(Interview) UPSC Board member Prof. Purushottam Agarwal Interview By Bhoomika Meiling.

UPSC Board member Prof. Purushottam Agarwal Interview
Interviewed by Bhoomika Meiling)


Bhoomika: First of all, I take this opportunity to congratulate you at your appointment as a member of the Union Public Service Commission [UPSC].

Prof. Agrawal: Thank you.

Bhoomika: 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?

Prof. Agrawal: 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.

Bhoomika: A new beginning is mostly made with a new set of assumptions, values, hopes and aspirations. Define the set with which you have entered UPSC.

Prof. Agrawal: 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.

Bhoomika: In routine experience, UPSC is invariably associated with the selection of IAS officers. What, according to you, are the qualities of an ideal IAS officer?

Prof. Agrawal: 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.

Bhoomika: Where does JNU figure in your latest sojourn?

Prof. Agrawal: 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?

Bhoomika: So how much of Prof. Agrawal of JNU is present in Prof .Agrawal of UPSC?

Prof. Agrawal: 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.

Bhoomika: How and when did your association with JNU begin?

Prof. Agrawal: I came here in 1977 from Gwalior. I had finished my M.A. in Political Science from GwaliorUniversity 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 RamjasCollege as Lecturer in 1982 and on 24th May, 1990, I joined JNU again, this time as a faculty member.

Bhoomika: What are your fields of research and interest?

Prof. Agrawal: 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.

Bhoomika: And what is latest on the literary front?

Prof. Agrawal:: 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.

Bhoomika: You 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 teacher’s perspective?

Prof. Agrawal:: 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.

Bhoomika: 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?

Prof. Agrawal: 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 coffee!

Courtesy : Bhoomika Meiling