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 IT.com (around the late 1990s), the many Linux-Bangalore events and finally FOSS.in, 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 FOSS.in 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