It is a cradle for some of India’s best technical minds and consistently ranks among the world's top universities. But the academic triumphs of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur are that much sweeter, for it helped drive the engine that powered the future of a newly independent India.
IIT-Kharagpur was set up in the 1950s when the nation was wrestling another colossal challenge. Independence had come to India at a time when the world was beginning to rebuild itself after a devastating war. The need was never greater for an institute that could set the tone for industrial development and growth in other areas as well.
So it is only fitting that IIT-Kharagpur started life with a patriotic fire in its belly – it was housed in a prison, the Hijli Detention Camp in West Bengal. The prison opened in 1930 to jail Indian revolutionaries during the freedom movement.
So in 1951, when India was ready to open its first world-class technical institute, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru chose Hijli as its site on the advice of West Bengal Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy. IIT-Kharagpur would be sanctified by the sacrifice of India’s freedom fighters.
Before this, the institute had been housed for a few months in Calcutta. Later, a new campus was built at Hijli and the prison was converted into a museum.
During IIT-Kharagpur’s first convocation in 1956, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in his address:
“Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India's urges, India's future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”
IIT-Kharagpur was the first of the Indian Institutes of Technology that were set up, and the bar was set really high – they were to be developed at par with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
The plan was to open IITs in the Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern regions so that there would be no regional imbalance. Thus, the first IITs in India were the ones in Bombay, Madras, Kanpur and Delhi.
India has 23 IITs today, centres of excellence where young men and women can still shape a part of India’s future.