Azim Premji’s speech at the Convocation of NIT-Trichy

Good morning,

Let me start with the most important thing today. My heartiest congratulations to all the students who are graduating.

This is an important occasion for you, as also for your family and friends. All of you know that this is the end of an important phase of your life and the beginning of a new one. I can tell you from my experience, as also that of everyone else that I know, that you will cherish the time in this college almost more than anything else.

Let me also point out that while this ceremony does mark the end of your college stint it certainly doesn’t mark the end of your education. By saying that I am not referring to graduate school that many of you might go to, I am just pointing out what you know. That learning and education is a life-long process. It is for you to take charge of your own education.

Let me also congratulate the National Institute of Technology, Trichy, for being, without doubt, one of the best higher education institutions in the country.

It is quite remarkable that your institution has been one of the very best in the country from its very founding in 1964. It is not only that I have read about your institution, but over the past 40 years some of  my most outstanding colleagues  have been your alumni. So, I say this from personal experience.

I am sure that with your stellar track record, you will also be at the forefront of implementing the National Education Policy 2020. The policy has a particularly bold vision for transforming under-graduate education to have a multi-disciplinary and liberal character.

I think that such liberal education is essential for our country. It is this kind of education which truly develops good society and good human beings. Such education provides rigorous disciplinary understanding, but it does a lot more. It develops the capacity to think critically, to be engaged empathetically with our fellow human beings and nature, and to make the right ethical choices. In a very real sense, such good liberal education will develop a vibrant society based on our constitutional values. In fact, that is what the National Education Policy 2020 commits to doing.

I hope that NIT Trichy, will become a model for all engineering institutions in the country, on how this vision of the policy can be brought to life.

None of us is surprised that this convocation address is being delivered to you through a video recording. Something like this would have been unthinkable even last year. The pandemic that the world is dealing with is truly unprecedented in modern times.

In the end of March as the pandemic started spreading and a massive humanitarian crisis gripped the country, it became clear to us that we had to do everything that we could do to contribute towards tackling the pandemic and alleviating the humanitarian situation. Our Foundation, which does extensive work across many fields, quickly organized to help the country deal with the pandemic.

In a very brief time, we had about 65,000 people on the ground across about 400 districts. These included our own Foundation team members, the alumni of our University, members of our partner organizations, and government schoolteachers with whom we work. They worked day and night, to deliver humanitarian aid and augment the health care response, very often at risk to their own lives. This extensive work of our Foundation continues today, and we think it may well continue for the next 18 – 24 months.

With our own team members out there doing everything that they could at great risk to themselves, I wanted to go out and be with these dedicated people on the ground,  to see for myself what the people of our country were facing and how we were dealing with it. However, I was prohibited from moving out of my house, as age is a high-risk factor in Covid -19.

This strict prohibition was from my family, doctors, and my colleagues. This was an unacceptable situation for me,  because one of the most important lessons I have learnt in life, and learnt repeatedly, is that the complete picture and full reality of anything can be best understood only by being in the frontline.

By June, we figured out the best possible solution in these circumstances was for my colleagues to start doing video calls from wherever they were. So, I started getting a direct view into what people were facing. They would call me from the slums in big cities to some of the remotest villages of our country. Now, this has become a rhythm which I follow two or three times a week.

What I see directly on the ground is not very different from what all of you now know. It is just that the experience felt is very personal, and has strongly reinforced some of the important lessons that I have learnt in the past few decades. It is almost as if I was re-learning the lessons of 55 years of my working life, in just 6 months.

I think that is because a deep crisis brings out the most important things within us very clearly. It truly reveals our character and the character of our society.

So, let me share some of the lessons I have learnt:

First, the ability to think critically, to ask questions/and to be open minded, are absolutely central to dealing with anything in life successfully. The pandemic has made this absolutely clear. It is only through critical thinking capacities that we can actually grasp reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. And understanding the reality is the basis for dealing with any situation big or small.

Second, there is no substitute for hard work, commitment and tenacity. We are still in the middle of the pandemic. We don’t know when it will be controlled. I myself know thousands of people who have worked 24/7 for the past 7 months at great risk to their lives. And they will continue to work like this till the pandemic is under control.

While the current unfortunate situation emphasizes the importance of all this,  my experience, whether in business or public life, has been that it is these characteristics of hard work, commitment and tenacity that eventually make the most difference in life.

Third, each one of us must understand and recognize that we live with fellow human beings. At the core of this living together is a sense of solidarity and empathy.

When I ask all these people who are putting their life at risk in dealing with the pandemic day and night, why are you doing this voluntarily? Almost everyone says the same – that these are our own people, we have a sense of solidarity, if in this hour of crisis, we don’t stand by each other, how can we be human.

The point is that it is empathy and a sense of solidarity that makes us human and makes a society function and grow. But often, in our everyday life, we forget this most important of things. And when we forget that, and act only for ourselves, with self-interest in mind, we lose some of our humanity.

While the pandemic brings out the importance of empathy and solidarity so sharply, it is equally important in all aspects of our lives, whether in business or in politics and at all times.

Fourth, the devasting Spanish flu of 1918, gave us one unforgettable lesson,  which we are having to relearn the hard way during this pandemic. A pandemic, like any other crisis, can best be defeated by the Truth.

We must be willing to seek out the truth, confront the truth, speak the truth and act on the basis of truth.  In fact, this has been the most important lesson of my life, that truth and integrity are the foundation of everything.

In the absence of integrity everything falls apart. While, if we are willing to face the truth and speak the truth and have integrity in all actions, we can be confident that things will finally fall into place.

From 1966, ever since I took over the responsibility of Wipro, I have tried to practice this. It has not been easy. However, if you want me to share with you the most important thing that I believe has been the foundation of everything that I have done, it is this commitment to truth and integrity.

Fifth, the stark inequality and injustice that millions of our fellow citizens live with has become more evident than ever before. While we have made significant progress on many fronts since Independence, we are unfortunately nowhere near the country we have promised ourselves to be, in our constitution.

This crisis has brought out the worst in us but has also brought out the best in us. It has revealed the extreme injustice and inequity in our society and the deeply structural nature of these inequities and injustices. But it has also shown us that millions have the courage and generosity of spirit to battle the toughest of circumstances. It has also thrown a challenge to us, and perhaps even more so to your  generations – that how do you mobilize this courage and spirit collectively can ameliorate injustice and inequality, and truly change our country.

I am sure some of you have heard of the 12-year-old child Jamlo. On 15 April, she started walking from the chilly field in Telangana where she was working as a labourer, to her home in Chhattisgarh. After walking for 3 days in that searing summer sun, she died. She was a 12-year-old child.

Can there be a more stark and gut-wrenching challenge to us than that? How can we let 12-year-old children work in chilly fields, hundreds of miles from their homes, and then abandon them to their fate, to walk those hundreds of miles in the scorching summer sun?

My great hope is that it is you who will change this country.

You will make it a country where no Jamlo has to work in a chilly field, when she should be in school.

Make it a country where everyone has a life of dignity and respect.

Make it a country where all live with humaneness, solidarity and peace.

And thus, make it truly the country that we have promised ourselves in our constitution.

As I said, my hopes soar with you.

I know that you will be successful engineers and businesspeople. But I am urging you to be more than that. Because I think you have it in you to be more.

I am urging you to become leaders of change for this country. And change this country, such that we truly become a just, equitable, and humane society.

My congratulations once again to all of you, as also my best wishes in everything that you do.

Thank you and Jai Hind.


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