Science as a symbol of new nationhood: India and the IGY (2008)


CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 94, NO. 6, 25 MARCH 2008 813

Science as a symbol of new nationhood: India and the International

Geophysical Year 1957–58

Rajesh Kochhar

The International Geophysical Year 1957–58 (IGY) enabled India to join the world club of science as an

equal, modernize its existing institutions, support basic sciences unapologetically, and prepare ground for

new initiatives directed towards nation-building and national prestige. More specifically, India’s space programme

emerged from the IGY exposure. At the same time, it accentuated the dependence of Indian science

on the West for assessment and encouragement.

The International Geophysical Year

1957–58 (IGY) was the largest international

field research programme ever undertaken.

Although the programme was

funded by various national governments,

the management and organization was

left to the scientists. IGY was overseen

by the International Council of Scientific

Unions (ICSU), a non-governmental

organization representing both national

scientific bodies and international scientific

unions. To act as the governing

body for all IGY activities, a Special

Committee for the IGY (known by its

French acronym, CSAGI) was formed in

October 1952, under the chairmanship of

Sydney Chapman. It was enlarged in

March 1953 to include representatives

from the constituent unions. IGY proper

lasted for 18 months from 1 July 1957 to

31 December 1958. Its activities were

continued till 31 December 1959, under

the heading International Geophysical

Cooperation. Eventually 64 countries

participated in the IGY.

India with its vast size, extant institutions

and scientific manpower turned out

to be an important and enthusiastic participant.

IGY has been called ‘a poor

man’s programme’1, in the sense that its

scientific and technological requirements

were quite modest and easily met by the

industrial and educational India of the

1950s. (Subsequently as world technologies

developed at a fast pace and basic

sciences became more a child of high

technology, India fell behind sharply.)

Historical background

The British could not have built and

maintained an empire in India without

the help of modern science and the natives.

This brought Indians into contact with

modern science. The empire-supported

science in India was utilitarian and primarily

field science. It was thus latitudedriven

(unlike the IT-facilitated Western

interest in India today, which is longitude-


European men of science employed in

the 19th century India were the highest

paid anywhere in the world. In the course

of time, Indians were trained and employed

at lower levels. Inherent in the

British rule over India was the slow and

increasingly reluctant training of the Indians

to eventually overthrow that rule.

Indo-European linguistic commonality,

then interpreted in racial terms, ‘placed

in the hands of the British Government a

powerful instrument of connexion and

conciliation’ with the (upper-caste) Hindus,

who in the course of time began

turning Indo-Europeanism to their advantage.

From 1870s onwards, the Indian

leadership started demanding that it was

the bounden duty of their English brethren

to impart them (Indians) science education

and raise them in the scale of


Clamour for basic science education

was the strongest in Bengal. The science

laboratories of the government-run Presidency

College, Calcutta, were among

the best equipped in the world in their

time5. Its two professors, the physicist

Jagadis Chunder Bose (1858–1937) and

the chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861–

1944), who began their work in the

1890s, were the world’s first non-White

mainstream modern scientists. Similarly,

Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman’s (1888–

1970) 1930 Nobel Physics Prize was the

first one to go outside the Western world.

At the time of the outbreak of the Second

World War, there were two mutually

exclusive streams in Indian science: routine

science under the government, and

nationalism-inspired research activity by

Indians in the universities. The twain met

during the war. ‘It was a foregone conclusion

that the British would leave India

after the war. (India became free on 15

August 1947.) Indians were already in

important positions in government as

well as in industry and science. Though

still working under British auspices, the

Indians sought to dovetail their country’s

post-independence interests into the British

exigencies of war’6.

Since the government needed Indian

help in its war efforts, a purely advisory

Board of Scientific and Industrial

Research was set up in 1940. It was a

landmark, ‘because it was the first time

official funding was systematically

forthcoming for research being carried

out by individuals and organizations outside

the government system’6. The Council

of Scientific and Industrial Research

(CSIR) established in 1942 ‘was seen

merely as a clearing house’. It is noteworthy

that Norah Richards’ authorized

1947 biography of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar

(1894–1955) who headed both the

Board and the Council, does not mention

CSIR at all.

Indian science at the time of IGY

Throughout the world, all available scientific

expertise was mobilized by the

governments for their war efforts. But as

soon as the war needs were over, the universities

were re-energized. Not so in

India. Unfortunately what was an outgoing

foreign government’s temporary

compulsion became the abiding philosophy

of a new nation. Independent India

opted for government science laboratories

at the cost of universities. CSIR was

given a high profile and priority by

Jawaharlal Nehru, who made the Prime

Minister the ex-officio president of the


The foundation stones of five national

laboratories were laid between December

1945 and April 1947. National Physical


CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 94, NO. 6, 25 MARCH 2008 814

Laboratory (NPL), New Delhi was

opened in 1950, with an internationally

respected physicist K. S. Krishnan (1898–

1961) as its director. Krishnan was the

Vice-President of International Union of

Pure and Applied Physics during 1951–57

and of ICSU during 1955–58. (Chapman

is wrong in stating that Krishnan was the

ICSU Vice-President for six years1.)

A radio propagation unit was established

at NPL in 1954 by Ashesh Prasad

Mitra (1927–2007). A doctoral student of

the pioneering atmospheric scientist,

Sisir Kumar Mitra (1889–1963) at Calcutta

University, A. P. Mitra went for a

year to CSIRO, Sydney in 1951 and

thence to Pennsylvania State University,

USA, where he spent two years as an assistant

Visiting Professor and Associate

Professor in the ionospheric lab. His unit

at NPL became the hub for ionospheric

research under the IGY.

In 1945 (or 1944) the Indian Government

appointed a committee under

Meghnad Saha (1893–1956) for the

[post-war] ‘planning of Astronomy and

Astrophysics in India’7. Though nothing

substantial came out of its efforts, it does

show the national concern for scientific

upgradation in the newly independent

nation. The Solar Physics Observatory at

Kodaikanal, set up in 1899, which lay

just half a degree north of the magnetic

equator, was provided with a new magnetic

observatory in 1948 (the earlier one

set up in 1923 had long been dysfunctional).

In 1951, an ionospheric division

was added8. In 1954, the Uttar Pradesh

State Observatory was established, and

moved the following year to Naini Tal9.

This came up on the initiative of Sampurnanand,

then a Cabinet Minister and

later Chief Minister.

In the meantime, two private laboratories

had made a modest beginning. Homi

Bhabha (1906–66) established the Tata

Institute of Fundamental Research at

Bombay in 1945 while Vikram Sarabhai

(1919–71) set up the Physical Research

Laboratory (PRL) at Ahmedabad in 1947.

It was headed by K. R. Ramanathan

(1893–1984) who had just retired from

the India Meteorological Department

(IMD). He served as the President of

International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics

from 1954 to 1957. Though

privately owned in a legal sense, these

laboratories were generously supported

by the Government. While Bhabha or his

institute had no role in the IGY, Sarabhai

and PRL were actively involved.

Among the Government science organizations

IMD, established in 1875, and

All India Radio (AIR), founded 1930,

had, and still have, a vast network of field

stations. They were particularly useful

and active during the IGY.


India was thus ready for the IGY. It is

not that India had not participated in international

science before. Bose and Ray

as well as others had been deputed to attend

many conferences abroad, but there

was an understandable defensiveness and

consciousness about their country’s slave

status in their participation. S. K. Mitra

was a participant in the International

Polar Year 1932–33, but in a strictly individual

capacity. But here was the new

nation country with its whole apparatus

ready to help its band of scientists to become

an equal partner in the new world

of science.

Indian association with the IGY began

early enough. Two Indians, T. V. Ramamurthy

(NPL) and Sarabhai were among

the 12 observers drawn from nine countries

who attended the first meeting of

the enlarged CSAGI in Brussels in June–

July 1953 to plan the IGY programmes.

Similarly, Ramanathan participated in

some of the later meetings of the CSAGI.

The Indian national committee for IGY

was formed in 1955 with Krishnan as the

President and Mitra as the Secretary.

S. K. Mitra, Ramanathan and Sarabhai

were members of the Committee. There

were others drawn from various Government

scientific departments. The

Committee formed 14 sub-committees to

look after specific disciplines, ranging

from aurora to world days.

IGY’s prime mover, the American science

administrator Lloyd Berkner, met

the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in

January 1957 and was assured all help.

On 12 June 1957, a fortnight before the

formal inauguration of the IGY, Krishnan

gave a talk titled ‘The International

Geophysical Year and its significance’

on AIR. The type-written text with corrections

in Krishnan’s hand is in the custody

of his grandson, V. R. Thiruvady

(Bangalore). (I thank D. C. V. Mallik,

Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore,

for making the text available to

me.) It represents an effort to educate the

initiated. A typical product of the historiography

of the times, it begins with Columbus

and then moves on to discuss

Halley and Gauss, before delivering a

class-room lecture on the science underlying

IGY, ‘undoubtedly the most extensive

programme that has ever been undertaken

by an international organization’.

Krishnan went on to point out that ‘All

the various scientific organizations in the

country, the observatories, the Universities,

the Council of Scientific and Industrial

Research, the scientific departments

in the Ministry of Education and Scientific

Research, Information and Broadcasting,

Communications and Defence

are participating in the programme’. He

concluded thus: ‘We are looking forward

to a period of intense scientific activity,

and we hope it will help us to solve at

least some of the outstanding problems

in Geophysics’.

Source material

Regrettably, the extant source material is

extremely limited. No minutes of any

committee are available nor any old correspondence

or photographs. A film on

the IGY was made by AIR but it is not

traceable. Mitra wrote a popular account

for The Statesman, Calcutta, but it is not

readily accessible. Whatever is available

in print deals with the scientific output

rather than the history. On the occasion

of Krishnan’s 60th birthday in 1958, a

special issue of the JSIR10 was brought

out on ‘work carried out under the auspices

of the Indian National Committee

for the IGY 1957–1958’. A small 1985

monograph, Indian IGY Programme:

Achievements by A. P. Mitra, provides

useful but mostly technical information.

On 18 July 2007 Mitra kindly recorded

in an interview with me his impressions

of those days, which give us some feel

for the times. (Mitra passed away on 3

September 2007.) I will draw attention to

some of the scientific highlights and lowlights,

but try to place the scientific outcome

in a wider perspective.

Scientific activity

In the 19th century, India’s geographical

vastness was put to good use by measuring

a great meridional arc. India’s size,

coupled with the fact that the magnetic

equator passes through its southern tip,

made the country an asset for the IGY.

India already had good facilities for

ionospheric, geomagnetic and meteorological

studies. They could now be upgraded

and expanded.


CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 94, NO. 6, 25 MARCH 2008 815

The whole of the 75°E longitude zone

was monitored for ionospheric studies by

India from 11 field stations, spread over

20° of latitude (8°29′–28°38′N). A new

observatory was set up at Thiruvananthapuram,

which lay as much south of the

magnetic equator as Kodaikanal was north

(half a degree). IMD took up the task of

developing an ozone sonde with great enthusiasm

and excitement11. In retrospect,

the pleasure of making one’s own instruments

was a passing phase. Since India

could not keep pace with the technological

and industrial developments elsewhere,

its laboratories soon became dependent on

non-cutting-edge purchases from abroad.

During IGY, the Kodaikanal Observatory

‘intensified and extended’ its ‘normal

routine programme’. Along with the

Nizamiah Observatory it observed solar

flares, prominences, etc. and dutifully sent

data to the world data centres as well as

All India Meteorological Broadcasting

Centre10. The IGY provided an opportunity

for the much-needed modernization

of the Kodaikanal Observatory, which at

the time stood where John Evershed had

left it half a century ago. Three new instruments

were commissioned1, but with

mixed results.

A large solar tunnel telescope with an

object glass of 38 cm aperture and 36 m

focus was ordered from the well-known

English firm, Sir Howard Grubb Parsons.

The installation was done by the observatory

astronomers and technicians

themselves, without any help from the

manufacturer. The telescope has been the

mainstay of Kodaikanal ever since. For

the Lyot coronagraph and the Lyot heliograph,

it was decided to import only the

essential parts and rig the other parts in

the observatory itself. In retrospect, it

would have been better to buy the instrument

in its entirety, because the observatory

failed to make these two facilities


In those days, the best coronagraph

objectives were those made by the associates

of the late Bernard Lyot, who were

‘busy astronomers and optical experts,

not commercial instrument-makers’. To

get the 20 cm aperture, 3 m focus objective

made from Paris, ‘personal influences

and contacts’ had to be used. Only

the telescope was ordered. As the then

Director of the observatory has recorded,

the equatorial mount ‘has been improvised

by adapting components of disused

old instruments and the optical accessories

have been designed and built in the

observatory’s machine-shop and laboratories

with the help of optical components

already available in the observatory’8.

Similarly, a hydrogen-alpha Lyot filter,

along with a 15 cm aperture telescope

objective and ‘one or two small optical

components’, were purchased from Paris,

while the ‘whole design and the construction

of all mechanical parts for the

complete heliograph’ were carried out at

the observatory8. The coronagraph and

the heliograph were never really used.

Soon thereafter, with the arrival of M. K.

V. Bappu as Director in 1960, the focus

shifted to night-time astronomy from the

new facility at Kavalur, Tamil Nadu.


Before proceeding further, let us briefly

take note of non-successes. On the express

suggestion of Chapman, a programme

was launched to visually look for the

rather low-latitude aurorae. But none was

sighted. More seriously, longitude and

latitude determination under the Survey

of India remained more or less a nonstarter,

because the Survey was used to

keeping confidential the results of its

work, although this itself was not public.

Although Antarctica was a part of the

IGY programme, it did not interest India

then. It was only in 1981 that India, under

the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi,

began its Antarctica programme12.

Mitra11 lists a total of 265 publications

as IGY publications. The entries are of

uneven quality. Even publications as late

as 1966 are mentioned. Some of them

must be repetitive, being conference papers.

It is for scientometric experts to analyse

the available publication data. But, even

taking the lists at face value, some interesting

conclusions can be drawn. Ionospheric

studies rank first output-wise

with 62% of the listed publications, cosmic

rays a distant second (11%) followed

by geomagnetism (8%) and meteorology


Space programme

While most of the success that attended

Indian efforts was incremental, an entirely

new vista was opened by the IGY.

India was introduced to the new field of

satellites. Naini Tal Observatory was one

of the 12 world stations equipped with a

Baker-Nunn camera by the Smithsonian

Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), to optically

track artificial earth satellites.

This part of the IGY programme was

overseen by the director of Naini Tal Observatory,

Bappu (1927–1982), who was

educated at Hyderabad and sent to

Harvard Observatory on a Government

scholarship for his Ph D13. Bappu’s Harvard

connection was a great help because

the SAO’s new dynamic director, Fred

Whipple was also from Harvard14. Unlike

the other satellite-tracking stations that

were under SAO’s control, the Indian

station would be ‘under the complete jurisdiction

of local astronomers’.

The non-scientific dimension of the

project was lost on none. Krishnan rather

indelicately and to the embarrassment of

the Soviet representatives remarked publicly

that ‘it was wonderful that the US

was taking the world into confidence on

the satellite program so that all nations

could cooperate’. He said further that it

was a shame that the satellite program of

the USSR was so secret and he hoped

they might follow the example of the US.

On its part, USA was sensitive that the

project should be viewed as international

and not American. Whipple wrote that ‘the

scientific advantages would be marked

for both of our great countries’14. The

importance that the US attached to satellite

tracking programme under the IGY

can be gauged from the fact that New

York Times carried a news item datelined

Naini Tal, where the reporter made it a

point to mention that both Soviet and

American satellites would be tracked and

the information ‘will become part of the

treasury of scientific data’ of the IGY15.

The Baker-Nunn camera was shipped

to India in March 1958, and the first track

recorded in September 1958. For the first

few years an observer from SAO worked

with the Naini Tal staff. The project continued

well beyond the IGY, i.e. till 1976.

Thanks to the project, the geographical

location of the camera was recorded to an

accuracy of better than 10 m, so much so

that ‘the Survey of India tied its triangulation

network to this benchmark’16.

It will be no exaggeration to say that

the IGY experience paved the way for the

Indian space programme under Sarabhai.

He had already been interested in observational

studies of the impact of solar activity

on cosmic rays. The IGY exposure

helped Sarabhai expand his horizons. In

1962, an Indian National Committee for

Space Research was set up. The very

next year there came up the Equatorial

Rocket Launching Station at Thumba near


CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 94, NO. 6, 25 MARCH 2008 816

Thiruvananthapuram. The Indian Space

Research Organization was established in

1969, and India’s first satellite, Aryabhata,

named after the 6th century Indian

astronomer, was launched in 1975, and

tracked at Naini Tal from the facility set

up during the IGY.

Arnold Frutkin, who was the director

of NASA’s Office of International Programmes

from 1959 onwards, has an interesting

story to tell (

history/oral_histories/). USA was planning

the Satellite Instructional Television

Experiment (SITE), which could broadcast

into home-receivers, provided the

host country set up some simple equipment.

NASA wished to have a big country

like India participate. The India desk

in the state department however declined

to approach India, because India had earlier

refused permission to Voice of

America to set up its broadcasting stations.

The fact that SITE was not propaganda

but science cut no ice with the officials.

Frutkin then decided to take matters into

his own hand. Frutkin knew Sarabhai

well as he had been dealing with Sarabhai

on sounding rocket programmes. He persuaded

Sarabhai not only to arrange for

India’s participation, but also to write as

if the initiative was coming from India itself.

The programme was such a great

success from the Indian point of view that

the country unsuccessfully tried to get the

availability of the US satellite extended

for another year. India then decided to

make use of commercial satellites and eventually

developed its own satellite network

as part of the INSAT programme.

General remarks

Mitra, in his recorded conversation made

some interesting points. Enthusiasm for

the IGY was not confined to the scientists

alone. It permeated the officialdom

also and that too at all levels. It is not

that instructions had to be obtained from

higher authorities for obedience down

the line. A postcard containing scientific

data from Taiwan was intercepted and

destroyed by the Bombay Customs in accordance

with the prevailing rules. The

Customs was however decent enough to

inform the IGY secretariat. The matter

was taken up with the Ministry of External

Affairs and scientific correspondence

exempted from censor. An American scientist

set out from Hawaii for India, only

to discover in New York that he needed

an Indian visa. It was an easy matter for

Mitra to persuade the Indian embassy in

the US to immediately issue a visa.

The IGY also had a rather negative influence.

Although India’s tryst with

modern scientific research began more

than a century ago, it has never been

self-assessing. It has depended on the

West for encouragement and recognition.

This may have been understandable during

the Colonial period, but the internationality

of the IGY gave a new lease of

life to this attitude. Indian choice of research

problems has often been dictated

by the availability of post-doctoral positions

in the West, especially in USA, and

the possibilities of an invitation for a

conference or a visiting position. At least

in the years immediately after independence,

the role of science in nationbuilding

was recognized. Now, 60% of

Indian GDP comes from the services sector,

which is science less. As the Indian

economy becomes more and more derivative,

so does Indian science. India does

not seem to need science anymore.

The greatest asset India had at the time

was a band of young energetic scientists

ready to work hard and make the programme

a success for the sake of science

and their own career. As Mitra recalled:

‘That was a good time to be a young scientist

in India’. IGY provided an opportunity

to Indian scientists not only to build

international contacts, but also to come

to know one another. Also, the image of

science and scientists got enhanced in the

eyes of the administration and the nation

in general.

At the time of the IGY, the Indian nation

was young and so were its science and

scientists; in the sense that its technological

and engineering requirements were

rather modest. Fifty years later, things

are not quite the same for the International

Heliophysical Year (IHY). There

are hardly any young scientists in the country.

Also, science is now a child of high

technology. If India is to make even a

partial success of the IHY, some of the spirit

of the bygone days will have to be revived.

1. Mitra, A. P., Indian IGY Programme:

Achievements, Indian National Science

Academy, New Delhi, 1985.

2. Kochhar, R. K., Curr. Sci., 1992, 63,


3. Kochhar, R. K., Curr. Sci., 1993, 64, 55–


4. Kochhar, R., Prof. R. C. Mishra Memorial

Lecture at the 67th Indian History

Congress, New Delhi, 2007.

5. Bose, J. C., In Acharya J. C. Bose – A

Scientist and a Dreamer, Vol. 4 (ed.

Bhattacharyya, P.), Bose Institute, Calcutta,

1913, Reprinted 1997, p. 32.

6. Kochhar, R., In Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar

FRS: A Biographical Study of

India’s Eminent Scientist (ed. Norah

Richards), New edn, NISTADS, New

Delhi, 2004.

7. Saha, M. N., Post-war plan astronomical

and astrophysical observatories in India

(Government of India), 1946. This report

does not name any author. The committee

was headed by Saha.

8. Das, A. K., Modernization of the Astrophysical

Observatory Kodaikanal, India

Meteorological Department: New Delhi,

1960. This booklet is not paginated. Curiously,

it does not mention IGY at all.

Das was the director during 1946–60.

9. Kochhar, R. and Narlikar, J., Astronomy

in India: A Perspective, Indian National

Science Academy, New Delhi, 1995.

10. J. Sci. Ind. Res. (Suppl.), 1958, 17A.

11. Sreedharan, C. R., Curr. Sci., 2001, 81,


12. Walawalker, M. G., Curr. Sci., 2005, 88,


13. Kochhar, R. K. and Menon, M. G. K.,

Bull. Astron. Soc. India, 1982, 10, 275–


14. Muir-Harmony, T., Paper presented at

History of Science Society meeting,

Vancouver, 2006.

15. Rosenthal, A. M., New York Times, 6

April 1958.

16. Sinvhal, S. D., Bull. Astron. Soc. India,

2006, 34, 65–81.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. This is a slightly

revised version of a talk delivered at ‘Making

science global: Reconsidering the social and

intellectual implications of the International

Polar and Geophysical Years’, at Smithsonian

Institution, Washington, DC, 31 October–1

November. 2007. The work has been partially

supported by a research grant from Indian

National Science Academy’s History of Science

Division. I thank Teasel Muir-Harmony for

giving me a copy of her lecture text as well as a

New York Times, 1958 report from Naini Tal.

Rajesh Kochhar is in the National Institute

of Pharmaceutical Education and Research,

Sector 67, Mohali 160 062, India.

e-mail: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *