An interview with Prof. Ummu Salma Bava,
Director, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies
Wafa: How were you introduced to JNU and how would you describe your experiences over the years here??
Prof Bava: I came as a student to this university and I did my M.A. and Ph.D. from the School of International Studies with a specialization in European Studies. I have experienced JNU both as student for many years and subsequently as a member of the faculty. It has been a very long and wonderful journey of having, at one point, received knowledge and training and now coming back much later on in life and being apart of the faculty here and taking forward the knowledge one had received.
Mansi: How does it feel to be a member of the faculty in your alma mater?
Prof Bava: It is a fulfilling experience. Given JNU's standing, both nationally as well as internationally. When I started teaching I would wonder how it would be one day to teach at JNU. I have to say that when I got appointed at JNU, it was like a dream come true, to come back and teach here.
Mansi: What are the changes you see in JNU over the years you have been here?
Prof Bava: The changes are dramatic and all in all very positive. When I was a student here, we were at the building in what was called the down campus. The down campus had a boundary wall and it was much smaller. Some of the Schools including the library had shifted to the new campus. So while we had classes down campus, we would take what was called the shuttle -called it our own mudrika sewa- the 666 bus, between up and down campus. We would come to the library, sometimes there was an hour and half in between, pick up a book and run back because there was a class. Now everything is here and it is a wonderful campus. I always say that when students join it is all strange and new and once you get used to the campus it is easy to forget the way out. It is so self–contained and it is a little piece of beauty in Delhi in this huge city. Over the years, all facilities have grown and it has expanded tremendously in academics and infrastructure. Academically, more centres and programmes have been established and the student intake has increased and it is extremely satisfying to see the high enrolment of women students. Over all, there is a movement in the right direction that is what I would say.
Mansi: How is JNU different from other institutions you have been to?
Prof Bava: The concept, design and approach are all different, which because of the vision of the university and its objective. Other than the School of Languages, we do not have any B.A programme which also makes School of Languages rather unique. I also take part in offering the optional courses; the B.A students are the most amazing group, because they are just out of school, full of vibrant ideas, it is really stimulating to teach them. The university, over the years, has carved a niche for itself. It is a really an incredibly inclusive experience when you come into JNU. Look at our admission, we reach out across India, physically go and conduct the exam. That means there is an endeavour to get everybody to come in. If you look at the idea of education as an enabler, then JNU totally epitomizes this approach. Once you join as a student everything becomes available in the same way for everybody. That is something which comes forth when you look at students completing their education and leaving. A big churning goes on inside, you may come from different backgrounds, faiths, different communities, different countries and the entire intermingling of academics with high level of social consciousness has meant that it creates students leaving the university with a different idea of the world. One may call it idealism, but one has met different parts of India and the world living together on the campus, which may not happen in other institutions. It is more than ninety percent residential, which is a huge plus factor when you think of it, your ability to understand each other changes; since you have more time to spend with each other. It is not limited to the classroom. If you are in a college in Delhi, where I have also taught, few colleges have hostels, so students attend a class, spend a little time and go off. Here, the academics are a huge component and then there are the after hours, which also enable a new understanding and sharing. The kind of festivals we have here including the food festival that the students rave about! There is so much of traffic and chaos outside the campus, but the minute you enter the gate, you feel you have stepped into another world, you can enjoy this ambience– of peacocks, nilgai and cascading bougainvilleas. When I think about how academics should look like, I am proud to say that JNU epitomises that vision. You can find fault for a lot of reasons, but we should also understand, in terms of the amount of budget and time, to create an institution like this is also remarkable. I personally believe that anybody who comes to JNU definitely goes away with their lives transformed, in some way.
Mansi: What are the goals you would like your School and Centre to achieve in the next five years?
Prof Bava: At the school level, it is a more collaborative goal because we are eleven Centres and all of them come together and discussing how to take SIS forward. We have two M.A. programmes, and various M. Phil /Phd. D. programmes. The Centre for European Studies (CES) is a young centre in SIS and it was created in 2005 by merging two divisions, West and East European Studies – that were located with American and Soviet Studies. We have five faculty members, and more than 60 M. Phil / Ph. D students and are a very dynamic centre. Our goal at one level is to enhance research and to open up more of India-Europe interface, both for the students and the faculty. We have a very active seminar, conference and lecture series calendar. We try to do a major academic event every semester, so that we can have good research input and growth. We are also looking at how we can expand into new areas / themes and interfaces with Europe – for example, it would be really interesting to study the Mediterranean region given its proximity to West Asia and the recent developments in that region or the Nordic countries - they have a very comprehensive social welfare model which is admired by even the other Europeans.
When the Dutch Prime Minister came to India in 2006, as part of the state visit he came to JNU, and I was able to organize that and he delivered a lecture and gave a gift to the Centre. Through this, I was able to create a Rembrandt room – which is a state of the art lecture seminar room where we have our classes and seminars. In addition, I was able to start a small Centre library and it is growing. Personally, it has been very fulfilling for me. These things have led to institution building and it is an idea which resonates with me, to give something back to a university which was responsible for what I have become today. People come and go, for me it is important to create something which does not carry your name, but it is institutionally there for others to come and benefit. That is my personal philosophy.
Mansi: How it being an administrator as well as a teacher? How do you balance both?
Prof Bava: This requires time and good organization. As a member of the faculty I have courses I teach and I also have at this point 14-15 Ph.D. scholars, then there is my own research and other conferences. Amidst all that work, this opportunity came along at end of last year to become the Director of JNIAS. I think what is important for a good administrator is to put good systems into place and train your people who work with you. You have to create a team and build trust and if you can do that you can work together. You cannot jump in and say I will personally do everything and so it is important to enable people who work with you to pick up new skills. There is a lot of juggling between both my responsibilities and I am just completing two months and we are in a period of transition at JNIAS. Anything new takes a little time, but I have done other administrative things, so one knows how to bring in systems and ideas.
JNIAS however, is very unique as it is the only institute of advanced studies within a university framework in India. This is not purely an administrative position; it is also about how I can showcase JNU's strength through another institution. Foreign scholars are selected and invited for a research stay at JNIAS and this interface with the university in different fields is mutually beneficial. Somebody can be from science, history or looking at language it is a very interesting place for the Fellows. They also meet among themselves and discuss their own research and at the same time, as the director, I connect them with the larger academic community. It is a residential institute and we have a good team here which takes care of their requirements.
JNIAS is going to be ten years old, so it is still very young and many people are not aware of its existence and I am trying to see how we can do something creatively. Administration for me is not just about running an institute every day, my vision for JNIAS is to create an institute of excellence. For me it is not important how things have been in the past, what is more essential is when I complete my tenure as Director, it is the value addition and contribution I have done to enhance the reputation of JNIAS globally. To this extent my endeavour is to select and bring excellent and eminent people from different disciplines to JNIAS and through the institute present JNU to the larger global arena.
Mansi: Any memory of JNU that you would like to share with us?
Prof Bava: There is such warmth in people in JNU. I have people coming up to me and saying, "Madam aap yahan pade the na." and that is a very beautiful thing - as JNU makes you part of a unique family. When you leave the university and go away, in some part of the world you run into somebody and there is such warm reaction to the fact you come from JNU or you studied there. While one is here at the university as a student, one does not always realize it. At that point there can be many things happening – water not coming, not being able to take your shower on time, so you can be angry, but when you look back at life all that fades away. What stays and resonates within is this collective impression of these people you met, some outstanding lectures, some incredible thing happening, some famous personality and it just so happened that you were standing next to the person and you never dreamt such a thing could happen to you. There is a feeling of openness and warmth and reaching out – these are the things that you find in JNU. It may of course unsettle some, people are reaching out and you are not used to it sometimes, but you do find that if you can trust that process, you become part of a truly exceptional and incredible community.
Mansi: What is the message you would like to give to the JNU student community?
Prof Bava: This is a fantastic place to study given the excellent academic environment available here. When I was a student our library had fewer resources compared to today. In a world and in an age where we live with a lot of brand consciousness, JNU as a brand is huge. If you were to bring a perfect recipe for success, you have all this, you have to become the churning and the spoon that will stir the mixture and that simply means hard work. These are some of the most special years of your life and you have to invest in yourself. That is something I personally have believed and done and that is what I give to my students. Those who can catch that mantra – you see wonderful success stories coming out of here. As young students you have your whole life ahead of you, but what you do here will bring wonderful things for you in the future.
The other message I would like to give though is a little philosophical. You have come to this university, which will enable you in many ways. I tell my research students, I am opening some doors for you and when you leave here, some day when you are well settled and doing well in life, open a door for somebody. Because it is important to keep the good will going. At the end of the day, it is those stories of my students which are more close to my heart. For me, each student is a responsibility, to take through the system and see that they finish their studies here and get on with life.