Former permanent representative of India to the United Nations, T.P. Sreenivasan has spent decades living abroad among the Japanese, Russians, Americans and the Pacific islanders. After retiring in 2004 from the Indian Foreign Service, he has been writing actively on international relations for several news publications. He also served as vice-chairman of Kerala Higher Education Council from 2011 to 2016.
Sreenivasan is currently director general of Kerala International Centre, an independent foreign policy think tank, and a visiting professor at the Central University of Kerala, Kasargod.
The former diplomat talks about his academic life, which began in a Malayalam medium school at Kayamkulam, and shares his views on India’s education system.
Malayalam to English
My father, K. Parameshwaran Pillai, a school teacher, was adamant that I went to a university after school. So I joined the intermediate college in 1960. There, I got the shock of my life. Everybody was speaking in English, a language that was new to me! Most of the classes were in English and for the first few months I had no idea what was going on. Then, I gradually learned the language. Looking back, it was a good thing that I had to adapt. Otherwise, I probably would’ve struggled with my studies and career later on.
It was a foregone conclusion that I would be joining the foreign service. Shankara Pillai, a family friend, had earlier joined the foreign service and was posted in Canada. My father had great respect for him and wanted me to go abroad like he did. So, I studied BA English in University College. Watching English movies that released in Sreekumar theatre in Thiruvananthapuram for 24 paise is a wonderful memory I have from that time. Those were the best days of my life. I stood first in my class in both BA and MA which gave me other opportunities such as a scholarship to learn flying from the flyers club near the city airport.
Many ask me why I support student politics even after that infamous episode last year when student union members attacked me. What happened to me was bad, but I believe student politics is an essential part of college life. Being part of a political party gives you a sense of responsibility as well as belonging. I too was involved in campus politics. At the same time, it is important to make sure political activities do not turn violent and disrupt college life.
Learning on the go
As a diplomat, I had to learn constantly. For every deputation, it’s a new place, people, culture, and language. Keeping myself up-to-date on how society worked in different places was my job. What I learned is that, although people in different countries approach life and its issues quite differently than we do here in India, deep down we are all the same. That wisdom has helped me have a much more open outlook towards the world in general.
Having worked in different countries, I believe India has the worst system in existence. Apart from a handful of establishments, teaching and infrastructure are really poor. We need to reorient and overhaul our education to match up to the rest of the world. A holistic and more liberal approach must be adopted where students have the freedom to choose what they want to learn. One of the major issues here is that when it comes to matters of education and how an institution should be run, students are the last people consulted. That is wrong.
The mentality that the grown-ups know better needs to go, especially when it comes to education. Institutions with potential should be made autonomous. That was something I tried to do during my time in Kerala Higher Education Council. Unfortunately, change is something very few are interested in.