A sample size of three spanning 79 years may be too small to even attempt a hypothesis.
But, thanks to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan walking away with the 2009 Nobel (after C.V. Raman in 1930 and Subramanyam Chandrasekhar in 1983), several commentators are asking why three of India’s Nobel Prize winners in science hail from Tamil Nadu—and why they are all Brahmins.
P. Radhakrishnan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, in an interview with Shobha Warrier of rediff.com, says that there is no relation between community and scientific work, and suggests that what looks like a co-relation may be sheer coincidence; like many Nobel winners coming from a Jewish background.
Some of the salient points made by Radhakrishnan are:
# Brahmins have the benefit of cultural capital: “In a hierarchical society, cultural capital is concentrated at the top. Brahmins are at the summit of the social hierarchy. Cultural capital gets transmitted from generation to generation. Brahmins have cultural capital. The poverty of a poor Brahmin is only economic, but the poverty of an untouchable is both economic and cultural. That is the reason why where talent has to be used persistently and assiduously, Brahmins have been shining.”
# Social background of Brahmins is rich and aristocratic: “Except in Kerala, Brahmins lived an aristocratic life. Brahmins were the first to take to English education and gradually managed to monopolise it. Brahmins had a monopoly over indigenous education too. By taking to English education, they abandoned indigenous education and allowed it to have a natural death… [Except Kerala] serving society has never been part of the Brahminical mindset.”
# Brahmins picked and choose what they wanted to do: “Initially Brahmins refused to have anything to do with medical education as it involved physical contact with other castes. They took to English education and they were the first to take to literature and engineering which was not science education then. Brahmins were the “lotus eaters” and the leisure class. They had ample time to read, write and engage in cultural activities.”
The Nobel Prize scorecard of The Telegraph, Calcutta, reads 3-3: three Bengali Nobel Prize winners (Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa, Amartya Sen) versus three Tamil Nobel Prize winners. (Ronald Ross, who discovered the malaria parasite, worked in Calcutta besides Hyderabad.)
Calcutta’s spin-meisters however give the debate a more parochial edge. They take pride in the fact that their City, the capital of British India, was the cradle for science than Tamil Nadu.
Much of the research that C.V. Raman did to get the Nobel was done in Calcutta, where he spent 17 years of his life; that the genius of Srinivasa Ramanujam was discovered by a British mathematician, and that both S. Chandrashekhar and Venky Ramakrishnanan, although hailing from Tamil Nadu, did their research outside the State (and country).
But they acknowledge the balance has swung from East to South thanks to the quality of students, the quality of labs, conducive atmosphere for research, resource allocation, and the “Bose Effect”.
For years, Bengal’s gripe has been the stepmotherly treatment of the four Boses—Jagadish Bose, Satyen Bose, Subhas Bose and the cricketer Gopal Bose. The problem, scientists ay, continues over the allocation of reseources, or refusal of it, for space technology.
“The [space technology] area has become a south Indian hegemony,” said Sandip Chakrabarti, a senior professor at the S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences. “All the institutes are located in the south, giving proximity to Sriharikota as an excuse. NASA, in contrast, has spread wings across the US. Whenever we go to seek grants for space research in eastern India, we are told there would be a clash of interests with Isro.
“If tomorrow India is divided into north and south, it would take the south barely two-and-a-half days to conquer north India as it owns all our space and missile technology.”