Memories of a Punjabi - II

In the life of Ruchi Ram Sahni, eminent scientist, reformer and educationist, Mohammad A. Qadeer sees the story of pre-Partition Punjab itself

Memories of a Punjabi - II
Lahore: fountainhead of social change

In Lahore, Ruchi Ram Sahni’s educational career took off. He was not only an outstanding student but also a passionate pursuer of new ideas. He scooted through classes, examinations and diplomas/degrees, almost always passing on or near the top of the class in the province. He passed the matriculation examination in 1881 and proceeded to study for a B.A. at Government College in mathematics and the sciences, which he passed again standing first in the province in 1884. All of this was on merit scholarships.

The sciences degree also required studying history, Persian and English. Sahni was much influenced by his exposure to the Liberal Arts, English and Persian literature and History, in addition to his concentration on the sciences. He continued at Government College for the M.A. degree in chemistry, which was extended a bit by his accepting an appointment in the Indian Meteorological Department, though he managed to negotiate carrying out his laboratory work at Presidency College Calcutta to complete his M.A.

His educational and career achievements are only a small part of Sahni’s personal growth. He began to question social and religious practices of his times more consciously when he got to the high school in Lahore. There he was very much drawn to a teacher, Pandit Agnihorn, who introduced him to Brahmo Samaj, which was a reformist and theistic movement in Hinduism. Sahni ‘s Brahmo beliefs clashed with the practices of his family and community. Even his mother chose not to live with him in her widowhood and his wife seldom appreciated his ideas.

Ruchi Ram Sahni in the 1940s, Lahore

Professor Sahni gave public talks on scientific topics in Punjabi at Baolie, a Sikh Gurudawara in Rang Mahal. He was a great advocate of teaching science in native languages

Influenced by Brahmo teachings, his rationalist approach and informed by the new outlook, he advocated through public presentations, scientific demonstrations and popular writings for causes ranging from modern agricultural practices and widows’ remarriage to the abandonment of idol worship. What his activities reveal is that Lahore and the Punjab were in a ferment of ideas and social movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – or at least it was so for the Hindu community. Sahni rode the wave of social change around him.

To complete the account of his career, after two years at the Indian Meteorological, Department, in 1887 he was appointed an assistant professor of science in charge of teaching chemistry at Government College, Lahore. Thus began his career in the Punjab Education Service – rising to be a full professor until he took retirement in 1918.

During his 27 years of service at the college, he experienced a lot of successes and recognitions for his services from the principals and other officials of the university as well as the provincial education department – who were British. He was elected to the Board of Studies, the Punjab Science Society and other university bodies. Yet he writes extensively about incidents of putdowns, suspicions and denial of opportunities as an Indian. This pattern of a systemic discrimination induced him to choose retirement when he was passed over for the headship of the department in favour of a junior British individual.

In 1914, he went to Karlsruhe, Germany and ended up doing research to determine the atomic weight of bismuth at the University institute there. He had to leave in a hurry to go to England as war clouds gathered over Europe. There he completed the research, working with eminent scientists and publishing papers. That is almost all that the autobiography tells us about his academic career. He began to devote a lot more time to his other ventures and organisational as well as political and social activities. And on those themes the autobiography ends.

Public service and community reforms

Ruchi Ram Sahni was intensely involved in public service over and above his academic responsibilities. First, he was an active organiser of Brahmo Samaj in Punjab, though later his ardour cooled as schisms developed in the movement. He promoted the Brahmo ideas through speeches, writings and organisational work. Second, from his student days, he started taking part in the Indian National Congress party’s political activities – attending meetings but avoiding taking any prominent role on account of being a government servant. Nevertheless, he was writing articles for the newspapers Tribune and Punjab Patriot.

The Government College Lahore in 1864, in a portion of Dhyan Singh's Haveli

The promotion of scientific thinking and popularising of scientific knowledge about everyday life were another of his passions. Along with another professor of Government College, he founded the Punjab Science Institute. It organised lectures by physicians and scientists on topics of popular interest in the halls of Lahore’s schools and public places. They became popular enough that the institute started charging 1-2 annas as admission fees. Professor Sahni himself gave lectures on weather and scientific agriculture and demonstrated some entertaining scientific experiments in city parks and public places. He gave public talks on scientific topics in Punjabi at Baolie, a Sikh Gurudawara in Rang Mahal .He was a great advocate of teaching science in native languages for a wider understanding. Such talks were also held in other towns of the Punjab. These activities and other community services earned him the title of Rai Sahib from the British Government.

When he found out that the laboratories in the Punjab’s schools had difficulty in getting their equipment repaired, he hired a Mistri (master mechanic) and later bought a lathe to repair and make laboratory equipment. It became a thriving business employing many skilled workers. By the1890s, his workshop had become so successful that its products were in demand in many other provinces. Yet as were the politics of those times, the British importers of the laboratory equipment were talking down his products. Ultimately he wound up the workshop as he found he could not give it the full attention that it needed.

In 1923, he successfully contested elections to be a member of the Punjab Legislative Council. He raised many issues for legislation, ranging from schools for poor areas, female education, teaching science in the vernacular, unfair practices of land acquisition and the environmental impact of hydroelectric dams.

After his retirement, he became more active in the Indian National Congress Party, following Ghandi-ji’s support for the Ali Brothers’ Khilafat Movement to maintain Hindu-Muslim unity. On the Ali Brothers’ demand, he renounced the title of Rai Sahib to protest the British policies towards Ottoman Turkey.

The autobiography comes to the end in the dark mood of the post-Jallianwala Bagh period. It is a very absorbing read. Apart from the life story of an outstanding Punjabi, it also points to the opportunities opening up with the modernising drive of colonial rule.

Mohammad Qadeer is Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University, Canada. His recent books are Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation (Vanguard, 2011) and Multicultural Cities: Toronto, New York and Los Angeles (University of Toronto Press, 2016). He may be reached at

Mohammad Qadeer’s recent book, Lahore In The 21st Century, has been published for Pakistan by Vanguard Books.