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Ruchi Ram Sahni & Aurel Stein: An Ignoble Encounter

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By Bhushan Parimoo

Sir Aurel Stein needs no introduction the translator of the famous 12th century Sanskrit chronicle of Kashmir, the Kalhana’s Rajatarangini. A Central Asian explorations explorer, orientalist, archaeologist, geographer, topographer and a Sanskritist. He is simply unforgettable, Ruchi Ram Sahni ask anyone the response is blank. Makes it important to disclose Ruchi Ram Sahni was also a highly distinguished academician, scientist, educator, social reformer, politician and a public intellectual of pre-partition Punjab. Had the privileged distinction of having worked with Nobel Laureates Neils Bohr and Ernest Rutherford at the famous Manchester Laboratory between 1915 and 1916 and C.V. Raman at Calcutta in 1917. Founded the Punjab Science Institute in 1909 and the British government conferred the title of ‘Rai Bahadur’ on him in the same year. However, he returned the title in 1919 at the urging of Maulana Shaukat Ali during the Khilafat Movement. As a public figure Ruchi Ram Sahni also served as a member of the Punjab Legislative Council for the term 1924-1926. If all this does not bring out Ruch Ram Sahni’s fame from obscurity, then it must be mentioned that he was the father of India’s most celebrated Birbal Sahni, the founder of the internationally famous Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow. All this does not seem to link Ruch Ram Sahni with Aurel Stein secret too must be disclosed. Ruchi Ram Sahni served as Professor of Chemistry at the Government College, Lahore from 1887 to 1914. This coincided with Aurel Stein’s tenure, holding the dual positions that of the Principal Oriental College and the Registrar, Punjab University between 1888 and 1900 at the Punjab University, Lahore, thus were colleagues. This background hereunder give a brief snapshot of an encounter between Ruchi Ram Sahni and Aurel Stein to serve as a reflection on colonial times and perhaps also describe Stein’s isolated ignoble moment in his Indian career that later also found echo when the Chinese accused him “as the wickedest of the foreign devils who plundered their treasures”. Sometime about 1894-1895, one morning, a student from a sister college in Lahore approached Ruchi Ram Sahni at his house. The student requested him to explain a question that he expected to come in the next day’s practical paper of the Intermediate Examination. This student was related to some of his other colleague thus known to him. After the reference to the particular question was made by the student, Ruchi Ram Sahni told him that it was quite unlikely that such a question could be set at the intermediate level. However, the student persisted and he explained the question to the student.



As things turned out, the question that Ruchi Ram Sahni had called as least expected had actually been asked in the examination. Ongoing to the college after the examination was over, Ruchi Ram Sahni shared this strange experience with one of his colleagues named Professor Oman who was his senior colleague and taught science at the Government College. Hearing about the episode, Professor Oman advised Ruchi Ram that he must bring the matter into the notice of Eric Robertson, the Principal. Agreeing to suggestion, Ruchi Ram Sahni decided to meet the principal to bring the matter into his notice. Just about the time, Ruchi Ram was preparing to meet Eric Robertson, Professor Oman expressed the desire if he could accompany him. Having no objection, Ruchi Ram Sahni took Professor Oman along with him and both went to see the principal. Principal Robertson heard Ruchi Ram patiently and said nothing definite than making a casual remark: “I do not know what to do in the matter”. Nonetheless, Ruchi Ram Sahni felt relieved that he had brought the matter in the notice of his two senior colleagues, one of whom was also the principal of the college. After this nothing more was heard about the matter for the whole year. However, next year something similar happened again. In that year, Ruchi Ram Sahni was appointed as the Superintendent of Examinations. Supervising the conduct of the Practical Examination in Physics, Ruchi Ram Sahni this time too heard a couple of students discussing two questions; they expected to come in the paper, before the start of the examination. And this time too he considered the questions rather too advanced to be put to Intermediate students. However, it was no business of his to say anything further in the matter as his duties involved smooth conduct of the examination. Surprisingly, on this occasion it came about that the two questions Ruchi Ram Sahni had heard about from the students before the start of the examination had actually been asked in the paper. This made him suspicious that someone was leaking the question papers as some students knew at least two questions beforehand. As before, he this time also brought the matter into Professor Oman’s notice. In response, Oman this time was discouraging. He said: “You reported the whole thing in my presence to Principal Robertson that year. I would not advise you to jump into hot water for nothing”. This time Professor Oman was also one of the examiners for the Practical Examination. By the time Eric Robertson had left India and Professor P.C. Dallinger had taken his place as the Principal of the Government College, Lahore. He was professor of History. While he was familiar with Robertson, he was not so with Dallinger.A few days passed without any murmur when one day Dallinger suddenly called for Ruchi Ram Sahni. He enquired from him if he knew anything about the leaking out of the Physics practical paper. Ruchi Ram Sahni told him about the whole sequence of events that had unfolded and as to how he had become suspicious about the entire matter. In response, Dallinger confronted Ruchi Ram Sahni; saying angrily: “But you never reported the matter to me or the Registrar of the University”. At the time Aurel Stein was the Registrar of the University. Before Ruchi Ram Sahni could explain any further, Dallinger, rather roughly, admonished him with the instruction that he should immediately meet Stein and apprise him about the whole matter without any further loss of time.In compliance to the instructions, he went straight to meet Aurel Stein. At the time Stein was alone in his room and in fact had been waiting for him. He received him “as one would receive a man who had already been adjudged a criminal” As Ruchi Ram approached Stein’s table, he gruffly shouted at him “Ruchi Ram, why did you not report the leakage of the Physics practical paper to me? To this, Ruchi Ram submitted that he had brought the matter to the notice of Professor Oman who, however, had advised him this time “not to jump into hot water for nothing”.Ruchi Ram Sahni’s reply made Stein lose temper. Stein retorted by bringing Ruchi Ram Sahni’s attention to the responsibilities he had as the Professor of the Government College, and the Alexandra Scholar at the Oriental College besides a University Examiner and Superintendent of the Examination. To this Ruchi Ram politely submitted that he was aware of his duties and responsibilities and had brought the matter to Eric Robertson’s and Professor Oman’s notice in the previous year though nothing had followed. and as result he did not consider it necessary this time to bring the matter to the notice of the Principal and the Registrar and had informed about it only to Professor Oman.This explanation from Ruchi Ram Sahni was far from satisfying to Aurel Stein; rather he felt restless and at loss of words and “did not know what to say or do”. However, Stein had the last word: “If the honest and straightforward Examiner had not brought the matter to my notice, we would never have come to know of it”. Unable to accept the remark, Ruchi Ram Sahni shot back at Stein: “Then you’re honest and straightforward Examiner is himself responsible for the leakage”.


Speaking thus, Ruchi Ram Sahni, “had dared to bring a serious charge in unmistakable language against a white man”. All this while, Stein was sitting in his chair on a raised platform, while he was standing on floor below. There was no other chair in the room. Hearing to Ruchi Ram Sahni’s terrible charge Stein “flew into a rage”. He came down from the dais and stood face to face next to Ruchi Ram Sahni. Perhaps so close that Stein’s nose touched Ruchi Ram’s. “Red hot in anger” Stein once again dared Ruchi Ram Sahni by saying: “ Lala Ruchi Ram , do you know what you are saying? You are bringing a most serious charge against a white man”. He further added: “It will be necessary for me to report this matter to the Vice Chancellor”.To this Ruchi Ram yet again explained his conduct and all the circumstances connected with the case with same precision as he had done during his earlier explanation. At last, Stein finally instructed Ruchi Ram Sahni to give the explanation, addressed to the Vice Chancellor, in writing so that he could place it before the Vice Chancellor. Just then, on the spot, Ruchi Ram Sahni began to write out his statement. Seeing this quick and uninhibited response from Ruchi Ram, Stein now, better composed and calm in his attitude gently advised the former that since it was a serious matter and nothing was needed be done in haste and better thought about more carefully. For this, Stein granted Ruchi Ram Sahni one more days’ time.From Stein’s room, Ruchi Ram Sahni went straight to meet Professor Oman to narrate him all the developments. On this, Professor Oman threw further light on the matter by informing Ruchi Ram Sahni as to how ‘another white man’ was committing this academic misconduct for a year or two before Ruchi Ram had actually suspected it. In fact, Oman gave the exact method of this ‘white man’s’ nefarious doings more for the reason to clear his own name since in the meantime “Dr. Stein’s ‘honest’ informant had thrown the responsibility for the leakage of the examination paper of the year upon Professor Oman’s shoulders”. Equipped with uncontestably facts and irrefutable evidence, both Ruchi Ram Sahni and Professor Oman prepared the written statement for submission to Aurel Stein. Next morning Ruchi Ram Sahni submitted this document in a sealed cover at the University office under due acknowledgement. However, he “never heard of the matter again”. And it is also not known if his statement was ever placed before the Vice Chancellor or any other authority of the University
(Based on Ruchi Ram Sahni’s Autobiography-A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab edited by Neera Burra)