As GSLV launches and PM Modi cheers, some Gujaratis remember a forgotten son

Renaissance man Vikram Sarabhai laid the foundation of independent India in nuclear and space science as well as the arts, but modern-day Gujarat continues to ignore him

Written by Leena Misra | Published:June 7, 2017 11:00 am
ISRO, Narendra Modi, Vikram Sarabhai, GSAT-19 ISRO’s heaviest rocket GSLV Mk-III, carrying communication satellite GSAT-19, leaves a trail of smoke during its launch from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on Monday. (PTI Photo by R Senthil)

As ISRO’s GSLV-Mark III rocket blasted into space on June 5, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space centre in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, prime minister Narendra Modi and thousands of Indians cheered at India’s space programme’s incredible achievement.

But more than 1800 km away from Sriharikota, at the Nehru Foundation for Development (NFD) which is located in a quiet and green part of west Ahmedabad, 72-year-old Padmanabh Joshi’s joy knew no bounds.

“This was Vikrambhai’s dream — to be completely self-reliant in our space programme. And today we have achieved it,” Joshi said, referring to Vikram Sarabhai, widely considered to be the father of India’s nuclear and space programmes, who died all too soon at the very young age of 52 years, in 1971.

A chronicler of Sarabhai’s life and achievements, Joshi also became a friend of the space scientist. And as the GSLV rocket rammed into space, the elderly man called me, somewhat breathlessly.

Notwithstanding Joshi’s joy, the GSLV launch demonstrated another hard-boiled fact : One of Gujarat’s greatest sons continues to be largely forgotten in his own home state.

Fact is, Vikram Sarabhai’s home city doesn’t boast of a single statue or memorial in his name. There are statues to scores of other great men and women, like Mahatma Gandhi and Veer Savarkar – while the mother of all statues, to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, is being built on the banks of the Narmada, and is expected to be 180 metres high.

But a bust of Vikram Sarabhai on a city centre roundabout? Or a statue of a man internationally acclaimed, perhaps alongside the Sabarmati riverfront renovated some years ago under the watchful eye of former chief minister Narendra Modi ? Sorry, not here.

Indeed, some ISRO centres in Ahmedabad, like the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), the Space Applications Centre (SAC) and the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) – all widely seen as the cradle of India’s space programme — as well as some of the other 35 institutions that Sarabhai set up after he returned from Cambridge in 1947, like the Indian Institute of Management and the NFD, have memorialized him with busts and plaques in his honour.

ISRO’s key centre at Thiruvananthapuram, the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, has been named after him. Other ISRO centres all over the country, in places like Dehradun, Hassan and Bangalore and Hyderabad and Mohali are living testimonials to his rigorous research and scientific bent of mind.

Meanwhile, Ahmedabad remains a pivot, having contributed for this GSLV launch, as with earlier launches, to the payload of the communication GSAT19 satellite.

But the fact remains that the city of Ahmedabad, where Vikram Sarabhai was born to the wealthy mill-owner Ambalal Sarabhai and Sarla Devi, has turned a blind eye against her beloved son.

Elsewhere in Gujarat, only the Vikram Sarabhai centre for Cell and Molecular Biology at the Maharaj Sayajirao University in Vadodara stands out – that too, mostly because Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is an alum. In any case, that decision to name the centre only came as recently as 2012.

Joshi told me how he, as a 21-year old student of masters in political science, met Sarabhai quite by chance, for the first time in 1966 at PRL.

“As we spoke, he told me, ‘Can you imagine, using satellites for education?” I looked at him blankly as he explained what a satellite was. ‘Turn a mirror face down and stick it on the ceiling and flash a torch from the floor on it… that is a satellite,” recalled Joshi, holding on to that precious encounter.

“When Russia and US were competing to send manned missions to space for glamour value, Vikrambhai was determined that in India they would be used for development,” Joshi recalled.

GSAT 19, which launched on June 5, is the first in the series of communication satellites. It will be followed by GSAT-11 and GSAT-20 which are expected to revolutionise internet and communication systems.

For a city like Ahmedabad, once known as Manchester of the East because of its fixation with cotton mills, the word ‘satellite’ would soon add itself to the city map, defining the area around ISRO and PRL.

Tapan Misra, director of Space Applications Centre, which develops satellite payloads, has in a Facebook post recounted how Gujarat’s first chief town planner, Jamnadas Patel — who celebrated his 100th birthday in April — told him how Sarabhai had approached him to convince then Gujarat chief minister Balwantrai Mehta, to set up ISRO in Ahmedabad.

Sarabhai was then heading INCOSPAR, which had obtained approval from the Atomic Energy Commission for a new project on space research, and was looking for land to start ISRO. With Jamnadas Patel’s intervention, he got the very piece of land he wanted, at a token price of one rupee. INCOSPAR metamorphosed into ISRO on August 15, 1969.

Certainly, Sarabhai was one of those highly unusual Renaissance men, interested in a variety of subjects and blessed with the intellect, compassion, wealth as well as an influential network to put some of those ideas into practice.

From the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad to the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) to the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, the Fast Breeder Test Reactor in Kalpakkam and the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd in Jharkhand, Vikram Sarabhai laid the foundation of independent India in a variety of ways.

Perhaps, Gujarat will honour him properly one day. People like Padmanabh Joshi are certainly hoping that day will dawn very soon.

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