UPSC Board member Prof. Purushottam Agarwal
(Interviewed by Bhoomika Meiling)
First of all, I take this opportunity to congratulate you at your appointment as
a member of the Union Public Service Commission [UPSC].
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?
It is a privilege to be a part of UPSC. I feel very humbled, particularly
because I am the youngest ever member of UPSC (IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m learning
the ways of the place.
new beginning is mostly made with a new set of assumptions, values, hopes and
aspirations. Define the set with which you have entered UPSC.
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.
routine experience, UPSC is invariably associated with the selection of IAS
officers. What, according to you, are the qualities of an ideal IAS officer?
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 Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ServicesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ which
is so inextricably attached to an IAS officerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
does JNU figure in your latest sojourn?
itself is the sojournÃ¢â‚¬Â¦..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?
how much of Prof. Agrawal of JNU is present in Prof .Agrawal of UPSC?
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.
and when did your association with JNU begin?
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
studentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ politics too. I was the Student Councilor from SL in around 1979-80.
My PhD topic was Ã¢â‚¬Å“Kabir ki Bhakti ka Samajik ArthÃ¢â‚¬Â (the social meaning of
KabirÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
are your fields of research and interest?
continue to be primarily interested in cultural criticism, cultural theory,
Bhakti poetry and literary theory. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
what is latest on the literary front?
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
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
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 Ã¢â‚¬â„¢island qualityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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 1970Ã¢â‚¬â„¢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 IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m
a teacher. And in certain ways, the campus has been more democratized. For
instance, in the 1970Ã¢â‚¬â„¢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.
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 Ã¢â‚¬â„¢aawaragardiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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,
weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll keep coming to Ganga dhaba for our usual cup of coffee!
Courtesy : Bhoomika Meiling