Saha in Politics

The period between 1850 and 1950 is considered one of the most fertile periods of fundamental science. On the other hand, it was a critical time in the evolution of social consciousness worldwide since it witnessed two World Wars.

Saha in Politics


The period between 1850 and 1950 is considered one of the most fertile periods of fundamental science. On the other hand, it was a critical time in the evolution of social consciousness worldwide since it witnessed two World Wars. During this period, undivided India was under colonial rule except the last three years. Therefore, the achievement of any individual in the country during that time should be considered against the strong noncooperation and injustice from the erstwhile administrative authority, and severe economic hardship prevailing in society.

Under such circumstances, it is astonishing to see the journey of Meghnad Saha, a great educationist and an exceptionally brilliant scientist with a committed social vision, who came from a poor family in an obscure village of east Bengal. At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of dedicated youth came to Presidency College and later to Calcutta University with a mission to serve the country with zeal and conviction. Saha was one of them. Meghnad Saha took science as the main subject during intermediate education at Dacca (Dhaka) College where he studied the German language as an additional subject. He entered Presidency College with a scholarship in 1911 and his classmates were Satyendra Nath Bose, Jnan Chandra Ghosh, Jnanendra Nath Mukherjee and Nikhil Ranjan Sen in the B.Sc. class. Meghnad studied mathematics as a B.Sc honours subject with Satyendra Nath and Nikhil Ranjan and later M.Sc. in applied mathematics.

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Nil Ratan Dhar were senior to them. Two elder brothers of Subhas Chandra Bose were also their classmates. Their teachers were Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (Chemistry), Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (Physics) and Professors D.N. Mallik and C.E. Cullis (Mathematics). The 1915 M.Sc. batch of Calcutta University produced a galaxy of scholars who brought many laurels to the country. In 1916, University College of Science was established by Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee where Meghnad and Satyendra Nath joined to teach physics in M.Sc classes. Later C V Raman joined as Palit Professor in physics and Prafula Chandra Ray as Palit Professor in chemistry.


Meghnad rose to fame quickly by publishing remarkable papers on the theory of thermal ionization in 1920 and became FRS in 1927 at the age of 34. Saha’s theories of thermal ionization of elements, and selective radiation pressure have revolutionized astrophysical thought and research. After a glorious academic career, he entered parliament by winning the general election in 1952 as an independent candidate from Calcutta North-West constituency. Saha who had witnessed the poverty-stricken villages of Bengal and the sufferings of people during natural calamities like floods, and deadly diseases, felt deeply for a permanent solution to these problems.

In 1923, a catastrophic flood engulfed some parts of North Bengal and breached the Calcutta-Darjeeling railway lines at different places. A relief committee was formed under the leadership of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray at the University College of Science. Subhas Chandra Bose was entrusted to fieldwork, Satish Chandra Dasgupta was the member in charge of supplies while Meghnad Saha was given charge of propaganda officer. During this relief operation, Meghnad wrote an article for the Modern Review explaining the possible causes of that devastating flood and suggesting measures for the riverine eastern part of Bengal. He understood that this huge amount of flood water could be utilized for irrigation and generating energy for the benefit of mankind.

The enormity of the disastrous flood made an indelible mark on his young mind. Later, successive floods in the Damodar River in south Bengal, particularly the disastrous flood in 1943, caused a severe war-time crisis. Saha wrote a series of articles in his journal Science and Culture to create awareness amongst the public so that the government could raise a comprehensive multi-purpose plan for Damodar and its tributaries. As a result Damodar Flood Enquiry Committee headed by the Maharajadhiraj Bahadur of Burdwan submitted a report in line with Saha’s article with K. Ray ~ The Planning of the Damodar Valley ~ published in Science and Culture in 1944.

However, it had been an uphill struggle to convince the colonial ruler to act fast in planning and implementation. The late 1930s was an interesting phase for Indian politics. Subhas Chandra Bose was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1938. He was invited to speak as chief guest at the 3rd annual meeting of the Indian Science News Association (ISNA), founded by Saha. Bose said on this occasion ~ “Congressmen of today have not only to strive for liberty, but they have also to devote a portion of their thought and energy to problems of national reconstruction.

And national reconstruction will be possible only with the aid of science and our scientists”. Bose was deeply concerned with the post-independence problems that India would be facing and it was in his mind to make a national economic plan to meet forthcoming challenges. Later Saha took the opportunity and proposed forming a national planning commission with Subhas Bose. Finally, a national planning committee was formed under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru. During the Great War around 1943, it was imminent that the British would be forced to give independence to India even if the Allied forces won the war. Additionally, the “Quit India” movement by Mahatma Gandhi in August 1942 expedited the process.

Interestingly, amidst the great war crisis, the British Government thought that the resources available in Indian science and technology had not been utilized to build certain inland capabilities to alleviate the poor condition of the masses. Accordingly, on the recommendation of A S Hill, Nobel Laureate in medicine, a team of distinguished scientists from India visited the UK, USA, and Canada in 1944 to assess scientific and industrial development in these countries. Saha was one of the active members of the delegation along with Jnan Chandra Ghosh, S S Bhatnagar and others.

While visiting these countries, Saha delivered lectures on various issues, one of them being on “Science in Social and International Planning with Special Reference to India”; later the report was published in Nature. A detailed report of the visit was compiled and prepared by Saha; it was submitted to the government in 1946 for consideration. Therefore, available documents and evidence show that in all these endeavours, Saha took the pivotal role with a mission for the country’s fast development once colonial rule ended. Immediately after independence, Saha became a member of the University Commission under the chairmanship of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in 1948.

The committee members visited different places in the country to get first-hand knowledge about the existing system; they submitted an excellent report describing the plan and pattern of the Indian education system, which is available in the electronic archive. This committee’s work enriched Saha to understand the dismal condition of the country’s education system. During the years 1950-52, Saha was disappointed and disillusioned by the activities of the government particularly with the implementation of the objectives of the National Planning Commission, industrial policies, education, etc.

As S N Sen mentioned in the commemorative volume ~ “Entering public life was far from his thoughts, but it was at the request of his friend Sri Sarat Chandra Bose, brother of the Netaji, who was a member of the first constituent assembly. Mr. Bose and other friends argued that as he had given so much thought to national planning, industrialization, and river valley developments, his presence in the legislature might be of great help to the country when decisions are taken by the Government on these points.

But this was not liked by other Congressman.” Initially, the government failed to evolve policies to establish large-scale industries and neglected the health and education sectors. Multipurpose river valley development schemes had not shown much progress as stipulated initially resulting in cost overruns on most projects. Saha finally decided to contest the general election as an independent candidate supported by communist parties against a powerful candidate of the Congress.

He defeated his rival by more than 16 per cent votes epitomizing a historic event in parliamentary democracy. He actively participated in parliamentary debates suggesting and criticizing different motions put forward by the government. He wrote an article on “Rethinking our Future” in the form of a pamphlet in 1953, which consisted of various speeches in parliament criticizing the report of the Five Year Plan introduced by the Government in November 1952. In that pamphlet Saha had mentioned under a sub-title ~ Why Scientist has taken to Politics? “Scientists are often accused of living in the Ivory Tower and not troubling their minds with realities and apart from my association with political movements in my juvenile years, I had lived in the Ivory Tower up to 1930. But science and technics are very important for administration nowa-days, at least as much as law and order.

I have gradually glided into politics because I wanted to be of some use to the country in my own humble way.” Veteran parliamentarian Renu Chakraborty had mentioned in her memoir that Prime Minister Nehru used to listen with attention whenever Saha participated in the debate in the Lok Sabha. On many occasions, they differed but their relationship was never bitter. Another noted parliamentarian, Professor Hiren Mukherjee, once said that we learned a lot through his speeches in the Lok Sabha.

All these episodes indicate how rich our parliamentary democracy was. Saha could have contributed much more but with his untimely death in February 1956, all hopes were lost towards a meaningful standard in the opposition in parliament. We lost a towering personality as Satyendra Nath Bose commented while delivering the Meghnad Saha Memorial Lecture on 24 April 1965 at SINP ~ “The pearls were in a sense already there, but it required a Meghnad to recognize them and to string them together into a necklace on unsurpassable beauty.”

(The writer is Former CSIR Scientist Emeritus, Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), Kolkata)