Faqir Chand Kohli — a son of Peshawar who became the father of India’s IT revolution

F C Kohli, founder of TCS, passed away at age 96. He deeply desired India-Pakistan cooperation in the technology sector.
Published December 7, 2020

In these days when India-Pakistan relations have gone into deep freeze — the longest and chilliest period of hostility in recent decades — we Indians recently read a heart-warming news from Peshawar. We were thrilled by the decision of the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to protect and renovate the ancestral houses of two proud sons of this historic city — Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, Bollywood’s greatest stars of yester-decades. In some fundamental ways, the heritage of Bollywood belongs as much to Pakistanis as it does to Indians. Sadly, the fanatical Hindutva forces in our country are now trying to erase not only its Pakistan links but also the Muslim contribution to its evolution and phenomenal worldwide reputation.

The writer with F C Kohli — December 13, 2013.
The writer with F C Kohli — December 13, 2013.

Lahore’s links that bind India and Pakistan are more numerous. Nobel laureate physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore, and so was O P Nayyar, one of Bollywood’s greatest music composers. Another Nobel laureate, scientist Hargobind Khorana, studied in Lahore’s iconic Government College, and so did Dev Anand, a much-loved Bollywood hero. One can name many more, and yet the list would be incomplete.

But how many Pakistanis — specifically those from Peshawar and Lahore — have heard the name of Faqir Chand Kohli, the father of India’s information technology industry, who passed away in Mumbai on November 26 at the ripe old age of 96? Perhaps not many. Pakistanis take a lot of interest in the goings on of India’s movie industry. This is only natural. But at a time when Pakistan’s IT industry and its young IT professionals are realising their own tremendous growth potential, it may help to know a bit about the life and legacy of someone who was born and brought up on their soil, made it big in India, and who, moreover, fervently believed in peace, friendship and cooperation between India and Pakistan.

Tata Consultancy Services — bigger than IBM and Accenture

F C Kohli's father Gobindram Kohli's shop Kriparam Drapers in Peshawar Cantonment  — circa 1930.
F C Kohli's father Gobindram Kohli's shop Kriparam Drapers in Peshawar Cantonment — circa 1930.
F C Kohli — when he was a student at Government College, Lahore — circa 1944. — Photo courtesy: Sanjai Kohli
F C Kohli — when he was a student at Government College, Lahore — circa 1944. — Photo courtesy: Sanjai Kohli

Kohli was born in Peshawar in 1924. His father Gobindram Kohli was a small businessman; owner of Kriparam Drapers in Peshawar Cantonment. He completed his BA and BSc (Honors) from Lahore’s Government College. After doing his masters in power engineering from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in US, he came to Bombay in 1951 to join the Tata Group, India’s most respected and diversified business conglomerate. There, with the support of the legendary J R D Tata, he founded the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), now India’s largest and most valuable IT company. TCS, a jewel in the crown of the Tata Group, is among the world's largest IT services providers with a market capitalisation ($145 billion), greater than that of IBM ($118 billion) and Accenture ($143 billion).Kohli was the first and the longest serving CEO of TCS (from 1969 till 1996). His association with the Tata Group continued till the end. Before the coronavirus pandemic confined him to his home in Mumbai, he used to go regularly to his ocean-facing office at Nariman Point, in the majestic building of Air India, another proud creation of the Tata Group. In 1932, JRD Tata himself had famously piloted the first-ever flight from Karachi to Mumbai.

Before Partition, and even for some years after 1947, Mumbai and Karachi were among the best managed cities in Asia. A good part of Mumbai’s reputation in this regard was that the city’s power supply utility was run by the Tatas. Kohli, a brilliant engineer whose working career began with Tata Electric Companies, helped make it even better, almost as good as the one in New York. He demonstrated that use of computers — which were rudimentary then compared to the ones today — could greatly enhance efficiency and systems integration. But young Kohli wanted to achieve more with computers. He was a visionary who foresaw that the future belonged to this revolutionary new technology. Fortunately for him and for India, J R D Tata, who led the group as its chairman from 1938 until his death in 1993, strongly shared this belief. This belief gave birth to TCS.

F C Kohli in his early years at TCS. — Photo courtesy: TCS
F C Kohli in his early years at TCS. — Photo courtesy: TCS

Kohli faced immense odds in the initial decades, because it was a time when there was little awareness in India’s political and ruling establishment about the transformative potential of computers and computer software to provide solutions to large-scale problems. To make matters worse, the government had made it extremely difficult to import expensive computers from the West because of a severe foreign exchange crunch caused by a steep devaluation of the rupee at the World Bank's behest in 1966-67. Private companies were told: “You will be permitted to import computers only if you can bring more dollars from your exports.”

This did not deter Kohli, who “was a frontiersman, literally and metaphorically”, reminisces Shivanand Kanavi, who worked in TCS and has authored Sand to Silicon — The Amazing Story of Digital Technology. Having hailed from what was previously called the North West Frontier Province, Kohli's resilient Peshawari genes prodded him to convert the adversity into an opportunity. Kohli realised that TCS could earn a lot of dollar revenue for itself and much-needed forex for India by providing software solutions and services to large western enterprises, especially in the US. Indian software engineers could work on imported computers in Mumbai and other cities, or offer their services on-site to their clients in America. This was a win-win for both TCS and its offshore customers for two reasons. One, America’s own native software talent was both expensive and in short supply to meet the needs of its booming economy. Two, India in the 1970s and 1980s had started producing large numbers of top-notch engineers and computer scientists from its system of IITs — Indian Institutes of Technology, which were partly inspired by the MIT model. They were the creations of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed that our newly independent country could not be modernised without a network of world-class institutions in technology, management, industrial research and medicine. Kohli himself played an active role in identifying the best teaching talent for the newly-established IITs. He even taught some courses at IITs, thus setting a fine example of industry-academia partnership that has matured so well in western nations.

A builder of institutions and leaders

The TCS model of export-led growth quickly became so successful and attractive that it spawned many Indian software startups, some of which have become global icons. For example, Infosys, established in 1981 by N R Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani (both IITians and both among India’s most respected tech entrepreneurs) and five others, is one of India’s most respected and profitable IT companies. And so is WIPRO. Its founder, Azim Premji, is India’s top philanthropist, who has so far donated $16 billion of his personal wealth. India’s software exports skyrocketed from $8 billion in 2000 to USD $ 150 billion in 2020. Bangalore, which attracted the largest number of Indian and foreign technology companies, came to be viewed as India’s “Silicon Valley”. The IT industry boomed in other Indian cities too — Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. Tens of thousands of young IT professionals got high-paying employment, both in India and abroad. Indians rose to high positions in some of the biggest tech companies in the world, the two most famous examples being Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.

In India, TCS sprinted way ahead of its competitors. A major part of the reason for this lay in how the company groomed a legion of excellent leaders under Kohli’s mentorship. S Ramadorai, who succeeded him as CEO, says: “I had the privilege of working with Kohli for 48 years. He was a brilliant technologist, great manager and a very good human being. He would throw very difficult challenges at us. But he also built competencies in TCS to meet those challenges.”

In his book The TCS Story and Beyond, Ramadorai describes how extremely tough the initial years were. “But somewhere deep down,” Kohli, he and their team “believed that we were not building a mere business but a new industry for India, and that was a dream worth working towards.”

N Chandrasekaran, who succeeded Ramadorai and later became chairman of the Tata Group in 2017 after Ratan Tata (nephew of J R D Tata) stepped down, says, “Kohli interviewed me when I joined TCS as a trainee. He was a leader with great clarity of thought and conviction. He saw very early on that IT services can be an industry in which India could build a core national strength.”

Many of his protégés have recalled that working under him was ‘Trial by Fire’. “If you crossed one fire, it meant he liked you and he would push you into a bigger fire.”

Both Ramadorai and Chandrasekaran took TCS to far greater heights than where Kohli had left it. This multi-generational continuity in excellent professional leadership is one of the many reasons why the Tata Group is widely admired in India and abroad. Both J R D Tata and Ratan Tata empowered the most competent leaders to helm their group companies. This is yet another cultural feature that has matured in western business conglomerates.

Not content with the success of only his own company, Kohli worked tirelessly for the broad-based growth of India’s IT industry. He did so by becoming one of the founders of Nasscom (National Association of Software and Service Companies) and the Computer Society of India (CSI). He was the driving force behind the India chapter of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), the most influential global platform of professional engineers.

Kohli believed that IT companies should regard themselves first as problem-solvers and only thereafter as profit-making businesses. Being an engineer at heart, he knew that engineering education, in its broadest sense, prepared students for solving tough problems in industry, economy and society. Here India faced a dilemma. Even though IITs had earned global reputation, their student strength was — and still is — far less compared with the country’s population and humungous needs (India until the end of 1990s had only six IITs; now the number has increased to 23. In contrast, it has around 6,000 engineering colleges). Since setting up new IITs entailed huge expenditure, he advocated an innovative idea — substantially improving the standards of a select number of promising engineering colleges and making them “IIT-like” — under a mentoring programme with existing IITs. He actually implemented this idea at the College of Engineering Pune (CoEP). As the chairman of the board of governors of this 175-year-old institution, he completely transformed it by “twinning” it with IIT Bombay.

When I was with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Mumbai, a leading Indian policy think tank, my colleague Dr Leena Wadia and we worked closely with Kohli — he was already in his 90s then — in producing an in-depth report on how CoEP was transformed into an IIT-like institution. He told us — “India should transform, and India can indeed transform, 50 promising engineering colleges into IIT-like institutions.”

“India has no business being a nation of so many poor people”

With all these accomplishments, Kohli still nursed three big regrets. To his friends and colleagues in industry and academia, his insistent exhortation was — “our industry has benefited, but India has not benefited much from our industry. We have to do more, a lot more, for India.” He was deeply pained by India’s poverty. In many of my conversations with him, he would lament — “India has no business being a nation of so many poor people.” He firmly believed that the combined power of technology and education could eradicate poverty and enrich India’s enormous human resource. He piloted a big campaign for education of school dropouts, removal of illiteracy, and computer education in Indian languages.

F C Kohli. — Photo courtesy: L C Singh
F C Kohli. — Photo courtesy: L C Singh

Kohli was deeply concerned over India’s failure to develop its IT hardware industry, which stood in sharp contrast to the shining success of its software industry. A keen follower of technology trends in China, he worried over the widening gap between India and China in IT hardware. For example, India’s annual electronics import bill is about $60 billion. Of this, $20 billion is for semiconductor chips, which are the backbone of the digital economy. Even though China indigenously produced only 16% of its semiconductor needs in 2019, it has set the goal of producing 70% of domestic semiconductor needs within China by 2025. Furthermore, China has pledged investment of $1.4 trillion to the development of critical technologies through 2025. Therefore, Kohli was insistent on India becoming self-reliant, to a large extent, in IT hardware manufacturing.

Kohli’s other regret was that there was practically no cooperation between India and Pakistan even in the field of IT, so crucial for any nation’s all-round development. He was proud of his Peshawar roots. He loved Lahore. Before Partition, he was witness to peaceful coexistence among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in both cities. One of his family members told me: “He had never felt discriminated or insecure in Peshawar or Lahore. Partition affected him more than most know. As a matter of fact, the events made him who he was. His family went from affluence to abject poverty. When he returned from the US in 1951, he found his family (which had migrated to Lucknow) sleeping on the mud floor of a hutment.”

F C Kohli in Pakistan 2004. — Photo courtesy: Nasscome
F C Kohli in Pakistan 2004. — Photo courtesy: Nasscome

Because of his own life experience, he deeply desired normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan. He dreamt of Pakistani students coming to India to study in our leading technology institutes — also Indian students going to Punjab University and LUMS in Lahore, and to all the other reputable institutions in Pakistan. Speaking at the first Pakistan-India ICT Summit in Islamabad on December 16, 2004, when Nasscom and the Pakistan Software Houses Association signed a memorandum of understanding to increase trade and cooperation, he hoped that business and academic leaders would cooperate to bridge the digital divide across the border.

This regret and this hope of his are the main reason for my penning this tribute to him in a Pakistani publication. For the consideration of those in Pakistan — and also in India — who share his regret and hope, I would like to express a few thoughts about what we can, at a modest level, do together. Since the fraught political relations between our two governments do not permit any meaningful collaborative activity, can we at least have a virtual meet to celebrate his life? Can we institute a chair in Kohli’s memory at the Government College University in Lahore? Can we start scholarships in his name for the bright technology students at the University of Peshawar? Another thought: in the computer science department at IIT Bombay, my own alma mater, there is a fabulously successful “E-Yantra” project initiated by my friend Professor Kavi Arya. It trains young engineering students in robotics. Kohli was a mentor of this project, which has set up similar (very low-cost) robotics labs in over 400 engineering colleges across India. Innovative projects like these in India — and there are so many — should build collaborations with engineering colleges in Pakistan and other South Asian countries.

Similarly, should we not introduce similar creative initiatives in Pakistani institutions to Indian students? Yet another thought: A large number of Indians and Pakistanis have studied at MIT, Kohli’s alma mater. Surely, they can do something small but significant in the area of engineering research and education. Even MIT might like to support such a worthy initiative. And maybe — just maybe — when wisdom returns and the chill lessens in India-Pakistan government-to-government ties, Nasscom and the Pakistan Software Houses Association could dust off the MoU they signed 16 years ago and think of ways to implement it.

Before I sign off, I would like to recall Kohli’s one remarkable and endearing personality trait, which was embedded in the name his parents had given him — Faqir Chand. There was a certain faqiri in his personality, mann ki faqiri and dil ki faqiri. He was one of the most unassuming persons I have met in my life. And one full of infectious enthusiasm in whatever he did. And indeed, he did live a full life; a life of fulfilment.