Sir Asutosh Mookherjee: Icon of the Ages?
Intro: Does one need to tell the NDA government to persuade every university in India to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary Sir Asutosh Mookherjee. And remember what he bequeathed to the country: a son, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh.
“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime” wrote the great British poet Longfellow and if one man among them needs to be remembered, it is Sir Asutosh Mookherjee whose 150th birth anniversary this year calls to be celebrated.
Born on June 29, 1864, barely seven years after India’s First War of Independence, Sir Asutosh was to make his mark as a mathematician, an avowed scientist, a man of towering administrative ability, an educationist of the highest standards, a judge of wholesome repute, often called Tiger of Bengal for his academic integrity.
Stunned by the sheer genius Asutosh displayed, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, once made a request to him to pay a visit to England so that Britons could see a glimpse of the scholars produced by British education in India. Asutosh declined the honour because his mother did not want her son to cross the seas under the prevalent superstition of kalaa pani. Shocked, Lord Curzon wrote: “Tell your mother the Viceroy and Governor General of India commands her son to go!”. Without the slightest sign of fear, Asutosh replied: “Then I will tell the Viceroy and Governor General of India that Asutosh Mookherjee refuses to be commanded by any other person except his mother, be he Viceroy, or be he somebody higher still!” Asutosh was honoured by the conferment of the ‘Companion of the Order of the State of India’(CSI) in June 1909 and knighted two years later in 1911.
In 1883, at the youthful age of 19, he topped the BA examination at Calcutta University and won a scholarship. In 1885 he finished his MA in Mathematics and in 1886 did his Masters in Physical Science, making himself the first student to be awarded a dual degree from Calcutta University. At the age of 24 he became a fellow of the Calcutta University and helped in its transformation from an examining body into a major centre of learning and research. Known for his intense interest and concern for education he was appointed the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University from 1906 to 1914 and again from 1921 to 1923. He would have continued to hold the post, but he refused to stay on because the then Viceroy, Lord Lytton tried to impose some unacceptable conditions on him. He was not one to take slights easily. It was during his term and tenure as Vice Chancellor that he got CV Raman (who, in later years was to get a Nobel Laureate) to shift from a government job to Calcutta University at almost half the salary!
Another man who was to bring credit to India and become India’s President, Dr Radhakrishnan was also Dr Mookerjee’s find. Besides, Dr Mookerjee was one of the first persons to recognise the work of Srinivasa Ramanujam. In Calcutta he seemed to be everywhere where the spread of knowledge was bursting. He was responsible for the foundation of the Bengal Institute of Technology in 1926 and the College of Science of the Calcutta University in 1914. He was thrice elected President of the Asiatic Society. The Calcutta Mathematical Society was founded by him in 1908 and he served as its president from 1908 to 1923. In 1910 he was appointed the President of the Imperial (now National) Library Council and his personal collection of 80,000 books he donated to it without the slightest hesitation. As if these assignments were not enough to recognise his status, he was named President of the inaugural session of the Indian Science Congress in 1914 and a member of the Sadler Commission, presided over by Michael Ernest Sadler, which was to inquire into the state of Indian education. Needless to say it was under Asutosh’s leadership and direction that Calcutta University set up several new academic programmes in subjects like Comparative Literature, Aplied Psychology, Industrial Chemistry, Ancient Indian History and Culture. He was, as one scholar called him a polyglot learned in, of all languages Pali, French and Russian and was awarded the titles of Saraswati and Shastravachaspati by the pundits of Bengal. He of course had also been named as a Judge of the Calcutta High Court, having first shown his mettle as an outstanding lawyer.
M V Kamath? (The writer is a senior columnist and former editor of Illustrated Weekly)