Starting of BHU
Our grand alma mater, Banaras Hindu University, was established in 1916 by Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviya. It was the first university in India formed as a result of a single individual’s efforts. The foundation for the main campus of the university was laid on 4th February 1916 by Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India, on Vasant Panchami (goddess Saraswati’s birthday). Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman, Dr. Prafulla Chandra Roy, Prof Sam Higginbottom, Sir Patrick Geddes, and Dr. Annie Besant delivered lectures from 5-8 February. Gandhi ji’s lecture on the occasion was his first public address in India. Sir Dr. Sunder Lal was asked to serve as the first Vice-Chancellor of the University, starting on April 1, 1916. BHU began its first academic session in the same month with classes initially held at the Central Hindu School in the Kamachha area of Banaras, while the campus was being built on over 1,300 acres (5.3 km2) of land donated by the Kashi Naresh on the outskirts of the city of Varanasi.
It was a golden period of the British Raj and the economic exploitation of India was at the climax. The economy of India was turned into an import-dependent and non-self-sustaining one. For the first time, massive amounts of wealth were being drained out not only from the rich people but ironically from the poor masses of India as well. Although they appeared to be benevolent acts, British Raj had established and was expanding a network of roads, railroad and irrigation canals with the ulterior intention of draining the wealth of India in the form of cheap agricultural products and practically free raw materials. They exported these materials to England, processed them, and then shipped back to India to be sold at a massive profit. These goods were also fetching a great profit due to the demand in European and American continents since the industrial revolution was in full swing all over the world.
Since this economic exploitation required civil and mining engineers, the British Raj established engineering institutions to produce these two types of engineers. They established the first engineering college. Thomson College of Civil Engineering (now IIT – Roorkee) in 1854. Later, three more engineering colleges were established by the British Raj to produce civil and mining engineers and these were Poona Civil Engineering College in Pune (1854), and College of Engineering, Guindy in Chennai (1859) which was originally started as the School of Survey in 1774.
In early 1900, there was a wave of movements and sincere patriotic feelings in India to prevent/stop/curtail her economic exploitation. The Tata Iron and Steel Company was established by Dorabji Tata on August 26, 1907, and it became the largest steel plant in the British Empire by 1939. In 1918 Mahatma Gandhi started the Khadi movement and several such actions to prevent exploitation of the poor masses in India’s villages. Mahamanaji wanted similar things in the education field. He wanted to produce “Khadi Engineers,” as he wrote in his prospectus: “to advance and diffuse scientific, technical, and professional knowledge, combined with practical training in promoting indigenous industries and in developing the materials resources of the country.” This prospectus was presented to the private donors and public and government officials.
With this objective, he approached Prof. Charles King, working at Civil Engineering College at Shibpur, and he accepted this challenging offer to start a College of Engineering at BHU in 1919. Prof. King was originally from University of Glasgow, UK. He was appointed the first Principal, who christened the college as “Benares Engineering College (BENCO)”. The Chancellor of the University, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar of Mysore who had come to preside over and address the convocation, performed the opening ceremony of BENCO in January 1919.
Professor King developed a one-of-a-kind curriculum which imparted a combined degree in “Electrical and Mechanical Engineering”. The curriculum not only involved courses in these two disciplines, but also from civil engineering. Moreover, it comprised of almost 50% of practice time (hands-on-experience) in workshops, laboratories, surveying, and engineering drawing halls. He also started the annual competition and festival involving “model making” by students, known as “Model Exhibition”, which was attended by many industrialists of the time. The engineering degree was offered only after a student would provide a certificate of one year training from an established and recognised industry, which every student would undertake after completion of his studies at BENCO. Due to lack of indigenous industries in India, several students had to go to UK for getting training in spite of financial hardships. Furthermore, BENCO followed a unique time schedule like an industrial factory. Theoretical and laboratory/workshop/drawing classes were held between 7:30-11:00 AM and 1:00-4:00 PM with no break during these two working time periods before and after lunch.
Prof. King also established a steam engine based power generation plant at BENCO, which not only provided training to students, but electrical power to the entire BHU camps and outside to Varanasi city up to Assi Mohalla (although plans were to provide power to the entire city of Varanasi). Besides training students, the workshops in BENCO used to make products for commercial purposes to earn some funds for the school. One notable item was the production of AC/DC fans, which spurred indigenous vibrant AC/DC table fan and water pump industries in Varanasi from 1930 to 1980 (the largest in this field were CINNI and TULLU).
Mahamana wanted students from each part and corner of India since he always reiterated that he had collected funds from all over India and thus BHU belonged to India and not to any group or region. Principal King therefore devised an admission process which combined merit and region considerations. BENCO offered the combined Electrical and Mechanical Engineering degree from 1919 to 1952. In 1953, this program was split into two separate degrees. Due to demands arising from the Five Year Plans, BENCO started a separate degree program in Civil Engineering in 1956.
The Department of Geology was started under BENCO in 1920 and courses in Mining and Metallurgy were introduced in the Geology Department. The Department of Industrial Chemistry was started in July 1921. In 1923, Mining and Metallurgy was established as a separate department and, in 1944, it was separated from BENCO to form the College of Mining and Metallurgy (MINMET). The year 1939 witnessed the formation of the College of Technology (TECHNO), separating the departments of Industrial Chemistry, Pharmaceutics, Ceramics and Glass Technology from BENCO.
Changeover to IT-BHU
In 1968, Prof. M. Sengupta, the third and last principal and a towering figure in the history of BENCO, retired. After his retirement, in spite of great opposition from the traditionalists within and outside BHU as well as powerful alumni of BENCO, Dr. Gopal Tripathi, Principal of TECHNO, with his influential connections in New Delhi managed to merge BENCO, TECHNO and MINMET into one institution and named it the Institute of Technology (IT-BHU). The main opposition against the merger was that BENCO would lose its unique identity which would be a great loss for engineering education in India. He was appointed the first Director of IT-BHU, which consisted of the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Mining Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Technology, Silicate Technology, and Pharmaceutics. Later, the Department of Silicate Technology became the Department of Ceramic Engineering. In 1971, a separate Department of Electronics Engineering was also established. The department of Applied Physics, Applied Mathematics, and Applied Chemistry were established in 1985.
Changing the Admission Process
Prof. Gairola with selfless devotion managed the admission process of BENCO since 1956 till his retirement in 1968, which was just before the formation of IT-BHU. After the formation of IT-BHU, the admission process started showing cracks and flaws. Regional forces were polluting the admission process which had been carried on with great integrity from 1919 through 1968. To rectify this deterioration situation, in 1972 IT-BHU abandoned the traditional admission process involving a combination of both merit and region considerations and adopted the merit based only entranced examination process by joining the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) system.
Becoming IIT (BHU)
Just after this dramatic change, internal and external interest groups started envisioning another drastic change to convert IT-BHU into an IIT. A committee was appointed by the IIT Council in 1972 to consider this change. However, due to conflicting interests, the desired conversion could not be achieved for almost 40 years. IIT’s are independent academic institutions having authority to grant degrees, and they are not a part of a university. BHU, its supporters, and alumni were not willing to separate one of the oldest and precious institutions. It was a major conflict between the traditionalist and progressive groups. Finally, a compromise was reached in 2008. The Government of India agreed in principle to convert IT-BHU to an IIT, keeping its academic and administrative ties with BHU. Therefore, IT-BHU was named as “IIT (BHU) Varanasi”, unlike other IITs which are named as IIT followed by the name of city of location (e.g. IIT Kharagpur). It took another four years to pass different acts, bills, etc. which went through legislative and executive procedures. Finally, our alma mater became “IIT (BHU) Varanasi” in June 2012.
Our alma mater is now almost 100 years old. During this period it has gone through many face-lifts, transformations, and changes. One major event is in the mode of delivery of engineering education. It started with great emphasis on the hands- on training experience along with a theoretical background. Now it has a new emphasis on solid theoretical based education. The former was the unique feature of BENCO, and the latter is the hall-mark of IIT’s. In spite of these events/changes, we hope and wish that our alma mater will remain a beacon of engineering education for the next 100 years as well.