The life of Jeppiaar: MGR’s Man, who turned educationist and anti-cupid to Chennai's engineers

It's not politics that gained him popularity in Tamil Nadu, but for colleges that became gender prisons.
The life of Jeppiaar: MGR’s Man, who turned educationist and anti-cupid to Chennai's engineers
The life of Jeppiaar: MGR’s Man, who turned educationist and anti-cupid to Chennai's engineers

Almost 4 decades ago, in a small auditorium in the middle of Nelson Manickam road, a tall, balding man with a slight paunch made his way into the hall with a knowing smile on his face. At the first ever convocation of Satyabhama’s engineering college, Jeppiaar reminisced over how he rose from a mere constable in adulation of MGR with an 8th pass education, to starting a college or two. His education, came with another brand, which would become the catchword of many students, equal parts reverent and terrified of his policies. Discipline was his brand. 

Well known politician turned educationist and Founder of Jeppiaar Educational Trust, Jeppiaar passed away in Chennai on Saturday. The 85-year-old credited with starting one of Tamil Nadu's first self-financed engineering college died of old age and was brought dead to the Global hospital in Chennai.

As a former member of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly and AIADMK member Jeppiaar was known to be a close confidante of former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. “He was with MGR through and through, who gave him the strength and power to start these colleges. Before the factions of Janaki and Jayalalithaa came to happen, he rooted for Janaki, and continued to do so even as Jayalalithaa became a huge force.” He made no show of his disregard for Jayalalithaa. But how the government did not come after him, amazed me. There were many heads of education who at some point, showcased a sycophancy toward the ruling government in one way or another. But as the times went by, MGR continued to be his inspiration long after his death,” a senior journalist said. He then turned to pioneer engineering education as a lucrative business venture.

It's not politics that gained him popularity in Tamil Nadu, but colleges that became gender prisons, strictly under disciplinary control. Here’s what he really came to be known for in contemporary Tamil Nadu– a line is often falsely attributed to him, albeit within good reason - Boys-boys talk. Girls-girls talk. Boys girls don’t talk.”

Srinivas Gopalan, a student from the second batch of Sathyabama Engineering remembers Jeppiar as a kind man with an overly cautious approach towards male-female bonding. “He was a kind man, but his punishments quite unorthodox. He would explain to us his disciplinary methods with this one line – “ I want you to look at a girl in the face and talk to her, not below her face.” If one of us misbehaved (this could mean talking in class, talking to a girl) our parents were called in and made to sit in the sun for a few hours. He would then call them into the room and say one little act of ours could spoil the entire family name and leave it out to wrinkle in the sun. That was his method.” 

While this method seems to have gotten old with the times, the mindset really didn’t. In fact, more colleges are adopting this. E Balagurusamy, a former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University was in staunch disapproval against rigid rules and segregation of students.  “One college cut its trees down to prevent girls and boys standing under them and interacting. Such behavior affects a student’s growth,” he says.

His pitiable command over English was a point of satire for both students and himself. “He had awful English, which wasn’t really his fault. But he always took how we laughed at him in good spirit. He would practice his English with us until we would close our ears and ask him to stop. But he was a good sport, tough he didn’t get any better,” enthused Gopalan. His many speeches on YouTube helped with corroborating.

Separate staircases, rails on buses separating boys and girls, a botched idea of purity and male-female interaction - the 'discipline' that Sathyabama and it's sister colleges set in motion enjoyed a laudatory image among parents and earned the silent ire of many students. Here's another one of his opening lines, according to a former student - "Parents give their daughter fresh, We give them their daughter fresh."

A decade ago, a television journalist met Jeppiaar to talk about a controversy involving the suspension of a male student for ‘interacting with girls’. He told the journalist, “Why should girls shake hands with boys? Only lovers shake hands.” Seeing his success, several colleges have followed suit and maintain a strict behavioural code.

In fact, many colleges have specialized non-teaching staff or ‘squads’ keeping an eye on students and teachers. These ‘squads’, which some students say comprises of thuggish looking, muscular men, scrutinize the behaviour of students, and are given a free hand to ‘take action’. Students always had a floor-in-charge. Their job was to notice if girls and boys were talking. If they heard or saw anything, then they would take immediate action.

On the side, Jeppiaar also established many industrial units and other endeavours including Jeppiaar cements, milk, travels, steel etc. He also established Tamil Nadu's first harbour.

Gopalan remembers a tiny quirk, smirking at the memory of him. "He had this stoop when he walked you know, he wasn't all that great at carrying himself and bearing machismo. But he deceptively covered a lot of ground. It was hard to keep up with him as a young, pudgy boy trying to be his kind of discplined."

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