An unconventional citizen

Print edition : February 25, 2005

H. Narasimhaiah, 1920-2005.

in Bangalore

H. NARASIMHAIAH - educationist, scientist, rationalist, and a cherished teacher for generations of Bangaloreans - died at the age of 85 on January 31 in a private hospital where he was under treatment for several weeks. He was a former Vice-Chancellor of the Bangalore University, former President of the Indian Rationalist Association and founder of the Bangalore Science Forum. Tributes to this unconventional citizen, who lived a spartan life in one room in the National College Boys Hostel in Basavangudi, went beyond the merely formal. His death was mourned by schoolchildren amongst whom he lived and worked, as well as by persons from different walks of public life whom he had taught and interacted with. `HN', as he was called, commanded universal respect and affection, and will be remembered for his contribution to education, his lifelong promotion of the spirit of science and rationalism, and his ready, if oftentimes barbed, wit.


Born in Gauribidanur taluk in Kolar district of Karnataka in 1920, HN's father was a `coolie meshtru' who, HN recalled in an interview, "earned rice and ragi in return for teaching elementary Kannada to children". His mother was a daily wage-worker. HN had to discontinue his studies after standard VIII as there was no high school in his village. To his joy, his middle-school headmaster who had been transferred to Bangalore, asked him to come to the city. Thirsty for education but without a rupee in his pocket, he walked for two days to reach Bangalore. He joined the National High School in 1935, staying in the Poor Boys' Home in the school. In 1936, Mahatma Gandhi visited the school, and there is a famous photograph of the two of them together. "I started wearing khadi then, and still do, on economic grounds," HN once said. "By my wearing khadi, a poor villager gets his meal."

HN obtained B.Sc. Physics (Honours) and M.Sc. (Physics) degrees from the National College. During his final B.Sc year, he participated in the Quit India Movement, and was arrested and jailed in Yeravada, Pune, Mysore, and Bangalore. In 1945, he joined National College as a lecturer in Physics. The college hostel was to remain his home for 53 years, except for the period when he was Vice-Chancellor of the Bangalore University. HN obtained a Ph.D. in Physics from the Ohio State University in 1957. He returned to Bangalore and became the Principal of the National College. He became the fourth Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University in December 1972, with a second term in 1975.

HN's attempts to expose and debunk the claims of godmen and faith-healers captured the imagination of the public. As Vice-Chancellor, he set up the "Committee to Investigate Miracles and Verifiable Superstitions" in 1976, which comprised scientists, rationalists and academics. He invited Sai Baba to appear before the committee to prove his miracles, a request which the Hindu preacher turned down. He was the only Indian Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP International) set up by Professor Paul Kurtz in the United States. He started the Bangalore Science Forum in 1962, which has since organised over 2,000 lectures and 500 film shows. HN was given the Padma Bhushan in 1984.

Although not formally aligned to any political party, HN was resolutely opposed to fundamentalism of every kind. "He had the courage to stand up for what he believed in," said Dr. G. Ramakrishna, former Professor of English at the National College, and a close friend and colleague of HN's. Ramakrishna recalled an incident in the early 1970's when, during the university convocation, he and a group of teachers and students led a demonstration against the chief guest, the jurist Nani Palkhiwala. Palkhiwala had written an article supporting the entry of the U.S. Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal just prior to the Bangladesh war. HN was principal of the National College at that time, and was asked by the Registrar of the University to take disciplinary action against Ramakrishna for demonstrating during the University convocation. "HN tore up the letter in front of a group of teachers saying that it did not deserve a response. He said that it was the democratic right of everyone to protest, and in this case, the protest was entirely legitimate!"

HN was known for his quick wit. On one occasion when he was sick, he asked the college authorities to send two boys to help him. On seeing four eager boys at his door instead of two, he is said to have remarked, "I didn't ask for my pall bearers, you know". HN above all was a communicator, and it was with children that he was at his best. Although he had left strict instructions that on no account should a holiday be declared when he died, students and teachers from the National School and College poured out of their classrooms on hearing of his death to have a last glimpse of the man who taught them to ask the question "Why?"

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