DU played a transformational role in my life: Hardeep S Puri (IANS Interview)

DU played a "formative and transformative role" in his life and "taught me how to discern" says distinguished diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, currently India's Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas and Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, of the anthology "Delhi University - Celebrating 100 Glorious Years" (Rupa) that he has edited to mark the centenary of an institution from which have emerged many of the country's most consequential nation-builders and opinion makers.

DU played a transformational role in my life: Hardeep S Puri (IANS Interview)
Source: IANS

New Delhi, Oct 20 (IANS) DU played a "formative and transformative role" in his life and "taught me how to discern" says distinguished diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, currently India's Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas and Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, of the anthology "Delhi University - Celebrating 100 Glorious Years" (Rupa) that he has edited to mark the centenary of an institution from which have emerged many of the country's most consequential nation-builders and opinion makers.

"DU has played both a formative and transformational role in my life. The core of my rumination in my chapter is centred on three defining conflicts that I experienced at DU: Academia versus livelihood; the 'real' India: truths versus dominant narratives; and a personal intellectual framework versus continuing with a colonial mindset," Puri told IANS in an interview.

"Originating in my experiences at the university, these three conflicts have stayed with me in my ongoing study of continuity and change of socio-political affairs that I have encountered in various personas - as a student of history, diplomat, bureaucrat, politician and minister. These three conflicts have directed the course of my life ever since my university days and fundamentally shaped my worldview.

"For instance, while discussing the first conflict, I wrote about how I - like many others in my generation - had to choose between academia and livelihood when we stood at the doorstep of graduation. It was a huge decision. I would have liked to study further and then teach (which, I did a little bit of, in St. Stephen's College after I finished my Master's). However, studying further, just for the sake of it, was viewed as a frivolous indulgence. Practical consideration and familial commitments compelled me to write the UPSC and life went another way. I wonder how many others felt like me back then.

"In the second conflict, I talk about how DU, and Hindu College in particular, helped break down elitist notions of merit, talent and ideology as I encountered a bewildering diversity that spanned the spectrum of culture, class, religion and caste. Up sprung the question: what is the real India? I met friends who had come from not-so-well-off families, residing in the interiors of Bihar, did well in the IAS examination and contributed immensely to public service in India. Many others, from Maharashtra, Gujarat and lesser-known educational circles of the country, had remarkable ambition and motivation.

"Far removed from the homogeneity of the urban elite in Delhi and Bombay, their drive to excel and their 'independent' ideologies were a by-product of their lived experience. It helped me distance myself from dominant narratives, and see the 'truth of India', as it were. This approach also helped adopt a personal intellectual framework - something that I touch upon in my third conflict at DU.

"Ultimately, if I were to encapsulate my answer with a single statement, it would be that DU taught me how to discern. It taught me how to see beneath the surface and examine critically, rationally, and humanely, the merits of any argument. It is a philosophy that I have since espoused in my life," Puri elaborated.

The interview in detail:

Q: How would you describe DU's journey over the past 100 years?

A: It's been an exciting journey, mirroring India's journey of struggle, discovery, growth and leadership.

The university officially came into being on 1 May 1922. Four colleges, i.e., St. Stephen's College, founded in 1881; Hindu College, founded in 1899; Ramjas College, founded in 1917; and Lady Hardinge Medical College for Women started in 1916, had existed earlier and affiliated themselves to DU a few years after its inception.

DU was a thriving hub for independence activism in the 1930s and especially the 1940s during the Quit India Movement. Later, it became a hotspot for public and intellectual discourse in the post-independence era and found relevance in many social movements in the succeeding decades. Some chapters in the anthology movingly capture the complexity of some of these events, most prominent among them being the period of Emergency.

Gradually and in the years to come, the university also assumed an intellectual dominance in higher education in the country due to its superior faculty, and the freedom that it gave its students to allow independent and critical thought. Much of the groundwork for this was laid by Sir Maurice Gwyer, who was Vice Chancellor between 1938 and 1950 (and also, interestingly, Chief Justice of India between 1937 and 1943 in British-era India). Today, DU is among the most renowned centres of excellence in education in the country. Its colleges regularly feature in the Top-10 and Top-50 NIRF rankings - one of the many testaments to its enduring appeal among students.

Q: It is said that 'you can take the girl out of the convent but you can't take the convent out of the girl'. How true is this of someone who has studied at DU and to what do you attribute this pull?

A: Very true! I think DU has a magnetism that extends far beyond any particular categorisation or singular description. Everyone who comes into the locus of its influence is undeniably and invariably changed. One sees this manifest most profoundly in the young, impressionable minds of DU students who are forever shaped by the prevailing winds at the university. In fact, Imtiaz Ali, who has written a humorous and poignant account of his time at the university, writes exactly about this 'spirit' that permeates through the grounds and corridors of DU.

He calls it 'disobedience' - I think it is a reference to a broader quality of independence, almost irreverence, that the university instills in its students. It is a quality that signifies initiative, leadership, critical thinking, and innovation. DUites are fearless, outspoken, talented, and hardworking. You will certainly find these traits in the 14 alumni who have authored chapters in this anthology.

The culture of the university is as much shaped by its students as it informs them. Students take on the language of the university; they adopt its traditions and values as their own. While this phenomenon may be true or observable for most other institutions of excellence, what sets DU apart is that its influence extends far beyond its students and faculty (although, they still remain the primary beneficiaries). I can confidently say that DU is now an intrinsic part of the country's story. Indians take education seriously.

For decades, education has been the gateway to upward mobility for millions of people, myself included. DU is a leading light in that regard. It has shaped the minds of not just thousands of students, but also of the leaders of consecutive generations who have exercised great influence in their domains and thus crafted the modern India.

The sheer fact that DU is the most coveted university in the country, where one sees unimaginably high cut-offs, should tell you that its influence has seeped past Delhi and the urban elite, and is now part of the national fabric. At the launch of the book, Prof. Dinesh Singh said, "DU resides in India, and India resides in DU." That, I think, sums up DU's stature.

Q: How, to your mind, has DU and its constituents adapted over the decades to the changing times? More importantly, how is it preparing for a tech-led future that will be increasingly driven by AI, ML and the like? Do you have any suggestions in this regard?

A: I am glad to say that the university has continued to evolve with the time while retaining its core character of being an independent, irreverent, and academically inclined centre of excellence. It implemented many reforms in the early 2010s, much before the New Education Policy was brought out by the Modi government which advocates similar measures. It continues to lead innovation in education even as it retains strong academic traditions.

I am also delighted that it is strengthening its faculties and research credentials in STEM education. DU has always been known as an exemplar for humanities and arts even though it has always had strong undergraduate courses in pure sciences. Now, that perception is changing. Rather, I must say it is evolving. Even as we see continuous improvement on the STEM front, I believe that many decision-makers within the university recognise that much more needs to be done to align DU with the changes that Tech 4.0 is bringing not just to education, but also to jobs and the economy.

I must say that DU has been proactive in this regard. Its Computer Science department has developed excellent pedagogical tools and research facilities for education in data science, AI, ML, and robotics. Of late, its students and faculty have been gaining recognition for their work in these disciplines. It is clearly a marker of where things will proceed in the future.

DU, unlike many other universities, has never stayed still. I am confident that DU will evolve once again to meet the challenges of Tech 4.0; I believe this could even be the catalyst for the university to break into the Top-100, Top-50 universities globally.

Q: How did this anthology come about? Tell me about the journey from conception to conclusion, including the process of selecting the contributors that have been featured, including the selection of Amitabh Bachchan to write the foreword.

A: I was actually invited by Rupa Publications to edit this anthology. They thought it would be a fitting tribute to the university's 100th anniversary if DU's most illustrious alumni shared their reflections. A hundred years is an important milestone in the life of any institution. DU, and especially Hindu College where I spent the formative years of my life, have been immensely significant in my life. There is no way I would have refused, despite my commitments and obligations as a cabinet minister.

As I set about preparing a shortlist of authors, I realised that those alumni who would appear to qualify far exceeded the number that even an extended anthology could accommodate. I was honoured that these 14 authors agreed to write without a moment's hesitation, despite their busy schedules. There can be no doubt that these authors are among the leading intellectuals, leaders, lawyers, artists and litterateurs in the country. They provided fascinating accounts of their time at the university through their chapters which I believe are of the highest calibre and are written with a light touch. Viewed together, I believe they do justice to the eclectic diversity that the university is known for.

Foremost among the authors is Shri Amitabh Bachchan ji who recently celebrated his 80th birthday. I was delighted that he agreed to write the Foreword. The oldest alumnus among the authors, I believe he is also the most revered. He is a doyen of the film industry and is among the most recognised public personalities globally. He was extremely gracious and humble when I invited him to write a chapter for this anthology. In fact, he even suggested that he may not be an appropriate pick for this book because he hadn't been the best student! Thankfully, it didn't require much cajoling on my part to convince him to write the Foreword. I would like to believe he did so because he shares my love for the university - it was a sentiment that strongly came out in his message to readers.

Q: What is the common thread that you have found in these accounts?

A: I would have to say that all the authors have touched upon the impact of DU, both in the personal context of the university having shaped their lives, but also in the larger context of intellectual discourse and nation-building. This anthology has brought in a spectrum of viewpoints that covers five decades of studying or teaching at various colleges in DU, from the late 1950s to the late 1990s. To the extent possible, these authors also cover the length and breadth of the country - not just geographically but also in terms of the cultures, experiences and professions they represent. That all the authors have written about the legacy of the university with surprisingly similar sentiment is a profound realisation.

To my mind, it is indisputable that the university has had a central influence on India's growth as well as its mission of producing young and dynamic leaders. I hope that this anthology triggers other tributes. They are both deserved and long overdue.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at [email protected])