Prof. Purushottam Agarwal
First of all, I take this opportunity to congratulate you at your appointment as
a member of the Union Public Service Commission [UPSC].
UPSC is the highest institution in India in terms of administration. How does it
feel being part of such a prestigious institution? What new responsibilities has
the appointment brought?
It is a privilege to be a part of UPSC. I feel very humbled, particularly
because I am the youngest ever member of UPSC (I’m 52 years old). I feel
extremely honoured because of that. But this feeling comes with a tremendous
sense of responsibility. As you know, UPSC is one of those rare institutions
which have preserved their dignity, integrity, competence and excellence over
the years. As a member of that system, I am expected to strengthen and reinforce
those ideals with which its foundations had been laid. Right now, I’m learning
the ways of the place.
beginning is mostly made with a new set of assumptions, values, hopes and
aspirations. Define the set with which you have entered UPSC.
In fact, the basic values remain constant, only the situations are new. I
believe that democracy is not a matter of numbers but of institutions and norms.
And mind you, norms are different from laws. Norms are given to us through
language, tradition and culture and interactions with everyday practices.
Institutions are as important as norms. When I enter a new institution, I do so
with the assumption that autonomy, equality, ethics, good conduct and democracy
are practiced there. As far as my aspirations are concerned, theoretically, like
every human being, I aspire to immortality. However on more practical grounds, I
want to leave a mark in whatever I do. I aspire to contribute to the democratic
ethos of India, to make society more just and compassionate. I believe, every
citizen has a role to play towards this goal.
routine experience, UPSC is invariably associated with the selection of IAS
officers. What, according to you, are the qualities of an ideal IAS officer?
An IAS officer must be totally dedicated to democratic norms. S/he must be
insistent upon autonomy despite all pressure. S/he must be capable of sticking
to her/his words and goals and to the meaning of the word ’Services’ which is so
inextricably attached to an IAS officer’s status. You are protected as an IAS
officer. No adversities except transfer can touch you. All this is done to keep
you fearless and competent and to let you act in a constitutional manner. An act
of compromise therefore, is a betrayal of the very idea of Civil Services. An
IAS officer has necessarily to be morally competent, professionally integrated
and intellectually inclusive in nature.
does JNU figure in your latest sojourn?
JNU itself is the sojourn…..It is a way of life and not just a University for
me. I continue to be a JNUite. Back in 1977 JNU showed faith in me. I come from
a humble background. Yet JNU selected me with a democratic spirit. Sharpest
disagreements happen here but none of them are settled violently. Freshers are
not ragged but pampered here. This is a great place. What else could it be if
not an enduring journey?
much of Prof. Agrawal of JNU is present in Prof .Agrawal of UPSC?
100%.....I’ll be Prof. Agrawal of JNU even on my pyre. Though I have taken
voluntary retirement from here, my spirit can never be severed from JNU.
when did your association with JNU begin?
I came here in 1977 from Gwalior. I had finished my M.A. in Political Science
from Gwalior University and I applied in JNU for M.Phil in the same subject. But
given the fact that the scholarships to M.Phil students were limited in number
and I could not survive without some regular assistance, I had simultaneously
applied for MA. in Hindi too. Actually, I had virtually snapped ties with my
family and I was badly in need of financial assistance. You see, I come from a
business family and my family obviously wanted me to start helping out in the
business. But I wanted to study further. Since they did not allow that, I left
home and came here. Now, I topped the entrance exam in Hindi and thus began my
long association with JNU. My performance was the best throughout. I was active
in students’ politics too. I was the Student Councilor from SL in around
1979-80. My PhD topic was “Kabir ki Bhakti ka Samajik Arth” (the social meaning
of Kabir’s Bhakti) and I had the excellent experience of working under Prof.
Namwar Singh. After finishing PhD, I joined Ramjas College as Lecturer in 1982
and on 24th May, 1990, I joined JNU again, this time as a faculty
are your fields of research and interest?
I continue to be primarily interested in cultural criticism, cultural theory,
Bhakti poetry and literary theory. I’ve been engaged in an analysis of
Mahabharata for some time now. I hope to write a book on that some day.
Actually, I have a very vast field of interests. As you know, inter-disciplinarity
has always been a matter of pride for JNU. Being an old JNUite, I still do not
believe in over-specialization. For instance, as Visiting Professor at El
Colegio de Mexico and at the University of Cambridge, I was not teaching Hindi,
as many people do. I talked about a range of different topics such as tradition,
history, culture, Bhakti literature, etc.
what is latest on the literary front?
Presently, I’m researching on the Kabir- Ramanand connection. I have already
presented parts of that research in the form of papers at academic conferences
in Halle (Germany), and SOAS, London. I hope to write a book on that too.
have been in JNU both as a student and as a teacher, so you can give the best
answer to this question- does JNU look different when you now view it from a
I would say that there are no absolute changes. There are discontinuities and
continuities. Let me first talk about discontinuities. When we were students,
the charge against JNU was that it is an island. Yes we were indeed an island
characterized by the co-existence of the academic excellence, social concerns
and democratic ethos. But leaving that uniqueness behind, by and by we have
become part of the so-called mainstream now. May be some people can take pride
in the fact, that now we have over-riding and explicit caste considerations
working in JNU life as well! It is not crucial any more for the student leaders
to have a grasp of national and international issues with theoretical rigor! I
feel that the ’island quality’ of JNU is fast diminishing and we are losing our
unique identity. There has been a drop in the level of political awareness,
moral sensitivity and competence. Those days the cases of sexual harassment were
virtually unheard of on the campus, there was no need for a GSCASH. But today,
our dependence on such formal arrangement in order to ensure the sensitivity to
gender issues disturbs me. In our days, harassers, if any, were socially
boycotted automatically. They were forced to make amends not under the force of
penalty, but under the peer group pressure. But now, no such social codes exist.
And even if they do, they are not effective. Also, back in the 1970’s, caste and
religious considerations were almost non-existent. But we are now internalizing
such things also from outside.
Having said that
let me note that there is continuity too between those days when I was a student
and these days when I’m a teacher. And in certain ways, the campus has been more
democratized. For instance, in the 1970’s, English was the only language of
campus politics. But now Hindi has also claimed its place. Another example of
the continuity, look at the latest instance of Gherao of the Registrar- the
students involved in the incident had to apologize. Even the student community
did not stand by them because we all recognize the act as wrong. One can say
then, that there is something called the JNU ethos and it is alive even today.
One last query- once you leave this campus and move into your new residence,
which aspects of your campus life will you miss the most?
I will miss my late night ’aawaragardi’ the most.
After dinner, I
and my family-wife, son, daughter- (who all are quintessentially JNUites) often
go to long walks ultimately leading to Ganga Dhaba or Nilgiri in search of a
cup of coffee and some Gup-Shup with young people. And I know for sure,
even after leaving, we’ll keep coming to Ganga dhaba for our usual cup of