Week after week, the Indian Express continues to be the one Indian newspaper which publishes perspectives, insights and news which allows us to understand India better. In this piece, the newspaper tells us something that we should have known a long time ago but didn’t: the story of the woman who created India’s foremost medical school, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS): “On February 18, 1956, the then minister of health, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, introduced a new bill in the Lok Sabha. She had no speech prepared. But she spoke from her heart. “It has been one of my cherished dreams that for post graduate study and for the maintenance of high standards of medical education in our country, we should have an institute of this nature which would enable our young men and women to have their post graduate education in their own country,” she said.
The creation of a major central institute for post-graduate medical education and research had been recommended by the Health survey of the government of India, a decade ago in 1946. Though the idea was highly appreciated, money was a concern. It took another 10 years for Kaur to collect adequate funds, and lay the foundation of India’s number one medical institute and hospital.”
So who was this remarkable lady? The article paints a picture of a cosmopolitan woman with a unique set of beliefs: “A princess of the Kapurthala princely state, a student at Oxford university, a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and an important member of the Constituent Assembly, Kaur was all of this and much more.…
As a member of the Kapurthala princely family, Kaur had an interesting history. Her father, Raja Sir Harnam Singh, had converted to Protestant Christianity after a chance meeting with a Bengali missionary named Golakhnath Chatterjee in Jalandhar. Singh went on to marry his daughter, Priscilla, and had ten children with her. Kaur, the youngest among them was born on February 2, 1889.
Kaur, therefore, was brought up as a Protestant Christian. After spending her early years in India, she was sent off to England for her education. “Princess Amrit Kaur was as much a product of Edwardian England as she was of India,” suggested her obituary in the New York Times in 1964. She completed her schooling from the Sherborne School for Girls, in Dorset, and then went to study at Oxford University. Thereupon, she returned to India in 1908 at the age of 20, and embarked on a life of nationalism and social reform.
“It is important to note that though a devout Christian, she was very much against missionary activities,” says Siddhant Das (27), great grand nephew of Amrit Kaur, and an entrepreneur who is currently living in Chandigarh…“She was a zealous patriot who believed that missionaries were alienating Indians from their cultural roots,” he explains.”
Her relationship with Mahatma Gandhi and his beliefs is also very interesting: ““What drew me to Bapu was his desire to have women in his non-violent army and his faith in womankind. This was an irresistible appeal to a woman in a land where women were fit for producing children and serving their lords as masters,” she is quoted as having said by American philosopher Richard Gregg in his introductory note in ‘Letters to Amrit Kaur.’.. She gave up all her princely comforts to join Gandhi at his ashram in Sabarmati. “I remember Rajkumari sitting at the spinning wheel and eating along with other ashramites, the simple fare prescribed by Gandhiji,” wrote political activist Aruna Asaf Ali about her fondest memory of Kaur. “Rajkumari Amrit Kaur belonged to a generation of pioneers. They belonged to well- to-do homes but gave up on their affluent and sheltered lives and flocked to Gandhiji’s banner when he called women to join the national liberation struggle,” she added.”
Given how impoverished India was in the 1950s, how Amrit Kaur fund the creation of AIIMS? “When the issue of funds for AIIMS came up, it was she who was instrumental in acquiring a huge amount from the New Zealand government. Over the years, she rallied around and was successful in getting donations from international bodies like the Rockefeller foundation, and the Ford foundation, as well as from the government of Australia, West Germany, as well as from the Dutch government.”
Finally, generations of Indians who have grown up getting admission to medical colleges, IITs and IIMs have her to thank for creating the construct of ‘entrance exams’ in India: ““Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s vision envisaged selection of students for admission to the under-graduate MBBS course in AIIMS is made after an open advertisement, on the results of an open competitive test, strictly on merit with equal opportunities to students from any part of the country,” he writes. It was her efforts, therefore, that led to entrance examinations being conducted for admission at AIIMS from 1956…By 1961 itself, AIIMS had attained global repute as it was placed alongside the best of institutes from America, Canada and Europe.
Kaur chaired her last governing body meeting of AIIMS on August 14, 1963, wherein she donated her residence at Shimla, Manorville, to AIIMS as a space meant for the relaxation and recreation of the doctors and nurses of the institute.”
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