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Freedom fighter: Atul Chitnis drove the free and open source software movement

German-born Atul was a great linker with the outside world.

Written by Frederick Noronha | Published: June 5, 2013 12:41:40 am

Atul Chitnis drove the free and open source software movement in the country

Atul Chitnis’s lasting image in my mind is that of a 40-something lugging an oversized soft-toy penguin in the Indian Institute of Sciences campus in Bangalore a decade ago. Beyond the frivolous image was a man who arguably did more than any other to build open source technologies in a resource-poor,talent-rich country of 1.2 billion.

Atul was The Architect. Like a hacker ironing out snarled-up code,he went about building a network across India,one step at a time — from his early days with the BBS (bulletin boards,a costly way of using modems and phone lines to communicate in a pre-Internet world) to his upbeat articles in magazines like the then much-awaited PCQuest and his many upbeat talks nationwide. We were early camp-followers. From nearby Goa,an overnight bus-ride away,we joined the open source pavillion at (around the late 1990s),the many Linux-Bangalore events and finally,which attracted a few thousand participants,making it the largest FOSS event of its kind in the world.

German-born Atul was a great linker with the outside world. Like a magician pulling rabbits out of the proverbial hat,Chitnis would regularly bring on global greats for the then still-underrated Indian techie to interact with at some Bangalore meet. This is how we ran into the Alan Coxes,Harald Weltes,Rasmus Lerdorfs,Danese Coopers,Volker Grassmucks,and many more. He was heard at groups like the Berlin-founded Chaos Computer Club,Europe’s largest association of hackers.

While everyone lamented how much of a boys’ club free and open source technologies were proving to be,Atul got the soft-spoken and immensely talented Suparna Bhattarcharya of IBM to give the keynote at 2006. (I recall writing,tongue in cheek,that the new “poster boy” of free and open source software was actually a girl!) And there was Sulamita Garcia of LinuxChix,from distant Brazil,talking gender sensitivity. It’s no coincidence that Atul’s active involvement with open source overlapped with the peak of the movement in India. That was because,more than many others,he made it happen.

First as a columnist and consulting editor,Atul would evangelise and also share the code through the “PCQuest Linux Initiative”. Till then,the software wasn’t really free or open,simply because large parts of India simply had no access to it,or didn’t know about it. By packaging the best “distros” (collections) in CDs or DVDs,the initiative Atul pushed changed the scene. Atul repeatedly pointed to the potential benefits for countries like India using software that techies could study by looking “under its hood”.

Being part German probably made Atul exceptionally blunt and outspoken,as anyone who got into an online flame war with him quickly realised,as I did more than once. Ideologically too,the rift between free software and open source was being played out. But Atul linked the dots,and mentored a generation. Before our very eyes we saw youngsters like Kalyan Varma grow from unsure college kids into confident Yahoo! techies and then amazingly efficient wildlife photographers. Even if Atul didn’t focus too much on appreciating the politics of technology,the movement grew and matured. More recently,we’ve seen some of its one-time young heroes,like Raj Mathur of Delhi,pass on.

People like Atul gave me the idea that something really big was going on — and it was. This resulted in my write-ups showing up in the tech press in the US and Germany,which ironically were better placed to appreciate the impact of the change here. Today,we know that the inspiration of FOSS is benefitting the worlds of encyclopaedia (think Wikipedia),dictionaries,music,besides open access journals,open law,open-source biology,MIT’s opencourseware,ebooks via Project Gutenberg or,and more.

Atul’s networking helped us realise that South Asian expats were pushing this field in little-noticed ways. Like Rishab Aiyer Ghosh in Europe,KDE developer Sirtaj Singh Kang in Australia,the Hindu priest-Debian geek from Silicon Valley,Jaldhar Vyas,or Niranjan Rajani in Finland,who edited the report on FOSS (or FLOSS) in the developing world.

All this overlooks Atul’s contribution in building probably India’s first online service,the CiX BBS,his networking with individuals like Kishore Bhargava to take technology nationwide,his long involvement with mobile computing (including at Geodesic) and the Simputer project,music and the internet radio station,RadioVeRVe.

As FOSS technologies take over the internet in diverse unseen ways,Android becomes the platform of choice,OLPCs and inexpensive computing moves away from proprietary code,you might be using FOSS without even realising it,and the pioneers of the past are moving on. Sometimes too early,as in Atul’s case. But their contribution will be long recalled.

Noronha is a freelancer who has written widely on FLOSS issues in India

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