In conversation with An Interview with Prof. R. Rajaraman, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics, School of Physical Sciences Mansi: How and when did your journey with jnu begin? How has your experience been here over these years?

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A University stands for humanism. For tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If the Universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the Nation and the People.

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JNU News is a bimonthly journal of Jawaharlal Nehru University. It serves to bridge the information gap and tries to initiate constant dialogue between various consitituents of the University community as well as with the rest of the academic world. Views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily of JNU News. All articles and reports published in it may be freely reproduced with acknowledgment.

In conversation with…..

An Interview with Prof. R. Rajaraman, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics, School of Physical Sciences

Mansi: How and when did your journey with JNU begin? How has your experience been here over these years?

Prof. Rajaraman: My journey with JNU began relatively late in life. I had already spent decades teaching and doing research at IISc Bangalore, and before that at Cornell University, University of S.California, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Delhi University. So I was already in my mid-fifties when I decided to move from Bangalore back to Delhi, and I felt that JNU was the best place for me in Delhi. Physicists here at JNU had been urging me to join the university, and I was formally invited by the Vice Chancellor soon thereafter, invoking some clause in the JNU statutes that permitted them to do so without my having to apply, or come for interviews. So it was all done very graciously.

This was a relatively new School of Physical Sciences when I joined it --- just a few years old. I felt there would be possibilities, and that the place would be free of some of the baggage that old places tend to have. I had young enthusiastic colleagues and they turned out to be very good. And I was back in Delhi which is my hometown. All in all, it turned out to be a wise decision.

Since joining JNU I respectfully kept declining administrative positions and succeeding Vice-Chancellors here have always been nice enough to accommodate that. So I have been just a professor from the day I came and, at age 75, I am still a professor now, except that somewhere along the line they stopped my salary and put me on pension. But JNU was good enough to offer me this Emeritus thing which was very nice, because I didn't have to move anywhere and could continue my work without dislocation.

My experience of JNU has been very good. Partly because I didn't get involved in administrative matters, my role has been that of a person slightly away from the main action on campus. But, apart from teaching I was closely involved in the affairs of my School and whenever the Vice Chancellor wanted me to be in some committee, I have gladly served. Professor Alagh was the Vice Chancellor when I joined, and from the beginning he was kind to me and very supportive. But one example of the confidence he showed in me, within a month of my joining JNU, had mixed consequences! He caught me, an innocent new Bakra at JNU and put me in charge of a committee to work out the financial future of JNU. It was of course an honour to be entrusted with this responsibility but I had heard that JNU was a place where people, including students, have strong opinions and express them in no uncertain terms, so I was a little wary of doing it, But unwilling to decline a responsibility assigned by the VC, I accepted it. With an excellent set of colleagues as other members of our Committee, we worked hard and put together a report covering all aspects of the university's finances. Prof Alagh in another example of his support had the report printed into a nice booklet and distributed to the faculty.

Among other things, we had also suggested a very modest hike in the student fees. Sure enough, it led quickly to a strike on campus. Prof. Alagh, not one to be cowed down by pressure, went on a counter hunger-strike of his own. There were posters around the campus screaming “Rajaraman down! down!” My mother had come to visit me and when she saw those posters she said “My god! What is happening to you here?”

But I quickly realized that these confrontations sound more threatening than they really are. I remember a student union leader assuring me amidst shouts of Murdabad,”Sir, it's nothing personal”. And the fact was that students were intelligent --most of them anyways--and they were willing to talk about things even though they had strong views and disagreed. That's what I had heard about JNU even before I came. That was the kind of tumultuous but exciting beginning to my life at JNU.

On other fronts, some of the things, that I expected would happen, probably naïvely, did not happen. I thought there would be more much intensive interaction between the science people and the social science people. In fact, one rarely meets them on the campus; there is a secret tunnel which goes from JNU to television studios and to the India International Centre. I used to meet them in those places, but rarely in the JNU marketplace, or on the streets. So there wasn't much intermixing. Of course you do meet people at various JNU committee meetings and get to know them a little. But those interactions are generally on administrative or other official matters – not on cultural, political matters. Those famous JNU debates in dhabas and street corners -- the students do it, but not the faculty. But still, although less than I had expected, the JNU campus is a far more lively place than those of research institutes. In addition, by the very nature of Delhi, coming here also means getting more involved in public issues. As a result, around the time I retired, I decided to engage full time on public policy issues, which necessarily meant that I had to drastically reduce research in physics. I decided that having spent 40-50 years doing pure Physics, time had come to move on to working on matters of public interest on nuclear and educational policy fronts. For that kind of work, being in JNU is great help. Nowadays, I interact a fair bit with SIS on various nuclear disarmament and energy issues. Whenever their students need technical advice or information they often come to SPS and consult me. That of course would not have been possible anywhere n India except JNU.

Mansi: How do you see JNU having changed over the years that you have been here?

Prof. Rajaraman: When I first came the science Schools enjoyed relatively little clout because there were very few of them. The public perception of this university was that it pursued mainly social sciences, international studies, and languages. Correspondingly the weight they carried in the affairs of the university was much more. But many science people, particularly in my school were actually happy with that situation; we were left alone do our stuff. But gradually, JNU science has now grown further. It has bigger and more science Schools. As the number of science people grew, the awareness that it is an important component of JNU has also grown. The science people have won quite a few awards, they bring in a lot of funding, and grants, so that by now science people have grown to have more say in the running of JNU affairs. The fact that Dr Ashis Datta and then Dr Sopory from our science Schools became VCs is also indicative of this increased prominence of the sciences.

Another major change is related to the availability of on-campus housing. In the 'Seventies, after JNU had just started, I believe there was plenty of housing. One of the attractions of JNU for prospective faculty was the large beautiful campus with spacious housing. But as JNU expanded there was no corresponding growth in housing. By the time I joined in 1993, the faculty had grown a lot, but there was a big shortage of on-campus housing. Despite being a senior professor specially invited by the university to come here, I had to settle for the shuttered up upper half of a type VI house in terrible repair, even that was possible only because of the special efforts of the Vice chancellor. And I stayed there till the day I retired--- I could not ascend any higher on the housing list!

Fortunately, since then there has been another round of housing construction on campus. Today, practically everyone, including the fresh young teachers, gets housing. That is of course wonderful. It makes their life much more comfortable and stress free, and saves a lot of time in traveling. But the downside is that now they all go home at lunch time. So interaction between faculty members tends to diminish. Earlier on, many of us brought our lunch-dabbas and at lunchtime, would eat together. Now there is an exodus around 12.30 and people come back only around 2. In the old days, our School was small and way below in the housing list, we actually met one another much more and there was much more interaction then, than now. So this just shows how a positive development can have unexpected adverse affects too. I don't mean to imply that people are doing less work now than then because they go home and goof off. No doubt they come back to their offices and labs and work late into the night. But that sort of work routine still leaves them isolated from one another. Yet another change is of course that the university ethos has moved from the left more towards the centre. I don't merely mean that centrist or rightist political parties also have student wings and posters on walls. They probably had them always but the average opinion has moved to the centre. In the sense that people voicing a variety of opinions feel more comfortable now than they did earlier. Even today, conservative opinion is still not represented much here but today it is more so than when I came here. One contributory factor is the addition of more scientists to the JNU community. Scientists generally tend to be non-ideological. It may not be a very good thing but that's how they tend to be. So their increasing weight on campus has also diluted the strong leftist aura of the place. All in all, though, I found the politics of JNU very thoughtful. Even though it tended to be one sided, it has been an enriching experience.

Mansi: You have been part of faculties and research at Princeton, Indian Institute of Science, DU and many more. How do you think JNU is different from these places?

Prof. Rajaraman: Cross country comparison is difficult because the whole scene is different. Within India JNU is very unique. First, there are fields which are being pursued here for a long time which don't exist at most other places like SIS as a school and the Languages School. Subjects like environmental studies came here first before other places in India. I remember in the days when I was teaching at Delhi University. JNU was about to be formed. We at DU were surprised to see these new names of Schools, the new fields. JNU was a pioneering place terms in these; it got a lot of new things going. That made it very different from any other university in India.

Comparison with universities from abroad is a different matter. There are a large number of superb places in the world. Once in a while one hears people from Indian science institutions, who are trying to sell themselves or their institutions or are under the intoxicating influence of some Award or recognition who go overboard and say that we are as good as Harvard, Cambridge or MIT. Anybody who feels that the Indian institutions have reached that level is kidding himself. I feel terribly embarrassed and sad when I hear those statements. Such chauvinistic claims may give political leaders, administrators and the general public a nice warm feeling but they only come in the way of our getting better, as complacency gets further consolidated.

However, all in all, we have nothing to be ashamed of about our academic institutions; we have several world class scholars and researchers in the country, in the sciences and the humanities. We are handicapped by huge financial constraints, so we really cannot do experimental science like we would want to. In both our personal and professional lives, we live with a rickety infrastructure which wastes a lot of our time and energy. As part and parcel of India we have India's problems-- everyday there is a struggle to get routine things going- electricity, water. So our level of efficiency is much less and this has been the case for generations. These are to some extent legitimate excuses. So we should not feel so bad if we don't produce things at the level of the best places in affluent countries.

But fact remains that the few outstanding scholars we have are still isolated individuals or pockets. The fraction of these bright people at the famous universities abroad is just much higher. If you look at any of our universities or institutes as a whole, we are nowhere nearly as good as Harvard or Princeton, either in faculty quality, the student quality , the courses given or the rigour with which student or faculty performances are evaluated.

Unfortunately, such poor efficiency has become a national habit. So even when funds are available and salaries and living conditions are good, as has been the case with Indian scientists in recent years, even when we have everything available, we still don't know how to work with ninety percent efficiency.

These comments hold both for our universities (including the best ones like JNU) as well as for the elite well funded research Institutes like IISc or TIFR. But there is another additional handicap that universities have been facing in fields of science, as compared to research institutes. When I was a young professor and had just returned to India from the US, there were very few Science institutes -- there was TIFR at Bombay, IISc, and the IITs had just started. Now there are just dozens and dozens of such institutes, in every science field there are institutes around the country. Many of them are good, given Indian conditions. But these institutes have come and essentially robbed the universities blind in terms of funding and manpower. Bright new faculty and students prefer them to any university. Nobody wants to come to the universities anymore, barring a few strange cases. This is a great problems universities face vis-à-vis sciences. At JNU we are one of the best universities in India. But still there is a gap in terms of quality of our productivity, speed and vigor compared to these institutes. This process has been on for last 30-40 years. I have been on both sides of this divide—at DU and JNU on the one hand and, in between the two, at IISc on the other. Funding and Policy making has been in the hands of the more successful and entrepreneurial researchers, many of whom have, for decades, had a somewhat of condescending attitude about not only about university scientists but about teaching itself.

In the past decade things are changing. Research institutes have realized the importance of teaching because they are not getting enough input of good students for their research. Again, in a tacitly condescending way, they feel that the blame lies with the universities which they feel are incorrigible. Although they won't come out and say so the science establishment and the government have more or less given up on the universities. So to train undergraduates better, they have started taking undergraduate students themselves, offered fast track courses, and also started new teaching institutions “uncontaminated” by existing university structures. These new initiatives may bring some success and I hope they will. But in the processes, the conventional universities have bee pushed down even further.

Of course in absolute terms, universities have also gotten more funds than before and salaries have vastly improved and they are trying to up their research rating. Committees are being formed in JNU to increase the quality of research. In promotional matters “modern methods” of evaluation are being employed, citation indices of candidates are being looked at, it remains to be seen whether the net result ends up being better.

Mansi: Being a Professor Emeritus, do you wish certain goals or visions this university or your school should adopt?

Prof. Rajaraman: If I put on the hat of a JNU chauvinist I would argue, that our university should demand from the UGC and the government more autonomy in its practices. I realize that it is easy for me to say this and very hard for university authorities to achieve it. But if you want this to be a very special place, (which it already is in to some extent), you have to do things a little differently from the norm. If you concede to the same practices here as in the other 300 universities, then we cannot improve beyond a certain point. I would say we should ask to be permitted improved hiring practices – make the process speedier. If the Center or School has agreed that some potential recruit is good, the university should have the freedom to hire them quickly - if you have a position. Don't wait for elaborate procedures to be completed.

I am very proud of the fact that in India we have passed an RTI Act some years ago. It is a boon to millions of aggrieved poor people who were being hoodwinked by vested interests and the authorities. But I feel there are a few contexts where RTI should not apply, as for instance in matters of academic or aesthetic judgment. That includes selection of faculty, choice of curricula and examination of students in universities. I have no objection to RTIs applied to academic institutions for financial, engineering administrative procedures, but not on academic judgmental matters. Academics are elite activities; there is no question about it in my view. These are things that universities like JNU must fully understand. If in order to ensure that there are no acts of bad judgment and that no inadvertent injustice is done, you institute elaborate procedures and counter measures, you will place everyone in a straitjacket. It is true that without strict checks and balances, wrong judgments and acts of injustice may be done. But you have to let people who run the place make occasional mistakes and be judged in the long run by what they have achieved. Otherwise you will destroy all initiative and good people will not flourish here.

These problems are part and parcel of the university structure in India which is highly bureaucratic. Our people inherited it from the colonial rulers and made it even more bureaucratic. Now, I know you can't change university structures quickly in India. But JNU can still say, “Look, treat us as a special case. Give us more freedom, as a test case, in procedural matters. Let us run things differently, we will take the responsibility for the consequences.”

On our campuses we have plenty of strikes. That may be justifiable. But I wish there were some student and teacher strikes demanding that the courses be taught properly or that the syllabi need to be updated; or that classes are not being held on time. I don't remember too many such protests ever happening at JNU, DU or any other university. At JNU, as the topmost university in the country, we need to change some of these things, to have the political energy in campus combine with demand for excellence.

Mansi: A message you would like to give to the student community?

Prof. Rajaraman: I think they should continue to retain their involvement with human affairs and suffering. But it should go beyond just national or geo-politics and ideology. It is not sufficient to think only about Syria, Globalization and the Gaza strip. They should have a greater involvement with problems right in their neighborhood, like Munirka, right outside the JNU gates. There are worrisome thing happening there too. The average person in JNU is reputed to have a strong empathy for the poor and the oppressed. And indeed that is true. But then why are street children shivering and begging at the red lights in Ber Sarai? Yes, I know that helping the dozen children at that red light will not solve India's or even Delhi's problem. There are tens of millions of children like that and we need systemic and political changes, etc, etc, blah blah blah! Very true, but still, no amount of sophistry will justify such injustice right under our noses or be of any comfort to those children So there is something about our supposed concern for the poor and oppressed, which is not completely real. Things should not be burning outside our gates, while we sit here and debate some intellectual point.

Here is some more advice that may be unpopular. Work Harder. It is nice to sit in Ganga dhabha and debate, but students have to work harder in their academic tasks. Because this is the age in life when you can work hard. And you will find that working hard when you are young bears all kinds of fruits later in life. Students should put a lot of value on the education that they are getting, even though it is almost free. When I was doing the committee work for Dr Alagh, I came across the fact that the fees for JNU were less than fees for Kendriya Vidyalaya down the road. That's a bit ridiculous. We tried to raise the fees slightly (up to 100 rupees a month) in our committee report and that is what led to a big strike on campus. Thoughtful students at JNU, DU and all over universities in India should remember that the tens of thousands of rupees per head that the government spends, especially in the sciences, to subsidise their education come from the mouths of the poor. Sure, I know that there are students who cannot afford even the meager fees we charge. By all means identify them and give them a hundred percent scholarship. But people zipping around in mo-bikes, talking on cell phones and going to movies whose tickets cost several hundred bucks don't need so much subsidy. When you get something for free you start taking it for granted and stop placing so much value on it.

In India, students take exams and their marks seriously but not the content of the education they get. Students in JNU should take the lead. They must remember that they are in the number one university in India and that cannot be sustained by just repeating “we are number one”; you have to keep working at it to keep it up. Otherwise you slip down and become like any other place. In order to be the best, you have to strive all the time.
Movement & Appointments

New Appointments/Deans/Directors/ Chairpersons

  • Prof. Subhasis Ghosh as Dean, School of Physical Sciences, for a period of two years.

  • Prof. Varun Sahni, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, as Chief Advisor, International Collaboration, for a period of two years.

  • Dr. Arunim Bandyopadhyay, Centre of Russian Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, as Co-ordinator, Language Laboratry Complex, for a period of two years.

  • Prof. Ayesha Kidwai as Chairperson, Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, for a period of two years.

  • Dr. Dolla Varaprasad Sekhar as Chairperson, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, for a period of two years.

  • Dr. Vibha Tandon as Professor in the Special Centre for Molecular Medicine.

  • Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Mallik as Associate Professor in Visual Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics.

  • Dr. Ajay Verma as Associate Professor in the Centre for Philosophy, School of Social Sciences.

  • Dr. Bijoy Kumar Kuanr as Associate Professor in the Special Centre for Nano Sciences.
  • Dr. T.G. Suresh as Associate Professor in the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences.

  • Dr. Karan Singh as Assistant Professor in the School of Computer & Systems Sciences.

  • Dr. Asutosh Srivastava as Assistant Professor in the School of Computer & Systems Sciences.

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jnunewsarchives -> In conversation with An interview with Prof. Sudha Bhattacharya, Dean Wafa
jnunewsarchives -> In conversation with An Interview with Prof. I. S. Thakur, Associate Dean of Students Mansi: When and how did your association with jnu begin? Prof. Thakur
jnunewsarchives -> In conversation with an Interview with Prof. Mridula Mukherjee Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
jnunewsarchives -> In conversation with An Interview with Prof. Deepak Kumar, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies and Chairperson, Media Research Centre, School of Social Sciences

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