No blast is going to stop Mumbai going forward - and so it went ahead last week with celebrating the 150th Foundation Day of its University, thus starting off a year commemorating its 150 years of existence. The University of Calcutta has already celebrated the same anniversary and the third University founded in 1857, Madras, will begin its 150th year celebrations on September 5. Mumbai's recent commemoration of its founding went off smoothly - as did its Centenary celebrations in 1957. But those 1957 celebrations are still remembered for being marred by the resignation within days of the Vice Chancellor, an eminent economist who was a graduate of the University of Madras. Dr. John Matthai had minced no words in telling the Senate that unless political interference stopped, there could be no academic freedom or excellence. He was reacting to looming interference in the appointment of a Rector in the University. He stated that under the University Act, he, as Vice-Chancellor, has to deal with the Chancellor, but Chancellors (Governors of States) "provide a channel through which political interference is working its way into universities"... He went on to explain, "I have had to switch from the Chancellor to the Ministers concerned and back again to the Chancellor in connection with the Rector's terms and conditions of service." The Press backed him and stated, "The entire system of making Governors of States as Chancellors of Universities... is outmoded and deserves to be seriously re-considered."Dr. Matthai, the first Indian to receive a D.Sc. from the London School of Economics, had even earlier during his 18-month tenure as Vice-Chancellor had a brush with the system. When the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Bombay, which was governed by the University, wanted to confer Honorary Fellowships on Prime Minister Nehru and Bombay's Chief Minister Morarji Desai, Matthai wrote to both of them to decline the honour. After an exchange of letters, Nehru wrote - and Desai echoed: "I wish all Universities and like bodies would stop giving honorary degrees except on grounds of pure merit. But as this happens to be almost a universal practice, it is difficult to become too virtuous about it and for me to refuse it." But Matthai would not leave it at that. He pointed out that if they were common citizens or elder statesmen, he would have no objections to their accepting the honour. But "what makes the difference is the fact that you and Morarji are in positions of the highest authority in your respective spheres which enable you to confer favours on other people... By accepting these Honorary Fellowships you have done a dis-service to the cause of University education," he wrote, and added that they had "weakened the hands of those who are striving against heavy odds to maintain academic standards."
In the chair, despite differences
One of the most distinguished graduates of Madras Christian College and Madras Law College, Matthai received his Bachelor's degree from the University of Madras a hundred years ago last March and joined MCC as a Tutor. After his Law degree, he apprenticed under T. Richmond, but despite showing great promise quit the Bar in 1912. After working with the YMCA, he made his way to the London School of Economics where his guide was Sydney James Webb, the famous left-wing social thinker who was Professor of Public Administration, London University, at the time. An Oxford degree and a stint in Ireland later, Matthai returned to Madras, worked for the Government, and then joined Presidency College in 1920 as Acting Professor of Economics. He was to become a distinguished Professor at the College and the University, during which time he served two terms in the Madras Legislative Council. In September 1946, he became Finance Member in the Interim Government in Delhi and was on his way to becoming a national figure beyond the worlds of economics and industry. After presiding over other portfolios in the Interim Government, he became Minister of Railways and Transport in Nehru's first Cabinet. When Nehru's first Finance Minister, R. K. Shanmukham Chetty, resigned, Matthai took his place in September 1948, but resigned both his portfolio and seat in Parliament in mid-1950. It was during Matthai's tenure as Finance Minister that the Rupee was first devalued in September 1949. His two budgets were also not particularly well received by his colleagues. But it was over the Planning Commission established in 1950 that he and Nehru most strongly differed. Let's implement existing plans and then think of a Commission for new plans, was Matthai's view, and when it was not accepted he quit. But despite his differences with Nehru, he was to chair many a national body in the years thereafter, including the Taxation Enquiry Commission, the State Bank of India, the National Council of Applied Economic Research, the Administrative Staff College, Hyderabad, and the National Book Trust. He was the first Chairman of each of these institutions. I owe much of this information to a biography of Matthai written by V. Haridasan and published by Calicut University. This was a biography that the Publications Department of University of Madras should have thought of. In fact, similar biographies of its eminent alumni are what its departments should be thinking of to mark its 150th year.S. MUTHIAH