Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Mukul Kesavan on l'affaire Mehta


Mukul Kesavan's column in The Telegraph concludes with this: "... From Devanampiya to this, every epoch gets the Ashoka it deserves."

Before reaching this sentence, he has much to say about pretty much every key person in this episode -- Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Arvind Subramanian, the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor -- and the subtext in their public pronouncements. He also has comments on a couple of commentators: Raghuram Rajan (who is deeply involved in another university not very different from Ashoka) and Gurcharan Das (the less said about him, the better).

Worth reading in full, but I have to include at least an excerpt here; so, here goes:

Universities like Ashoka are best understood as liberal arts universities with Indian characteristics. The philanthropists who fund and found these universities loom over them like colossi. The virtue of giving generously seems to purge them of self-awareness. In every official communication I’ve read, Ashoka’s founders capitalize their consequence: they are Founders. Ashoka’s board of trustees sent a statement to the faculty declaring that they had never interfered with the academic functioning of the university nor the freedom of faculty members to write about anything they wanted, in any forum that they wanted. That they could write this soon after seeing Mehta off the premises gives chutzpah a new meaning. They signalled their commitment to the autonomy of the university by endorsing the appointment of an Ombudsperson. A Lokpal. Fancy that. [Bold emphasis added]

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There are just way too many news stories and opinion pieces following Pratap Bhanu Mehta's resignation from a professorship at Ashoka. Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of stuff allueded to in Kesavan's piece:

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Diffusion of Knowledge within the Tata firms in 1970s and 1980s


Over at FiftyTwo, Chinmay Tumbe has a fantastic article titled Kamla, revisiting the history of IIM-Ahmedabad and correcting it to reflect Kamla Chowdhry's pivotal role in its founding. As the subhead puts it, "She was shunted out of the history of India’s most prestigious business school. On her birth centenary, a researcher redresses the record."

In the section on her post-IIMA life, we find this passage:

Her crusade for gender parity in academia and industry continued outside the walls of the campus. In the June 2013 edition of the alumni newsletter, Savita Mahajan, who graduated from IIMA in 1981, recounted how a recruitment poster appeared on campus that stated that “women need not apply.” This advertisement was for positions in the prestigious Tata Administrative Service management trainee programme. Chowdhry took up the matter directly with JRD Tata, and the rule was overturned the following year.

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This reminded me of another similar episode at another Tata firm; it has Sudha Murthy (Chair of the Infosys Foundation) at its centre; and, it too involves a letter to J.R.D. Tata, the same man that Chowdhry "took up the matter directly with".

Here it is in Murthy's own words (and the link is to the Tata Archives):

It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore was getting warm and red gulmohars were blooming at the IISc campus. I was the only girl in my postgraduate department and was staying at the ladies hostel. Other girls were pursuing research in different departments of science. I was looking forward to going abroad to complete a doctorate in computer science. I had been offered scholarships from universities in US. I had not thought of taking up a job in India.

One day, while on the way to my hostel from our lecture-hall complex, I saw an advertisement on the notice board. It was a standard job-requirement notice from the famous automobile company Telco [now Tata Motors]. It stated that the company required young, bright engineers, hardworking and with an excellent academic background, etc.

At the bottom was a small line: "Lady candidates need not apply." I read it and was very upset. For the first time in my life I was up against gender discrimination.

Though I was not keen on taking up a job, I saw this as a challenge. I had done extremely well in academics, better than most of my male peers. Little did I know then that in real life academic excellence is not enough to be successful.

After reading the notice I went fuming to my room. I decided to inform the topmost person in Telco's management about the injustice the company was perpetrating. I got a postcard and started to write, but there was a problem: I did not know who headed Telco. I thought it must be one of the Tatas. I knew JRD Tata was the head of the Tata Group; I had seen his pictures in newspapers (actually, Sumant Moolgaokar was the company's chairman then).

I took the card, addressed it to JRD and started writing. To this day I remember clearly what I wrote. "The great Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who started the basic infrastructure industries in India, such as iron and steel, chemicals, textiles and locomotives. They have cared for higher education in India since 1900 and they were responsible for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science. Fortunately, I study there. But I am surprised how a company such as Telco is discriminating on the basis of gender."

I posted the letter and forgot about it. Less than 10 days later, I received a telegram stating that I had to appear for an interview at Telco's Pune facility at the company's expense.

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Recap: The Sudha Murthy episode is from 1974, and the job in question is that of a shop floor engineer at Telco. The Kamla Chowdhry episode is from 1981/82, and it was about a management trainee program at the Tata Administrative Service. Both are entities within the Tata empire led by J.R.D. Tata.