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"Tears of a Foreign student motivated me to start Symbiosis"-Dr SB Mujumdar

Prof. (Dr.) Shantaram Balwant Mujumdar is the Founder, President and Chancellor of Symbiosis International University. He was awarded the Padma Shri in year 2005 and Padma Bhushan in year 2012. Today he tells us what made him get out of his comfort zone and start Symbiosis.
Let’s go back to 1969, I was a professor of Botany at Fergusson College, and as a professor I was staying in the campus, and I was the director for one of the hostel blocks. Fergusson College has a huge complex; there are 4-5 boys’ hotel blocks. I was director of the first block. In 1969, during Diwali Vacation, actually all students go home because it is a long vacation of one month. And my bungalow in the campus was at such a location that I could see many things happening in the block. One afternoon, I saw a girl hurriedly going something to a boy through the window and then hurriedly she used to return. It used to happen once, twice, many times and I used to think that some affair must be going on. Out of curiosity, I went into the hostel room, knocked the door and believe me, what I saw in the room was an eye opener for me. Student of Mauritius was suffering from jaundice and he was not even able to walk a few steps. All boys had gone home, so the mess was closed, so when I asked him what the matter was, he with great effort stood up and told me, she is my sister, she stays outside and prepares lunch and dinner for me and passes on the Tiffin through the window. Why through the window? Because ladies, were not allowed to enter into the boys hostel,which is a normal rule in a co-ed institution. He put his head on my shoulder and profusely started weeping. Because beside, jaundice, he had terribly become homesick. All these students who come to study in Pune, come for undergraduate courses. They are very young. And then believe me the tears of a foreign student were the turning point in my life.
That was a small incident of my life, I could have easily forgotten about it. But hiss tears couldn’t allow me to forget. And then in my own way I decided to find out how many foreign students are there in Pune, studying in different colleges, in 1969. Then, I collected information from the Police department because all foreign students are registered there. I enquired from Pune University, all foreign students, before enrolment had to register at the Pune University. At that time there used to be 1100 students from nearly 32 different countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Yemen, Mauritius etc. Besides, Gulf countries also from Thailand, Vietnam and so many students from Buddhist countries. Then what I did; I started interviewing representative from each country. I used prepare some questionnaire like, when did you come to Pune, why did you select Pune, why not Delhi, why not Amritsar, why not Bombay, what problems you face and final question used to be how do you feel about Pune. And then I used to publish that interview on every Sunday edition of Daily Kesari, a very old newspaper started by Lok Manya Tilak.
And then I realized that I must do something. I contacted my past students of Fergusson College. They were doing Post Graduation, some were in jobs, and I decided that we should form a small organization for the welfare of foreign students. After interviewing those candidates, I listed out their problems. What were the problems, what were the difficulties, the first and the foremost problem of all foreign students was that when they used to arrive in India instead of getting cultural thrill they used to get cultural shock. Why? Because nobody to extend a helping hand. Everybody thought that a foreign student is a exploitable commodity, rickshawallas, taxiwalas, police department, this was followed by homesickness. Then admission to good colleges, they used to think that Pune University will organize my admission in the college where I want. But Pune University thought, who will assign them college? Tell me how can a foreign student join a Marathi medium college, but then first preference used to be Wadia college, in camp area, which was more cosmopolitan. But more than admission they were facing a problem of hostel, then food, then healthcare. Then, Indian and foreign students had no dialogue at all. They were totally segregated, so much so, even if they used to sit in the class rooms there used to be hardly any conversation.
Another problem they faced especially, these African and Asian students that Pune people threw red carpet to white people from Germany, America, even if they are for a brief visit. But there used to be a competition among the Indian families to accommodate them. And these people were neglected and the worst feeling was, esp amongst the blacks that they were discriminated. Many black students used to come to me and say Dr Mujumdar, you people are as colour conscious as British. I’ll give you an example, from Ghana, there was a student studying in FTII, at that time it was Film Institute. He told me Dr Mujumdar, I feel like running away from you city as early as possible. Actually he was not a student, he was an officer deputed by the Ghana government to pursue a short course in production. I said why, what happened? He said because when I get up in the morning and go to toilet, your students don’t like to see my black face early in the morning, because they think it will be bad omen. So they close their eyes or turn their faces. And if I am travelling in a local transport, people would like to stand rather than sit beside me. Why? Because I am black.
We are never introduced to any Indian family, or get memberships to Lions club or Rotary clubs. I could not utter a word except hang my head in shame. So we decided on the broad objective of Symbiosis, helping them to get admissions, helping them to get accommodation, help them when they are homesick, give them medical help by giving them addresses of good doctors etc.
But more than that we wanted Indian students and foreign students to come together on one platform, for tha we used to celebrate Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Rakshabanhan etc. It used to bring all the students together. They used to dance, sing, tie raaakhi. If you see newspapers of those times, you’ll see wonderful news items with grett pictures. But then after the programmme, it was again the same story. It was a big dilemma how to create friendship, understanding between foreign and Indian students. Maybe, being a teacher myself, I thought why not start a education institution? So that these foreign and Indian students come together for longer period, they will stay together in hostel, read together in library, study in one class room, play together on the play ground and we gave the name Symbiosis, it is a typically biological name, meaning living together to two different plant/animals for mutual benefit. So I thought, ‘Symbiosis’ name is perfect because all foreign students of different nationalities, different mother tongue, different culture, but are they not men and women. The color of the blood is same, smiles are same, sorrows are same, and so we started educational institution. We applied for colleges, fortunately I was on the board of management of the University, academic council, I approached government of Maharashtra and when they were convinced this is a good cause they gave us one acre land, they gave us some non-recurring rent of 4 lakhs. Then there was a very benevolent contractor called Atur Sangtani from Camp, he was a builder, he promised us to construct all our buildings at no profit no loss basis. That is how Symbiosis started, educational building, hostel, first the Law College, then management, Computers etc. We started educational institutions which were need based. English language was a great barrier, especially, among the gulf country students, Thais, so the first student we started was English Language Teaching Institute (ELTIS). It was in 1972. Because these students couldn’t communicate, when they first used to come they used to communicate in body language. And then we started other institutes as well, you know once you plant a tree it is not in your hands how many branches tree should produce. Same thing happened here. And then, in 2002, there was a big big landmark, till then our institutions were affiliated to Pune University. And Pune University being affiliating University had same syllabus for all colleges, Urban, Rural, same standard of passing, there was no innovation, there was no chance of adding some topics deleting some topics, so we applied for Deemed to be University status to the government of India and University Grants Commission in 2002 and luckily we got it. Of course, I had to make some efforts and during this process I learned that if you want to serve a cause, the first lesson you must learn to swallow insult, humiliations, controversies, long waiting etc. In 2002 when we got University we got autonomy, now we were able to frame our own syllabus, we can go anywhere in the country, open up centers. We introduced credit system, we introduced semester system. At that time believe you me, at that point of time I was working on various authorities of Pune University, I was working as a full time Professsor oof Fergussson College and Symbiosis. So, I decided to resign from Fergusson College although I had 16 years to retire. And retiring 16 years earlier meant no Provident fund, no gratuity and no pension. That was a big sacrifice and at Fergusson college largest bungalow was my bungalow. I was staying in a beautiful comfort zone, I have two daughters, Vidya and Swati, my wife, I consulted them. But then I thought I am doing injustice to them, because going out of comfort zone is not as easy as it sounds. Going from a 10 room bungalow to a three room flat is not easy. But then I took the risk.
And then destiny smiled on us and then Government of India, Maharashtra granted 2070 acres land and we also purchased 100 acres land near Lavale. It is a dream campus. It gave us a wonderful identity; it gave us a pride place. We also have a beautiful Ambedkar Memorial, my wife looks after it, but we faced a lot of controversy for building up that memorial too. Pune people especially Brahmins and upper caste people never wanted an untouchable’s memorial at Senapati Bapat Road. They said you go to Yerwada, why do you want make it here, but then by that time I had learned to deal with such kind of situations. You become thick skinned also, how long can you criticize?
We now have off campus centers in Bangalore, Noida and the Hyderbad centre we’ll be starting this year. As per the UGC rules we do have the 22.5 reservation for for SC/ST students but not people from Maharashtra. That is a complaint I often get, I am heavily criticized esp people like Raj Thackeray, they ask me why are you doing it for Bihari people why not the Maharashtrians. I tell them I am not doing it for Biharis or anyone. If Marathi students don’t appear for exams or get poor marks we are not responsible! And why should we, we are a National University and we come under Ministry of HRD.
My two daughters help me, Vidya helps me in the day to day activity and Swati she is deeply interested in Vocational education, online and distance learning. If someone asks me Dr Mujumdar out of all these institutions which one is the closest to your heart I would say it is Symbiosis Institute of Management for the dependents of the Defence personnel. We have 90% seats for Defence dependents and 10% for industry sponsored children. Earlier it was just a department then at one of the functions the then Army Commander asked me why don’t you make it into an institution. So during that very function I announced SIMS to be an institution and no longer a department. And second institution close to my heart is the school, the Pune Police Public School. Officers don’t put their children in that school, but believe me; you cannot distinguish between my grandson and a constable’s son. Quality education makes all the difference. We should give quality teaching.
Now, I am glad that students from developed countries are also getting attracted to education in India. Why? Because our level of education is improving and number two they have realized that India matters. And can you believe Narayan Murthy is more respected than any of our politicians.
Lastly, I must tell, no matter what, 21st century belongs to women and women should celebrate that century. And it is not only a good wish to women, but it is based on facts, see the competitive examination results, see college examination result, everywhere you will see girls outshining boys. In our last convocation when the then President, Mrs Pratibha ppatil was the chief guest, all six medals were won by the girls. And the President had to advise the boys don’t get disappointed work hard and you will also become like girls.
As told to Ambreen Zaidi

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Ambreen Zaidi


Maharashtra ,  INDIA


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