Monthly Archives: October 2017

Google’s thoughtless doodle on Nain Singh, the 19th century camouflaged trans-Himalayan explorer


As a gimmick, Google temporarily amends its logo to commemorate events, anniversaries, and the like. It calls the  altered image a doodle, Google must have a research team at work to identify country-specific dates. It must also have at hand the services of a powerful public relations network, because a new doodle invariably becomes a news story.

The original meaning of doodle is ‘a rough drawing made absent-mindedly’. Google doodles show sophistication in drawing, but can be thoughtless and unhistorical as can be seen from the commemoration of 187th birthday of the trans-Himalayan surveyor, Nain Singh.

The British colonial Empire made use of Indians whenever needed. This role was necessarily marginal. It was exaggerated after Independence, and now in the global age, dominated by Google, it is being unhistoricized as can be seen from the

Trigonometrical Survey of India that began rather modestly in 1800 very soon transcended its colonial utility to emerge as a vast and ambitious exercise of great geographical, geodesic, and geo-political significance. Indians were hired as mathematical calculators but were debarred from actual survey work within the country, for security reasons. There was however one type of survey which the Indians alone could do. And that was clandestine exploration of Trans-Himalayan regions, where Europeans would have been immediately spotted and put to trouble if not death.

The proposal by colonial surveyors  for a systematic clandestine survey of the Trans-Himalayas by the Indians was put forward in 1861. For Tibetan survey Hindus from the mountainous region were chosen because they could pass off as Buddhists while for Central Asia Muslims were the natural choice. With characteristic British thoroughness and disdain, the Indian surveyors were only taught how to take observations, but were not taught how to reduce the data lest they cheated. Although they were given jagirs, scientific medals, and titles like Rai Bahadur and Khan Bahadur, official records did not mention their personal  names. They were referred to as Pundit (irrespective of caste), Havildar, Mirza, etc., or by alphabets and dashes.

Nain Singh was known as the Pundit. His cousin ( not brother as mentioned in records) Kishen Singh was officially known as Krishna. His name was spelt backwards, and the first and the last letter were written down separated by dashes to create his codename: A__k.

On 25 May 1868, Nain Singh was awarded  a gold watch, worth thirty guineas, by the Royal Geographical Society. And yet he was almost irrelevant at the award ceremony. Nain Singh was not named. He was the  ‘wily’ and ‘skilful ‘ ‘Pundit employed by Captain Montgomerie’. The real hero for the Geographical Society was  Montgomery. The Pundit ‘ had proved himself in every way worthy of Captain Montgomerie’s selection’. For this, ‘tribute of gratitude and admiration’ was due to him. Others before him had employed the native agency ‘for the purpose of acquiring political and statistical information’. However, it was Montgomerie, who ‘discovered that they could use a sextant or a theodolite as well as Europeans. That was really a most valuable discovery.’ It was now hoped that further explorations would be carried out by ‘native enterprise directed by English enterprise’. Nain Singh was further honoured in 1877, when  the Society conferred its coveted  Victoria or Patron’s medal .

More substantially, the Government allotted him a jagir in the plains. He was also  created Companion of Indian Empire.

During 1865 and 1866, Nain Singh as a pioneer trans-Himalyan covert explorer made a 1200-mile route survey. During this survey  he traced the route of Brahmaputra from its source near Lake Manasarovar to Lhasa. In addition, he fixed the altitude of 31 distinct locations including Lhasa.  He also made observations of temperature of air and boiling water , by which heights of 33 points were fixed. He also provided  ‘ Notes as to what was seen, and as to the information gathered during the expedition’. For this and subsequent field work, he disguised himself as a Tibetan lama, equipped with a fake rosary and a fake prayer wheel. He had to go to extreme lengths to hide his true identity. He tried to keep aloof from others so that he could focus on counting his paces. He could make his astronomical observations only at night when no one was around.

Nain Singh Rawat’s 187th birthday

Google’s carelessly conceived doodle shows a tall dark man in a European dress, a frock coat and tight trousers. He has a tripod in front of him and is observing the Sun in full glory. If  Nain Singh had dressed like that and observed like that in Tibet, he would have been jailed or expelled. There then would have been nothing to be googled or doodled about him.




Government College University Lahore: Book Review

This is an enlarged version of the Book Review published in TheTribune(Spectrum) 22 October 2017


Khalid Aftab (2017) Against All Odds: Institute Building in the Real World (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications)



Rajesh Kochhar

Panjab University Chandigarh

[email protected]


The author, Prof. Khalid Aftab, served as the Principal of Government College Lahore (GCL) from 1993 till 2002. Thanks to his sustained efforts, the College was made into a full-fledged Government College University Lahore (GCUL) in 2002 with him as the first Vice-Chancellor which post he held till 2011. He was thus at the helm of the institution’s affairs for close to two decades.

He has now written a personalized memoir describing how discipline was enforced against all odds, and academic standards raised. It is interesting to note that political leadership and bureaucracy who had happily been meddling in the college affairs finally became a party to efforts to try to restore it to its former glory. It of course helped that many influential people were old students of the College. The only other college in the sub-continent which has been comparable to GCL is Presidency College Kolkata which became a university in 2010. A comparative study of these two institutions would be instructive indeed.

Introduction of English education into the erstwhile Sikh kingdom was an immediate consequence of its annexation by the British in 1849. The colonial education policy in Punjab however was markedly different from that in Bengal. In Bengal and Bombay, the colonialists had the convenience of dealing with a mercantile class which they themselves had created and which was very enthusiastic about English. In contrast in Punjab the British had to come to terms with the rajas, zamindars, and raeeses who did not place high premium on western education.

Government College Lahore was formally established on 1 January 1864. Its first regular Principal was not hand-picked bureaucratically, but selected on the basis of an open newspaper advertisement in England. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, who arrived in November that year, was an oriental scholar and at the time a lecturer in Arabic and Muslim Law at King’s College London.


Throughout the colonial period, GCL remained a bastion of  liberal English education. The two Punjabi science Nobel laureates, Har Gobind Khorana and Abdul Salam were former students, who were and are called Ravians after the College Magazine which in turn took its name from the river. Other prominent names among the old Ravians include  Faiz Ahmad Faiz (poet), Khushwant Singh (writer) and Dev Anand (actor).


At GCL as well as elsewhere English education scene was dominated by Hindus. I have carried out an actual head count of teaching staff at GCL during 1944-45. Of the 46  faculty members (excluding the Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit departments), only 11 or 24% were Muslim. With the migration of non-Muslims to India in 1947, GCL (as well as other educational institutions in Pakistan Punjab) was drastically depleted, with reverse Muslim migration from India having a very small compensatory effect.


Because of the post-colonial socio-political changes it became impossible for the College to maintain its earlier elitist culture. ‘[T]he events that unfolded on the campus in the 1980s were worse than at any time in the past’. Throughout the sub-continent, college and university hostels almost invariably situated in the heart of the city  hold great attraction for anti-social elements whether they are enrolled as students or not. True to form, politically-backed lumpen elements increasingly gained ascendancy in GCL thanks to the appeasement policy adopted by the College administration. Rival student factions took control of the hostels and converted the College campus into a battleground.


In November 1993, Dr Khalid Aftab, then the head of economics department, was called by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for a meeting. It is not every day that a prime minister officially meets a college professor. We do not know anything about the background to the meeting but it turned out to be a watershed in the history of the college.


The meeting was held in the Governor’s house under whose administrative control the College lay.  To the College’s good luck, both the Prime Minister and Governor were old Ravians . Given the lawlessness that prevailed in the college, it is understandable that the Inspector General of Police was asked to be present. The Mayor of Lahore who was a close political associate of the Prime Minister also attended. When the Prime Minister asked Dr Aftab  to take charge of the College and stem the rot, the Principal-designate boldly pointed towards the Mayor and aid that his son was an important gang leader of the College. Very astutely, Nawaz Sharif changed the topic by drawing attention to the high quality of the prawns being served as snack, but surely the pre-prawn message was not lost on the Mayor.


The first task before the new Principal was instilling the fear of authority in the minds of students and staff. On his third day in office, the Principal was greeted by exchange of gun fire in a College hostel. The incident was not new but the official response was. The College filed a complaint with the police, expelled the gang leaders, and refused to budge notwithstanding the all-round political pressure and the threats from the expelled students’ families.   Similarly, the wife of a faculty member who served as superintendent of the girls’ hostel rudely told the Principal that since she had been appointed on directions from the Prime Minister’s wife she was not answerable to him. She was dismissed.


In a major development, GCL was given degree-awarding status in 1997. The influential Committee on Education of members of  Punjab Assembly had no objection to the move except that they wanted a bigger share in the Board of Governors of the autonomous College. Being powerful, politicians can be direct in their demands but vested interests employ devious strategies. Under its newly found autonomy, GCL set out to revise the syllabus, and brought out a book in English reading and comprehension for BA students, by ‘a foreign qualified teacher, Suraiya Shafi Mir. Authors of guide books based on old curriculum, the Urdu Bazar  publishers and book sellers, supported by a section of press launched vicious campaign against the new English curriculum. A privilege motion was tabled in the Punjab Assembly alleging that the new curriculum was anti-Islamic. The matter however  was settled in the College’s favour on the personal intervention of the Education Minister, a retired brigadier. At the end, an erstwhile objector, who ‘represented a religious group of Southern Punjab’ asked for a copy of the controversial book for use by his own children!


One of the most illustrious alumni of GCL was Abdus Salam  who was a student during 1942-1946 and then a professor during 1951-54. He went on to jointly win the 1979 Nobel physics prize. Pakistan however was most reluctant to own him because he was an Ahmadiya. An internationally appreciated initiative of Principal Aftab was to get government sanction in 1996 for a chair in Salam’s name.


Islamic Studies was a compulsory course at the undergraduate leve. GCUL’s curriculum on it was criticized in sections of the press and denounced as un-Islamic in the Friday sermon in many mosques. The situation was serious enough for ISI to depute an officer to visit the College for investigation. The new curriculum demanded extensive reading in subjects like philosophy of Islam and a few articles in English. While the students and most of the faculty were happy with the curriculum, a handful of teachers felt unequal to the task. Finally, the rabble-rouser was identified as a teacher in the College doubled as an Imam in a mosque in the walled city. The problem was solved by repatriating erring teachers back to the government education department and hiring younger teachers. It is noteworthy that serving army officers and retired army officers in administrative positions were quite supportive of the Dr Aftab’s modernizing agenda.



In 2002 the Higher Education Commission (HEC) permitted GCUL to hire foreign faculty. The experiment was considered to be a success except in cases where the foreign academics were of Pakistani origin. In the ‘peak years’ there were as many as 53 such professors, but by 2015 their number had fallen to zero.


Dr Aftab took a commendable initiative in collecting memorabilia connected with eminent people. The daughter of the celebrated Urdu writer Noon Meem Rashid presented the University with her father’s smoker’s pipe. She also presented a typewriter which had originally belonged to Saadat Hasan Manto and which he had sold to Rashid for 16 rupees.


Following a top-down approach, HEC announced financial incentives for promoting research among the faculty. Excessive pressures led to instances of plagiarism. An economics teacher had the temerity to lift passages from the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen for his paper in the College journal. He was forced to quit. In another case however the University was rendered helpless. Even though it was proven that  a PhD thesis in chemistry was based on ‘other’s data’, the University was ordered by the High Court to award the degree.


Academic administrators often find government auditors unreasonable. The audit team visiting GCUL objected to the purchase of furniture for the library on the ground that government rules forbade it. The argument that that a library would be meaningless without furniture cut no ice with the auditors who went to the extreme of suggesting that the cost be personally recovered from the Vice-Chancellor. He had to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of the Punjab Assembly for explanation. Finally, the matter was laid to rest by obtaining ex-post-facto permission from the Chief Minister. Interestingly, all the trouble could have been avoided if under-the-table payment had been made to the audit team as demanded!


A major contribution of Dr Aftab towards infrastructural development was the acquisition of a 370-acre chunk of land in the nearby Kala Shah Kaku town of Sheikhupura district. Dr Aftab’s friend from College days was now a big businessman and politically very well connected. At his daughter’s wedding, he contrived a meeting of the VC with the President and the Punjab Chief Minister which finally clinched the long pending issue. Here was an instance of high-powered networking being used for institutional purposes rather than personal gain.


No VC of a state-funded university has ever found a way of ensuring that government grants are released in time and the budget deficit is bridged as a matter of course. In 2010-11, GCUL’s total expenditure stood at 695 million rupees while the income was only 612 million rupees leaving a shortfall of 83 million. Over the years the University was able to build a reserve fund of 550 million rupees. Curiously, the administration was asked to keep the fund secret because the government finance department ‘kept sniffing for unspent grants like a hound’. Of course, the reserve fund is no more a secret!


Dr Aftab visited India in 2006 on invitation from India-based Ravians. The highpoint of his eminently successful and emotionally charged tour was his brief visit to his birthplace Muktsar where his grandfather had been a successful medical practitioner. (According to a report in The Tribune, Dr Aftab’s father, Dr Mohammad Khan, was a government veterinary doctor who anticipating the partition had already bought property in what became Pakistan.) The president of the municipal council presented Dr Aftab with a copy of his birth certificate and pointed out that even though Muktsar had produced three chief ministers, only one of its citizens had risen to the high position of a Vice- Chancellor.


Within a few years of 1947 both Pakistan and India renamed their part of Punjab as the Punjab as if theirs was the only one. It would have been better to retain the epithet East and West to underscore the fact that both are portions of a common cultural entity.


Dr Aftab closes his professional biography by quoting Iqbal: ‘The days of this Faqir have come to an end/ Another Seer may come or not.’


Dr Aftab was history’s choice for leading the Government College Lahore  and the Government College University Lahore at a critical juncture. His memoirs thus have an intrinsic value. They would also be of use to anybody interested in the post-1947 history of educational institutions not only in Pakistan but also elsewhere in the sub-continent.  /



INDIA-BORN US ASTROPHYSICIST Chandra observatory: tribute to a legend

The Tribune Edit page 27-July-1999

Chandra observatory: tribute to a legend
by Rajesh Kochhar

The recent X-ray observatory launched into space by the USA has been named Chandra after the India-born American astrophysicist. This is a befitting tribute by the USA to a man who did much to invigorate American astronomy.

Chandrasekhar, popularly called Chandra, came to the USA in 1937 as a scientific refugee from Europe, after spending his seven most creative years at Cambridge University. He was the first person to apply the theory of special relativity to astronomy. He showed that there is an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf. (This limit is now known as the Chandrasekhar Limit.) What happens if the white dwarf mass is higher than the Chandrasekhar Limit? In what must rank as the understatement of the century, Chandrasekhar declared: “One is left speculating on other possibilities.”

The other possibilities, of course, are the neutron star and the black hole, whose properties the Chandra observatory would study.

The course of astronomical history would have been different if Chandrasekhar’s work, mathematically rigorous as it was, had received immediate recognition. But at that time it met with ridicule at the hands of the most influential astronomer of the day, Sir Arthur Eddington, who declared with a haughtiness one associates with a viceroy rather than scientists: “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.”

Sir Arthur was blinded by his self-righteousness, the rest of Europe by the glare of his personality. For four long frustrating years, Chandrasekhar tried to enlist support from among the physicists and astronomers but to no avail.

Sir Arthur’s hostility delayed the development of the subject by a generation. The discovery of quasars in 1963 and of radio pulsars in 1967 proved that relativistic astrophysics was not merely a mathematical artifact but also had the sanction of direct observation. Chandrasekhar could have got the Nobel Prize anytime after 1967 but not before this. (He got it 16 years later, in 1983). It was, however, not till 1974 that a medal awarded to Chandrasekhar referred to his white dwarf work.

Sir Arthur’s academic hostility robbed Chandrasekhar of his innocence. He moved to the USA (“Out there we don’t believe in Eddington), resolving not to hanker after recognition but to let his work speak for itself. Henceforth mathematics would be his ally and time his judge.

As if to provide a physical basis to his resolve, Chandrasekhar bade goodbye to his first love, stellar structure. He would take on a new subject, write a definitive treatise on it and move on. Significantly, while his first work was the first word on the subject, his subsequent works have tended to be the last word. Even without the white dwarf work, Chandrasekhar would have been an outstanding astrophysicist, but he would not have won the Nobel Prize.

A few years ago, during one of his visits to Bangalore, I asked Chandrasekhar what was more satisfying, saying the first word or the last. His answer was rather long and involved. He first educated me who had first used the terms “first word” and “last word”. He then analysed the works of French and other painters. Regrettably, his efforts to raise my aesthetic sensibilities failed. All I learnt was that I was not getting a reply to my question.

It was indeed a bold step for Chicago University and the Yerkes Observatory to hire Chandrasekhar, who was the first non-white member of the faculty. He more than repaid the consideration shown to him. His outsidedness was put to good use when he edited the Astrophysical Journal for 19 strenuous years, “and turned it into a world-class publication.” He was, however, never offered the presidentship of the American Astronomical Society.

In 1966, he was given the National Medal of Science by the American President. It was the first time that the medal went to an astronomer. The citation made specific reference to Chandrasekhar’s contribution to the training of manpower.

He had an extraordinarily retentive memory. In August, 1949, he wrote to a friend: “I recall replying to your letter of June 6, 1937.” In 1992, I had an occasion to discuss with him an incident that had taken place in 1927: how at an international conference in Cuoms, Italy, D.M. Bose turned up much to the chagrin of the organisers who had wished to see S.N. Bose instead. Chandrasekhar heard the story from his friend, K.S. Krishnan, who in turn had heard it from the aggrieved Bose. Chandrasekhar recalled the details in his 1992 letter, closing it with a finality: “My recollection of the story is quite distinct and I am sure it reproduces exactly what Krishnan told me.” Chandrasekhar began his white dwarf work when he was still a student at Presidency College, Chennai.

Could India have retained him?

Chandrasekhar’s tiff with Eddington had its effect on his fortunes in British India. From 1935 till 1944, Chandrasekhar remained in the doghouse. His rehabilitation came in 1944 with his election as a fellow of the Royal Society (where Eddington was one of his sponsors). After that he received a number of offers. First, there was this invitation from his overbearing uncle, C.V. Raman, to join the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, an offer Chandrasekhar could not have accepted. He could have joined Banaras Hindu University, where the Vice-Chancellor, S. Radhakrishnan, was keen to appoint him.

Why is it that any of these initiatives failed to produce results? Two years ago. I had the opportunity, with Mrs Lalita Chandrasekhar’s permission, to go through some (but not all) of the Chandrasekhar Papers deposited at the Chicago university. (The visit to Chicago, in turn, was made possible by a Fulbright grant). My own impressionistic answer is as follows.

There was a difference of perception between Chandrasekhar on the one hand and his family and advisers back home on the other. Left to himself, he would have accepted Homi Bhabha’s offer to come to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. His father and advisers, however, wished to see him as the Director of the Kodaikanal Observatory, a well-known astronomical centre in South India. Chandrasekhar, however, did not have any intention of accepting an administrative post, and wanted a university-like setting.

In his authorised biography by K.C. Wali, Chandrasekhar confirms this: “Left to myself I would have been tempted by Bhabha’s offer to a greater extent than I was. But I was advised against it by several people.”

His acceptance of American citizenship in 1953 put paid to all questions of returning. He would gladly have accepted a part-of-year professorship, but none came his way. Finally, on his retirement, there was again this possibility of returning home, but efforts remained half-hearted and ceased after a while.

What course would Indian science and education have taken if Chandrasekhar had returned? No doubt, he would have trained a large number of researchers, who in course of time would have occupied important positions in the Indian academy. Would Chandrasekhar’s total commitment to science have become the guiding principle for his students also? Would his conscientious negation of administrative and executive powers been emulated? In his own words, one is left speculating on the possibilities. As it turned out, in his native land, Chandrasekhar became an icon, a showboy, even a tool, but never a teacher or guide or a role model.

Chandrasekhar was a citizen of the world. He was an American by residence, European by training, but an Indian not only by birth but also by affiliations. In probably an unguarded moment, he wrote in a personal letter (1979): “You say that it never rains — it pours. “For me it seems to be always barren”.

(The author is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.)