India and MIT: How we became a technological force to reckon with

Prof Ross Bassett’s book, The Technological Indian, looks at Indian students at MIT from 1882 to 2000

Rohini Nair March 12, 2016 10:16:27 IST
India and MIT: How we became a technological force to reckon with

The year was 1882 and a young man from Pune, Keshav Malhar Bhat, was on his way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States of America. He studied there for a year, before returning home. It would be 20 years before the next Indian student would be enrolled at MIT.

When they did, however, the floodgates opened. Over the course of a century (and a few decades more), several prominent Indians would study at the prestigious institute. Among the early pioneers, most would return and play an important part in making India a force to reckon with in the world of technology. Among these were Lalit Kanodia and FC Kohli (of TCS fame). Other MIT alumni like Anant Pandya (who spearheaded the Vaitarna Project; to double the water supply to the city of Mumbai), architect Charles Correa, Durga Bajpai (who designed the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai), and the heirs of prominent business families, like Adi Godrej and Aditya Birla, made their own contributions.

India and MIT How we became a technological force to reckon with

Nehru visited MIT in 1949. Image courtesy Prof Bassett

The story of how these Indians went on to study at MIT is as interesting as what they managed to accomplish when they returned home (this, in an era when they got little or no recognition for their efforts, and certainly didn’t have as much opportunity for financial reward). It is also the subject of Prof Ross Bassett’s book, The Technological Indian.

Bassett was in Mumbai this week, giving a talk at the Godrej India Culture Lab, and he describes how he got started on this quest to trace how MIT helped shape the “technological Indian”. It was about 13 years ago, when Indian software firms, Indian technologies and technocrats were making news that Bassett (who has always had a deep interest in India) began to wonder: How did a people of whom the Britishers said in the 19th century, “The Hindoos are not a mechanical race” change that perception so completely over the next century?

Bassett’s research (which took over 13 years) began with the IITs. In a visit to the library at MIT, however, he came upon the commencement announcements of students. It listed their names, the places where they came from — and there were quite a few Indians among them. Barrett describes it as finding “1300 mini-biographies” and asking himself, “Would these tell us something about India?”

India and MIT How we became a technological force to reckon with

Aditya Birla (R) setting off for MIT

That Keshav Malhar Bhat had been at MIT all the way back in 1882 was an interesting finding, but Bassett wondered, “Was it just an outlier?” Or was there a back story that would provide some context to Bhat’s being at MIT a whole 20 years before his other countrymen got there?

In the hope of answering that question, Bassett focused on Bhat’s hometown Pune, and found that a prominent resident of that city — Bal Gangadhar Tilak — might have had something to do with the student’s decision to go to MIT. Going through over 30 years’ worth of Tilak’s newspapers — the Mahratta in English, and the Kesari in Marathi (Bassett jokes that his task was made a little easier because “these were weekly publications”) — the professor found that MIT had been praised highly within their pages.

Nineteenth century globalisation — characterised by steamships, thetelegraph, steam printing press etc — brought news from all parts of the world to India, and the Mahratta was avidly covering the technological developments of the day (in addition to its criticisms of the British, of course). There was perhaps a sense that India was being left behind, Bassett believes, which might have reflected in an editorial in the Kesari on the “need for an industrial school which would teach (Indian) students western skills”. That editorial would end by asking permission to “introduce readers to the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology”. Another three-part series in the Mahratta would also focus on MIT, and call it “the best-conducted institute in the world”.

During World War II, as large numbers of American soldiers poured into India, an American library was set up in Mumbai. Among the titles here was a catalogue on MIT. Bassett says that the trained librarians deputed here reported that “Indians had a lot of interest in learning about America, and about technical education in America”.

If Tilak was a fan of MIT, there was another national leader who also had close ties to those studying at the Institute. Bassett tells us that right from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, a cluster of students enrolled at MIT had connections to Gandhi.

Among these were Trikamal Shah — the registrar of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth and a Gandhian who went to MIT in 1926 to study electrical engineering. “He was the leader of the Quit India strike at Tata Iron and Steel in 1942 and was imprisoned for 18 months,” says Bassett.

The other was Bal Kalekar, the son of Kaka Kalekar. Bal was raised at the Stayagraha Ashram, and walked alongside Gandhi during the Salt March. When he wanted to study at MIT, he wrote to GD Birla asking for his support — Bassett reveals that Gandhi himself edited Bal’s letter.

Life wasn’t easy for these early students at MIT.

India and MIT How we became a technological force to reckon with

Indian students at MIT, 1940

“For Trikamal Shah, his time at MIT was rather difficult. He was married and had a young child back in India. He was much older than the other students — in his late 20s — and an introvert. He didn’t know much about American culture. He was a vegetarian and there were no Indian restaurants in Boston or Cambridge. He was also getting into debt by going to MIT. It was a challenging time, but he continued,” says Bassett.

Others, like Anant Pandya, had a somewhat smoother time. “By the late 1930s there was a larger group of Indian students who had an active social life with one another,” explains Bassett. When Pandya returned to India, he held a string of important positions: He was the first Indian principal of Bengal Engineering College in 1939, headed Hindustan Aircraft. Unfortunately, Pandya was killed in an automobile accident in 1951.

In later years, the Indian graduates of MIT would go on to play a leading role in setting up IT companies that would do business on a global scale – TCS, Datamatics, Patni, and Bassett believes, Infosys as well (in an indirect way, since it was set up by those who had previously worked at Patni).

Tracing how that came to be, Bassett says, “The modern computer was created to a large extent at MIT between 1945-70. Lalit Kanodia was among the students who were here during this time. In 1965, when Kanodia came back to India from MIT, he did a short stint with the Tatas and then convinced the company to let him start a computer operation. He hired two other MIT grads and set up TCS.”

Another MIT alumnus would take on Kanodia’s mantle at TCS, in 1969 — FC Kohli. “Kohli played a crucial role in developing the IT industry as one that could win business from the United States,” says Bassett, before highlighting another prominent MIT graduate’s achievements: “During the 1950s and 1960s, SL Kirloskar worked to develop a business that could sell products globally. He also helped to make Pune the center of the mechanical engineering and automotive industry.”

By 1977, TCS’ reputation had grown so strong that European computer professionals came down to India to “train with the best”. It was quite the morale booster for a country that had lived through the Emergency just two years ago.

India and MIT How we became a technological force to reckon with

Prof Ross Bassett spent 13 years tracing the Indian students at MIT between the years 1882-2000

The tide, however, was turning. By 1965, America had changed its visa regulations, and under less discriminatory laws, more Indians were able to stay back in the US. They did — setting off the phenomenon that has been called the “brain drain”.

But from those years when the MIT-trained students were still returning home, Bassett has an interesting anecdote: A luncheon at which Jawaharlal Nehru had American ambassador John K. Galbraith as his guest. This was in 1961, when IIT-Kanpur had recently been set up, and Nehru was talking about the influence he hoped MIT would have in shaping it (Nehru had visited MIT back in 1949 with his sister. Incidentally, the “Corridor of Infinity” at IIT-Bombay is a replica of the one at MIT. And when GD Birla wanted to set up his Birla Institute of Technology and Science, he also had MIT in mind). Indira Gandhi was present as well at the luncheon, and mentioned that MIT was among the colleges her son Rajiv hoped to attend. Obviously, he never did.

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