Big Shot Plus Spouse. That went to Senior Professors, Heads of Sections and Chairmen of Committees, plus some people who did not fit in this list, but were known to be important just by virtue of their importance. It also went to hundreds of non-TIFR people, including army and navy top brass, who came with their spouses.

On the pink envelope, No Stamp meant: "You are invited, but you can't come in." It was actually a non-invitation. So these were the people who got turned away. I was standing near the door and watching their faces.

Who were these people, you might ask. The pink non-invitations were issued to second- and third-year Research Scholars, and later also to Visiting Fellows, after a protest on their behalf. They were also issued to some categories of non-academic staff. (There was still one lower category --- the first-year Research Scholars received NO invitations. They shared this privilege only with the daily-wage workers.)

In particular, Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows who have research publications at TIFR were turned away from the Auditorium. What made the Institute famous in the first place, Dr Bhabha? Sorry if I forget sometimes.

Of course, those who couldn't get in had the option to watch the ceremony outside on closed-circuit TV. But many Research Scholars chose to play cricket instead. Maybe they didn't care enough about the Institute, or maybe they were hiding hurt feelings. Who knows.

I chose not to enter the Auditorium, in sympathy with the non-invited persons. But I was very interested in the programme, and watched every detail on TV. Many of the speakers talked of the bright future of TIFR. They all said very kind words about you, Dr Bhabha. They showered generic praise on your achievements as a scientist, administrator, and man of culture. Your brother said something more precise: that you used to identify talented young persons, and give them the freedom and encouragement to become successful and eminent scientists. He asked a question: What would Dr Homi Bhabha have done if he had been here today?

At that moment a strange idea entered my head. I thought: maybe Dr Homi Bhabha, had he been here today, would have pointed out that the Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows are the future of the Institute. He might have suggested that their pink non-invitations were inappropriate. He might have insisted that the priorities be revised so that the Auditorium could accommodate the future leaders of Indian science. Perhaps he would even have politely asked senior members of the Institute to desist from bringing their families?

Maybe I am wrong, Dr Bhabha. Maybe you would have done something different. But your spirit was definitely not here today, even though most of the talk was about you. Frankly, I feel that the more we talk about you, the less we think for ourselves.

Yours sincerely,
Sunil Mukhi



Gautam said...

I remember this well, since I was one of the Visiting Fellows not to have been invited to the do. Actually, I wasn't terribly concerned or insulted by this since I gauged that it wouldn't be very interesting anyway, but did greatly appreciate the few faculty members - I remember Mohit Randeria as well - who decided to make this an issue of principle, just as you did. Somewhat belatedly, thanks.

vbalki said...

Given this ridiculous exhibition of a feudal hierarchy, I'm glad I didn't follow up on the invitation I got to attend the celebrations, as a Visiting Fellow from the jurassic era...

Sunil Mukhi said...

Balki: If you're referring to the Bhabha Centenary Celebrations held last year, I believe this particular feudal hierarchy had been dismantled by then. TIFR is no longer the way it was in 1996 (the date of the events I described in my posting) and many students were quite pleasantly surprised to realise this.

I believe one of the steps in undoing the horror of 1996 came about in 2001, during the Strings 2001 conference, when we had to figure out how to allot passes for the public lecture series by Gross, Witten and Hawking. On this occasion we risked (and got) some unpopularity with the faculty by insisting that one pass each would first go to ALL scientists at TIFR, students included, and only on the last day were a few leftover passes released for people to bring a family member.

So it can be done -- and even when the speakers (listed above) are somewhat more of an attraction than Manohar Joshi and Sukh Ram!

vbalki said...

No, I was referring to something I vaguely recall as 'Vijayeta'
or something, many years ago---maybe 1996?

Anyway, it's good to hear that feudalism has been given the burial it deserves.