Dr. Ram Karan Singh - an Unparalleled Educationist


My first contact with Dr. R. K. Singh, Uncle, was when I was 13 years old. He and his family had come to New Delhi from Agra and lived in the same group of flats then called Diplomatic Enclave. He knew my parents as I later learned my father had stayed at his house with him for some period when he was posted at Agra. When he first met me, he looked at me with a loving smile and encouraged me to come to his flat for playing with his son, Kiran, who was of my age. It is not for me to comment on what he saw in me. I could not converse in English then and was an ordinary school student perhaps with above average mathematical abilities. There were a few other elders who had encouraged me to bring out the best in me.


Kiran had an air gun. I liked to play with it and occasionally visited Uncleís flat as it was no more than 100 m from our flat.


He returned to Agra after completing his assignment at New Delhi. My father was posted to Simla and after completing school education I was living in hostel as I had joined the University of Delhi for first doing my B.Sc.(Honours) in Physics and later M.Sc. in physics. Perhaps, my father was in touch with him as he played a crucial role in my sisterís life. He told me about it when he was at Gary, Indiana, and I was at the University of Chicago. I will come to it shortly.


On 1 July 1964, Uncle came to New Delhi for attending my sisterís marriage. He was happy to see me. Excitedly, I told him that shortly I would leave for Chicago to join the University of Chicago for doing Ph.D. in physics. I did not know that Uncle had done his Ph.D. from Harvard University thirty years ago.


I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from Uncle asking me to spend the Thanksgiving Weekend with him at Gary, Indiana. I think the year was 1966. I had then recently acquired driving license and a car. I needed driving practice. I decided to drive to Gary as it was not far from Chicago without experience of driving on a highway. I reached safely. There were many other guests other than me visiting him. Uncle told me that your father was thinking of getting your sister married but I advised him to get her matriculation certificate first and follow it by getting bachelorís degree. She did exactly what Uncle wanted.


I may have visited Uncle at Gary several times during his stay there. In 1969 I received a letter from Uncle offering me a Readerís position at Meerut University. He knew that I would decline it and had written me a persuasive letter. I was not ready for teaching assignment and was keen to go to the University of Tokyo for post-doctoral study. I could not accept the offer of appointment he had offered me. In July 1971 Uncle visited me at my fatherís home in New Delhi as I was spending a year with my parents. Uncle had brought with him an application form for teaching position at the Himachal Pradesh University at Simla. He had assumed office as its first Vice-Chancellor. I was reluctant to apply as I was going abroad in the third week of September to spend a year at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy. He asked me to sign the application form and give him my biodata. He said that I should leave the rest to him as he would ensure that I keep up my commitment to spend a year with Professor Abdus Salam. I received notice from the Registrar of the University to appear before the selection committee of the University for appointment of Associate Professor of Physics which was scheduled to meet in the campus of the IIT Delhi. I did that and a letter of appointment followed with a letter from Uncle asking me to come to Simla for a day and join the teaching position.


I reached Simla. I was disappointed to see the facilities of the Physics Department of the University. It was housed in a dilapidated building called the Manse House. When I met the teachers there, I felt totally unsettled. There were teachers who were absorbed in the University from the earlier Post Graduate Centre of Panjab University that was functioning there. I gave my feedback to Uncle. He asked me to apply for leave of absence and allowed me to go to Trieste.


In July 1972 I returned to India and went to Simla to take up my teaching assignment as the academic session had commenced. I stayed in the Guest Room of the Post and Telegraph Department close to the Manse House. I was allotted a furnished accommodation in St. Bernard House. It was a holiday home of the Panjab University. I fixed appointment with the Executive Engineer of the University for handing me possession of the accommodation. I had to wait for more than an hour for him. When he reached, he had not brought its key. He broke open its door using his umbrella. I asked him to show me its water supply. He took me to a tank which was filled with water unfit for human consumption. I asked him to drink a glass of water from this tank before giving me possession of the allotted flat. He was taken aback and reported the matter to the Vice-Chancellor. In the evening I got a telephone call from Uncle. He said, ďAmar Nath, I know you are upset but it is a new University bear with me for some time."


He was a persuasive Vice-Chancellor and had managed to bring together outstanding academics to the new University. I will name a few of them. Among those I still remember after forty years were Professor P. L. Bhatnagar, an eminent mathematician who was a former vice-chancellor, Dr. Ravinder Kumar and Dr R. N. Mehrotra distinguished historians, Dr V. R. Mehta and Dr. Kuldeep Kumar to the Department of Political Science, and Dr. Kalyan Banerjee to the Department of English, and Dr. Hariom Agarwal to Department of Botany and many other competent teachers. Any other new University in India would have been proud to have teachers of the calibre selected by the first Vice - Chancellor of the Himachal Pradesh University. I have written elsewhere my experience at Simla.


Dr R. K. Singh extended respect to academics of distinction all over the world and sought their help in recruiting teachers for his University. On one occasion when he was driving to Delhi on official work, he offered to take me along with him. He first stopped at Roorkee University and called on three eminent teachers of that University. As I had accompanied him I also paid courtesy calls. At each place we were offered tea. After taking two cups of tea I was reluctant to drink the third. He looked at me reprovingly and said that it is an honour to visit distinguished academics and never disrespect your host. I saw how a Vice-chancellor built his institution by seeking help of those who could objectively assess talent. Later in life I also became a Vice Chancellor. I followed his approach in building my institution.


All teachers of the University had access to him. Teachers approached him for getting solutions to their grievances even personal. Kalyan Banerjee, Associate Professor in the Department of English, who like me had obtained his Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago, told him that he was a fish eater but fish were available only in Simla and not in the neighbourhood of Summer Hill. Dr. Singh sanctioned to him loan for buying a scooter.


Dr. Singh protected his institution from political intrusion. I distinctly recall in meetings of Academic Council on one occasion when I was also its member that Dr. Singh would say in his words of welcome requesting its nominated members with political backgrounds that you have entered the temple of learning and I expect that you would have left your politics outside its portals. I was aware that he was under political pressure, but he never shared it with his faculty. I followed the same principle when I became a Vice - Chancellor.


Dr. Singh did not complete his full term in office and decided to return to Agra. After he left the magnet holding many of us at the Himachal Pradesh University disappeared. Many of us followed and left the Himachal Pradesh University as our protective umbrella was no longer there.


I left for Mysore. I used to come to New Delhi for meetings. Once I missed Uncle so much that I decided to make a day trip to Agra to visit him. I went by the Taj Express and got down at Raja Ki Mandi Railway Station. He was a well-known figure. I had no difficulty in reaching his home. He had stepped out of his home. Aunty was delighted to see me. Sometime later Uncle returned, I remarked, "Uncle, are you keeping busy?Ē His response was, ď I am wearing out my slippers. Busy persons are Dr. Naval Kishor and his son.Ē I knew Dr. Naval Kishor, an eminent gynaecologist, as he was my fatherís friend. Uncle was disappointed that I was a Professor at the Regional College of Education at Mysore. He said that he would talk to his friends that a person of my caliber needs to be suitably posted. I did not say any word as I knew he loved me and was concerned about me. The same evening, I returned to New Delhi.


In April 1985 my father died. I sent a letter to Uncle. He condoled me and added that he was in the terminal stage of cancer and did not have much time left in life. I went to Italy soon after for my annual visit to Trieste. I read there in a newspaper that Dr. R. K. Singh had died. In a short span of time I lost my father and Uncle.


In 1990 I became the Vice - Chancellor of Cochin University of Science and Technology. In January 1991 I came to New Delhi to attend the annual meeting of vice-chancellors. There were not many universities in India then. I was pleasantly surprised that there were three other vice-chancellors who were my colleagues at the Himachal Pradesh University. This observation alone may allay doubts that Dr. Singh had been indulgent to me as he knew me from the time when I was a boy. He was selective in making recruitment of teachers and brought the best on recommendation of experts whom he trusted.


He was the Principal of Balwant Rajput College, Agra. It is counted as one of the institutions of eminence in India. He had put it together and made it a leading centre of research in agricultural sciences.


Thirty-five years have passed since he died. My heart is filled with joy in remembering him as he was an unparalleled educationist of India. I was fortunate to have enjoyed support of several outstanding academics some of whom were Nobel Laureates but the role that Dr. R. K. Singh played in my life and later as a role model I cherish the most.