Lessons in Nation-Building from the Life of Sir M. Visvesvaraya

Some anecdotes and inspirational accounts from the life of Bharata Ratna Sir M. Visvesvaraya in dedication towards nation-building.
Lessons in Nation-Building from the Life of Sir M. Visvesvaraya

When Sir M Visvesvaraya (or Sir MV as he’s widely known in Karnataka) took over as the Diwan of Mysore on 10 November, 1912, from his predecessor T Ananda Rao, there was widespread joy and celebration in the then Mysore State (now Karnataka). Here’s how the legendary DV Gundappa, for many years a close confidante of Sir MV, describes the event in his profile of Sir MV:

The common people who were far removed from political aims and aspirations greeted the new Diwan with enthusiasm. Their joy reflected, as it were, the dawn of a new era. This was evident, in an eye-arresting manner, in the Mysore Representative Assembly, which Sir MV held…one of the Representatives stood up, “Swami, we know you from your childhood days…Thanks to your birth, the Chickaballapur town has attained fulfilment for existing in this world.”

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, born on 15 September, 1861, in Muddenahalli near Chikkaballapur, not too far from today’s Bangalore International Airport went on to become India’s most prolific civil engineer, dam builder, economist, statesman, and can be counted among the last century’s foremost nation-builders. While we preserve his memory by celebrating his birthday as Engineer’s Day, it would be a tad unfair to box him into just that limiting category. His life spanning just over a century is an eminent testimony and a user manual of all-round accomplishment, and a lesson on living life productively, fruitfully, and not wasting a single second.

It is common knowledge that Sir MV transformed the Mysore State into what was then known as ‘model state’. Every initiative he seeded continues to bear rich fruit even to this day: State Bank of Mysore, the Mysore University ( which boasted of such eminences as Radhakumud Mookerji, Dr S Radhakrishnan, M Hiriyanna), the iconic Krishnaraja Sagar Dam, the Kuduremukh Iron Ore Company, and the flood protection system in Hyderabad.

He had indeed attained the pinnacle of professional achievement when he was appointed the Chief Engineer of Mysore in 1909, an offer that came to him after he opted for voluntary retirement in 1908 and embarked on a world tour to study the systems in the industrialised West and returned home armed with a brilliant vision for the economic development of India.

And so when Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, Maharaja of Mysore offered him the Diwan’s position, his condition was straightforward: he wanted unshackled freedom to implement this vision. As DV Gundappa notes, “he didn’t ascend to the Diwan’s position with an intent to serve self-interest but with an intent to discharge a self-imposed duty”. Sir M Visvesvaraya’s life-mantra was one of thinking about duty before occupying high office and to reflect on whether he was qualified to occupy said office. All other considerations like caste, education, and seniority were merely incidental and secondary. It’s thus unsurprising that he accomplished so much in a brief, six-year span as the Diwan.

Indeed, this vision enabled him to select the best men from every walk of life and entrust them with both the responsibility and the independence required to perform their task to the fullest of their abilities. If Mysore University attracted the finest talent in its prime, it was because of H.V Nanjundayya, who laid such impeccable foundations. It is a reflection of the solid character and mettle of the people of that era that the selfsame H.V. Nanjundayya had earlier been in the reckoning for the Diwan’s position, which he willingly ceded to the more deserving Sir M Visvesvaraya. Equally, H.V. Nanjundayya gave up his vast and imposing bungalow to the Government so a girls’ school could be housed there, at a time when there was much talk about giving education to the girl child.

While on the political front, the freedom movement was slowly peaking, Sir M V realised the need for solid economic progress, which would make political freedom meaningful and enduring. Science, education, discipline, initiative and hard work would be the tools required to attain that economic progress. Equally, his vision was also guided by a dismay and shock at the appalling poverty in the country, a kind of pervasive sloth among people to better their own lot, and general indiscipline.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that his life was a synonymn for all of these — from his dressing, food habits, and conduct.

He maintained a strict separation of the professional and the personal till his last breath. He would carry two separate sets of candles — one to use when he was engaged in office work and the other for his private reading, etc in places that were yet un-electrified. He never allowed his friends and relatives to come anywhere close to his official matters, much less do them favours, an aspect that earned him severe ire in those circles. However, on the side, he set aside a substantial portion of his earnings to help the poor but deserving get an education. The number of poor but bright students who have benefitted from his selfless largesse is legion but almost all his help has remained a secret.

For the interested reader, there exists legendary anecdotes regarding Sir MV’s professional strictness. A certain matter had remained unresolved for months, and the files related to them lost in the bureaucratic maze at the secretariat. Despite countless reminders, when the documents remained missing, he recorded his frustration thus: “The secretariat has neither a body to kick nor a soul to damn. At this rate, how can work go on?” Yet another instance showcases his economic vision. Until his time, the state treasury had stashed up enormous sums of money as reserves to be used for contingencies like natural disasters, etc. Sir MV viewed them as dead capital. Instead, he opined that if they could be used well, they would come handy in creating national assets, having lasting value. And so when he implemented this vision, he gave the Mysore State — and the nation — lasting assets like the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam and as a consequence, rapid, massive electrification and industrial growth.

Two other prominent episodes testify the holistic and all-encompassing foresight of Sir MV towards nation building. The first is his wholehearted support for the advancement of the Indian Institute of Science (for long known as the Tata Institute), founded by Jamsetji Tata, who took Swami Vivekananda as his inspiration. The second is Sir MV’s tireless efforts to start automobile manufacturing in Bengaluru in which he was aided by the industrialist Walchand Hirachand Seth. The project was scuttled by the British and Walchand Hirachand eventually founded the Hindustan Aircraft, now known as HAL.

On a lighter note, we can cite DV Gundappa’s anecdote of the manner of Sir MV’s afternoon “rest”, which he believed was invigorating. His concept of rest included hanging his turban to a nail, curling up while seated on the chair, pencil in one hand and paper in the other. The eyelids would be closed. This “rest” would conclude after 10 minutes. DV Gundappa notes philosophically and admiringly that sleep was firmly under Sir MV’s control, a form of self-restraint.

As a corollary of sorts, we can also recall a very humbling anecdote that establishes Sir MV’s personality like no other. In 1958, he attended the diamond jubilee of the iconic Modern Hindu Hotel to which he had contributed in no small measure. It had rained a fair bit that evening. After the celebrations and dinner, when he headed out, DV Gundappa was concerned that the 97 year-old MV might step into one of the water-clogged potholes in the hotel’s compound, and offered him his walking stick. He accepted it and in the immediate second, threw it away, exclaiming, “one had better perish than live so helplessly!”

It was this force of character — apart from his other attainments — that attracted eminent men to Sir M Visvesvaraya: Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopala Krishna Gokhale, DV Gundappa, Sir Mirza Ismail (who later became the Diwan of Mysore), GA Natesan, and the Nizam of Hyderabad among others.

Sir M Visvesvaraya’s glorious tenure was cut short by sour developments. The ugly agitation that began in the form of the Justice Party in Tamil Nadu and the demand for casteist and communal reservations in government jobs quickly spread to Mysore. In 1917-18, the Mysore Praja Paksha (Mysore People’s Party) led by M Basavayya was established. In an aggressive speech, another prominent leader, Ghulam Mohammad Mekhri (after whom today’s Mekhri Circle in Bengaluru is named) accused the Maharaja’s government of being corrupt at the highest levels and taunted that he was asleep at the helm.

Sir MV who believed and practiced the principle that merit and competence were the only factors in deciding government jobs (or any position for that matter), naturally opposed this. But he was helpless in the face of mounting agitation that listened to neither sage counsel nor reason. MV applied for leave for a year and travelled abroad. Upon his return, he resigned. Thus ended an illustrious career in public and national service on 9 December, 1918.

Post retirement, he lived on rent in a bungalow named ‘Uplands’ near the Bengaluru Golf Course. Eventually, he had to vacate it because the owner had other plans. Sir Mirza Ismail and DV Gundappa suggested that he move back to the Balabrooie bungalow, which he had occupied as Diwan. Sir MV responded that he could afford a maximum of Rs 150 as rent, but that the bungalow commanded a far higher rental value. Herein lies a lesson for the innumerable government-bungalow squatters of our own time — former ministers, MPs, and sons, daughters and families thereof, etc. That the court had to actually order their evictions is a testimony of this appalling descent in values in public life.

Sir MV was also a prolific writer of inspirational essays and short books aimed at the youth. Of these, DV Gundappa highly recommends his autobiographical Memoirs of My Working Life as a book that “must necessarily be in circulation,” and says that for the youth distracted by various ideologies and temptations, this book is like an “unwavering pillar of light”.

Indeed, it’s a tragedy of sorts that a definitive biography of this eponymous Bharata Ratna is still waiting to be written. We can close this essay with DV Gundappa’s pithy assessment of Sir M Visvesvaraya’s life and work:

Visvesvaraya was akin to a Maharshi; he was pure, serene, virtuous, and the living embodiment of selfless love for people. We must say that the country, which has him bestowed upon it is fortunate. God had bestowed such a fortune upon our country. He however, didn’t give us the wisdom and the virtue of utilizing such a fortune for our own betterment. (Emphasis added)

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