Faqir Chand Kohli (1924-2020)
Panjab Engineering College Chandigarh
Faqir Chand Kohli, recognized as father of outsourcing to India, is a very well studied subject. I am going to spend my time on giving factual information on his pre-fame days and family background. This information is not available at one place. I will then make some comments of an analytical nature.
AS many of you know, Lahore was a major centre for film production. At the time of Partition, film people shifted to Bombay. A similar thing happened in the field of science and technology. Lahore was an outstanding educational centre with well-regarded colleges, university, and engineering college. Persons born in the 1920s completed their education by 1947, received overseas government scholarships before and after independence, and returned with high qualifications.
Partitioned Punjab as well as Delhi were traumatized and could not have offered these foreign trained young men anything. Even if Partition had not taken place, North India did not have the wherewithal to make use of their talent and training. Many of them therefore headed for Bombay and Bangalore.
One such young man was Kohli. He had his early education in Peshawar after which he came to Lahore to join the most prestigious Colege there, Government College. He obtained two degrees from Panjab University: BA Honours in English, and BSc Honours School in Physics in which he was a gold medallist. So far, I have not been able to ascertain the exact years of his examination.
In 1946 he left for Queens University Kingston, Canada, from where he obtained his Bachelors in engineering. He moved to MIT from where he obtained a Masters. It would be useful to get copies of his applications and CV from these institutions. Kohli returned to India in 1951 and joined the House of Tatas which became his karma-bhoomi.
Kohli’s first name Faqir is ironic. It must have been given to ward off evil eye, because the family was extremely well-off. His father’s name was Govind Ram Kohli. He ran ran a huge business under the name Kirpa Ram Brothers. They were drapers and outfitters. Peshawar was a very big cantonment and Kirpa Ram Brothers catered to military officers. Their products carried the tag ‘By Appointment. H.E. The Commander in Chief in India’. Most rich students in Lahore were not high performers, and most bright students were drawn from lower or lower-middle class families. Kohli must have a rare type of student in Lahore who was equally rich and bright.
Kohli belonged to a Khatri subset known as Khukhrain. ( Examples in public eye are ex-PM Dr Manmohan Singh and film star Dev Anand.) The Khukhrain biradari comprises castes such as Kohli, Anand, Chadda, Sethi, Sahni, and some others. They married among themselves and maintained close ties. Kohli’s mother was a Sethi, and his wife a Sahni. This cohesiveness was a source of strength to Kohli. He would not have been entirely self-supporting in sojourn in North America. His family and relatives would have suffered due to Partition, but Kohli was kept insulated from financial problems at home.
His mother’s side during his student days was very wealthy and openly nationalist. Her mother’s brother was Kanshi Ram Sethi, who supported Lala Lajpat Rai, and even want to jail for his nationalist activities.
A person in the family, far more innovative than Kohli would be, was his nani, mother’s mother, Lakshmi Devi. She came from a modest background and did not bring any dowry. But she was exceptionally gifted mathematically, was a clear thinker, and a great help to her husband in his business. They owned salt mines in the famous salt range. Salt was brought on camels, and distributed in the region. Lakshmi Devi decided that there was no need to send back the camels who could be sold. Rawalpindi (like Peshawar) was a big cantonment, and the army a big buyer of camels. As it turned out, camels brought in more money than salt.
Only yesterday (on 5 December 2020) I located FC Kohli’s son, Sanjai Kohli, who studied at IIT Bombay, is a USA-based entrepreneur, and like his father associated with IEEE, as an elected Fellow. I have requested him for his reminiscence, but it is too early to expect a response. Sanjai Kohli told me his mother’s maiden surname is Sahni. Although she married Faqir Chand after his return from USA, her family was a wealthy and influential family, also in Rawalpindi.
We celebrate, and rightly so, achievements of pioneers and visionaries. But it is also important to place their work in a broader context so that we may learn from them in new circumstances also.
Thomas Carlyle believed that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. My own prescription is somewhat different.
I would like to suggest that ‘ History chooses the hour, and the hour produces the hero’.
A combination of factors helped Kohli find a place in history. The Tatas enjoyed world reputation for their professionalism and ethics. Reputed companies in the world were happy to collaborate with them. They were the first corporate house to appreciate the role of computers. They had very capable staff and access to two great intellectual centres, TIFR and IISc. Kohli’s credentials as MIT alumnus opened doors in USA for him and his employers. The most momentous development as it turned out was Tata’s alliance with Burroughs. Kohli was compelled to focus on software because India was still stuck on import substitution. Now that economic policies and thinking have changed, Kohli 2.0 today will surely have focused on speedy value addition in software and in hardware manufacture. //