Guest Article: An Outstanding Personality – Prof Shankar Lal

Posted on September 6, 2010


In his second guest article in this repository, our  author,  Prof.  M.N. Faruqui,  admires the memories of an outstanding academic leader,  Prof.  Shankar Lal, former Director of IIT Kharagpur during the late seventies and early eighties.  Earlier, Prof.  Shankar Lal was at University of Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee). Prof.   Faruqui  can be approached at  naseem.faruqui AT


It is extremely difficult for me to summarise the contribution, creative genius and personality of Prof Shankar Lal as Director of IIT Kharagpur during the late seventies and early eighties. He took charge of the Institute at a very crucial juncture in its development and rejuvenation. His dynamic leadership, visionary approach overhauled and transformed the functioning of the Institute. As is customary he was opposed by all people with vested interests, He left the imprint of his ideas, philosophy and positive approach on all aspects of the life on the campus, whether academic, administrative or social. He was quite popular with the students to the extent that during student’s farewell functions he was often requested to make a long speech. He could speak fluently in some eight languages. His grasp of languages was amazing. Other than English, chaste Hindi, chaste Bengali, Punjabi and Urdu he was proficient in Oriya, and Spanish. He was also good at German and French. His wife was an American of Yugoslavian origin.

1. Somehow IIT Kharagpur was beset with arbitrariness because of a lack of clearly defined rules and regulations. He set forth to make regulations for all aspects of academic and administrative functions. These regulations were more liberal than we had earlier and were framed by him with help of senior faculty members, circulated widely for comments and then approved by the Senate and Board of Governors (BOG). Some that require mention are

  • Undergraduate, Postgraduate, and Research Committees were formed at the Institute level with one faculty member from each department and centre who himself was the Chairman of the corresponding Departmental Committee. Such action ensured proper participation and democratic functioning in all Academic matters. All regulations were suitably reviewed, modified and printed in a booklet form for wide circulation.
  • Two Committees under the Chairmanship of very senior Professors were given the task of modernising the curricula and syllabi of UG and PG courses. The Committees came up with some far reaching suggestions for change of the curricula with active participation of faculty members from all departments.
  • A major change was ushered in the Leave Rules of the faculty. Any faculty member with five years of service in the Institute could take leave of absence for two years and take up a paid job anywhere in the world with no questions asked. His retained his position in the Institute of course though he did not draw any salary from here. This was totally different from the sabbatical leave rules. It was an unprecedented change in the leave rules for the faculty members. Almost all the IITs adopted this facility later.
  • Very liberal rules were framed for Consultancy including one day leave in a week for consultancy work outside the campus. The Institute’s share in the money earned in the different categories of consultancy work was also made liberal.
  • Similarly rules for purchase procedures, travel, pension disbursement, attending conferences in India and abroad etc were modified and liberalised
  • Similar to other IITs, he introduced the offices of the Five Deans in IIT Kharagpur. They were not a part of the Act or the Statute but like the other IITs they were given all the requisite authorities by the BOG.

2.  He had a remarkably different approach to student indiscipline and punishment. He established a Disciplinary Committee with Dean of Students Affairs as the Chairman with five faculty members and five student elected representatives as members. I had the privilege of being the first Chairman of this committee. In disciplinary cases I used to discuss with Prof Lal before hand his opinion of what action would be adequate. He suggested, for example, that expulsion for say six months should be the minimum punishment. I was lucky to get a unanimous verdict from the ten members of the Committee for expelling (say) the student for six months (one semester). Prof Lal used to call the student to his office before awarding the punishment and would have me present there.  In his usual style he would rebuke the student and then tell him that he wants to accept the recommendation of the committee, but your Dean here (pointing to me) is not agreeing with me and wants the sentence to be reduced. Finally he would say that in deference to the plea and wish of the Dean Sahib here he is reducing the sentence to one month. Privately this used to surprise me immensely because I had not opened my mouth. The credit for lesser punishment was given solely to me. Such action built up the reputation of the Dean sky high and students thought that finally I only could help them. I wonder how many people would pass on the credit of being generous, of compassion and benevolence to their subordinate.

3. In the mid and late seventies the use of computers in research, teaching, and laboratories was taking roots. The prevailing concept was of large computer centres with a powerful main frame computer and a large number of terminals for use by the students. Internet and Networking of computers was till far away in India and the use of computer was mainly for number crunching, graphics, and databases. The idea of decentralisation of computation power by providing semi-powerful machines tot the departments was getting prevalent. Prof Lal was not originally convinced but he fortunately went for a tour to USA and coming back from there he told me that it was the only way to make people learn and use computers intensively. He agreed to fund HP 1000, or HP 3000 computers in addition to the PCs for departments like Mathematics, Architecture, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and other Engineering departments. Electronics and Electrical Communication, and Mechanical Engineering departments had already acquired fairly powerful machines. It was a very bold experiment at that point of time.

4. Working with him in his team I learnt a lot of finer points of negotiations with the Employees Union and the Teachers Association. His period of stay was most tumultuous and overlapped with the turmoil in the political atmosphere of West Bengal. The Employees Union went on a long strike with a large charter of demands. It was a mixed bag of demands where many issues could only be resolved by the Government in Delhi and some could be negotiated locally.  He formed a Committee of some eight Professors to assist him in the process of negotiations. The Union would also bring its whole Executive Committee to the table. The condition for agreeing to negotiate was that there will be no disturbance to the functioning of the Institute in the day time. We used to sit for the negotiation at nine in the evening after dinner and continue till past midnight everyday. The parleys lasted for some seventy two hours and I can say that the stamina and resistance of the Union leaders broke down. He did agree to some genuine grievances after a tough negotiation but Prof Lal did not yield to any of the substantial demands but promised to take up the matters with Delhi. The Union agreed to sign an undertaking that they will not indulge in strike for the next three years out of sheer exhaustion. It was really a trial of strength with the Unions and they were beaten at their own game.

5. He had many a brush with the Teachers Association who always came up with some unreasonable demands and “gheraod” him for eight to ten hours in his office on many occasions. It used to be a battle of wits with the Association but they could not get any unreasonable demand accepted by him. He used to exhaust them talking single handed for eight hours at a stretch. His trouble started with the new Chairman Board of Governors, Prof Sen, who used to give audience to teachers and listen to them bypassing the Director. Once Prof Sen started taking side it became difficult to manage the teachers. He finally got fed up with them and encouraged us to form another Teachers Forum with some fifty members. He got it recognised by the Board of Governors under the chairmanship of Prof Sen who was a great patron and sympathiser of the Teacher s Association. That, in my opinion, shows his skills of getting things through in meetings and negotiations.

6. Though Registration of students, opposed initially by the Teacher Association, at the beginning of each semester was prevalent in some IITs but we at Kharagpur had not adopted it yet. It required a complete overhaul and change of the curricula and syllabi. While the curricula were revised thoroughly many significant changes were made in the courses offered. The credits of various courses, the number of credits semester wise, and the number overall for the degree were fixed. The numbers of subjects in a semester were fixed at five with three credits for a lecture course in each subject. The emphasis on Laboratory practice was increased by allotting credits for it separately and insisting that a student had to pass and get fifty percent marks in the laboratory work. The criteria of letter grading and ‘pass and fail’ were defined in the new dispensation. If a student failed in a subject, he was required to register in the Summer quarter and pass. He insisted that the teachers should show the answer scripts to the students at the end of the examination before submitting the grades. At that time it was made a preferred practice though not mandatory. He initiated the process of getting the student results and tabulation on the computer thus freeing the teachers from the burden of tabulating the results of all students. The process was completed by me after he left and Prof Sanyal took over as the Director. The changes made in the academic functioning by Prof Lal had a far reaching effect.  It was a major reform after the introduction of the Semester system by Director Brig SK Bose in early seventies.

7. Prof Lal felt strongly that faculty members should write books on their subject of expertise and for this he entered into a contract with Oxford University Press to start an IIT Kharagpur – Oxford University Press series. Teachers were encouraged to write a book and in some case even the Institute commissioned some senior teachers to write a book by bearing all the expenses of diagrams, drawing, typing, and paper etc. His idea also was that the senior teachers should teach a class of First year. It was under this programme of his that, despite my other engagements, I was pushed into teaching the first year course on Basic Electronics that was compulsory for all students. Finding no suitable book I and my colleague, Prof SL Maskara, decided to write a book jointly on Basic Electronics.  I taught that course for two years. Chapters of the book were made ready and cyclostyled for giving to the students in the class. Students bore the cost of cyclostyling and the Institute paid us the materials cost. The Oxford Press people published the book under the above series. They obtained a subsidy by the government so that the cost of the book was affordable and was well received in the market.  A number of other books were also published under the series.

8. Interdisciplinary programmes were coming in vogue and Prof Lal introduced some five Inter-disciplinary programmes at the Post Graduate level. Two M Tech programmes that I remember were “Human Resource Engineering and Management”, and “Water Resource Engineering and Management”. The first was a joint effort of Humanities and Industrial Engineering and Management departments, and the second was run jointly by Civil and Agriculture Engineering departments.

9. He created a new position of Professor In-charge of Training and Placement who was member of the Senate. He found that the facilities available to an industry boss coming for recruitment at the Institute were very inadequate. He created five star facilities of interview rooms, discussion room, presentation hall and a new guest house. Four of the best rooms were reserved for the recruiting companies and a car with a driver was reserved for them. With this kind of facility and treatment and the effort of the Professor In-Charge of T and P, the Placement drive took a quantum jump and despite the distance from the airport and uncertain conditions companies used to like coming to Kharagpur.

10. The IIT campus is 8 Km away from the town of Kharagpur and the residents found marketing for daily needs quite cumbersome and tedious. There were some small hutment types of shops to cater for the limited needs of the residents. He got a pucca market with space for some fifty shops of various sizes built and thus created almost a small township in the campus. The market named as Tech market had shops for vegetables, fish, meat, kirana, books, medicines, tailors, barber, carpenter, electrician, small eating outlets, clothes shop, a cooperative store, and a bank among other things. This market became so popular that people living in the surrounding areas also found it very convenient.

I had the privilege of working as President Students Gymkhana (short period), Dean of Student Affairs (three years), Head of the Department of Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering and Dean of Academic Affairs (about one year) during his tenure.

After handing over charge Prof Lal went to California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a consultant. He drove down 80 miles in the evening with his family to come and meet me when I had gone to San Francisco for a visit. That was the last I met him since he passed away sometime later.

Finally I can say that there was no aspect of life at IIT campus that did not have the imprint of his ideas, his thinking, his philosophy, his personality, and creativity of Prof Shankar Lal.

– Prof. M.N. Faruqui

(The author studied and worked at IIT Kharagpur, India,  for almost all his working life.  There, among various positions held by him, he was  the  Dean of students and later the  Deputy Director)


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