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Daulat Singh Kothari
The Architect of Defence Science in India
Dr Subodh Mahanti

The “message” of the teacher to the students is not merely to impart knowledge content of books which is largely information fast getting out of date. But more than that it should be inspiration, by his/her example, towards the process of character building and the use of knowledge for welfare of the community. The total message to the students, and to the community, is the total life of the teacher.

D. S. Kothari in his address delivered on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Function of the Faculty of Education, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi October 29, 1988.

The great reality of our age is science. The understanding of nature which science provides, and the deep harmony it unfolds, are deeply satisfying to the human mind. The power of science to transform society is immense, perhaps more than of any other activity. Equally real and pervasive is human suffering—starvation, pain, devastation, violence, loneliness and deep anguish of the soul. Science will suffer grievously and in the end reduce to a mockery, if all its power is not yoked to alleviate human suffering.

D. S. Kothari in his Shri Raj Krishen Memorial Lecture delivered at Delhi on October 11, 1977.

There was a time about a hundred years ago when a gifted individual could encompass the whole of science. This is no longer true today. Science and technology are now divided into some 100-150 subjects. The division is often arbitrary. It is hardly possible for any person today to master even one subject. The fragmentation of science, if it is not to become a self-defeating process, has to be supplemented by cross communications cutting across subject-barriers. There must be a continuing re-shuffling of boundaries between subjects. Fragmentation is artificial: Science, in a sense, is a unity.

D. S. Kothari in his Presidential address to Indian Science Congress at Delhi on October 07, 1963.

Daulat Singh Kothari, popularly known as D. S. Kothari, was an outstanding scientist. He was a great educationist. His contribution to the entire spectrum of Indian education from elementary school to the university level is well-known. He was a student of Meghnad Saha. Kothari is regarded as the architect of defence science in India. He also played an important role in development of many other organizations, notable along them are the University Grants Commission and the National Council of Education Research and Training. Above all Kothari was an outstanding teacher. He had the moral and intellectual qualities of a rare human being. He devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge in its widest sense. He was a multifaceted personality—an outstanding teacher, a great educationist, a renowned physicist and a highly successful leader and organiser.

D.S. Kothari was born on July 6, 1906 at Udaipur. At that time Udaiput was in the Mewar State of Rajasthan. His father, Shri Fateh Lal Kothari, was a school teacher. Kothari had three brothers and one sister. His father died in 1918 at the age of 38 years and Kothari, who was the eldest of five children, was just 12 years old. His father’s early death plunged the family into severe economic difficulties. He was brought up by his mother, a devout Jain and a generous lady. She was always willing to help others in need. Kothari was much influenced by his mother. Kothari was much influenced by his mother.

After his early education in his hometown Kothari was invited by his father’s friend Sir Siremal Bapna, then Chief Minister of Indore State, to stay with him and study with his children. Kothari matriculated in 1922 from Maharaja Shivajirao High School of Indore. After his matriculation he came back to Udaipur and joined the Intermediate College. In his Intermediate Examination, which he passed in 1924, he stood first in the Rajputana Board. He secured distinctions in three science subjects – physics, chemistry and Mathematics. For his outstanding performance in Intermediate Examination, the Mahrana of Mewar granted him a monthly scholarship of Rs. 50/- for pursuing higher studies. In those days it was an exceedingly generous grant. Kothari Passed his BSc in 1926 from the Allahabad University. At the time Kothari came to Allahabad University, Meghnad Saha was heading the Physics Department. He passed his MSc in 1928. He speicliased in Wireless (now renamed Electronics).

After his MSc, in which he stood first in order of merit, Kothari took an appointment as demonstrator in the Department of Physics of the Allahabad University. After two years working as Demonstrator he went to England for higher studies. This was possible by the scholarship that he got from the United Province (UP) State Government for going abroad and an interest free loan of Rs. 3, 500/- from the Mewar State Government. Because he had to ensure that after his departure his family did not suffer. In September 1930 he sailed for Engalnd, where he worked at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge under the supervision of Ernst Rutherford, to whom he was recommended by Meghnad Saha. After obtaining his PhD degree from the Cambridge University he came back to India and resumed his duties as demonstrator in the Physics Department of the Allahabad University.

In May 1934 Kothari Joined the Delhi University as Reader and Head of the Physics Department. In those days the science departments of the Delhi University functioned in a hired building in Kashmiri Gate. The University imported education only upto BSc degree. There was little equipment in the laboratories. However, soon after his joining a number of developments took place towards the improvement of the university. The university moved to the Viceregal Lodge Estate. The Faculty of Science decided that teaching in chemistry and Physics be extended to MSc level. In 1938 Sir Maurice Gwyer, former Chief Justice of the Federal Court of India, was appointed as the first full time Vice Chancellor of the University. Kothari was appointed Professor of Physics in 1942. With active support of the Vice-Chancellor he took the task of establishing the Physics Department. The first batch of five students passed MSc in 1944. Kothari was able to attract some outstanding physicists to the Department. He established the New Physics Laboratory. While sending his good wishes for the New Laboratory Albert Eisntein advised Kothari : “Keep good comradeship and work with love and without pre-conceived ideas and you will be happy and successful in your work.” Kothari often referred to this remark. Many eminent physicists frequently visited the department and their visits enhanced the prestige of the Department. Among those who visited included : PMS Blackett, Niels Bohr, PAM Dirac, P Kapitza, I Prigogine, CV Raman, H.J. Bhabha, M.N. Saha and K.S Krishnan. Kothari established an active research group in physical science at Delhi University. He published a number of research papers in various branches of physics and astrophysics including plasma physics, magnetohydrodynamics, quantum electrodynamics, and relativistic quantum statistics. His work on pressure ionization was highly acclaimed. It found wide ranging applications. Sir A.S. Eddington wrote : “I mentioned that we only gradually came to realize that ionization could be produced by high pressure as well as high temperature. I think the first man to state this explicitly was D.S. Kothari. Stimulated by some work of HN Russall, Kothari has made what I think is an extremely interesting application.” Further commenting Dr. Kothari’s work, Arnold Sommerfeld wrote : “During the times of Galileo and Kepler the planets were at the focus of astronomical interest but in view of the developments of the last few decades the interest has shifted to stellar subjects and spiral nebula. It is noteworthy that the Indian DS Kothari has developed an audacious relationship between the old fashioned planets and the now discovered newest heavenly bodies, the white dwarfs”.

Kothari played an important role in shaping the University Library. This is because he could realize that without a good library no teaching and research could be done. In 1936 May he was unanimously elected Secretary to the Library Committee, a post he held till October 1943. He organized the Third All India Library Conference at the University of Delhi in December 1937. He persuaded the Vice Chancellor to invite S.R. Ranganathan, who is regarded as father of library science in India, for suggesting a reorganization plan of the University Library. Dr. S.R. Das Gupta who taught history at St. Stephen College was appointed the first University Librarian. Before his appointment he was sent to the Madras University for getting trained for the job.

In 1948 the Government of India appointed Kothari as Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence, a post he held until 1961 when he was appointed Chairman of the University Grants Commission. The Government invited PMS Blacket for advising them in organizing defense science in India. It may be noted that Kothari and Blacket worked together in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge under the guidance of Ernst Rutherford. Blacket had played an important role in organizing defence science in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. While commenting on the Kothari’s contribution in establishing defence science in India Kothari’s colleague in Defence Science Organization, Nagaratnam wrote : “In giving a direction and coherent shape to the Defence Science Organisation, Professor Kothari had no precedents to go by. It is a tribute to his clear thinking and visionary foresight that he unerringly identified thrust areas of relevance in the country’s geopolitical (both the then existing and anticipated future) context. Further there were no ready-made specialists in any of these disciplines in the country. He carefully chose through personal contact, scientists (mostly from universities) who had the necessary interest, aptitude and competence. He guided them personally on developing these disciplines on healthy lines. He himself spared no effort to get a mastery over all these areas (most of which were new to him). He organized weekly seminars on relevant subjects and made it a point to participate actively in each one of them, and particularly encouraged the younger scientists. He believed in humble beginnings and natural growth.”

During of Kothari’s term as Advisor to the Defence Ministry the following laboratories were established under the aegis of Defence Sciences Organisation :

1. Institute of Armament Studies (later renamed Institute of Armament Technology), Pune.
2. Naval Dockyard Laboratory (later renamed Naval Chemical and Metallurgical Laboratory), Mumbai.
3. Indian Naval Physical Laboratory, Kochi
4. Centre for Fire Research, Delhi
5. Solid State Physics Laboratory, Delhi
6. Defence Food Research Laboratory, Mysore
7. Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, Chennai
8. Directorate of Psychological Research, New Delhi
9. Defence Electronics and Research Laboratory, Hyderabad
10. Scientific Evaluation Group, Delhi
11. Technical Ballistic Research Laboratory, Chandigarh

APJ Abdul Kalam in his recent book, Ignited Minds : Unleashing the Power Within India. wrote : “Dr. D.S. Kothari, a professor at Delhi University, was an outstanding physicist and astrophysicist. He is well-known for Ionisation of matter by pressure in cold compact object like planets. This theory is complementary to the epoch making theory of thermal inisation of his guru, Dr. Maghnad Saha. Dr. D.S. Kothari set a scientific tradition in Indian defence tasks when he became Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister in 1948. The first thing he did was to establish the Defence Science Centre to do research in electronic materials, nuclear medicine and ballistic science. He is considered the architect of defence science in India. We are celebrating this great mind through a Chair research at the Indian Institute of Science”.

In 1961 Kothari was appointed the Chairman of the University Grants Commission and he remained in this post for almost 13 years. Kothari initiated a number of new activities in colleges and universities. Kothari firmly believed that the future of the country depended essentially on education. Describing a university Kothari said: “A university is a society of teachers and students dedicated to the pursuit of learning. It is, above all, a dwelling place of ideas and idealism. And the contribution that the universities and colleges in our country will or can make to meet the great challenge of our times will be in direct proportion to their being and becoming, in pursuit of their true ideals, places where there is freedom to inquire boldly and readiness to doubt courageously, where knowledge and understanding and true humility go together and grow more and more, and where the highest standards of scholarship, integrity and conduct are expected, respected and cultivated.” He also said: “…the level of science and technology in the universities provides a reasonably good and reiable barometer to the standard and health of science and technology in a country. In a developing country like ours, the strengthening of the universities is fundamental to everything else.”

His commitment to education was total. So there is no wonder that when the Government of India appointed the Indian Education Commission in 1964, Kothari became its Chairman. Other members of the Committee were Bhagwan Sahay, S. Chakravarty, M. L. Dhar, M. V. Mathur and G. Parthasarathi. In the report entitled “Education and National Development” prepared by the Commission Kothari’s vision of education clearly reflected. The Report was hailed as landmark in educational sectors in India and other developing countries. To quote from the report : “The destiny of India is now being shaped in her classrooms. This, we believe, is no mere rhetoric. In a world based on science and technology, it is education that determines the level of prosperity, welfare and security of the people. On the quality and number of persons coming out of our schools and colleges will depend our success in the great enterprise of national reconstruction, the principal objective of which is to raise the standard of living of our people.” Kotahri’s deep concern for education led to his association with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), since its inception. He not only conceptualized the role and functions of NCERT but also gave a blueprint for its future development in the Report of the Education Commission (1964-66). Kothari’s role in reorganizing the examination and selection process for central services of the Government of India is quite significant. Kothari believed that education, specially scientific and technical education, was directly linked to national development and prosperity. He said: “The role of education is to improve the material standard of the people and to enrich the quality of life. Besides knowledge and skills, education should be also concerned with the ‘inner content’ of our lives, with ideas and idealism and strengthening of the spirit. We need a balance between three overlapping divisions of education (at all levels) which may perhaps be described as: tactical, strategic and humanistic. The first refers to theoretical and practical knowledge of life-long utility, the second to knowledge of life-long utility and value, and the third relates to quality and meaning of life.” He emphasized the need for improving the conditions for primary education in the country. He said: “No country, whatever its stage of economic development, can in the modern world afford to do anything less than provide primary education to all its people. That is essential to survival and development. Illiteracy is expensive in the long run.” He believed without promoting excellence in educational institutions nothing could be achieved. He said: “Education which does not value and promote excellence is, in the end, a waste of effort and resources. Excellence is to be understood as extending over a wide range of interests and activities, that is, studies, research, teaching, technical skills, promotion of social and moral values, sports, etc. The meaning of excellence, and how to identify it, needs to be examined continually.”

Kothari had immense faith in the youth of the country and he did everything whatever he could do to encourage the young scientists. He was keen on identifying talented students and nurturing them. The National Science Talent Search Programme and the subsequent National Talent Search Programme started by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) owe their origin to Kothari’s vision.

He had the highest regard for truth and non-violence. He had the greatest tolerance for all religious beliefs. Above all he believed in rationality. While talking on science and religion, Kothari said: “Anti-science, negation of science, is to be totally rejected. It is most important to make an unequivocal distinction, even if it cannot be sharply made, between rational, beyond-rational, (beyond-reason), and anti-rational (anti-reason). Anti-rational or anti-science has no place in the affairs of man. It is untruth. But beyond-reason is not anti-reason. And beyond-physics is not anti-physics. It is not negation of physics…The reign of reason is supreme in science. Its loyalty is to nothing else. But the very existence of science, the great kingdom of reason, the very fact that nature is comprehensible to human mind, is unfathomable mystery…Science, through understanding of nature, enables us to transform matter into energy—clay into gold, as it were. Faith can transform men of “clay” into men of love, compassion and without fear.” Further he said: “Science provides an understanding of and control over Nature. But it is moral and spiritual insight which gives a meaning and purpose to life, individually and collectively. In the end both science and religion are to judged by their achievements, and not by their pretensions or their promises.”

Kothari’s book, Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects, jointly written with Homi J. Bhabha, is regarded as an important contribution to the subject. The book has been translated into German, Russian and Japanese.

Kothari received several honours and awards. Kothari was Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University for two terms (1882-92). He was the President of the Indian National Science Academy from 1973 to 1974. He was the General President of the Indian Science Congress held in Delhi in 1962. The Government of India honoured him with Padma Bhushan in 1962 and Padma Vibhushan in 1973. After his retirement from the Delhi University in 1971, he was appointed Emeritus Professor and he continued to maintain close contact with students and teachers almost till his death on February 4, 1993. In honour of Kothari the Delhi University has established the D. S. Kothari Centre for Science, Ethics and Education. One of the objectives of this centre is to collect technical and non-technical writings of Kothari in book form.

We would like to end this article by Kothari on the aim of education: “The true aim of all education is to understand the wonderful world around us, to develop self-discipline and contribute to the happiness to our home and the community. This makes education enjoyable and most exciting, inspiring adventure.”

For Further Reading:

  1. Atom and Self: Collection of Lectures Delivered by D. S. Kothari. Edited by Feroz Ahmed. New Age International Publishers. New Delhi 2002.
  2. Knowledge and Wisdom: Collection of Lectures Delivered by D. S. Kothari. Edited by Feroz Ahmed. New Age International Publishers. New Delhi 2002.
  3. Education and Character Building: Convocation Addresses Delivered by D. S. Kothari. National Institute of Science Communication (now renamed as National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources). New Delhi, 2000.