Akola's Mansoor Ali returns from USA to repay debts and sets up a secular college

Story by  ATV | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 26-11-2023
Mansoor Ali Kamaruddin (Fourth from left) and Mehrunisa (Second from left) on the dais at the inauguration of the college in Akola
Mansoor Ali Kamaruddin (Fourth from left) and Mehrunisa (Second from left) on the dais at the inauguration of the college in Akola


Chinmay Damle

Mansoor Ali Kamaruddin, who lives in America and originally hails from Akola, Maharashtra, donated crores to build a college in his native city on a pre-condition that the educational institution must remain secular! 

Located on Mahatma Gandhi Path in Akola, the Shrimati Mehrbanu College of Science and Commerce is located inside a tall and handsome building with a spacious staircase and a prominent cornerstone at the entrance. On a plaque that catches your attention is inscribed a resolution passed by the Akola Gujarati Samaj on February 5, 2008. 

It reads, “The Executive Committee of Akola Gujarati Samaj Akola, in its meeting held on 05-02-2008 at 11:00 A.M. On the premises of Jasnagra Hotel Akola, unanimously passed the following Resolution No.3.

"Resolved that Sint. Maherbanu Junior College of Science is a Secular Educational Institution. Any display of Religious Pictures of any kind in any part of the college whether it is of a God or Goddess or a Saint or a place of religious worship, is absolutely forbidden.

"No prayer of any kind shall ever be performed whether it is religious nature or not, except what is mandated by any Government. This is a science college.

“As far as the college is concerned God does not exist. This rule should be carved on stone. It cannot be changed or altered in any way even by ar unanimous vote of the college board of trustees or its parent body, Shri Akola Gujarati Samaj.

“Any violation of this rule will be a sufficient cause for the prosecution of the College Board of Trustees jointly and severally. It is further resolved that this resolution should be displayed in the college in a conspicuous place where everybody can read it.”

In an environment that is not immune to the echoes of extreme religious sentiments resonating in public life, a wealthy Mansoor Ali Kamaruddin generously donates funds to the 'Akola Gujarati Samaj' trust for the establishment of a college.

Mansoor Ali Kamaruddin and his wife Kamrunisa sitting in a class rtoom of the college

What was surprising yet heartening was his stipulation that 'no religious affiliation should be associated with this institution.' Later, I had the opportunity to meet Sureshbhai Vora and Prof. NM Shah, both trustees of the college, who shared the remarkable and inspiring tale behind its founding.

The modern and well-equipped Science and commerce college offers professional degree courses like BBA BCA was established by the Akola Gujarati community with a significant contribution of 4 crore from Mansoor Ali. It was christened after Mrs. Meharbanu, the wife of Mansoor Ali. 

Mansoor Ali, a renowned entrepreneur in Akola, faced severe financial setbacks some 40 years ago. He left the city to evade creditors. He sought refuge in Pakistan for two years before relocating to the United States. 

Through sheer perseverance and hard work, he amassed wealth and, in a remarkable gesture, contributed to the establishment of a college to settle Akola's debts. When making the significant donation, Mansoor Ali insisted upon a condition: 'This college must remain secular, devoid of any religious affiliation.' Unanimously agreed upon by all trustees, this condition was etched in stone near the college's entrance.

It was deemed crucial to actively participate in fostering education within the small town of Vidarbha. There arose a collective desire for an institution dedicated to preserving Gujarati language and culture. Then in 1967, distinguished figures within the Gujarati community in Akola, including individuals like Dahyabhai Patel and Jambubhai Shah, joined forces. 

They would organize gatherings and enable Gujarati communities to exchange ideas. The notion to safeguard the essence of the Gujarati language and culture led to the proposal of initiating a school with instruction in the Gujarati language.

The vision extended to establishing schools imparting education through the medium of Gujarati. Consequently, the 'Akola Gujarati Samaj' trust was founded, aiming not only to facilitate education in Gujarati but also to orchestrate events such as Navratri celebrations, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Jayanti, and Gujarati theatrical productions. The primary objective centered on the dissemination of education. Upon the trust's registration, the government allocated land for the proposed school. 

However, erecting the school necessitated considerable financial investment. Mansoor Ali took upon himself the responsibility of covering these expenses. In honor of Mansoor Ali's father, a Balmandir School was established with a donation of fifteen thousand rupees contributed by Mansoor Ali.

Mansoor Ali's grandfather migrated from Gujarat to Akola, where he initiated the 'Alibhai Vishram Oil Mill.' His father diligently expanded this enterprise, setting the stage for Mansoor Ali's eventual stewardship. As the eldest son, Mansoor Ali exhibited intelligence and diligence from a young age. 

After graduating in commerce from Mumbai, he ventured into business. However, the sudden demise of his father shifted the weight of responsibility onto his shoulders. With a workforce of 250 employees, at just 24 years of age, he controlled the business.

In four years, Mansoor Ali expanded his ventures. He held positions on the executive boards of several banks and institutions, where many entrepreneurs sought his counsel. Upon marrying Surat’s Mehrbanu he shifted to an ornate bungalow that had four cars parked at the entrance. 

She seemed to be doing well and happy.

 It was on one day that Mansoor Ali’s fortunes changed. He had invested his money in a sinking boat and his business came crashing down. He knew he would not be able to pay up creditors even if he sold all his houses and cars. 

Staying in Akola was untenable. His mother and siblings were partners in his business. Fearing legal repercussions and the weight of responsibility, leaving Akola seemed to be the only solution. 

With no courage to confront creditors and shoulder the losses, Mansoor Ali made the difficult decision to leave India. Initially eyeing East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), he envisioned starting a small business in Dhaka, and in due course returning home and settling all debts. 

The iconic cornerstone with the pledge to keep college secular

He and his family left Akola in the dark of the night and reached Calcutta from where they wanted to go to Dhaka. However, on reaching Calcutta he realized that East Pakistan was in turmoil, with the emergence of the liberation movement, Mukti Bahini, and East Pakistanis seeking refuge in Calcutta due to atrocities by the Pakistani Army.

Dhaka didn’t seem to be a good place to go; Mansoor was again standing at a crossroads.

On someone’s suggestion, Mansoor reached Karachi via Delhi and Lahore. In Karachi, he had some distant relatives who assisted him in renting a small house in the Nazmabad area. 

He somehow managed to settle his family with basics yet he lacked the drive to rebuild life and business. 

In 1973, with only 150 dollars in his pocket, Mansoor Ali arrived in America.

Mansoor soon got a job in a factory as a contract labourer. Within a year, he managed to bring his wife to America while juggling two jobs: one from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, and the other from four in the afternoon until midnight.

Mehrbanu also joined the factory, and their dedication and proficiency led to frequent promotions for both. Eventually, they purchased a house in the suburbs of Chicago and Mansoor Ali left one of his jobs. However, despite achieving financial stability, Mansoor Ali's ambition to relaunch his business was intact. 

He opened a 'convenience store,' stocking it with liquor, newspapers, and everyday essentials on a bustling road. 

However, fate had other plans for Mansoor Ali. Within a month of opening the shop, the road underwent closure for expansion. As a result, all the shops on that road were shuttered, 

Once again, disappointment clouded Mansoor Ali's path. The money invested in the shop seemed wasted, with little possibility of finding a buyer, forcing him to start anew.

Mehrbanu, once again, supported her husband. "Do not sell the shop. Even if no customers come, go to the shop every day," she encouraged Mansoor Ali, promising to cover household expenses from her job. It took three years for that road to reopen. During this period, the mortgage on the house and shop, along with all other bills, were paid from Mehrbanu's salary.

Enduring these challenging times, Mansoor Ali's shop eventually thrived. He expanded the store and now owns the building in Chicago where it stands. Within this building, there's a sizable book and audio store managed by Mansoor Ali's son, Raj.

Additionally, they own two other stores in the suburbs of Chicago. Mansoor Ali and Mehrbanu have since retired.

Having earned sufficient wealth, Mansoor Ali returned to Akola in 1996 with a list of debtors in his pocket. The property in Akola had been seized, and the court-appointed receiver had settled the debts. Mansoor Ali repaid all those who hadn't received their money, including interest, and tendered apologies for the delayed payments. 

Mansoor Ali Kamaruddin (In black suit) with former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and others

During this visit, he reunited with his childhood friends, Sureshbhai Vora and Sureshbhai Shah, who were now overseeing the Akola Gujarati society's affairs. Through their collaboration, Mansoor Ali reinstated the tradition of contributing to the organization's schools.

During one such visit, following a donation to the school, Mansoor Ali was inspecting the premises alongside the organization's members. Observing images of deities like Saraswati, Ganapati, and Hanuman in every classroom, he inquired about their presence.

"Why are these pictures placed in the classroom?" he asked. The trustees assumed Mansoor Ali, being an Ismaili Khoja, might not favor these Hindu gods. Hastily, one responded, "Tomorrow, we'll hang Aga Khan's picture here."

Mansoor Ali intervened, stating, “No, that's not the point. This is a school; what role do gods play here? Moreover, are only Hindu students studying here? Nobody needs pictures of Ganapati, Kaaba, Jesus Christ, or Guru Nanak Dev Ji here.” The trustees concurred, and the pictures were subsequently taken down.

Later on, the Gujarati community commenced plans for constructing a college, and Mansoor Ali graciously donated one crore rupees towards the cause. He had specific conditions: the college must bear his wife's name, and there should be no religious ceremonies during the inauguration or thereafter. 

Mehrbanu consistently supported Mansoor Ali without any grievances. Their joint contribution allowed Mansoor Ali to revive his business and aided people in clearing their debts. Mansoor Ali wished to publicly acknowledge this indebtedness to his wife. The trustees were informed, and the institution accepted all of Mansoor Ali's terms.

Construction for the college began, but costs surged, and each time, Mansoor Ali covered the expenses. In total, he contributed four crore rupees towards the college's construction. Upon completion, the college stood as an incredibly inspiring landmark in the modern world. It was inaugurated on November 28, 2008, merely two days after Mumbai witnessed the vile face of religious fanaticism.

As a child, Mansoor Ali diligently recited the Quran, and his father arranged for a special tutor to impart religious education. However, after an accident, Mansoor Ali spent some time in Pachagani, where he crossed paths with a Parsi youth named Jimmy Baria. Jimmy introduced Mansoor Ali to the Bhagavad Gita, sparking his interest in Hinduism. Later, upon arriving in America, Mansoor Ali translated the Gita's verses into English. He recorded this translation to ensure its accessibility to English speakers.

Mansoor Ali's generous donation facilitated the completion of the Hari Om Temple in Chicago, making him its principal benefactor. Nonetheless, Mansoor Ali's religious inclinations remain personal to him. 

His wife, Mehrbanu, follows the Ismaili faith, while their son Raj is a Catholic Christian. During his college years, Raj embraced Christianity and opted for conversion, a decision met without objection from the Kamaruddin couple. Each of the three maintains their religious beliefs privately—Mansoor Ali attends the temple, Mehrbanu visits the Jamatkhana, and Raj attends the church. During religious occasions, they accompany each other to their respective places of worship.

Driven by his open-minded approach to religion, Mansoor Ali stipulated that the college constructed with his funds should remain non-religious. He asserts, “When contemplating religion, wisdom should prevail. Convincing others achieves nothing. We must discover our religion and God, contemplating carefully what is right and wrong. Only then can true happiness be achieved. Furthermore, for a country to progress, the sanctity of personal religious beliefs must be upheld. When religion encroaches upon public life, progress is hindered.”

(The author is a scholar of history. He can be contacted on [email protected])