Saturday, December 31, 2005

Battered but unbowed

Battered but unbowed

The Indian Institute of Science campus, home to some of the finest minds in the country, is also not lacking in spirit

The Hindu

Shock and disbelief, grief and raw emotion have settled thick on the temple of science and reason. They are palpable in the voices of professors and students, researchers and administrators at the Indian Institute of Science, and in the voice of the scientific community of the city who are trying to cope with the death of a fellow professor, and the fact that a terrorist gunned him down in their peaceful Bangalore.

Even as they come to terms with the shock of Delhi IIT professor M.C. Puri's gruesome death, there is also a sense of defiance in them saying they will ride this tragedy and won't be intimidated by such dastardly acts.

It has just been a week since Bangalore's image as a relatively safe metro was marred by the rape and murder of call centre employee Pratiba Shrikanta Murthy. The IISc. attack has only further dented its patina of security.

It was unsettling to see the cobbled pathway outside the J.N. Tata Auditorium (situated in a complex opposite the IISc. campus) splattered with blood Wednesday evening; an image one hardly associates with a premier science research institute. It is a path that students and professors attending science seminars, presentations, and international programs tread often. Every Bangalorean takes pride in IISc's well-maintained and scenic campus. Many have fond memories of morning walks along its beautiful avenues till IISc introduced a walker's pass system and later banned all outside morning walkers. The image of students calmly cycling on campus, of lazy walks and discussions under department porticos presented a blissful picture of a research institution.

One professor's reaction on the devastating evening as the events unfolded will forever be imprinted in our minds. The man had no cable TV at his home and his expression of stunned disbelief when apprised of the attack, said it all: "Oh, my God! Are you serious? (Silence). How could this happen?"

C.N.R. Rao, Chairman of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) who has also been on the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, has been associated with campus over the last 50 years. He believes that Wednesday's attack was a symbolic one on a soft target. "Nobody feels vulnerable. But what's happened is a positive warning that we can't be careless in future and that we need vigilance," he says. "Till now it was an open institution. But just because of this incident, we can't run it like an army camp when there are thousands of students studying and a large number of visitors. Universities abroad also have a free atmosphere."

A senior official of the IISc., who spent most of his day helping Prof. Puri's bereaved family through the post-death procedures, perhaps echoes the thought in many a mind now: "Every person in the country is vulnerable." He believes that security is a national issue and the Government is capable of containing terrorism. "It is a problem that faces the whole nation. This is probably a warning that we must be aware and alert. But we must make sure that our scientific community is protected. It is unfortunate that it happened to us."

V.K. Aatre, Emeritus Professor at IISc.'s Communication Engineering Department and Former Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister feels the city's scientific institutions need not panic. "IISc. is considered a showpiece for India, one of its kind. And maybe that's why the attack was targeted on it. It does not have any classified information or do strategic nuclear power research. But some of us did discuss today whether this attack could be the beginning of something... " trails off Aatre. And then adds: "But it is the greatest shock that such an attack took place on a campus with such an atmosphere."

During the days when he held office as the scientific adviser, issues of security in key scientific institutions were often discussed, but no comprehensive list of possible terrorism targets was made. "We were mainly involved in R&D. The issue of security of government R&D institutions rested with the defence department."

In fact, IISc.'s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is neither a national laboratory, which concentrates solely on research and applied work, nor a conventional university which concerns itself mainly with teaching. It is world renowned for research in frontier areas and education in current key technology areas. Another professor, who didn't want to be named, said he had just walked through the J.N. Tata Auditorium complex underpass minutes before the firing, to take a bus home. He and his colleagues are still wrestling with the fact that their institute figured in the list of terrorists. "Most of us are still marvelling at how we could be targets... it's so out of the blue. But I guess with this incident, people are beginning to recognise that such things can happen, given our current political situation."

IISc. is on its Winter Recess till January 1, which means only some of the research students and faculty are on campus. "Our regular work continues. I don't think it's changed anything on campus," says the professor, on the morning after the attack. He explains how the institute is on a 24/7 research mode and it's not unusual for students and professors to walk out for some coffee at 2.30 a.m. "Of course, earlier there have been many incidents of theft of sandalwood trees and laptops from the campus. But this is a completely different league."

Life on campus

The Indian Institute of Science campus is truly one of a kind not only in the city but also in the entire country. Any city old-timer will describe the campus as a "jungle" because of the number of trees present. Now in the middle of a massive urban sprawl, it is an island of "fresh air and calm".

And this atmosphere gives the students who reside in the campus a special character. Ask any of them what they cherish the most and pat comes the reply: "Freedom." The campus works 24/7 and it is not unusual to find a group huddled together in the dead of the night over cups of coffee discussing theoretical physics. It is a campus that cherishes democratic values more than anything else. Though you have a code of conduct, you will not hear a diktat prescribing a dress code for women, say the students.

But after the suspected terrorist attack on the campus the students say these values must not be lost in the name of security.

"The incident has left us shocked but we are working as usual. There is no increased security as such but people have been told to carry their ID cards and gate passes without fail. The administration gives us freedom and I like the lifestyle we enjoy here. The new measures will not cramp us in any way but outsiders who come, say, for repairing lab instruments, will have some difficulty," says Nagesh Kolishetti, a chemistry student.

But some students say that earlier warnings that security was porous have been ignored. One student who prefers to remain unnamed says that small thefts in the institute have been on the rise for some time.

"Of late a lot of mobile phones, laptops and lab instruments have been going missing. It is becoming known that anybody can do anything and get away with it. It would help if the security were a little more aggressive. We have written to the administration some time back about this but nothing has been done."


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