Inderjit Kaur

Madam Vice-Chancellor

By H. Kishie Singh

“Are you a feminist?” This was the question posed to the first woman Vice-Chancellor.
“Not the bra-burning kind,” was the retort.
She is a woman—charming, sweet—and accomplished and finds no conflict in being both. She still has that smile and when she speaks—there is still steel in her. Inderjit Kaur Sandhu carries the eight-odd decades of life’s experience quite lightly. Her pleasant demeanour and old-world courtesies are often used self-deprecatingly to cover the fact that she is a well-educated, modern lady with formidable experience, who held two of the top positions in India.
The media hailed her as the first woman Vice-Chancellor in north India, though she is more modest: “There might have been someone in the South, but I do know that I was the only woman VC in north India.” After her successful innings as Vice-Chancellor, she went on to become Chairperson of Staff Selection Commission, New Delhi, a top all-India recruiting agency for the Government of India.
Colonel Sher Singh was delighted when his first child was born on September 1, 1923. He celebrated his daughter’s birth as much as others did the birth of a son. He was an unconventional man who had not followed his father in the service of the Maharaja of Patiala at the Durbar, but had chosen a more difficult career that took him and his family to remote regions, including the North West Frontier Province and Peshawar. The family (there were five children—two sons and three daughters) divided its time between Patiala and the ‘family station’ postings.
As she grew up, Inderjit Kaur studied at Patiala’s Victoria Girls School. She was subsequently educated at Lahore, where she did her BT at RB Sohan Lal Training College. She earned an MA in Philosophy from Government College, Lahore. This was done as a resident student, since her parents never lived in Lahore, but wanted the best facilities for their daughter, who was one of the first girls from Patiala to be so well educated.
Before the result of her examinations was out, she was teaching at Victoria Girls Intermediate College, which she officially joined on December 16, 1946.
At the time of the Partition, there was an influx of refugees from the area that fell in Pakistan. Inderjit Kaur became an activist and helped form the Mata Sahib Kaur Dal, of which she was Secretary. The organisation rehabilitated over 400 families at Patiala. Food and clothes were collected from families in Patiala and given away. They even sent out four truckloads of such material to persons in Baramulla, Kashmir, where the Patiala Army had come to the rescue of the locals. She was also instrumental in setting up Mata Sahib Kaur Dal School, Patiala, for mainly refugee children. She also organised self-defence training for women refugees and took part in it, topping the shooting competition.
She was from the first batch of students who did their Masters in Punjabi. She was the lone woman on the governing council of Khalsa College, Amritsar (1950-1953).
From GCW, she was to move, 10 years later, as Professor of Education at the State College of Education, Patiala, followed by a stint in the Basic Training College, Chandigarh (1958-1967). By this time she had married Giani Gurdit Singh, eminent Punjabi writer who was a member of the Punjab Legislative Council (1956-1962). They have two sons, Roopinder Singh, born 1960, and Ravinder Singh (1961). The elder son is Assistant-Editor with The Tribune, Chandigarh, and the younger a New York-based businessman.
This was also the time when Giani Gurdit Singh’s most famous creation was born, the book Mera Pind, which won two UNESCO prizes and, till this day, is recognised as a landmark in contemporary Punjabi literature.
Though Chandigarh had its allure, Patiala, too, had a claim on its daughter and in 1972, she took over as Principal of the college where she had started her career. Within a short span of three years, she had added a science wing to the college and the strength of the students increased exponentially. Today, she is particularly proud of the way in which co-curricular activities were encouraged and gidda revived. Taking the college girls to participate in the Republic Day parade with the gidda troupe gave the traditional Punjabi folk dance national exposure.
Guru Nanak Quincentenary Celebrations were held on a global scale by Punjabi University, Patiala, in 1969, when Guru Nanak Mehima Kirtan Darbar was organised at GCW. It was well appreciated, especially by foreign scholars, who were provided with translations of shabads from the Gurbani in the form of beautiful booklets.
She sought a transfer to Amritsar to be with her husband while he was there. She was principal of Government College for Women, Amritsar. Here the college had good infrastructure and she could concentrate on improving the academic environment.
Inderjit Kaur returned to Patiala as Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala, a position she held from 1975 to 1977. During this period, her husband moved to be with her, just as she had done earlier. Her husband remembered fondly that he had moved a resolution while he was a member of the Punjab Legislative Council, demanding and proposing a Punjabi University many years ago.
The night before she took the charge, there was an altercation in the university and some students came to the guest house in which she was staying. One of them was bleeding profusely. “Madam, we know that no action will be taken against the student who beat me up, he is from the king’s party,” said the aggrieved boy.

“How can there be a king’s party when there is no king?” asked the Vice-Chancellor designate. There were titters of laughter and the students soon dispersed to the dispensary for medication.
It was this approach that was to be seen during her tenure. “I am very happy that we were able to publish a large number of books and have more students finish their Ph.Ds during that time,” she says. Her colleague, Hazara Singh, who headed the publishing department of the university, often used to say: “Madam managed to get us to do a lot of work, and we did it so willingly. It was very satisfying.”
No wonder, Malcolm Adiseshiah, then Vice-Chancellor of University of Madras, once remarked at a VCs’ conference that he was surprised that more books had been published from the university at Patiala than from his university. “Madam, how can you do it?” he wondered aloud.
She is also remembered for allotting a house of higher category to Professor L M Joshi. When some people protested, they were told: “I have given the house to his books. He had no space to keep them in his old house. When you have so many books, I will give a bigger house to you, too.”
The unique position Inderjit Kaur held meant that she represented the country at various international conferences. She attended the Conference of the Association of Commonwealth University at Wellington, New Zealand, and represented India at the International Conference of the Executive Heads of Universities, held in Boston, USA, where she was among the three women university heads in the world. Such visits generated generous media coverage, something she handled with elan.
Academic responsibilities were not neglected, and neither was her own work. She delivered the 1976 Guru Nanak Lecture at University of Hull, UK, on “Guru Teg Bahadur, Nanak IX” and also spoke at the School of Oriental Studies, London, during the same trip. She lectured at various universities during her foreign tours.
She resigned just before her term ended in 1977, because of political differences with the government that came to power. This was followed by a two-year sabbatical in Chandigarh.
Inderjit Kaur was appointed chairperson, Staff Selection Commission, New Delhi, in 1980 for a five-year term. Apparently anticipating good times ahead, the staff distributed sweets when they heard that a woman was to head their organisation. They were surprised when they found that the boss could be tough as nails, but kind and helpful when it came to personal problems.
She is credited with streamlining the examination process, making and sticking to schedules for results and laying down of norms for objective evaluation that are in use till today. She administered the vast network which often depended on the goodwill of the state governments for conducting examinations, with tact, and when necessary, firmness. At times there were more than a hundred thousand candidates for a single test.
To take one example, the commission handled 6.7 lakh applications for examination during 1983, out of which there were 4.6 lakh candidates for clerical grade examination alone. In all, the commission provided candidates for over 20,000 vacancies. To interview such candidates, she had to fly to various regional centres of the commission and there were times when she was travelling 20 days a month.
She was a leading votary of the objective-type examination system and, in 1983, she delivered a keynote address at a workshop-cum-seminar on objective tests held at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Interestingly enough, her predecessor at Staff Selection Commission, Mr Hamid, had taken over the AMU as Vice-Chancellor.
She was Chairman of Staff Selection Commission, Delhi, till 1985, after which she moved to Chandigarh, where she devotes her time to her family and her gardens. She can afford to rest on her laurels, now, she feels.

This article was published in the Nishan magazine in 2002

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