A Tribute to Prof. Ramlal Parikh

A Few Glimpses..

A Few Memories.. 

A Few Achievements.. 

In the Life of Ramlalbhai Parikh

Documented by Jyoti Jumani

As Narrated by Mandaben Parikh and Mayankbhai Upadhyay

December 2015

Featured photo: Ramkrishna Bajaj, Ramlal Parikh and Joan Holmes in Bayad Taluka, Gujarat, October 1988. Wernher Krutein/The Hunger Project

Gujarat Vidyapith, a centre of learning based on Gandhian thinking and values, was established in Ahmedabad in 1920, by Mahatma Gandhi himself. The Vidyapith, located in the hub of a busy Ahmedabad city in Gujarat state, is a campus of pride in India. Gujarat Vidyapith is a unique deemed University – the students and faculty wear khadi, clean their own campus, attend prayer meet every day, teach and learn sitting on the floor sans tables and chairs, spin yarn from cotton hanks on the charkha – and this in itself is a rare sight in globalized India. The Vidyapith provides education from school level to doctoral studies. It must be said that Gujarat Vidyapith stands apart, as a class by itself, in the field of education. Simplicity is integral to the Vidyapith culture. Another aspect that gives it a unique distinction is that academic content, across courses, at the Vidyapith keeps the rural Indian person at the centre stage; it strives to create an understanding of the dynamics and concerns of rural India. 

Graduates of Gujarat Vidyapith are referred to as snataks. It is indeed a privilege to get education at the Gujarat Vidyapith and its snataks have stood tall to the expectations of society. They have used their learning inputs to serve society in several demanding walks of life – catering to the educational, economic, and social needs of society. Many Vidyapith alumni provide their services in remote tribal and rural areas, through their institutional initiatives. They do not shy away from working in difficult terrains and challenging situations. Several alumni have set up schools while several play a lead role in the co-operative sector, in the field of education, in administration, in communication, and other development sectors. They have all created a positive impact on society through their interventions. Such snatak-ventures impact the common person, directly and indirectly, to live a life of dignity – and this undoubtedly would make Mahatma Gandhi smile. His dream of India is still alive in the heartbeat of Gujarat Vidyapith – nurturing human capacities in today’s modern India – capacities which enable, capacities which help to cement the gap between the socially and economically privileged and the not-so-fortunate in society. 

Mahatma Gandhi set up Gujarat Vidyapith to provide an alternative to British education. He wanted the Vidyapith to build people for national resurgence after Independence – an educational setup where students would have rural India at their heart and dedicate their lives to the cause of nation building after completing their academic learning. During the British time, the Vidyapith would remain open and closed intermittently. But the spirit with which it was set up, remained strong and alive. It was only after India’s Independence in 1947 that the Gujarat Vidyapith was able to give a thrust, in right earnest, to the formal education needs of society, as envisaged by Gandhiji. 

Before India’s Independence, it was Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Acharya Gidwani, Kaka Saheb Kalelkar, Acharya Kripalani, among others, who kept the flame of the Vidyapith glowing. Post-Independence, we remember Maganbhai Desai and Ramlalbhai Parikh. They played a constructive role in nurturing the Vidyapith, keeping its ideological base alive and intact. Ramlalbhai began his journey with Gujarat Vidyapith in 1952, and over time, until his last breath in 1999, he served the Vidyapith in different roles and capacities. 

This is the story of Ramlalbhai Parikh, as it flows from the memories of Mandaben Parikh and Mayankbhai Upadhyay. 

Born in Baroda in 1927, Ramlalbhai set foot in public life in 1940 at the age of thirteen – as a young teenager playing a constructive role in the freedom movement of India as per his understanding and capacity. Ramlalbhai, like many other students who were drawn to Gandhiji’s magnetic appeal in the freedom fight, became a part of the student movement for Independence. His school teacher, Natubhai Trivedi, who was very fond of Ramlalbhai, exposed him to the contemporary issues of the country. Natubhai was a source of inspiration for Ramlalbhai’s role in the freedom movement of India. The freedom movement, as we all know, was so vibrant that it was difficult for anyone to remain outside its fold. Studying in Sayaji High School of Baroda, Ramlalbhai, through Vidhyarthi Mandals (student groups) in school, would organize rallies and school-strikes as part of the Quit India Movement. In 1942, still a teenager and at school, he started a small fortnightly Patrika, a leaflet imparting news in the context of freedom, and found a unique way of distributing it – from the roof tops of houses – to evade the mighty vigil of the British government’s police on the streets of Baroda. Ramlalbhai, through his speech and hearing-challenged cousin, would also take the help of speech and hearing impaired students to distribute the newspaper through regular road routes. He became a member of Vadodara Shaher Vidyarthi Sangathan Samiti in Baroda, set up to organize the freedom movement in the city. Bhailalbhai Contractor and Manubhai Patel led the Samiti. Ramlalbhai began to develop as a student leader; his acceptance increased rapidly during the Quit India Movement and thereafter. He gained prominence in the sphere of youth activities during 1942-1947. He continued to remain active in student causes even after India’s Independence in 1947.

After Independence, the Vadodara Shaher Vidyarthi Sangathan Samiti got involved in the constructive programmes of Mahatma Gandhi. It would run free coaching classes for poor students, help them get health services, and would support students during the S.S.C. Board examinations. The Samiti would organize youth camps where the young participants would themselves provide labour and create community assets like wells, ponds, school buildings, etc. The Samiti would create platforms where the youth could educate themselves on contemporary issues through discussion and interaction with national leaders. In the process, the Samiti earned a reputation and gained credibility. It must be mentioned that it gained a great deal of credibility in a specific context – helping S.S.C. students during the Board examination, who had forgotten to bring their exam slips. As a matter of rule, such students would not be allowed to sit in the examination until the slip was presented. So what should be done? Time was of the essence. The Samiti workers, spread over different S.S.C. exam centres in small groups (tukdis), would intervene on behalf of such students. The Samiti had managed to earn so much trust of the invigilators, that on their assurance the students in question were allowed to sit for the exam without presenting their respective exam slips. In the meanwhile, the tukdi members would rush to each of the houses of such students, get their exam slips, come back, and present them to the invigilators. An examination moment, where a slip had occurred, was saved from becoming a disaster moment. 

Helpful by nature and innovative by character, Ramlalbhai did his B.A. and M.A. from Vadodara College, affiliated to Bombay University, during the years 1945-1951. In 1942, his involvement in the Quit India Movement virtually romanticized his life. His role in reaching out to society, constructive interventions in the freedom movement, active involvement in student issues deeply impacted his thought process. This, in effect, changed the course of his life.

Ramlalbhai was born in a family of modest means, in a family where access to public life did not come to him automatically. He lived in Ghadhiyali Pole in Desai Sheri in Baroda. He and his brother and two sisters lost their father at a young age. Ramlalbhai’s father, Dahyabhai Parikh, was just 24 years of age when he died. The children’s mother, Hasumatiben, took care of her four children. Financially, Ramlalbhai’s grandfather, Ranchodbhai Parikh, a shroff (money-lender) by profession, took care of the children. Living in a typical Pole house, Ramlalbhai would read the Gita at the tender age of eleven years under the guidance of his school teacher, Natubhai Trivedi, and Vidyanandji Maharaj. The philosophy of karma, which is doing your duty without the expectation of a reward, got embedded in his mind at a young age. And, this philosophy steered his entire work and social life. He was a voracious reader, and remained one throughout his life. At a young age he had read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Shelley. His reading interest was nurtured by his school teacher Natubhai Trivedi, who led him and guided him on diverse readings. Teachers play a big role in a student’s life; Natubhai is a living example of such a teacher. Ramlalbhai was a hard worker. Hasumatiben, his mother, had weak legs, so her children had to do lot of work at home. Ramlalbhai, thus, was used to physical work since childhood. Hasumatiben, a very loving and caring mother, did not have the means or resources to pamper her children. Ramlalbhai got married to Padmaben, in Baroda, through an arranged marriage when he was nineteen years old. Hasuba, as Hasumatiben was fondly called, wanted to invite people home and celebrate his wedding in a grand manner (dhaam dhum thi). But Ramlalbhai was against any such celebration and did not let it happen. Ramlalbhai’s wife, Padmaben, constantly supported her husband throughout his life. She took care of the family, relatives, and friends. On the social front, she had quite a say in the family decisions.

After doing his M.A., Ramlalbhai joined Gujarat Vidyapith in 1952 as Sevak (teacher). He wanted to devote his life to education as he considered it an important platform for change. He had experienced change in his life through education and he wanted to bring such a change, through education, in the lives of others also. He was fortunate to get very good school teachers as well as an opportunity to get involved in the freedom movement of India. Why did he join Gujarat Vidyapith? During those times, it was a matter of national pride to be part of organizations and institutions founded on, adhering to, and practicing Gandhian values. Gujarat Vidyapith was such an institution, with a strong mission of nation building ingrained in it. And, Gandhiji, as we all know, always had and continues to exercise a magnetic appeal on the people of India. This is how Ramlalbhai became a part of Gujarat Vidyapith. 

Ramlalbhai, as Sevak, was popular among the management and the students alike. He taught a range of subjects like English, History, and Politics. He always taught these subjects keeping in view the development of the nation. At that time, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of India, was the Kulpati (Chancellor) of Gujarat Vidyapith, and Morarjibhai Desai was the Kulnayak (Vice-Chancellor). Maganbhai Desai was Mahamatra of the Vidyapith until 1960. Ramlalbhai was fortunate to have been noticed by three stalwarts in Indian public life – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Shri Morarjibhai Desai, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Indian National Youth Congress had come into being in 1952. Pandit Jawaharhal Nehru wanted Ramlalbhai to be in Delhi and strengthen the Youth Congress and the youth of India, so that the youth could become a force in re-building the nation. Ramlalbhai had joined Vidyapith by that time. In 1955, Ramlalbhai was selected to represent India, and he travelled to Russia for the World Assembly of Youth. During his 1952 to 1956 years at Gujarat Vidyapith as Sevak, Ramlalbhai associated himself with national initiatives that were related to the causes espoused by the Vidyapith. Youth remained his primary concern during these national level endeavours. Ramlalbhai became General Secretary of the All India Youth Congress in 1956, which propelled him on to a national stage. He came in the limelight. He moved to Delhi in 1956 and stayed there until 1960. 

In 1960, when Maganbhai Desai resigned as Mahamatra of Gujarat Vidyapith, Morarjibhai Desai, after taking consent from Jawaharlal Nehru, invited Ramlalbhai to become Mahamatra of Gujarat Vidyapith. Ramlalbhai became Mahamatra; he was thirty-three years of age then. In the history of Vidyapith and in the history of universities, he was the only one so far to reach this position at such a young age. He was a good orator, a good writer, strong in academics, and a good person. He had a lot of energy and his day would begin at 4.30 a.m. in the morning. This boundless energy continued even when he became a grandfather. He would wake up his grandchildren and take them for swimming in the Gujarat Vidyapith pool. He had insurmountable energy. And he also had immense patience. He would sit back and answer the questions, raised by his children, even on days when he would return home very, very late in the night. He never let physical tiredness come in the way of the childish queries and questions posed by his children, or by any child for that matter.

When he became the Vidyapith Mahamatra in 1960, Ramlalbhai’s vision for the Gujarat Vidyapith was to mainstream it. At that time, the Vidyapith offered education up to graduation level. Graduation was called Samaj Vidya Visharad. When Ramlalbhai took charge, his first move was to connect the Vidyapith with other universities, so as to enhance its special identity. He didn’t want Gujarat Vidyapith to be an island in the ocean of learning, in the architecture of knowledge. He didn’t want it to be looked at in isolation. He wanted to create mainstream acceptance for the Vidyapith, through inter-connectedness with other universities. At the same time, he also wanted to influence other universities. He did not want the Vidyapith to be seen merely as a laboratory, as a one-off experiment. He wanted it to be a part of the mainstream and throughout his life worked towards this end. He wanted the Vidyapith to play an influential role in the field of education. Acceptance and integration, the main planks of mainstreaming, remained an ongoing exercise with him. What did he do towards this end?

Ramlalbhai took Gujarat Vidyapith’s journey from offering a single graduate course to several graduate courses. He introduced post-graduate and doctoral level courses in varied subjects. All these courses remained rooted in Gandhian philosophy and ideology. This makes it one of the rare institutions in the world. Vidyapith has school level to Ph.D. level education being offered to students. The education at the Vidyapith encompasses and impacts three crucial components: the hand, the heart, and the head. Learning is in the context of all three. Vidyapith is a co-educational institution. The graduate course training is residential. Spinning and weaving khadi, carpentry, tailoring, agriculture, and many other skills, were taught to the students at the Vidyapith during Ramlalbhai’s time. Community integration was part of the teaching methodology, where each student took part in community activity at three levels: on a day-to-day level at the Vidyapith itself, going out in the community in the neighbourhood areas, and integrating in the outside world through camps and tours. Ramlalbhai firmly believed that travel is one of the key elements in education. Education is placed on the plank of community life where students share and do things together and enjoy the experience. 

Gujarat Vidyapith is one of the few places where a student has to write a dissertation at graduation level – at the level of Samaj Vidya Visharad. To make life resource-free is a value system reflected in classrooms being conducted with students sitting on the floor and gaining knowledge. Ramlalbhai’s office also did not have tables and chairs. The day for all – students as well as teachers – would begin at 5.30 a.m. with prayers. The Sevaks and the students join together in the safai (cleaning) of the campus. The life on the campus inducts values of hard work, equality, simplicity, honesty, and inclusivity, among many such other values. Self-help, building self-confidence, practicing self-reliance are ways of life at the Vidyapith. 

Ramlalbhai devoted time and energy to both faculty development as well as course development, on the lines of Gandhian ideology. He introduced and developed a wide range of courses at the Vidyapith at the Post-graduate, M.Phil., and Ph.D. levels – in History, Religion, Rural Economics, Sociology, Gujarati Literature, and Hindi Literature, to name a few. Gujarat Vidyapith was the first to teach courses on computer applications in Gujarati on its campus. Ramlalbhai introduced Journalism as a course; he set up an Audio-Visual Department. Under Ramlalbhai’s leadership, graduation to Ph.D. level learning became a reality in Science and Non-Violence, Jain and Bauddha Darshan, Library Science, Microbiology, Rural Management, and Physical Education. The Vidyapith also offers a Ph.D. in Yoga. Many national level experts like Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Prof. Sugato Dasgupta, Dr. D.S. Kothari, Dr. Ravindra Dave, Dr. Surendra Patel, Dr. Anil Bordia, Dr. Johan Galtung, and Dr. Godbole played an active role with their inputs in course development and course evaluation.   

Ramlalbhai set up a Peace Research Centre for Peace and Gandhian Studies. Institute of Equity and Development, Biogas Research Centre, Tribal Research Centre, Hindi Bhavan, were various other initiatives of Ramlalbhai which he established and developed. Facilities like gymnasium, swimming pool, running tracks, museums, hostels were created on the campus. Ramlalbhai invited stalwarts from all walks of life on the soil of Vidyapith. Over the years eminent personalities like Dr. Ivan Illich, Lanza del Vasto, Dr. Norman Barlaug, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, Dr. Danilo Dolci, the Dalai Lama and many others such personalities visited the Vidyapith. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, Prime Minister Gulzarilal Nanda enlightened the Vidyapith students with their talks. Noted film artists like Sunil Dutt, Shabana Azmi, Amol Palekar, and musicians like Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Pandit Jasraj, among others, came to the Vidyapith and shared their thoughts and experience. Convocation addresses were delivered at the Gujarat Vidyapith by noted dignitaries like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, President Zakir Husain, Dr. V. Kurien, and Dr. D. S. Kothari.   

The point being made is that Ramlalbhai believed that Gandhiji and Gandhian ideology is not to be limited to a small arena. He ensured that the students got quality courses and quality exposure to life and learning. He wanted reconstruction on all fronts, through all disciplines of learning, covering various aspects of life. Ramlalbhai, through the Vidyapith, endeavoured to create knowledge and skills, and the human resource needed by all sections of society in all segments of life. He had a vision where the Vidyapith would produce teachers, scientists, administrators, politicians, social workers, etc. – people needed in all walks of life. The Vidyapith has Bharatiya Bhasha Bhavan. Through it, the Vidyapith has the honour and privilege of teaching 14 Indian languages and 4 foreign languages – all under a single campus roof, a unique attribute to the fountain of learning. In the 1960s, Vidyapith introduced courses in local governance like Panchayat Training. Ramlalbhai played a constructive role in having the Central Government take up adult education in mission mode. Vidyapith became the principal implementing agency for adult education in the state of Gujarat. He convinced the University Grants Commission (UGC) to fund Adult Education and Population Education Departments in various universities across India. As an outcome, several universities began Adult Education and Population Education Programmes. The Vidyapith offers B.Ed. and M.Ed. courses in Gujarati as well as Hindi medium. These teacher training degree courses, aimed at developing faculty in education, emphasized on primary education in their curriculum. Ramlalbhai translated his vision of the Vidyapith into a reality through introducing a wide range of courses. He succeeded to mainstream the Vidyapith, establish connectivity with other universities, and spread the Gandhian message the world over. The medium of instruction at the Vidyapith, up to Ph.D. level, is Gujarati. Students learn in Gujarati, which is an objective of the Vidyapith. Studying in the Gujarati medium is not considered a limitation. The vast and diverse exposure, which the students get, enables them to carve out their path in life.     

Gujarat Vidyapith is a University which has three campuses. One is in Ahmedabad, which is the original campus. Two new campuses were set up in Randheja and Sadra, in Gandhinagar district in Gujarat, in 1973. Both the campuses are located in villages. There was a natural resistance from some people from Vidyapith, especially from those who would need to be re-located to manage these new campuses. No one would like to leave Ahmedabad city and go there. The resistance manifested in demonstrations with chanting of hai hai, booing Ramlalbhai outside his home. Yet, he would tell his wife to serve them water – a symbol of Indian hospitality. As part of the protest, some people in the Vidyapith managed to lock up the Trustee Mandal, assembled for a meeting, for eight long hours. Ramlalbhai did not get angry at the protestors after these hours of confinement. Instead, he got into a dialogue with them, which unfroze the situation. A similar resistance had arisen from within the Vidyapith in the 1980s from some trustees and Vidyapith insiders against the introduction of computer courses.  Ramlalbhai, keeping in view the need of the day, was in favour of these courses. He had the ability to persuade dissenting voices to see his viewpoint. He was able to develop consensus. There was never an air of bitterness during such moments of dissonance. During the Emergency, he was jailed on 9 August 1976, for nine long months.

In 1996, Ramlalbhai was chosen as Chancellor of the Vidyapith after the death of Shri Morarjibhai Desai. It was the love for the youth and education as a path for their development which prompted Ramlalbhai’s energy and zest in broad-basing the canvas of disciplines and courses offered by Vidyapith. And his faith in Gandhiji was an act of eternal faith. He had never met Gandhiji; he had only seen him at Baroda station when he was 14 years old. But he drew strength from him for all his life. Ramlalbhai believed in hard work at all levels. He used to say that it is important to study for sixteen hours a day. If you have not used one ballpoint pen refill in a day, it means you have not worked – ek divas ma ek pen ni refill vapraye to tame kaam karyu kahvaya. So firm was his conviction towards study and work. And he was a role model – he practiced these aspects in his own life. He implemented his vision of India through Gujarat Vidyapith. Students at the Vidyapith, by and large, are from medium to poor financial backgrounds. Most of them come from remote tribal and rural areas. The Vidyapith gives all of them opportunity and exposure – the rural, the adivasi, and the Scheduled Caste citizen is at the core of the learning process at the Vidyapith. Ramlalbhai travelled a lot all over the world. In the process, he promoted and kept alive Gandhian thought in the countries he would visit. He would also encourage them to start departments for Gandhian Studies. Vidyapith gained visibility on the national and international platform. And Ramlalbhai would come back and share his experiences abroad with the students at Vidyapith – sometimes for hours. He loved to do new things, and he loved to do good things. He had even registered his name as a prospective traveller to the moon. Such was his spirit in life. 

He believed that one has to take Gandhi beyond Gandhi, and he exemplified this in his lifetime. Ramlalbhai departed from the world in 1999, at the age of seventy-two. The Gujarat Vidyapith as a temple of learning continues to be an emblem of his dreams and accomplishments.