Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Dr Ram Harijan, a profile

The first time I met Dr Ram Harijan (better known as DrRam or DrRamOfIndia) was in 1982 when he came as a Visiting Professor to Madras University’s Department of Androgogy where I was doing a Masters Degree. He gave a stirring lecture to the University’s rather skeptical audience that the new computer technology could do to India what transistor technology had done for Japan, namely boost Indian self-confidence and take India into the ranks of the developed world. Subsequent events have proved him absolutely right and today’s pre-eminent place in software technology that India enjoys is very much the result of critical contributions from visionaries like him.

(Dr Harijan at his Leicester home all dressed up for Indian Independence Day celebrations)

At the end of an hour long speech, it was time for questions. The first set of questions were to be about the pros and cons of large-scale Indian investment in computers and computer-education. Afterwards, there would be opportunities for other questions. Some students, clearly reflecting the prevailing Marxist view, asked if computers would not lead to India’s technological dependence on the USA. Dr Harijan replied that such dependence would happen only if India delayed in taking on board the new technology. If we mastered the computer technology at the same time as Americans, we would not be depending on them for anything. Rather, it would result in a sort of a healthy mutual dependence whereby we would help them in areas where we were good in return for their help in areas where they were good. Then came a torrent of questions about computers and their effects on jobs. One computer could do the work of ten people, one student exclaimed! Did not this mean that each computer would make nine out of our ten people unemployed? Most people expressed similar fears that computers would take away jobs. Dr Harijan's reply was that computers would certainly take away jobs. But they would bring in new jobs as well as take away old jobs. We must make sure that more new jobs came our way than the few jobs we were likely to lose. That would involve re-training, re-location and new investment. That would also lead to more efficiency, less corruption and greater economic development.

From 1980 onward, Dr Harijan visited the length and breadth of India advocating the advantages and benefits of having a computer-literate and computer-competent population for the long-term future of India. He not only gave lectures in Universities and other institutions of higher learning but also demonstrated how easy it was to assemble microcomputers. He did this by taking apart the ‘micros’ which he had brought with him. For most of his audience, it was their very first encounter with a computer and Dr Harijan used his enormous charm and expertise to make it an exciting one. (N.B: A rare footage of Dr Harijan's visit to colleges in the Kannur area of Kerala in the 1980s is, fortunately, available on the internet and it can be viewed by simply clicking here. For a copy of his report on his research in the 1980s, just click here).

But the greatest mountain in turning his vision into fruition by far was in convincing the then union and state governments in India that computers were good investment for India in the long run. He met many Chief Ministers from Shaikh Abdullah in Kashmir to Madhavsinh Solanki in Gujarat to Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh. He was flabbergasted by the petty Nayanar-Karunakaran feud in his home state of Kerala where everything got politicized and important government decisions appeared to be made on the basis of anything but merit. What a silly way of running India's most literate state where so much more could be done, he sighed? No wonder Kerala suffered from chronic under-performance and skilled Keralites migrated out of the state in search of better pastures! He was disconcerted by the indecisiveness and lack of vision of VP Singh who was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. No wonder India's most populous state was also one of the most corrupt and one of the least developed, he exclaimed! He had mixed reception about the idea of large scale computerization elsewhere in India. Outright sceptics like Jyoti Basu in West Bengal and Jagannath Mishra in Bihar undoubtedly worried him. But enthusiastic leaders like Darbara Singh in Punjab and Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka gave him comfort and encouragement. He was heartened too by the open-mindedness of men like JP Patnaik in Orissa and Bhajan Lal in Haryana who were willing to listen and even learn. The power of his persuasion was obvious because he convinced Mrs Indira Gandhi’s government in Delhi sufficiently to launch the Computer Literacy in Secondary Schools(CLASS) program which could be said to have laid the foundation for India’s subsequent computer software revolution.

Dr Harijan has excellent qualities and qualifications to reach the top-most positions in India. When he left India in 1964, he already had an Honors degree in Mathematics from Madras University. In Britain, firstly, he trained as a teacher from London University's Institute of Education. Then he went to Southampton University and got a Master's degree in Research Methodology. Finally, he took a Doctorate (PhD) in Information Technology from Reading University. Most of his life, Dr Harijan either taught or researched or did both in India or England. The findings of his research about computers and their relevance to India’s economic development were closely studied by Indian planners and administrators and clearly influenced their computerization policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Dr Harijan's unique contribution to human knowledge must be his concept of Late-Development Syndrome and how to combat it with appropriate educational inputs the true significance of which is only just beginning to be taken on board by behaviour scientists and developmental economists the world over. 

Dr Harijan briefly dabbled in British politics in the 1970s. He joined the Labour Party in 1971 and rapidly rose to become a District Chairman two years later. He represented North Devon in several regional and national conferences. Dr Harijan fought in local elections and raised Labour votes to record levels wherever he stood as their candidate. But his refusal to give up his Indian nationality probably meant that he was not destined to reach his full potential in Britain's jingoistic party politics. In any event, he was getting increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with the racist immigration policies of Callaghan's Labour government and did not hesitate to show his anger and disdain in meetings and speeches. 

(Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, behind right, visibly enjoying a Dr Harjan joke in Brighton 1977)

In February 1979, when a Guardian newspaper report of a vaginal examination ('virginity test') conducted by border officials on some Indian women entering Britain as 'fiancees' was confirmed in parliament by Merlyn Rees, the Labour Home Minister, it was the last straw: Dr Harijan was horrified and left the Labour Party in utter disgust. From then on, Dr Harijan  devoted himself to fighting the growing menace of racism all around him. As Chairman of the Regional Association for Racial Equality, he immediately took up the cause of resettling Vietnamese 'boat people' who were given political asylum in Britain. His subsequent battles for racial equality were well documented in the local media and much recognized by the then Commission for Racial Equality in Britain.

When Dr Harijan left British politics, Britain’s loss could have been India’s gain. Had it not been for our own obsession with our political dynasties in the choice of our leadership, Dr Harijan could have risen to the highest level in India’s political system. It was indeed on the issue of dynasty-building that Dr Harijan fell out with Messers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. If he had swallowed his principles and played the game of ‘follow the leader’ as many of his friends and contemporaries had chosen to do, who knows what might have happened?

(Dr Harijan with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi 1980)

I started this blog with a lecture given by Dr Harijan in Chennai in 1982. After the lecture, it was time for questions and answers. Once questions about the role of computers in India's economic development were over, it was time for open questions. Questions which followed were mostly about the future of political dynasties, caste and corruption. Before Dr Harijan put the lid on questions and started answering, I was able to get my question in: how did he get the surname 'Harijan'  which was very unusual? Dr Harijan started by saying that, ever since he could think, he visualized a Corruption-Free and Caste-Free India. Dynastic politics was nothing but institutionalized political corruption. Therefore, a Corruption-Free-India would necessarily be dynasty-free. Every Indian had a stake in achieving a Corruption-Free and Caste-Free India. It might take several generations but if everyone of us did our bit for it, we were certain to achieve it one day. 

As for his 'unusual' surname, Dr Harijan said that changing his name from 'Ramachandran Nambiar' to 'Rama Chandran Harijan' in 1966 was his 'bit' for achieving a Caste-Free-India. In a Caste-Free-India, every Hindu would proudly call himself 'Harijan' just as every Sikh proudly called himself 'Singh'. The words 'Harijan' and 'Hindu' would become synonymous in such an India. If we Hindus do not get rid of our iniquitous and repressive caste-system soon and become truly caste-free, we will soon witness the historic splitting of our great religion into caste-Hindus and caste-free Hindus the same way as Protestantism split Christians down the middle. Those who do not see this clear writing on the wall, are really under-estimating the growing revulsion of 'lower' caste Indians against being classed as low and inferior for no fault of theirs.

In recent days, Dr Harijan  has become one of the best known e-activists doing his 'bit' for a Corruption Free India. His hard-hitting 'tweets' are enthusiastically followed and re-tweeted by thousands of his followers on Twitter. His 'anti-corruption' videos on YouTube have already had over 16 lakh (1.6 million) hits. As 'DrRamOfIndia', he symbolizes the corruption-free aspirations of all Indians and has become an enduring and welcome presence on the internet.

All in all, I doubt if Dr Harijan has any regrets about the turn of events in his life. He is likely to be happy that computers have become the cornerstone of India’s economic success story and that his dream of a Computer-Literate-India has already become a reality. But does he want to take any credit for persuading skeptical Indian governments in the 1980s and 1990s to invest heavily in computers and computer education? Not really. He does not boast although he has achieved much that most of us would boast about. His greatness lies in his uncompromising honesty, unbelievable simplicity and truly self-effacing modesty.

N.B: The name 'Ram Harijan' is 'googleable'. Please google it to know more about this great man.

1 comment:

  1. A lovely man. Wonderful individual, inspiring IT professional and a great role-model.