H Narasimhaiah and the spirit of enquiry

H Narasimhaiah and the spirit of enquiry

Submitted by alvin on Fri, 2016-07-01 10:05 No one could miss the symbol of the big, red question mark (?) adorning the wall prominently at a height behind Dr H Narasimhaiah’s seat in his office. He firmly believed in everyone possessing a questioning, enquiring outlook as part of developing a scientific mindset. No one should blindly accept any statement made by any godman, mystic, saint, scientist or a pundit in any field without examining it thoroughly in one’s life, he would urge. Dr H Narasimhaiah (1920-2005) or HN, as he was fondly called by his students and colleagues alike, was of the view that there would not be any progress in life without this quintessential quality. Newton wouldn’t have discovered the law of gravitation if he had not explored the simple phenomenon of falling of an apple from a tree way back in the 17th century. Nor would this principle form the basis for the emergence of modern space science many centuries later.  I am referring to the eminent educationist, freedom fighter and uncompromising rationalist of Karnataka, Padmabhushan Hosur Narasimhaiah who, in 1935, walked 53km to Bengaluru from Hosur hobli, (10 kms away from Gowribidanur town, part of the then undivided Kolar district), to study at National High School in Basavanagudi, Bengaluru, as he did not have enough money to pay even for his bus fare. The struggleHailing from an extremely disadvantaged family, (his father was a village school teacher and mother, an illiterate, earned a bit by serving as a maid), HN showed tremendous grit and determination to overcome extreme poverty in completing his senior secondary school education and going on to study B.Sc (Physics Hons) and M.Sc (Physics) at Central College, before taking up the lecturer’s post in National College (1946), his alma mater.Throughout his studentship at the secondary school and higher education levels, he had to earn his stay in his school and other charitable hostels by doing consistently well in studies. HN later acquired a PhD from Ohio State University (1960) before becoming the Principal of National College, a position he held for 12 years.He endeared himself to his under-graduate students as he taught them physics even while he was heading the institution, and more importantly, for literally being one among them (he lived as a frugal bachelor throughout, staying in a small room in the college hostel, playing badminton, hockey and other games and participating in most of the cultural programmes with them).He went on not only to become the President of the National Education Society (which currently runs 17 institutions in all, including colleges at Basavanagudi and Jayanagar in Bengaluru and Gowribidanur and  Bagepalli both in Chikkaballapur district) but also the fourth Vice- Chancellor of Bangalore University (1972), which he served with distinction for nearly five years. HN was nominated as a member to the state legislative council during Chief Minister Gundu Rao’s regime in 1981 in recognition of his contribution to education and science.      The scepticHN had been a skeptical enquirer right from his youthful days.  He had refused to shave his head when his father died when he was just in 8th standard. He would curiously watch a few elders being temporarily possessed by ‘local gods’ and acting hysterically during village fests and fairs; wouldn’t believe that it was a bad omen if a cat were to cross the road from right to left, and refused to be haunted by ghosts, which others believed had taken shelter at a nearby tamarind tree.The same inquisitiveness brought him to national limelight when he famously took on Saibaba of Puttaparthi (near Anantapur district) in 1976. He challenged the godman to perform his miraculous acts in public, in the presence of a specially constituted 11-member expert committee that he had set up as a Vice-Chancellor. Needless to mention, despite HN’s repeated invitations, the influential godman, for obvious reasons, did not submit to public scrutiny!HN faced death threats from vested interests for confronting the all-powerful godman those days. However, true to his nature, he would not budge, considering it an essential part of his social responsibility as the head of a university to put to scientific analysis superstitious and mystical practices to unearth the truth. He succeeded in bringing tremendous amount of awareness not only in the state but at the national level as well. In his book ‘Tereda Mana’ (Open Mind), HN explained open mindedness as being not empty minded. The choice was not between the false liberal disposition of welcoming anything without reason or taking a hard, cynical stand. It was a true yearning to find the truth by scrutinising everything through the scientific lens of logic and analysis. ‘Horatada Hadi’ (Path of Struggle), his autobiography, is an extension of his thoughts and reflections in Tereda Mana.       Freedom struggle and GandhiHN was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, having met the latter when he visited Nandi hills in 1936 when he was in the (V form) 9th standard. He plunged into the freedom struggle by participating in the Quit India movement, though it caused a break in his B.Sc studies, (he had only the final year to complete) getting arrested and imprisoned. He was also involved in the ‘Mysore Chalo’ movement, which was launched in 1947 to free the then princely state of Mysore from the stewardship of the Dewan, demanding installation of a popular, responsive government. This, too, HN did without any qualms, though he had to relinquish his hard earned lecturer’s post within merely a year of his appointment!  HN remained a true follower of Gandhian philosophy till his last breath.          As a Principal of National College, HN introduced many far reaching innovative practices, like abolishing the practice of signing the attendance register by the teaching staff, introducing tutorial system in the college (not outside) for the educationally weaker students, ensuring conduct of student union elections in a transparent and democratic manner, introducing co-education in the high school, bringing in an invigilator-less examination system, etc., HN's achievementsAmongst his significant achievements, HN is credited with starting the Bangalore Science Forum (BSF), the first of its kind in India, where luminaries from various science disciplines would lecture every Wednesday, and for the whole month once in a year. This has earned BSF a record for organising the highest number of science based programmes.Similarly, HN also started the Bangalore Social Sciences Forum on the same objectives as Bangalore Science Forum. He also promoted the Bangalore Lalitha Kala Parishat and HN Kalakshetra in the Jayanagar national college premises for the promotion of fine arts and culture.  During his tenure as a Vice-Chancellor, he expedited the construction of many departmental blocks and created a sprawling new Jnanabharati campus and ensured it’s shifting from the central college premises. He had an ‘open office’, making himself accessible to students and faculty alike. His informal, jovial style of functioning appealed to the staff and he could get things done without exercising ‘power’.His frequent visits to various colleges to understand the challenges faced by them and providing solutions were innovative: the unprecedented act of organising four convocations in public at the Kanteerava stadium, having an exclusive printing press for publication of various journals and books, ensuring the sanctity of the examinations and announcing the results strictly within one month were some of his other major achievements.But the best illustration of being a true academician was his fondness for taking classes for final year B.Sc students of the Government Science College, even while being a Vice-Chancellor. Though he was reappointed for a record second term, he resigned within a few months over an unconnected development – Govind Narain, an ardent devotee of Saibaba, was appointed the new Governor of Karnataka and thus became the Chancellor. HN quietly left the scene, foreseeing serious differences between him and the Chancellor.   Section V of our Constitution, Article 51A on Fundamental Duties, begins by saying, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India … In the enumeration of such duties, sub-clause (h) says: “To develop scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. HN truly epitomised this highest constitutional value, by performing his fundamental duty in letter and spirit.  The meaning of being humanMichael Oakeshott, English philosopher and political theorist, once said that true education began when one started to understand what it meant to be human; that it involved reflecting upon one’s own beliefs and performing actions directed at achieving one’s ‘wished for’ satisfactions, while simultaneously recognising that it was possible to achieve them only in relation with others through cooperation. It’s learning to choose and act as humans, unlike animals which do not have to make complicated choices at every turn of life.In spite of possessing this unique potential, hardly few of us are making use of it. As William Drummond bluntly put it, “He who cannot reason is a fool; he who will not is a bigot; he who dare not is a slave.” Looking at the happenings of the world indicates that most of us are following a herd instinct, blindly following in the footsteps of our predecessors or succumbing to peer pressure. This loss of thinking has led us towards vaastu-shastras, pseudo-religious practices and management mantras propounded by self-styled gurus. The need for curious mindThe position paper on teaching of science prepared by the National Focus group (NCERT, first edition, March 2006) summarizes the objectives, content, pedagogy and assessment for different stages of the curriculum.At the primary stage, the child should be engaged in joyfully exploring the world around and harmonising with it. Nurturing the child’s curiosity, having the child engage in exploratory and hands on activities through observation, classification and inference are important. At the upper primary stage, the child should be engaged in learning principles of science through familiar experiences, working with hands to design simple modules, while continuing to learn more on environment and health through surveys and activities.At the secondary stage, the students should be engaged in learning science as a composite discipline, in working with hands and tools to design more advanced technological modules. Systematic experimentation to discover theoretical principles, and working on locally significant projects are important at this stage.In order to effectively transact the subject as enumerated above, empowerment of science teachers was recognised as being critical. Aligning the science teacher preparation curriculum in consonance with the changing priorities and challenges, making in-service programs for science teachers need-based were also felt to be essential.On our part as parents, we need to get away from our obsession of having our children predominantly pursue professional courses. We need to encourage our children to choose basic sciences if they have the necessary inclination, even if it does not fetch them attractive remuneration in the short run. Most importantly, we must nurture the natural curiosity among children, by letting them explore the world around them.    As observed by Albert Einstein, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease at death.” As parents and teachers, we have a huge responsibility to create a conducive climate for our children to acquire this spirit of questioning and reasoning right from their childhood. Education should become a means of resurrecting the original thinking in humanity. Author:S V Manjunath is currently heading Azim Premji Foundation - Karnataka as its State head. He made a mid – career shift more than six and half years back, when he joined Azim Premji Foundation