I left Mysore on the 19th of December 1990, for Cochin. I felt sad leaving RCE Mysore. In 1977 I had joined it with apprehensions. I had given myself one year for exploring it. I was leaving it after spending more than thirteen years there. I felt humbled as it gave me much more than what I could give to it. I had availed of the opportunity and freedom it gave me for trying out what I had set out to do when I left Simla. It had given me visibility resulting in my being handpicked to lead one of the prestigious educational institutions of Kerala. Gargi had finished her twelve years of schooling from the campus school and was now at the IIT Delhi. Asha had done her Ph.D. and was now a Research Scientist of the UGC. Though we were leaving Mysore for good we retained a link with it. We were leaving behind our beautiful apartment in the Raviuday Apartment building in Vonitkoppal.
The administrative staff was feeling my loss as the institution had functioned smoothly under my charge. I was also aware that some teachers had a sense of relief with my leaving the RCE Mysore because I demanded performance with accountability.
In Bangalore, I had couple of hours to spend in between my arrival and departure by train for Cochin. So I called on Dr. Rudrappa at his home. He was happy that I came to him for his good wishes before joining as the Vice-Chancellor of CUSAT. I did not know that Mr. B. Rachaiah a close friend of Dr. Rudrappa had recently been appointed the Governor of Kerala.
The Registrar of the University received me at the Alwaye Railway Station. He escorted me to the Guest House of the University and asked if I would like to meet the teachers of the University. I was not aware that the University did not function on weekends. It was a Saturday and the teachers did me an honour by meeting me on a holiday.
I formally took charge of the office of the Vice-Chancellor of the Cochin University of Science and Technology on the 22nd of December, 1990. My Private Secretary Mr. Sasidharan brought my dak-pad. The first letter in it was an unopened inland letter. I was shocked to read its contents. I cannot ignore telling it because it is a bizarre story.
As Principal of the RCE Mysore I had set aside each day time between 3 and 3:30 pm as an open-hour. Visitors could see me in this period without a prior appointment. I do not remember the exact date of occurrence of the incident I am writing. But it was not earlier than the first week of December 1990. I saw a tantrik accompanied by a child before me. He opened a bag he was carrying and pulled out a framed picture of a goddess and a pile of photographs. He did not give me chance to inquire what his business with me was. He started chanting and displaying photographs of his pictures with famous actors and actresses and persons from the public life in India. He kept on doing puja of the goddess in the picture at the same time playing with his mouth a one string small musical instrument and went into trance. I did not know where all this drama would lead to. He started telling me in Hindi, “I can see that you will be leaving Mysore shortly and join some important assignment. I am an illiterate person and am unable to say in words what your important assignment will be.” I got rid of him by paying some money as offerings to his goddess. I checked with both my PS and PA whether this person had met them before entering my chamber. They declared that they had nothing to do with him. My peon Nagendra had allowed the tantrik inside my office as it was the open-hour period. The letter I had received in Cochin carried a return address c/o post office of some town in Andhra Pradesh. The letter in broken Hindi said, “You have joined the high office I had predicted. I am willing to come and do puja for you.” I tore that letter to pieces and instructed my PS not to allow anyone to see me without prior appointment. He said, “Sir, we have high security for you both at office and at your residence. No one will be allowed to come near you without your knowledge and consent.”
The Pro-Vice-Chancellor (PVC) was appointed concurrently with me. He came to call on me and was sitting before me when my PS transferred the telephone call of the Governor of Kerala. As per the provisions in the University Act the Governor of Kerala was the Chancellor of the University. The Governor inquired from me if someone was sitting with me at that time. As only the Pro-VC was sitting I thought I could take the Chancellor’s call. He told me, “Maheshwari, your Pro-Vice-Chancellor is a crook. Be careful of him.” The Pro-Vice-Chancellor was a local person and held the position of the Registrar of the Calicut University before his appointment in the Cochin University. How true the Governor’s warning was I found out with time.
I went to Trivandrum to call on the Governor, the Chief Minister, and the Education Minister. The Governor was happy to meet me. Dr. Rudrappa had briefed Mr. Rachaiah about me. He knew of my Mysore background. I knew his Secretary, Mr. Ramachandran. He had been on deputation to the NCERT as its Secretary.
My meeting with the Chief Minister, Mr. Nayanar, was brief. He welcomed me with a smile. Before I could thank him for giving me an opportunity of serving his State, he said, “I suggest you go and meet the Education Minister.” I next called on the Education Minister. Mr.Chandrasekharan told me, “I had made up my mind when I met you in Mysore that I would try to bring you to Kerala. I am happy, Maheshwari, in succeeding in bringing you to Kerala. When I saw your bio-data I felt happy that I found in you a combination of a scientist and an educationist. I decided that you are best suited for the Cochin University of Science and Technology.” The circumstances leading to my coming to Cochin I have described in detail. Perhaps the blessings of my grandfather had made me the Vice-Chancellor. I had neither aspired to become one nor lobbied to become one.
I was told that the Vice-Chancellor’s official residence was ready for me to move in. I came to Mysore to vacate the Principal’s bungalow and to send my personal effects by road to Cochin. The carpenter Puttuswamy and peon Nagendra made an unexpected offer. They offered to do the packing and come with the truck transporting my household goods to Cochin. They did an excellent packing job. I needed a ‘no-dues' from Mr. Pappaiah', the Caretaker of the RCE buildings, after handing over the quarter to him. He checked the furniture and fittings in it and pointed out that one lock issued to me for locking the wicket gate was missing. The lock with its key was found. I had completed the formalities and could leave the RCE Mysore. The transporter had brought with him some persons for loading my household goods and books packed in cartons in the truck. They loaded the packed cartons and the furniture safely in the truck. I asked the transporter the amount I should pay to the loaders. He suggested that I may like to pay them Rs. 275. I paid them Rs. 350. Puttuswamy and Nagendra travelled in the driver’s cabin. Asha and I reached Cochin by train with valuables and fragile items. By the time we reached the Vice-Chancellor’s residence the truck had been unloaded. All the packets were lying outside the house. The University Engineer asked me to pay Rs. 1800 as unloading charges! He said that after negotiations he managed to bring down the unloading charges from Rs 2500 to Rs. 1800. Unloading did not include transfer of personal goods inside the house. This was one of the planned actions to inconvenience me. There was resentment in the campus that an outsider had been made the vice-chancellor. I was an unwelcome person. I could guess as much. My PS asked me to rest inside. He along with the staff of the VC’s office took the cartons inside. Nagendra and Puttuswamy realised the gravity of the situation and said, “Sir, we will help the Madam with unpacking and return to Mysore only after setting up your new residence.” I made up my mind not to react to trivial irritants and waited for my detractors to wink first.
Asha’s Research Scientist award was national. It gave her flexibility to join an institution of her choice anywhere in the country. She joined the Department of Economics in the Cochin University of Science and Technology without embarrassment to me as her salary would come from the UGC.
I told Professor Babu Joseph, the Head of the Department of Physics that I would like to teach a course like a regular faculty member. I started teaching a course on General Relativity and Gravitation. It was a good decision. Students whom I taught told other students that the VC is a good teacher. I earned the good will of the teachers of the University as they accepted me as one of them. The VC of the University teaching a course was unheard of. A university has three constituents; students, teachers and non-teaching staff. I now had the good will of two important constituents, the students and the teachers.
I followed three cardinal principles in discharging my administrative work. The first was to apply my mind to each issue and ensure that decisions taken by me were in the best interest of the institution and were according to the rules, the regulations and the statutes. The second was to treat the institutional funds as their custodian, and ensure before taking a decision that these were not being wasted and were being used only for the institutional good. The third was to accept that it would be impossible for me to ensure a hundred percent corruption-free administration, but to decide nevertheless that should a case of corruption come to my notice then I would punish the guilty without fear or favour. I started returning files with sharp queries. It unsettled the administration. I had instructed my staff that I should be left undisturbed when I was working and no paper be brought to me for spot decisions.
I received files recommending the merit promotion of some teachers. I spotted that one case recommended to me violated the norms. The norms were not stringent. Promotion from Reader to Professor required that the person concerned had published at least two research papers as Reader. In one case one of the papers was submitted for publication when the person was a lecturer and it appeared in print when that person was promoted as Reader. I made the observation and rejected the proposal. A delegation of senior professors came and told me, “VC, you are yet not firm in your saddle. If you take decisions against us it would not be in your interest.” I did not like being intimidated. I told them, “I take decisions in the interest of my University and not as per my interest or of any individual.” They got the message.
I received proposals recommending declaration of probation of teachers who had been appointed in the University a year ago or earlier. I asked that each proposal submitted for my consideration should be supported by a statement giving in detail the work done by the probationer since joining the University and be supported with specific recommendations of the concerned Head. It created unrest. Never before had this type of information been requested for taking decisions on permanent absorption of teachers into the University. I was told by probationers that this was not told to them when they joined the University. I told them, “I am requiring it now and can extend your probation period for some more time.” My decisions had implications on other universities in Kerala.
I would go to the Syndicate Meetings after thoroughly examining the Agenda items and asked the Registrar to record my decision on each item in a note to be with me and its copy to be with him. This was done before I left my chamber for the Syndicate Meeting. The Registrar did not have time to disclose my mind. In the meetings I allowed members to speak for as long as they liked. I did tell them that if they were saying something important and wanted their VC to know they should speak in the language he understood. I did not mind long speeches in Malayalam and would check with the Registrar if what the person was saying was in agreement with my decision. The Registrar was required to scribble to me either ‘Y’ or ’N’. After the members had spoken I would read out my decision and move to the next item. In my entire term of office I did not receive a single note of dissent. I did not allow ‘not knowing the local language’ to come in my way. Once a delegation of three or-four Syndicate members, who were from outside the University, entered my chamber in an agitated mood. They told me, “VC, you have reduced the Syndicate to your rubber stamp.” I asked, “Was any decision taken contrary to the interests of the University?” They replied, “None.” I told them, “All the decisions were yours and not mine.” They went back satisfied. I was now firmly in the saddle!
I would go to Delhi and pursue proposals of the University with the UGC, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and other concerned Departments of the Central Government. I was successful in getting the proposals cleared and funds began to flow into the University. I was told that a proposal for construction of a Science Seminar Complex was pending in the DST. I met the Secretary DST. He told me that the DST had stopped funding such proposals as these complexes remained under utilised. There was a change in Governments both in Kerala and in the Centre. I asked the Chief Minister of Kerala, Mr. Karunakaran, to write to the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narasimha Rao, in support of the proposal of the Cochin University of Science and Technology for the Science Seminar complex. The Central and the State Government of Kerala both had Congress party in power. We received sanction of the DST for the Seminar Complex. When I went to the DST to thank its Secretary, he told me, “Professor Maheshwari, you did not play a fair game!”
As the VC I discharged ceremonial roles. I inaugurated events held in the University and also by organisations outside it and was expected to address the gatherings. I had to perform two to three such activities each week. This necessitated that I should appear confident while speaking in public and that I spoke what was relevant to the event. This brought out my latent communication abilities. I discovered that I could now communicate effectively both orally and in writing. I did not take help from others and prepared my speeches myself. This was one big gain I got from the Cochin assignment.
It is a challenging task for me to look back to my period as the VC of CUSAT. I do not intend to write a book on it. I will write four other important events of this period.
A security guard brought to my notice that a timber tree had been auctioned for a throw away price. I asked for its papers. The tree was marked as a decayed cashew tree and auctioned for a support price of Rs. 125. It was sold by auction for Rs. 150. The tree had been cut into a log. I found it was a valuable piece of wood and not a piece of wood from a decayed cashew tree. I asked the Forest Department to conduct the valuation of the piece of log. They informed me that it was a big piece of wood used for making furniture. In the market it would cost at least Rs. 5000. I ordered that the auction be cancelled pending an inquiry and the log of wood be shifted to the University Guest House. After the Syndicate meeting I asked the members to come for lunch to the University Guest House. I showed them the log of wood lying there and asked if it was a piece of decayed cashew tree. They laughed and said, “Professor Maheshwari, in Kerala even a child recognises a cashew tree. It is an expensive piece of wood used for furniture.” The Engineer who had auctioned it as a piece of decayed cashew tree was suspended. The issue did not end there. In the State Legislature one member of the ruling party raised the issue that the VC of the Cochin University is using university funds in furnishing his house luxuriously. Former Education Minister who was now an MLA knew that I was not given even a clean sofa and I was using easy chairs instead, and also the curtains in my residence were not changed. Mr. Chandrasekharan thundered and said, “You have spent lakhs in renovating your bungalows. You have no right to speak against the VC who has been discreetly using the funds and has curtailed wasteful expenditure in the University.”
The second incident was my gherao. One day my PA brought some papers for me to sign. I asked him what those papers were and why did he want me to sign them. He said some two hundred employees will get benefit and it will be a good Onam gesture. I examined the papers and found that a proposal without scrutiny was put up to me to regularise service of over two hundred employees. I returned the papers asking the Registrar to see me. As soon as my PA left over two hundred persons invaded my chamber. They declared that they would not allow me to leave my seat unless I cleared the proposal on regularisation of their service. My chamber became free for all. They were drinking tea/coffee and keeping me confined to my seat. I told them that I will form an expert group to process their cases and instruct it to give me its recommendations in one month. I contacted the Education Minister. He asked me to remain firm and not to yield to the unreasonable demand which had far reaching implications. Around 4:30 pm the Superintendent of Police contacted me on phone. He said, “Sir, you have three options. If you press charge of gherao they will be taken into custody. Gherao is a cognisable offence and these persons can be released on bail only by a magistrate. The second option is that you press a charge that you were obstructed from carrying out your official duties. They will be taken into custody and released only when offence has been registered individually by the SHO of the Police Station. The third option is we remove them from the campus and release them forty miles away.” I opted for the second option. Soon two Police vans came with a contingent of police men. I was worried that persons who had kept me confined the whole day would indulge in violence against me. But after shouting slogans they left my chamber in a queue and were taken away to the Police Station in the vans.
I had to fill about 40 teaching posts in areas such as physics, electronics, computer science, marine biology, ship technology, and marine geophysics. Candidates for interview had been shortlisted. I had to constitute selection committees. I was aware that it was a sensitive task as not only I would face political pressure but even the experts might face interference. I worked out a two-week schedule of interviews and associated one of the Syndicate members with the selection process on each of the interview days. Syndicate members were asked to be available on the day assigned to them to attend the selection committee meetings without knowing details such as number of posts, subjects and their level. I decided to visit important institutions, such as the Universities, IITs, the BARC, the TIFR, the NIO, and contacted the experts directly and asked them to come to Cochin without waiting for a formal letter to reach them.
The selection process was proceeding smoothly and I had finished the first week of interviews. Mr. E. T. Mohammad Basheer, the Education Minister, contacted me on telephone. He asked me if some selection committee meetings were being held in the University. I told him, “Yes.” He said, “Why did you not keep me informed?” I replied, “Sir, it was my task and I did not want to disturb you. I can come to Trivandrum to meet you and explain to you what has happened so far.” I went to Trivandrum to meet him. As it was the Ramadan period he asked me to see him in the evening at his residence. When I met him his PS was by his side holding a large number of slips. I said to Mr. Basheer, “You have done me the highest honour by entrusting the most prestigious institution of Kerala to me. It is my duty to put in my best and work in the best interest of the Cochin University of Science and Technology. I am accountable to you and the State.” He thought for a while and said, “VC work as per your conscience.” His PA asked, “What should we do with these slips?” He replied, “Destroy them.” I returned relieved after meeting the Education Minister and completed the selection process.
On the day following the end of the selection committee meetings I had convened the Syndicate meeting for releasing the minutes. I entered the Syndicate Meeting Hall with apprehensions. Before I could welcome the members to the meeting a resolution ratifying all actions of the Vice-Chancellor for the selection process was passed. It was clarified to me that some of my actions could have been taken only by the Syndicate and the hard work I had done would have been challenged in the High Court on technical grounds. I felt gratified by the confidence reposed in me by my Syndicate. After the meeting I moved to my chamber. I was told that the Deans of the Faculties were waiting outside my chamber to meet me. I was worried that they might say some unpleasant things to me. I was pleasantly surprised when in unison they said, “VC, we have come to thank you for injecting fresh blood in the University.”
The Cochin University of Science and Technology was unitary in character. It recognised outside institutions for research leading to the Ph.D. degree of the University. But it did not have outside colleges affiliated to it. Two self-financing engineering colleges were started surreptitiously by the Institute of Human Resource Development in Electronics (IHRDE), an autonomous institution of the State Government. These colleges were to be affiliated by the Syndicate of CUSAT by an act of ratification. They were in advanced stages of operation as printed brochures on admission to these institutions had been printed and released in Malayalam editions of news papers, including in the Gulf countries. The criteria for admission given in the brochures was much lower than what was laid down in the Regulations for admission to its B.Tech courses by the University. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor (PVC) and the Education Minister knew what was being done while keeping me in the dark. Someone brought these developments to my notice and showed me the English versions of the brochures issued by these private engineering colleges. I felt disturbed by these developments as these actions were encroachment on the autonomy of my institution. The PVC informed the Education Minister. I was asked to meet him late in the evening in the University Guest House. The PVC was with him. He asked me to co-operate with the PVC. I was disturbed by all that he said to me and recognised that the University was under threat. I had to act to protect it.
I knew Justice Sukumaran, a judge of the Bombay High court. He was formerly a judge ofthe High Court of Kerala. His wife lived in Ernakulam. She was a judge of the High Court of Kerala. I took my chance and made a call to the Ernakulam residence of Justice Sukumaran. He was in town. He asked me to see him. He listened to the issue that had disturbed me. He said, “Professor Maheshwari, you have two options. The first is don’t bother as you are not an involved person and leave these issues to the Chancellor and the Government of Kerala to sort out. The second is that you are the VC and the custodian of its Act and the Statutes. Your University is under threat. You cannot sit with your eyes closed. Should you decide to take the second option I will give you a signed legal opinion on Tuesday as I will be busy today with a family function I have come to attend.” I took the second option. On Tuesday I received a signed legal opinion that what had been done was in gross violation of the Act and the Statutes of the University. I decided to invoke powers vested in the VC and nip in the bud what had been done surreptitiously.
On Tuesday evening I received an unpleasant telephone call from the Education Minister. He said, “I know how to deal with my vice-chancellors. I will expose your unholy alliance!” I put the phone down and asked my PA to come to my chamber and also asked the Registrar to meet me. The Registrar said, “Sir, you may decide to leave the University but I have to work in Kerala. I will not be spared if I carry out your orders.” I asked him to proceed on leave immediately. Applying the powers vested in me I decided to revoke the illegal actions of the IHRDE and its future actions such as admissions made by it. Around 10 pm I saw several police cars with flashing lights in the courtyard of the Administrative building. I now had an apprehension that I might be arrested on some frivolous charge. Police Officers came and said, “Sir, we have received wireless message from the Chief Minister asking you to call him before 10 pm failing which you should meet him at the Cochin airport at 9:30 am the next day.” It was past 10 pm and I had a Senate Meeting in the morning the next day. I asked the Police Officer to convey it to the Secretary of the Chief Minister.
I decided to go to Trivandrum to inform the Chancellor of these developments. I met the Chancellor and requested him to relieve me from the office of Vice-Chancellor. He listened to me and asked me to continue for some more time. The Secretary to the Governor had received a message to ask me to see the Education Minister. I met the Education Minister. The Secretary Higher Education was with him. He told the Secretary, “Sudha, the VC is on the war path.” I told him, “Sir, like Arjun I ask you to be on my side as it is a holy war and the interests of your university are under attack.”
The Education Minister did not release funds to CUSAT. I could not run a state government institution without the support of the Education Minister. I received another signed legal opinion from Justice Nambiar, a retired judge of the Kerala High Court. He opined and quoted a judgement that an affiliated institution can lay criteria of admission superior to those given in the Regulations but not inferior to them.
Although I was receiving good press for my actions I was under tremendous stress. I came to know that the Governor was visiting Ernakulam and was staying in the Circuit House. I sought an appointment with him. I took Asha along with me to call on the Governor. He was accompanied by his wife. After meeting me he said, “I want to meet your wife.” He told Asha that I was doing important work and should continue with the CUSAT for some more time. Asha told the Governor, “Sir, I cannot assess the importance of his work in the University. He is under tremendous stress. I am concerned about his health.” A few days later I received a message that the Governor will be pleased to relieve me on a date of my choice.
We started preparations for leaving Cochin. We purchased some pieces of cane furniture. I was to move to the NCERT Headquarters in New Delhi as the option to return to the RCE Mysore was closed. I was told that the goods sent by railway wagon get damaged as transit time from Ernakulam to Delhi can be as long as three months and sometimes rain water seeps insidegoods wagons as they have holes in them.
I received message from Justice Nambiar to join him for tea at his residence. He had found out from my PS all the persons I had made friends with during my Cochin stay. He invited all of them to bid me farewell. This gesture of Justice Nambiar whom I had not met earlier touched my heart.
I went to Trivandrum for meeting the Governor and to thank him for his support. I mentioned to him my minor concern on damage to my goods in transit.
When I went to the Ernakulam Railway Station to book my personal effects for sending them by goods train I noticed a brand new railway wagon was stationed by the booking office.
Teachers of the University came to the Cochin Airport to bid me good bye. One teacher gave me a pocket edition of the Bible and the other a collection of poems in Malayalam written by him as farewell gifts. I have preserved them as souvenirs of my Cochin association.
Instead of returning to Mysore, we took a flight for Delhi as I was to join the NCERT Headquarters.