A Techie by Chance

A mentor, philosopher and activist, the Director and VC of IIIT Hyderabad, talks of his first love-teaching


The day before his entrance test at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, Rajeev Sangal was still in two minds: In those days, IITs were known, but not like now, says the Vice Chancellor and Director of the International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad (IIIT-H). I had prepared for the entrance exam for exactly one day namely the day before the exam. The admission just happened. I wanted to study Physics and was looking for institutes where I could pursue the subject, he explains his uninformed choice.

Since then, the Sangals have had an unbroken presence at IIT Kanpur. How? Sangal enrolled at IIT Kanpur in 1970, finished his BTech and then left the country to pursue his PhD. Before IIT could miss him, younger brother Neeraj stepped in as a student to fill the gap. When he left, the youngest brother, Sandeep, joined IIT as a student. By the time Sandeep graduated, Rajeev returned to the campus as a teacher. And, when he quit to join IIIT-H, the youngest Sangal joined IIT Kanpur as a professor of materials science, a post he still holds.

Techie by Chance
Our parents were medical doctors, so I cant explain my affinity towards IITs and technology. However, I was always sure that I wanted to be in academics. After my PhD in US, I only wanted to head home and teach, Sangal says.

Sangals present role at IIIT Hyderabad got defined because he happened to be next door when the institute began: I was leading a research team working on computers and human languages for IIT Kanpur. Our R&D laboratory at IIT-K shifted to Hyderabad and was renamed the IIT Kanpur Centre at Hyderabad. Just as our research was coming to a close, IIIT Hyderabad was set up. Ajay Sawhney the then IT secretary in Andhra Pradesh approached me to flesh out an academic curriculum, Sangal says.

By April 1998, IIIT-H had begun as the first academic public-private partnership (PPP) in India, or NPPP project, where the N stands for not-for-profit. Our money comes from R&D and not just from student tuition, he explains.

Sangal initially moved in IIIT-H on Satyam Chair, and stepped in full-time as its director. The rest, as they say, is history.

Make a Robot with Us
With Sangal being present since the inception of IIIT-H, everything at the institute especially the curriculum bears his stamp.

If a student approaches an institution and expresses his desire to build a robot, the usual reaction in an academic institution is: What do you know about robotics? Do you know how many courses it takes to get to that point of specialisation? says Sangal.

Questions like these say only one thing to the student: Sorry, you cant build your robot here. IIIIT-Hs approach is different. We want to tell young people to come and realize their dreams of building things and to do research here. We start with professional courses first, and move to breadth later. Our layered learning process is about practice, theory, and practice all over again. Skills come first and principles run in parallel.

Debates over the practicality of admitting undergraduate students to research institutes may continue, but Sangal is clear about where he stands on this. You need to have undergraduates for a thriving research environment. Research and teaching are parallel activities. When we designed IIIT-H courses we introduced BTech and BTech Honours. Honours is for those who wish to get into deeper research. Our emphasis was, and will be, on research spanning IT and the domains.

Pragmatic Humanism
Sangal, who believes that a technologist is incomplete unless grounded on human values, started human values course based on Jeevan Vidya as an essential core at IIIT-H. It addresses contemporary issues related to peer pressure, anger, corruption, exploitation, and violence. And tries to relate these to the self.

Fascinated by Marx, in his student days, Sangal doesnt frown upon politics in an academic atmosphere.

He admits to being deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, recalling: Mine was an arranged marriage, but one of the first things that I remember telling my wife to be, Nisha, was to see the (Gandhi) film.

Education, he feels, is about self-actualisation. Referring to his wife, he explains, Nisha has had quite a journey. She was a physics PhD student at IIT Roorkee when she realised it wasnt her calling. She did her MPhil in computer applications and worked at Kanpur University. She did honorary programming for machine translation at IITK Centre at Hyderabad. She was looking for something more meaningful when she came across Jeevan Vidya. She began working with school children and also participates in human values course at IIIT Hyderabad.

Educational Detours
His daughters, too, took some educational detours. One is an architect who works on green buildings. The other is studying to be an ayurvedic doctor who, when young, wanted to be an archaeologist but changed her mind.

He himself has worked on applying vyakarana of ancient grammarian Panini to modern Indian languages for computer processing. He continues to be an active researcher and has led a team from 11 academic institutions to build the Sampark Machine Translation System among Indian languages which was launched by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam recently.

Speaking about the basic problem besetting most campuses, Sangal says: Our problem is that the parents force their children into engineering and the technical professions without trying to see where their interest and talent lies. We must listen to our children and find out what they really want to do. If they want to build a robot, they should be allowed to do that.

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