Sunday 13 August 2023

Manipal, where a single acorn became a tall oak (The Sunday Guardian)

 The example set by Dr T.M.A. Pai illustrates the truth that we Indians have what it takes to be world-beaters, even in locations where such advancement is not expected by others.

On 9 August, the Indigo flight from Delhi to Mangalore from Terminal 1 lifted off a bit before its scheduled departure time of 2.15 pm. Milling around the departure gate were passengers clustering around in small knots. Judging by the conversations taking place in English, Hindi, Kannada and a few other languages, most of the passengers were Manipal-bound. They were either going because they were students, or the parents of students, or teachers and other specialists coming to the campus to listen to (or to give) a talk. Nestled next door to Udupi, the university town of Manipal conveys a portrait of 21st century development. It would be hard to believe that in the initial years after India became free, Manipal was just a small village, where even the sight of a pair of bullock carts was rare. It was here that Dr T.M.A. Pai was born, and even after completing his medical education elsewhere, returned so as to be together with his family rather than settle in a big city elsewhere. Dr Pai believed in a bright future for India, and saw the route to that objective through the achievement of excellence through education by citizens across the country.

He thereupon drew up plans to set up a medical college in the small village of Manipal itself. Those who were close to Dr T.M.A. Pai knew that such a feat was not beyond his reach, given his tenacity of purpose, but others scoffed. A private medical college, indeed an educational complex, in the back of the back of beyond? Impossible! The 1950s were not a good period for private initiative, and neither were the 1960s or the 1970s. It was considered optimal by those in power to give the state sector control of the “commanding heights” of the economy, and private institutions were being taken over by the government on almost a daily basis. Whenever the efforts of the state to hobble his educational institutions proved to be too much to shrug off, Dr Pai would turn to the courts, and they would more often than not ensure that he was given enough leeway to implement his plans. By the time he ended his time on earth in 1979, Manipal had become a known hub of quality education that drew in students from all parts of India and even from outside. He refused to call himself the founder of the education hub that became the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, saying that many were responsible and not just him. Many did assist him, because each of them had been inspired by his vision and confidence that anything was possible in India, and that too in the tiny village of his birth.
By the 1990s, the private sector ceased to become a term of abuse in the abodes of power, and the decks were cleared for his son Dr Ramdas M. Pai to take over the now substantial chain of institutions built by his father. Steering away from politics and from most of its practitioners, Ramdas Pai expanded the university to the far corners of the globe, ranging from the Americas to West Asia to Malaysia, and Nepal. Today, on the mother campus in Manipal (or in other campuses within India such as in Jaipur, Bangalore and Sikkim), there are students from a multiplicity of countries. Dr Ramdas Pai persuaded a doctor-researcher of renown, Dr M.S. Valiathan (the founder of the Sri Chitra Institute in Trivandrum) to join as the first Vice-Chancellor of the university, now with its newly-conferred status of being a “deemed” university. Why private universities in India are unable to call themselves what they are, full universities, rather than go by other titles remains yet another totem of Official India’s wariness about the private sector, although such handicapping may not last much longer, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has from the start of his term in 2014 given the private sector the same respect being bestowed towards the public sector. It was Manipal, under the inspiration of Dr Ramdas Pai and Dr Valiathan, who set up in 1999 what was probably Asia’s first Chair in Geopolitics. Since then, the Department of Geopolitics & International Relations has become a teaching department that each year trains experts in geopolitics who get snapped up in institutions across the world. International relations is taught in Manipal with a focus on India and its needs, rather than following the commoner track of recycling International Relations theory from a US or Russian or Chinese or other perspective. As has been often said about a large public university in the national capital, “it has taught International Relations from every country’s point of view except that of the Indian”. Manipal is very much a product of India, and is proud of that fact. Even during the 1990s, India was not considered even a major power, much less a great power, but times have changed, especially during the past decade. From the start of their odyssey in the 1950s, the architects of Manipal always considered India to be a potential Great Power, and now most of the rest of the world has seen that this dream has come true, and this is what has been happening during the past few years.

The example set by Dr T.M.A. Pai illustrates the truth, which is that we Indians have what it takes to be world-beaters, even in locations where such advancement is not expected by others. The truth that the people of India have the inner spark that generates excellence, that this is there in hundreds of millions of people in our country. If a small village barely noticed by any other person than its inhabitants could in a generation grow into an educational colossus as a consequence of the belief in its possibility by a single individual, it is clear that such potential exists across the country, awaiting its release through inner confidence, through the inner empowerment that creates the foundation for a strong country. Whether it be the Amul story scripted by Tribhuvandas Patel and Dr Verghese Kurien, or the belief of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata back in 1868 that India could be the natural home of a global conglomerate, individuals have made a difference to the country and the world that can endure through the centuries. In today’s young citizens, there are many such individuals. They are acorns that will create oaks, as the years ahead will show in the shape of many, many stately “oak trees” of achievement.

Manipal, where a single acorn became a tall oak

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