An Interview with Prof. H.S. Gill, (Professor Emeritus)
Manjari: How and when did your association with JNU begin? How was your experience here over the years you were here?
Prof. Gill: I joined JNU in 1984. It was a pleasant surprise. The Indian universities I knew of were closeted houses. JNU was a fresh air. Beautiful and brilliant girls, handsome and intelligent boys all around, vibrating with youth and very progressive ideas, celebrating freedom of expression and research. The beginning of the year for them was a bit different. Boys and girls who came from small town Bharat brought with them the baggage of their respective attires and attitudes. But it never took long to be merged in the mainstream JNU culture. By the end of the first semester, the girls were already following the JNU dress code and behaviour. The boys took a little longer. They had other psychic problems also but with patience and friendly advice they too followed the straight and the narrow path. As the years passed, the friendships grew. The thresholds of caste, creed, region and language were crossed and the companionships were formed with all kinds of permutations and combinations. Of course, even amongst the JNU faculty there were numerous such examples.
JNU is a very progressive university. While another central university in the city is a citadel of conservatism, JNU has always been avant-garde in ideas, both political and social. The elections of the students and teachers, year after year, show this trend very clearly.
The political interference in Indian universities is a norm. In JNU no such thing can ever happen. The prime ministers, from Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai to Manmohan Singh all had a taste of this revolutionary protest. Once during the silver jubilee celebrations, the Vice-Chancellor invited the President of India. Fortunately for him, he was advised by his wise officers not to visit the university, for the proper JNU welcome awaited him with no holds barred. In Indian universities the convocation is a huge affair. Enormous amount of money is wasted during these absolutely useless celebrations, with welcome arches for the political masters and their cronies. There is no such thing in JNU. The students get their degrees from the offices of their schools without any fanfare.
As a teacher I could teach anything, devise my lectures anyway I wanted. As students could opt for some courses outside their specific disciplines or centres, I used to have students from practically all centres of Social Sciences in my courses on Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Althusser, Merlau-Ponty, Lacan etc. It was a wonderful experience. My exams were also quite unconventional but I never had any problem with the administration. In the Indian universities, there is the norm of five questions in three hours with very strict vigilance. My exam always consisted of only one question and unlimited time and place without any supervision. The answer was supposed to be short, precise and very logically argued. It was no use copying or repeating what is written in some books. It was supposed to be based on the student's personal discourse. It worked. Initially the students thought it was very easy, very soon they realised that this absolute freedom was far more difficult to handle. The main point of this narration is that in JNU one could do all this and get away with it without the administration ever questioning such methods.
A couple of times I was the Chairperson of my Centre. I did not like signing papers. The senior clerk did all the routine things without bothering me, and every member of the faculty was authorized to sign any student card or any other paper. I do not know whether such an administrative act was correct but nobody ever asked me to follow the normal routine of wasting all my time in signing useless papers. Again, this is possible only in JNU.
I personally believe that the institution of Chairpersons be abolished and there should be no office for every centre. All administrative work should be handled by the School office, which by the way, should be headed by an assistant registrar. Professors are supposed to be engaged in research and teaching. They should not be given any administrative work. The office of the university should be headed by a registrar who should be appointed for her/his administrative competence and not for academic qualifications. All decisions should be taken by specific committees of the professors. After that, it is the headache of the administration. Professors are not administrators.
If we follow this recommendation, which I know very well, will never be followed, there are too many clashing interests, but there is no harm in day-dreaming. If this proposal is accepted, the professors will work in a friendly, amicable atmosphere as there would be no coveted administrative offices to run after. They would spend more time in research and teaching instead of going through useless files. The clerical staff of the university will be reduced to one-third of what it is today. There would be harmony and peace in every aspect of the academic life of our great institution that is JNU. What I propose is nothing new. Most of the European universities follow this tradition.
Manjari: You have been with JNU since 1984, in various roles and capacities. How do you feel this university and campus have changed over the years you have been here?
Prof. Gill: It is getting better and better. There are more hostels, more facilities and more research funds. Whenever I visit, I hear some complaints but this is normal. That is how it should be, to criticise, to protest is the very heart of any university.
Manjari: You started your career in France, moving to Patiala and then JNU, and then of course back. What made JNU different from all these institutes and places?
Prof. Gill: Of course, JNU is different in every respect. There is no university in India or abroad like this. But the problem with JNU is that its image is better than what it really is. As a result, the most brilliant students from all over the country come here. During my fifteen years at JNU, every year the students' standard was considerably improved. This facilitated the task of the teachers. A student with good BA (Hons.) was the right head and heart to venture into unknown intellectual domains. They could easily follow my most complex theoretical propositions in semiotics, conceptualism and existential structuralism. While this accords well with the quest of the students, one is not sure of the emerging faculty but one should never comment on one's colleagues.
Manjari: As a Professor Emeritus, do you feel there are certain facets that the university as a whole needs to adopt or to change?
Prof. Gill: JNU was supposed to be an inter-disciplinary institution. Unfortunately, in practice, this ideal is not followed. It is because even when the nomenclature of traditional department is abolished, the centres have become hermetically sealed units. Probably, it is due to the fact that a number of faculty members have experience only of their old institutions in different universities. As a result, they do not dare to venture beyond the confines of their so-called centres. At times, within a centre there is also a sociologist, an economist, or a historian. The students of the centre are supposed to stick to only this teacher. The eminent professors in other centres are out of their reach. Ideally, for example, the professors of the school of social sciences, of all disciplines, should circulate their specific time tables with the themes of the courses, and the students from all centres and schools be allowed to follow the lectures they deem most suitable for their intellectual pursuits. A school should function as one academic unit and not as an addition of a number of independent centres where outside ideas and expressions are forbidden. In fact, this interdisciplinary approach should go beyond the thresholds of specific schools. The whole university should academically function as One Unified Intellectual Centre.
Manjari: Any special memory of JNU that you would like to share with us?
Prof. Gill: I had a marvellous time with my students. After every viva or a special lecture or a seminar I invited the students to my house, 1313 Poorvanchal, for a little get-together with rum and pakoras. It was just wonderful. Even otherwise, the students were always welcome to my house any time to chat and discuss, to reflect together on any topic, personal or academic. I can never forget those most wonderful existential and philosophical meetings.
Manjari: And Sir, lastly, any message for the students of JNU?
Prof. Gill: Carry on. You are the most privileged students in India. Take advantage of this opportunity. JNU is a great institution, but it still requires your active intervention to direct it to a better, more academically and less administratively oriented university. Only the students can achieve this. The men in power listen only to the revolutionary voice. JNU should be an ideal University Critique.