When one speaks of Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, it takes a moment or two to realise who one is referring to, but when one speaks of GP, the recognition is immediate. He will always be remembered as a person who was concerned about the well-being of the world around him, a concern that more importantly was dipped in affection for this world. And being a man of many parts, his activities were diverse.

We historians rush to chase up ancestors and genealogies. GP’s lineage was impressive. His father, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, was prime minister of the princely state of Kashmir and later, a member of the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet. His uncle, Rangaswami Ayyangar, was editor of The Hindu and general secretary of the Indian National Congress. VT Krishnamachari, who was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, was a kinsman.

GP, therefore, grew up in an ambience of highly educated players in politics and administration. Today, we look back nostalgically to the time when politics was defined as concern for the well-being of society, among educated and thoughtful people, at every social and economic level. Those who were deeply involved in the anti-colonial struggle nurtured values that provided a vision of the society to come. GP was of the generation that thought of this vision of a socially just and economically equitable society as the purpose of both political intention and its administration. In time, some of this may have fallen by the wayside, but some of it continued among those committed to a positive future for Indian society.

GP studied at Presidency College in the University of Madras. He was active in the student movement and this imprinted in him sensitivity to the aspirations of the young. Subsequently, he went to Oxford and pursued a degree in modern history, with the study of law in London completing his education. These years were peppered with frequent indulgence in his favourite sport, cricket. Paradoxically, the one British legacy we refuse to shake off is cricket, although, like the English language, cricket too has been forced to observe new rules and idioms. In short, GP was a young and aspiring member of the Indian middle class, so much of this was not unexpected.

Journalism and diplomacy

On returning to India, he joined The Hindu as assistant editor, conforming to one part of his lineage activity. The other was working with the Congress in the accelerating anti-colonial movement at the time. This made him privy to negotiations between the Congress, the Muslim League and the British Indian government – the source of many entertaining after-dinner recollections in later years. In 1949, he went to London as a representative of the Press Trust of India, which opened up a far wider horizon. India had just become independent, requiring him to project Indian political perspectives on to the international arena. The newness of this must have been a thrilling experience, even if it involved his having to work with a somewhat problematic high commissioner, Krishna Menon.

In the next decade, GP left journalism and was inducted into diplomacy. He excelled at this and it would seem from his enthusiasm that he probably enjoyed it more than journalism. His initial postings were to Cambodia and Vietnam to chair the International Commissions for Supervision and Control. From there he went as ambassador to Indonesia and subsequently to China. The latter posting was a challenge since he was there from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, a period when relations between India and China moved from cordiality to hostility. This was followed by a different kind of assignment, to Pakistan. His next posting as India’s permanent representative in the United Nations in 1965 was doubtless something of a relief from the prickliness of the earlier appointments.

Gopalaswami Parthasarathi (right) as India's permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. (Photo credit: PIB)

The JNU years

After his return to India in 1969, he was to change gear again. This time, it was an appointment in academia. He was invited to be vice-chancellor of the proposed Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. GP, by now, was regarded as a fine diplomat, so there was some comment on how a diplomat would function as vice-chancellor. For GP, it was doubtless yet another test of his ability in a new profession, but not an alien one. Here, I would like to draw on my personal experience on the founding of JNU, when I got to know him. Considering the way JNU is being crippled by the current authority, I would like to explain the difference between JNU and other universities, a difference that goes back to its origins, a difference the present administration is not only unaware of but is unwilling to concede.

I joined JNU at the end of 1970, and did so rather tentatively. I had been teaching in Delhi University, which, 50 years ago unlike now, was conservative in its approach to historical studies. Some of us had tried and failed to change its history syllabus so that it was more in keeping with research that was current at the time and the direction in which historical analysis was moving. So, the attraction JNU held for me was that it was a new university and would be open to new ways of understanding and teaching history. But my fear was that if this did not happen, I might be stuck in the quicksand of teaching out-of-date information that could not, or would not, move with the advances being made in that discipline. This is, of course, a problem to a greater or lesser degree in many of our educational institutions, now being made worse, in history for example, by the threatened infusion of imaginary theories trying to drown valid knowledge.

What persuaded me to join JNU were the long, preliminary conversations I had with GP. In these, I raised the questions that had troubled us at Delhi University. To my pleasant surprise, GP was sympathetic to the issues bothering us. He was vehement that since we were adopting the semester system, our courses should not merely be the old ones chopped in half. We had to think of new but academically valid ways of presenting current knowledge that was conducive to critical enquiry. He was categorical that he did not want a repetition of the courses and syllabi of any other university, Indian or non-Indian. He was also insistent that the courses be inter-disciplinary in structure, and not embedded in just one perspective. Existing knowledge has to be constantly questioned, if it is to advance. Besides this, he wanted JNU to accommodate the under-privileged so that knowledge was accessible to all who aspired to it. Our admission policy focused on a catchment area wide enough to take in many who could not find a place in other universities but were otherwise qualified for university education.

The university is a place for advancing knowledge and not just handing out degrees. The former is done by asking questions, in an atmosphere of free-thinking and speaking. (Photo credit: AFP)

What is a university?

I then realised JNU had acquired not a diplomat attempting to be an academic but a man given to reflecting purposefully on what makes a university, one who had the intellectual vision to do so. And, that he would help build it into a hub of knowledge. GP understood what few vice-chancellors understand these days – that the university is a place for advancing knowledge and not just handing out degrees. The former is done by asking questions, raising doubts about the information given, and by a critical questioning of any subject in an atmosphere of free-thinking and speaking. It is the one institution in every society that has the right to do this. Those in authority have to recognise these rights and nurture them. If they trample on them, they will destroy not only the particular institution but the very idea and function of enquiry as a prelude to knowledge, which is the purpose of a university. The university that many of us helped build – and, if I may say so, build with meticulous care – has been ranked continually as GP wanted, as India’s foremost university. It is now, not surprisingly, being dismantled. But as we learn from history, disallowing the freedom to debate freely, and allowing only authorised ideas, is an indication of authority becoming insecure and perhaps even a little frightened.

GP had a clear understanding of the definition of a university, of the crucial role it plays in structuring a society. There were inevitably, on occasion, arguments and debates about the structure of this institution among the vice-chancellor, the faculty and the students, and a few gheraos were thrown in. At the same time, there was flexibility and a place for dialogue. What we did not anticipate was that such flexibility would be misused to the disadvantage of the institution. When I look back on those five years that GP was vice-chancellor, I realise he was as eager as we were to create an institution of academic quality and wide accessibility. That perhaps explains why JNU became iconic for generations of students and academics, and also why in today’s ambience of anti-intellectualism, it is being targeted. GP’s connection with academia continued in later years through his work with the Indian Council of Social Science Research and other academic bodies, but JNU was the highlight.