JNU: An Experiment in Excellence

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    Jawaharlal Nehru University has had a complicated history as an idea. By the late 1950s, Delhi University was facing a crisis: there had been an exponential increase in student population, colleges were mushrooming, finances were inadequate, the infrastructure was under pressure, and administration from the university office in North Delhi was stretched to a breaking point. C. D. Deshmukh and others in the University Grants Commission felt that a second campus in South Delhi would resolve the immediate problem, relieving pressure on the North Campus and dividing administrative responsibilities. When persuaded to join as the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, Deshmukh participated in concretizing the project. The idea was to split the university of Delhi into two, somewhere close to Ajmeri Gate, but for historical reasons, retaining Delhi College within the jurisdiction of the North Campus.

    The UGC discussed the scheme and sent a plan to the Education Ministry; in 1963 an Expert Committee was set up by the Ministry to work out the broad proposal, and M. C. Chagla, the Education Minister, talked to Nehru about the idea. In his memoir, Chagla recounts the conversation:

    “I had once told Nehru that if I had his approval, I would establish another university in Delhi. I explained that Delhi was growing and one university was not adequate for its student population. Nehru agreed. I then mentioned with some hesitation a more delicate point. I said: ‘Panditji, I would like to name this university after you. You have been the Prime Minister of this country since its independence, and you have ruled over our destinies from this city.’ Nehru flared up: ‘You know my views about raising memorials to living persons. It is entirely wrong. No statues should be raised to living persons and no institutions should be named after them.’ I persisted that the only appropriate name for the university was Nehru University. He refused to give way, and reminded me that there were several names to choose from. Delhi had been called differently at different times in its history, and I could select one of these names. He suggested ‘Raisina’ as a possibility; it is a very fine sounding name.”

    When Nehru died on 27 May 1964, a committee was already working out the details of this new university, imagined as the South Campus of Delhi University. The name Raisina had appealed to those involved in the discussion, and Deshmukh liked it too. However, after Nehru’s death, there was a rush to memorialize him. Chagla persuaded others that the university should be now named after Nehru. When the bill for the establishment of Jawaharlal Nehru University was tabled on the Rajya Sabha floor on 24 December 1964, the proposed Raisina University was reanointed as Jawaharlal Nehru University.

    For a while, nothing changed much, except the name. How was the old idea to be reworked? No one was very clear. Chagla and many others were caught in a dilemma, pulled in seemingly contrary directions. From 1960 when the idea was first mooted to May 1964, the moment of Nehru’s death, the proposal for the new university was intimately connected to the history of Delhi University and its problems. Was it possible to be wedded to that conception and yet imagine something radically new? Would not the burden of the past weigh upon the present, constraining the possibility of innovation and experimentation? Caught in a bind, Chagla pleaded for time. When the bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 24 December 1964, there was no discussion.

    In the meantime, the idea of an institution in Nehru’s memory was discussed at a different level outside the Parliament. Two common ideas appeared in most of the proposals. First, Nehru’s name should not be associated with a pre-existing institution: it was necessary to plan for a new kind of institution. And, second, this should be a special institution—in a sense, elite and exclusive. The Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund (JNMF) was set up on 17 August 1964. Soon after, a panel of experts was formed to advise on the possible establishment of the Nehru Memorial Institute of Advanced Studies and the Committee was to finalize its report within three months. The Convener of the panel was Romesh Thapar, one of the founding editors of the journal Seminar, and the other five members were: J. K. Chowdhury, R. N. Dogra, B. N. Ganguly, P. N. Kirpal, and K. G. Saiyidain.

    The industrialist, J. R. D. Tata, one of the Trustees of the JNMF, had strong views on how institutions of higher learning ought to be developed in India. Somewhat suspicious of the left-leaning Thapar, he persuaded the JNMF to set up another working group to prepare a concrete project report for ‘a high-level educational institution as a memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru’. It was another high-powered committee consisting of Professor Jean Capelle, formerly Rector of several universities in France and Director-General, Ministry of Education, Paris, Dr S. Dhawan, Director, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Dr A. G. Evstafiev, Chief of the UNESCO Mission in India, Dr Malcolm M. Willey, formerly Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and Professor R. Choksi, Managing Trustee, Sir Dorab Tata Trust, Bombay. Instead of a regular university, they recommended the setting up of a Nehru Academy—an institution of excellence, distinctive and exclusive. It was visualized as a high-level post graduate institute providing special education to ‘exceptional men and women’. There was to be only one course of study, integrating natural sciences, social sciences and humanistic studies, that would produce men and women of action with wide ranging knowledge and deep moral values. No more than a hundred students were to be admitted to this institute.

    Tata himself was committed to this idea of excellence and exclusivity. In his own note to the Nehru Memorial Fund, which summarized a lecture he had given at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, he advocated the creation of an institute on the lines of the French ‘Grandes Écoles’, as an alternative to the usual university. In France, since the days of Napoleon, the state had taken the initiative to train an elite for public service, quite apart from the work of universities. This was done through these Grandes Écoles to which only the ‘most gifted’ could ever hope to enter. While agreeing that the state should spread education as widely as possible, Tata underlined a compelling need ‘to train to the highest level a select few’. The progress of the country, he believed, would depend greatly on the ‘creative and constructive abilities of an elite of brilliant administrators, managers, scientists and innovators whose example and leadership will inspire others’. Instead of being complacent with the ordinary, Indians had to aspire for the finest: ‘It is essential that amid the arid stretches of mediocrity there be here and there an oasis of excellence.’ From such focal points of distinction, Tata felt, influence would radiate outwards.

    Excerpted with permission from JNU Stories: The First 50 Years (2020), published by Aleph Books.


    Neeladri Bhattacharya joined the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, as an MA student in 1973, and retired as professor of modern history in 2017. Janaki Nair completed her CHS, JNU, between 1981 and 1983, and was professor of history at the same.

    This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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