IIT Kharagpur - A Unique Experience
By M.N. Faruqui, Chair Professor IIT Foundation USA
It can easily be said that if the Indian society was undeveloped, the opportunities open to a young man in a small mofussil town like Ballia of UP in the l950 were also extremely limited. Obtaining a First Class with distinctions in two subjects and 75% marks in science subjects in the Intermediate Science examination of the UP Board that year did not open any doors. Engineering degree options available were at BHU, AMU and the College at Roorkee. BHU won't have me and my father was against AMU for reasons I will not go in here. Roorkee was beyond his means -- the monthly charges alone being Rs 260 per month. B.Sc at Allahabad was very attractive and there I spent two years of my life. Here it was that we heard of a new engineering college being opened by the central government at some place called Kharagpur in West Bengal. I applied for admissions here, was interviewed in the office of the Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University and was selected.
I joined the Higher Institute of Technology, Hijli, Kharagpur in August 1952 The authorities wanted that we must have six half-sleeve shirts and six pair of khaki trousers and one mosquito net when we arrive here. There was a vague kind of idea from the railway timetable about Kharagpur railway junction but the admission letters at that time referred to the 'Institute at Hijli'. In the Oxford school atlas, intriguingly, Hijli was shown as a small place somewhere near the seacoast. Since Pandit Nehru along with Maulana Azad had laid the foundation stone of the Institute in April of 1952 and the event was well publicised it was decided that I could go to Calcutta and stay there with a friend of mine and find out from there about Hijli and Kharagpur. I did exactly that and one fine morning took a train from Howrah to Kharagpur that merrily took five hours to reach Kharagpur.
Though I had a fairly good exposure at Allahabad since we had students from all over North India including West Bengal and Punjab, and from many angles I was quite knowledgeable about history and geography of India, the journey into rural Bengal by a local train and the 5 Km by rickshaw from the station to Patel Hall was an eye opener. Pappaiya of Patel hall was the first person to receive me and suggest that I have lunch first since it was already 1.30 in the afternoon. He put my luggage in room number C123 temporarily for two days. Next day I was allotted a room in Nehru Hall that was still under construction and the room was made ready for occupation the next day. I would like to mention here a few things that stand out in my mind after all these 49 years.
The integration of the different regions of the country was at a much lower level of awareness and consciousness. For example, coming from UP and Allahabad I had not even heard of South Indian food like 'dosa', 'idli', 'sambhar', 'rasam', etc., and it was really strange and exotic coming across them here for the first time. 'Sambhar' is the name of a deer and my friends back home were extremely amused even hearing the names of the South Indian dishes. The situation is completely different now and even a small town in UP has eating places that serve 'idli' and 'dosa'. It appeared that most of the boys from South, popularly called Madrasis, belonged to higher castes and were pure vegetarians. It was very difficult to distinguish between Tamils, Telegus, Kannads and Malayalis since their language, tastes and eating habits were almost the same. These guys used to get very disturbed at having the non-vegetarian people even sitting with them at the same dining table. It was also true that their style of eating was a topic of amused conversation among us from the North. Within a year a healthy atmosphere of integration and respect for others developed. Voluntary committees sprang up who suggested suitable dress for the dining hall (no lungi and wooden slippers), kind of food items to be served in the mess and general norms of behaviour.
I believe that Kharagpur was the first educational Institution in India where 300 boys stayed together and ate in a common mess -- disregarding the caste considerations, vegetarian and non-vegetarian issues, religious issues and finally distinctive tastes and eating habits of people coming from all corners of the country and assembled in one place and under one roof. It was remarkable to say the least. I had some experience of other cosmopolitan universities like the Benaras Hindu University and Allahabad where number of messes were established and one could join any one of those. Brahmins, Chhatriyas, Vaishyas and others had naturally segregated into homogenous groups of their own. For example Brahmins and Chhatriyas from Ballia had separate messes. The students would hire a cook who would prepare the food of their liking and taste.
Here at Kharagpur the food was prepared at one place by 'cooks' coming from the border districts of Orissa and coastal Andhra Pradesh and were mostly rickshaw pullers if the rumours regarding their cooking abilities was anything to go by. It did not suit the palate of any student because even the 'dosa' from the different regions of the then Madras Presidency was different. The contractor under the supervision of the warden managed the mess and the students had no say in the matter except to write a complaint in the register if they so wished. The fallout of this state of affairs was that we rebelled and agitated against it by going on a hunger strike. It resulted in Sir J.C. Ghosh, the Director, agreeing to hand over the complete management of the mess to the students. Mess Secretary and four zonal committees representing the East, West, North, and South were elected and the situation did improve though the cooking remained abysmal all through. My friend S.K. Maullick (he was Mr. IIT, Senior Under Officer in NCC and was popularly known as General Mau) got elected as Mess Secretary and remained so for the next three years as nobody thought of removing him. The Mess Secretary had the powers -- at least General Mau had -- to fire and remove from service any Mess Manager whose services were not satisfactory. It has been a joke among the students that if you can survive and flourish on the mess food for four years you can survive on any food anywhere in the world.
The independence, the camaraderie, the mixing of people from all over the country, the responsive and supportive Faculty and Staff and the opportunity of developing an individual's talent and character was unique at Kharagpur. The other IlTs copied it and the products coming out of these portals have made India proud. The shaping of the destiny of this IIT owes much to Sir J.C. Ghosh the founding Director and Dr S.R. Sengupta who followed in his footsteps. They may have had some shortcomings here and there but the edifice they built has withstood the test of time.
The number of experiments in the academic and administrative processes that Sir JC tried is amazing in retrospect. We had then a yearly system with two terminal examinations in between and a final examination that theoretically covered the whole year's teaching. In the second year we had 23 examination papers in the terminal examination. In 11 subjects we had a 2-hour closed book examination [7 to 9 AM] followed immediately by a 2-hour [10 AM to 12 noon] open book examination. Only the English language paper had no open book component. In another terminal examination no dates for the examinations were given and the teacher could, after entering the class, declare that that day he was going to have a 1-hour examination instead of the lecture. These unannounced 1-hour examinations were the toughest since we all were totally unprepared, so much so that a student could be casually absent and miss that examination altogether. I suppose the scheme finally did not work and was abandoned. Short tests of 15 to 20 minutes were a different kind of thing. I suppose we lost the fear of examinations altogether. In my first year the Tutorials in Physics and Mathematics were held in the Hall after 7 PM and each tutorial class consisted of 8 students only. We had a local guardian who generally had 15 students attached to him. Both these ideas did not prosper in Indian climate.
To be promoted from one year to the next and to get a degree from this Institute one did not have to pass in all subjects. There was a Results Review Committee that decided the maximum number of subjects that a student could fail and the aggregate marks that he must have to be promoted to the next higher class. Naturally in such a system no grade cards were issued and one would only obtain a certificate indicating that such and such had passed with Honours in First or Second division. The trouble started when the American universities insisted on getting a grade card with letter grades. Of course students who were promoted despite failure in subjects were not the ones applying for studies abroad. I feel that the system was quite okay since the opinions have now changed and even Secondary schools are not insisting that a student must pass in all subjects in order to pass out of the school system.
Sir JC loved to be with the students and almost every week there would be a common tea when the students from Patel and Nehru Halls had tea with him along with any Indian or foreign guest he had. Actually the Government of India would send down all visitors connected with education to Kharagpur and see the Institute coming up and invariably all the guests would have an informal tea with the students on the Patel Hall lawns. Sir JC would walk around and talk to students and be very free with them. He used to have an open access office whenever he was in station. One could see him sitting in his office while passing through the corridor on the way to class. There were no curtains, no secretary in between and all you had to do was push the bat-wing doors and enter his presence. I believe the Faculty members had to formally go through the other door in his secretary's room for meeting him. One can judge his popularity from the fact that when Mr. Nehru asked him to take over as the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, which was having serious student trouble and he had to leave, we all went on a mass strike. Sir JC addressed us on the lawns of Patel Hall and broke down in the middle of his speech and cried.
Sir JC believed in a much higher and closer interaction between teachers and students. He is known to have chided teachers if they had not visited the student in the Hall or the hospital when the student became sick and missed classes. Teachers and other staff members with their families used to take part, at least as spectators if not actually as participants, in all Gymkhana activities whether it was Social and Cultural or Sports and Games.
The student community was much more boisterous and maybe mischievous. A number of teachers had very rough time in the class since the students played all kinds of pranks and ragged them. Controlling the class of Mechanical or Electrical engineering students required special capabilities from teachers. I suppose good teachers were respected and appreciated. I would like to mention the names of some of the teachers who were really good and whose class I had the privilege to attend. Professors like B.R. Seth, N. Kesavamurthy, G.S. Sanyal, J. Das, R. Misra, Laxminarayan, Gokhale, and Srinavasan (Masterji) were outstanding.
I suppose some of the traditions we set in Nehru Hall have survived the years. Tea drinking, abuse-slinging matches with Patel Hall, three cinema shows in South Institute and two in the town practically every week were some of the extra-curricular pastimes. There was a large population of Anglo Indian girls in the South Institute but 'hands off and no lafda' was the unwritten understanding within the IIT crowd. Nobody was willing to take up fights with the Anglo Indian boys who jealously guarded their flock of the young. Temptation notwithstanding, IIT crowd was selfish and career-minded and fighting for those girls was not a part of the agenda. We all co-existed without overlapping. I learnt to drink 8 to 10 cups of tea in the afternoon and coming back from the town to eat cold rice with curds and 'sambhar' after nine in the evening everyday. Nehru Hall was a home away from home where dissent from domineering and iconoclastic mind-sets was natural, where authority and respect had to be earned and not imposed. Of the four or five Wardens who graced Nehru Hall in the four years of our stay there Prof. Gokhale of Physics Department stands out. He used to play Bridge with us in the Hall, was very social and caring person and was extremely popular.
The world has irrevocably changed and "Whither IIT Kharagpur" is the burning question but then that has to be answered by the people who are now at the helm of affairs. Uncaring, lack of pride in the Institute, laissez-faire, passive acceptance of things and selfish attitudes may be some of our problems that we have to guard against.
My generation has passed on the baton to the next generation of players in the field of achieving and retaining excellence. "What are you doing"?
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