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PAST & PRESENT

Rationalist and nationalist

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

"One summer the local papers were afire with a controversy ignited by their VC. Narasimhaiah had formed a university committee to "investigate and verify miracles and superstitions", claiming that it was in the spirit of the Constitution, which mandated the spread of a scientific temper."

K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Great teacher -- H. Narasimhaiah.

KARNATAKA is known for, among other things, its vast network of colleges privately owned and managed, to which come students from all over the country. Focusing on professional courses, on medicine and engineering in particular, these colleges are commercial enterprises, their aim not just to provide an education but also to make a decent profit.

The NES

Somewhat different are the aims of the oldest private educational initiative in Karnataka. This is the National Education Society, established in Bangalore in 1918 as a consequence of the Home Rule movement. As its name signifies, the ideal which motivated the Society was that of national self-reliance. Its first act was to start a National High School; a school quite unlike the others then in existence, which were run either by the colonial government or by priests. The Nationalist High School, however, would be secular, free of any religious influence; and it would be nationalist, run for and by Indians.

Eighty-odd years after its inception, the National Education Society runs as many as 15 institutions; 11 schools and four colleges. The most important of these remain the original High School, and with it, the National College. Both are located in Basavangudi, a densely-packed, Kannada speaking area, still largely free of the glass-and-concrete high-rises of the newer, English-and-Hindi speaking parts of the city. The courses the College offers span a wide range of subjects; physics and chemistry are taught there, but so are literature and sociology.

Its alumni

The alumni of the National College include some of Karnataka's best known scientists, scholars, actors and sportsmen. However, for much of its existence the first name with which the College was identified was that of the rationalist and nationalist H. Narasimhaiah. Known affectionately as "HN" (pronounced, in the local manner, as "hettch yenn"), this was a man who taught at the College, ran the College, and retired to the College. Through all this he lived in the College too, in a single small room that sufficed for his bachelor requirements. That room was his home for a full 53 years, his tenure ending only with his death on the last day of January this year.

Narasimhaiah was born in 1920 in a village some 40 miles north of Bangalore. He came from a "backward caste" family; his father was a primary school teacher, his mother a labourer. The village school ended at class VIII. To continue further one had to go to Bangalore. Which Narasimhaiah did, on his feet. He walked to the city (then still a town) and joined the National High School. From here he proceeded to the Central College to study physics. His studies were interrupted by the Quit India movement of 1942, which he joined, thus to spend a year in prison. He came out of jail, finished his Master's, and joined the staff of the newly established National College.

Investigating `miracles'

In 1957, having been a devoted college teacher for more than a decade, Narasimhaiah decided once more to "better" himself. He took himself off to the Ohio State University, to obtain a Ph D in nuclear physics. Shortly after his return, he was appointed Principal of the National College. Then, in 1972, he was made Vice Chancellor of the newly established Bangalore University. The University was located in temporary quarters in the heart of the city. Narasimhaiah supervised its move to a new campus off the Mysore road, where he had built the various academic departments, the hostels, the offices, and, notably, a centre of Gandhian studies.

It was while Narasimhaiah was Vice Chancellor that I first heard of him. I was a student of another university, in Delhi, but spent holidays with my grandparents in Bangalore. One summer the local papers were afire with a controversy ignited by their VC. Narasimhaiah had formed a university committee to "investigate and verify miracles and superstitions", claiming that it was in the spirit of the Constitution, which mandated the spread of a scientific temper. It soon became clear that the rationalist's chief target was the godman Satya Sai Baba, who lived just outside Bangalore. The Baba was invited, or perhaps summoned, to appear before the committee to demonstrate his miracles. I seem to remember that conditions were specified; that he not wear long sleeves and that he cut his hair short. The godman declined the invitation, which was then repeated.

The Narasimhaiah-Sai Baba battle was the talk of Bangalore while it lasted. Around it were spun tales rich but mostly apocryphal, such as this one featuring the magician P.C. Sorcar. It was said that Sorcar sought an audience with the Baba, giving his surname only. The godman greeted his new, Bengali disciple by producing a dry sondesh. The disciple responded with a better trick still; he produced, also from nowhere, a wet, sticky roshogoolla. The Baba's bodyguards escorted Sorcar, not very politely, to the door.

In truth, HN's rationalist proselytising long antedated his tenure as Vice Chancellor. Back in 1962 he had started a Bangalore Science Forum which ran a weekly seminar, as well as an annual science "festival". By 2003 the Forum had organised a staggering, 1,990 lectures by visiting scientists.

After his time as Vice Chancellor, HN returned to his beloved National Educational Society, which he ran until his death, with a firm yet kindly hand, and a eye that never wavered from the founders' principles. There would be no money-making "professional" courses, and the governing councils would be run by the teachers themselves. Among the new schools he helped found were several in the remote rural parts of Bangalore and Kolar districts.

HN and Nittoor

The last time I saw HN was when I was invited to speak at his College on Gandhi and Ambedkar. He was then 80, but ramrod straight, dressed, as always, in white dhoti, white shirt and white cap. But this day he had to share the attention with the man next to him, whose record of service went back even further. This was Nittoor Srinivasa Rao who, back in 1928, when HN was a mere boy, had translated Gandhi's autobiography into Kannada. Later, Nittoor served for years as the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court. Through all this he ran and nurtured the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs.

To see HN and Nittoor in the front row was both uplifting and humbling. Before my talk I went up to greet them. HN graciously acknowledged my salutations, while Nittoor answered with an apology. I should not be offended if he were to leave halfway, he said; it was only because he was due to chair a talk at the Gokhale Institute himself. I was struck speechless; chairing a talk, at a hundred! Doubtless he did a decent job of it too.

Nittoor Srinivasa Rao died last year; now his friend and fellow patriot H. Narasimhaiah has followed him. Nittoor and HN were products of a Bangalore almost unrecognisable by the Bangalore of today. Idealism, integrity, austerity, sacrifice; these were the signatures of the Gandhian middle class to which they belonged.

In H. Narasimhaiah's case at least, the institutions he nurtured shall survive him. Strikingly, the newspapers in Bangalore all reported his passing alongside pictures of schoolchildren weeping.

Since the children were not the same, and since newspapers are always looking for a "new" angle, it was clear that this was the only story there was. A great teacher had died, and his students, real and putative, had gathered spontaneously to mourn him. We must hope that some of what he lived and struggled for shall seep into their own lives.

Ramachandra Guha is an author and historian based in Bangalore. E-mail him at ramguha@vsnl.com

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