An interview with Prof. Abdul Nafey, Dean of Students, JNU
Wafa: What was your first impression of JNU?
Prof. Nafey: I first came to JNU in 1974 and I was part of one of the first few batches here. That was the time when JNU was situated in Old Campus with the student hostels as well as the academic buildings established there. The number of students was very limited. I spent sometime in JNU but left soon as I was offered a permanent teaching post in Delhi University. I then returned to JNU for my Ph.D in 1980 after a gap of 5 to 6 years to SIS. It was the Centre for American and West European Studies where I enrolled for a direct Ph.D in Latin American Studies. When I came to JNU it was a small university and even rules, regulations and norms were far and few. Contacts were mostly direct between the students, teachers and the university administration and from that evolved the system of a collective working and studying environment that we experience even today in JNU. The campus was very different, with a very vibrant and politically charged atmosphere prevalent here. But it was a different kind of activism, as it strived to maintain a balance between a political consciousness and a need for academic excellence. The student community of the time gave birth to many stalwarts because of this very approach. Students as well as teachers of the time were very modest, consumerism was nil and the amount of interaction with other academic institutions at a personal level by students for attending lectures was, to my mind, more. Although the JNU of the time did not have mechanisms like GSCASH etc, JNU was evolving along those lines where there was a strong concept of gender equality, mutual cooperation, freedom of expression and political activism which went hand in hand with a hunger for knowledge and understanding of these very concepts that the students tried to acquire not only by practical means but also backing them by very good readings.
70s was also a time of great optimism. We really believed that change was possible and human effort could make this possible and why not make JNU the harbinger of this social change. JNU then and even now gives people a chance to grow by giving students the space and exposure that defines and results in formulating their personalities and making them who they are. That is why after decades of being here I feel that JNU has given me so much and I would gladly like to give back in any way to the place that shaped me! And this feeling I think I share with each and everyone who has been a part of JNU at any time.
Wafa: What are the changes you have seen in JNU over the years?
Prof. Nafey: Many things have changed. At that time all of us used to travel by bus including the teachers. There were not more than 4-5 cars on campus. It was a very common way of living, sharing the same ethos and goals. Life was a little different and was easy paced. There are some values that have still remained with us and have become much stronger and thus no wonder that whenever we feel that there is any infringement of these values the entire JNU community which includes the teachers comes together to protect them. One area though where I feel JNU has changed immensely is in terms of the size. Perhaps this growing size in ways has also impacted the close knit environment of JNU where everyone knew every other person and interacted with each other frequently. Direct contacts and personal interactions are becoming a rarity where you could recognise most of the faces on campus. Another change I have felt is the space given to an individual in terms of physical space as in hostels. Earlier most of the hostels were single seaters. That also allowed students the time and personal space where they could find the right atmosphere to study. When you share a room you do need to make some kind of a compromise or adjustment which is not always bad but it does curtail the freedom of the individual. I think that the increase in the number of students has resulted in putting a strain on the infrastructure of the university. Although the number of hostels has increased the idea of personal space has been modified because of these changes.
Wafa: How has this transition been, from handling academics to juggling both the academic and the administrative?
Prof. Nafey: Honestly speaking, this has been very challenging. The Dean's work is not only a full-time job but consumes most of your energy. And the only reason I have been able to maintain a balance and provide myself encouragement has been by taking is as a true challenge where I need to prove my mettle! And I believe that once you have taken a responsibility then you should double up your energy and focus. I am trying my best to make the effort of not keeping any paperwork with me for the next day so that the process is speeded up of providing and catering to the needs of the students and the campus and services are delivered.
Wafa: How is JNU different from other institutions you have taught in or have studied in?
Prof. Nafey: A good students is a good student no matter where he is. But where JNU stands out is the opportunity it offers to the students as well as the teachers. It allows you to be yourself and experiment and grow academically. The environment is conducive for it.
Wafa: What are the immediate goals you have in mind as the Dean? And what areas do you want to focus on?
Prof. Nafey: One thing I have been striving for and in the next few months I think would be possible is to give every hostel a good sports infrastructure which is at par with the best universities. I feel that our sports facilities are used to the maximum in the hostels as that is where the students interact the most and spend most of their time. I have often seen boys playing table tennis or girls playing badminton in their hostels in the evenings or even late at night for leisure and also as a way to refresh themselves in between studying. And if the gyms, badminton courts and indoor sports facilities are the ones most in use then why not strengthen them further! We have compiled a list and have also invited tenders for the same and hopefully by May we will be able to deliver results. Another commitment I have is to make JNU campus barrier free. There are a number of students who are visually challenged and with special physical needs and their number is steadily increasing. We have to allow them free movement to all the buildings and on campus as much as possible. Traffic, the infrastructure etc should not hamper their movement. Most of these students are concentrated in the 3 hostels of Dakshinapuram and Sabarmati. I have some goals in mind and one is to make at least one wing or both if possible disabled friendly. I'm also planning to provide a lift facility in selected hostels for such students. Apart from it there is a larger plan to make the entire campus barrier free. We are planning to provide transport facilities like a low floor bus and battery operated small vans touching all important buildings to these students. From next year fifty boys and girls belonging to OBC would be accommodated on priority basis. It has been generally felt that those students who belong to the economically weaker sections of the society are generally lower in the priority list of hostels. And it has also been observed that invariably most of them belong to the OBC category. So it becomes a further marginalisation by default. In addition at the University level it has been decided that from next year such students will be given hostels in 4:1 ratio. Also, from next year we should be able to accommodate 100 SC/ST girls on priority basis. Another concern is the foreign students. They have their own peculiar problems. Many of them when they land at the airport have no idea as to where to go. We plan to create a few dormitories for them as a transitory situation till they are allotted the hostels and intimate them before arrival so that they can avail these facilities. There is also a proposal to create a hostel for foreign students. Some foreign student have dietary problems so we would need to probably give them a little leeway in terms of giving them a pantry to cook etc. we have gotten things rolling already and the first milestone although not without a few hitches has been the opening of Shipra hostel. It was a huge challenge and we have successfully accomplished it last session. There is also a proposal for 2 new hostels, one for girls and another for boys. We also need a hostel for girls which is a single seater. Whether we ear-mark one hostel from the existing ones or build a new one. Because the number of PhD girls is rising steadily.
Wafa: What is the message you would like to give to the JNU student community?
Prof Nafey: Who am I to give a message to them? But the only thing I would like to say is that lets never forget the purpose for which we are here. We need to renew our commitment towards academic excellence, spirit of dialogue, to accommodate and live with differences, the commitment to the values of JNU and its spirit.