An interview with Prof. Harjit Singh,
Chief Advisor, International Collaboration
Mansi Tikoo: How and when did you association with JNU begin?
Prof Harjit: I joined JNU in 1971. That was the year I completed my master's degree from Punjab University, Chandigarh. Admissions to JNU took place for the first time in 1971. Two institutions were already working which were merged into JNU- one was the School of International Studies and the other was the Institute of Russian Language. These two institutes became part of JNU- Institute of Russian Language became part of what was then called School of Foreign Languages. School of International Studies became a full-fledged school of the university. Admission started only for M.Phil/PhD in the School of Social Sciences in 1971. The MA programme was started in 1972. I have been in JNU since 1971.
Mansi Tikoo: What are some of the changes that you have witnessed here over the years?
Prof. Harjit: Almost everything has changed, beginning from our classes which used to take place in the old campus. JNU was a very small university with only a few students in 1971-72. The School of International Studies was in the city on, Feroz Shah Road. Students of SIS used to live in a hostel behind Sapru House Library which is now called Gomti Guest House. Slowly, the number of students started increasing and three hostels were built in new campus in 1973. The new hostels were in Dakshinapuram namely Kaveri, Godavari, and Periyar.
Some good things have survived in JNU over the years. We continue to have free interaction between teachers and students. There is not much of hierarchy among teachers. We can interact freely, we can agree or disagree. There is a healthy dialogue between teachers and students and the administration. The founding principles of JNU are based on some very fine ideas. One, all decision making bodies in the university have a strong representation of teachers. Secondly, most issues, even when I was a student, were resolved through discussion and dialogue. Dialogue and discussion, based on the principle of give and take have always been part of JNU culture. There were not many strikes or gheraos in early 1970s. Missing lectures by teachers and classes by students were not at all acceptable.
Those days most of the students joined JNU with academics as their primary concern and in monetary terms. Quite a few options were available to make money but that was not the priority back then. There used be a dhaba in old campus called Kashi Ram ka dhaba. It was the place of evening meetings, and discussion mainly centered on academic issues. Students of JNU have always been very aware of political developments, not only of the university, but of the country and of international matters. This culture has always been very strong here.
I am a geographer by training. Natural environment of the new campus was not in good shape. There was hardly any tree; most of the land was barren. I remember I used to walk to new campus from old campus. There was no road in 1971-72. There was not even a pagdandi. There used to be four or five peepal and banyan trees on campus with many bushes and grass patches. Thanks are due to the effort of the administration and teachers who played crucial role in transforming the campus in to lush green area.
I don't want to sound critical, but I feel some people in JNU today are more interested in their career rather than in research. With globalization, it is happening all over the world, so they cannot be blamed for this. Today the norms of life have changed. Only a handful of teachers of JNU had cars. Most people in the campus used to walk. Even after we moved to new campus, classes continued to be held in the old campus and most of us used to walk and a few had bicycles. Even scooters were rare. But now cars among teachers and bikes among students are part of the culture. Only a handful of research students used to get UGC fellowship with an astonishing amount of Rs. 300 per month. Research work in my Centre for Study of Regional Development involved massive amount of data calculations. There were no calculators those days. We either used log tables or there used to be an interesting device called Facet machine for this purpose. Subsequently, electronic calculators were introduced. I think, it was in 1973 or 74 that my centre bought a machine called scientific calculator which cost the university more than one lakh rupees in those days. It was a very exciting development as we could now do so many calculations easily. Believe me, that machine could perform fewer functions than a pocket calculator easily available in the market these days.
I feel commitment to research work was more in earlier years than today. No individual needs to be blamed but in a way many of us are responsible. This has happened with changing times. I feel sad about the quality of research. Research facilities were less in 1970s and 1980s. There were no computers; thesis or dissertation had to be typed using manual typewriter, we had to make five six copies with carbon paper; there was no internet; we had to go to different libraries for collecting information. I don't think at the time of writing my thesis, I missed any major library of Delhi. I remember spending a lot of time in National Archives, Teen Murti library, Central Secretariat Library, Supreme Court library, Ratan Tata Library and many more. We were given term paper topics and we had to find basic information from different sources. Our teacher would give a few references and then ask us to look for others. My teacher used to call it 'soiling your hands' meaning thereby that if you do not go through different journals and books then how will you know what kind of literature is available. Internet is a very good thing, Google has done wonders, and most information is available online. Even with these resources, has quality of research improved? This question needs attention. I don't think the quality of research is commensurate with the facilities available. I understand that the university has expanded and one to one interaction may be difficult. But in spite of this quality of research must improve.
In early 80s, gherao culture had become common for some time. Fortunately it has now declined. We always believed, even as students, that the university has no place for any kind of violence or coercion. Basically I feel all sections want JNU to be among the best universities. There may be differences of opinion but these need to be resolved amicably. Fortunately most students accept this view. We struggled to make students rights heard in 1970s.and the university happily accepted many of these demands. I would particularly like to mention Student-Faculty Committee (SFC). This forum was meant to take up all contentious issues. All matters except evaluation used to be discussed in SFCs. Sadly. SFCs in many Centres/Schools have become defunct. In many cases students do not file nominations for SFC.
Many other things have changed. More facilities are available, salaries have gone up, and students are relatively more comfortable as everyone is given Rs. 3,000 or Rs. 5,000 as scholarship in M.Phil/PhD. There used to be only four or five UGC fellowships in a centre those days with a value of Rs. 300 per month. But that was sufficient money as mess bill used to be around Rs 100 and cinema ticket used cost Rs. 1.50 for stall and Rs. 3.00 for balcony.
I remember the day when I got a telegram at home saying that classes shall begin on 4th August 1971. On my arrival, I found another student paying the fee. He was also joining my centre. We asked the gentleman collecting fee for hostel accommodation. He advised us to meet Dean of Students. Prof Moonis Raza was Dean of Students who subsequently became my PhD supervisor. There were just two of us and the other student had come from Kurukshetra University and was turbaned Sikh like me. Only four hostel rooms were ready for occupation and Prof. Raza wanted us to pick up one each. As these were double seated room, we wanted to stay in the same room as roommates. Prof Moonis Raza firmly told us that two roommates must not be from the same religion, same region and from the same discipline otherwise how will you learn about others. I found this to be my first lesson in JNU. Later on, Prof Dipankar Gupta, who hailed from Bengal and was studying sociology, became my roommate. I am not sure if we are following such principles today. We were told that the university was organised into sectors. Each sector had three hostels-two for boys, one for girls. In most other universities you find girl hostels in one corner with high boundary walls and lot of restrictions. JNU has always been opposed to gender segregation. Here these three hostels are surrounded by seventy faculty houses so that free interaction between students and teachers could take place. If you notice older hostels have pyramid shape, built thinking that pyramids is a place for rest, and school buildings are inverted pyramids meaning place of work. This shows that even at planning stage a lot of philosophical thinking took place.
Mansi Tikoo: What are some of the aspects of JNU's international collaboration?
Prof Harjit: We are very lucky that a large number of universities from around the world want to establish academic collaboration with JNU. Right now, we have memorandums of understanding (MoU) with more than 150 universities. Out of these 30-40 MoUs are working very well. We should realise that the face of education is changing very rapidly. Today, one cannot limit education to one campus, you have to think at international level and compete with the best in the world. Already a lot of universities are asking us for joint degrees, joint research programs, joint supervision and dual degrees etc. Recently, we entered into a trilateral agreement with Konstanz University and Sussex University. Meeting of the three universities was held at Konstanz in April 2013. Next meeting shall take place in JNU in December where further modalities of implementation of collaboration among the three universities shall be worked out. Fortunately, student exchange is already in place with some universities. Many students from other universities are already coming to JNU. We have organised some joint seminars. We want to increase facilities for international students. We have agreements with many universities in Germany, France, UK, Italy, USA and many other universities of Asia. Last year we signed agreements of cooperation with some Australian and African Universities.
Signing agreements is not a problem but sustaining collaboration on mutually beneficial basis becomes difficult. Being a developing country, funds are a big problem. The Vice-Chancellor is keen to strengthen international collaboration and we want to reach many more countries. On an average, we receive five to six delegations per month. We were not sending JNU delegations earlier. For the first time JNU sent three delegations in the last one and half year. We have developed good contacts with many Asian universities of Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China but our links with African and South American universities are still weak. First delegation of JNU was sent to Africa last year. Then the Vice-Chancellor asked us to take another delegation to Australia, because Australian universities were sending lot of delegations. These two delegations to Africa and Australia were headed by the Rector. Third delegation went to Turkey and was headed by the Vice-Chancellor. Some foreign universities have created funds meant especially for academic exchange with JNU.
Another problem pertains to student exchange. Many universities send their students to JNU under exchange programmes. But it is difficult to send our students due to limited funds. We at the utmost can pay part of the airfare. It is easier for visiting foreign students as the cost of living is quite low here compared to developed countries. Moreover, our infrastructure is limited. We need to have dedicated residential facility for international students. We have many foreign students who are already here for a semester or more. Our hostels are under pressure even for Indian students and we do not have alternative accommodation for foreign students. It is true that JNU is working hard to solve this problem. We need two way collaborations where our students can also benefit in large numbers.
Unfortunately, our system is not student friendly. They have to run from one office to another. When our students go abroad, they get all information even before leaving the country regarding whom to contact and where to stay. We have to improve our services so that visiting scholars and students have a comfortable stay. We have some plans and the Vice Chancellor is keen to solve these problems. Today, no good university can develop in isolation. In fact, the time has come when we must evolve a globalised view with online classes and making available lectures of best teachers of the world to our students.
Many universities abroad have made compulsory for their students to spend one semester in another country. We are able to send only a few PhD students abroad. I hope that in future all our students are able to spend one semester in a good foreign university.
Mansi Tikoo: Any specific memory of JNU you would like to share with us?
Prof Harjit: For me JNU is not just a university, it is a part of my life. Having spent more than forty years in JNU, I have lot of memories and mostly good memories. I would not like to single out any one memory.
Mansi Tikoo: Any message that you would like to give to the student community?
Prof Harjit: I am very proud of JNU students, but I want to be more proud of them. This is possible only if all of us show greater academic commitment. The amount of freedom and research facilities which JNU provides are comparable with best universities. We have to seriously introspect whether we are making best use of these. Whenever I look at world rankings, I know it has a lot of dimensions, but except for a few centres we have not been able to make a very good mark at the global level. This depends on both the faculty as well as the students. I wish JNU to be among the top universities of the world, and it is possible with the quality of mind of our students and teachers