"Today, Panjab University is holding its 67th Convocation, celebrating the achievements of luminaries in the sciences and in many other areas of human knowledge and commemorating the makers of its great traditions, the pioneers such as Ruchi Ram Sahni, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and many others who built the very basis of the academic excellence of this University. In fact, the year of birth of Ruchi Ram Sahni is also the year of birth of another great Indian, Swami Vivekananda. The interactions which took place at that time between the intellectuals in Panjab and Bengali thinkers such as Vivekananda and Tagore, among others, also tell us that while we all have a shared pride in the centuries of history of learning and scholarship in Panjab, we are also connected to the rest of the country. Though sometimes it may appear that a thinker is an appropriation by some group or class, but in reality he belongs to all and is relevant to all.
It is appreciable that this University is continuing with its commendable tradition of honouring some of the outstanding Indian scientists, doctors, writers, educationists and leaders from industry. I wish to elaborate on the significance of the achievements of some of the scholars, scientists and thinkers who have made up the illustrious past of this university. In the present too, we have among us many such persons who have worked to enhance human welfare and to create a more healthy, just and equitable society. Many illustrious leaders and makers of the nation in many fields have been associated with the Panjab University, including colleagues of national and international stature. Such intellectual heights are achieved when `the mind is without fear and the head is held high’, when people of a nation, free from colonial domination, build their own frameworks of thought. What the thinkers in the years of the freedom struggle that led to Indian independence had given to the country was the sense that freedom of thought was invaluable, and that the exercise of this freedom was the one fundamental requisite for the creation of great institutions.
This quality informs the atmosphere of a true university. It must be free from constriction of thoughts or imposition of ideologies. Rigid conformity to particular beliefs or constraints on thinking is anathema to the spirit of academic freedom. If a person is allowed to think and work in his field without any need to restrict his ideas, he is well on the way to making tremendous headway in that field, and this is what is provided by the free university in a democratic country. It is true that a great deal depends on an individual’s own will and determination to make the most of the opportunity, and some may not recognize the value of such freedom as much as others do, but it is of benefit to all if such conditions of open-ness do exist.
It is no coincidence that many of our leading nation builders lived and worked at the same time in various fields of human endeavour, and now it is required that we assimilate and bring that learning together. In India, we have a more complete understanding of the relationship between Religion and Science. Spiritual pursuits and scientific pursuits have the same inspiration: the sense of enquiry. And it is the same with the study of social sciences and humanities. As we know, this university encompasses studies in a vast range of disciplines and subjects. Each discipline is valuable, if pursued with intellectual rigour and integrity and each has its own methods of investigation. But each discipline is also connected with another. The division between the areas of science and humanities is an artificial one, made for convenience sake, which we have adopted in the process of creating the institutions of academia. How can science not be human, if it is an activity carried on by human beings? How can humanities not be scientific if it has to properly observe its subjects? In the words of Vivekananda, it is in the balanced mind that understanding comes, `it is the calm, forgiving, well-balanced, equable mind that does the greatest amount of work.’ Further, he explains that it is the observation of the mind that is the most scientific investigation. `It may be easier to observe facts in the external world, for many instruments have been invented for the purpose, but in the internal world, we have no instrument to help us. Yet we know we must observe in order to have a real science. The instrument is the mind itself, whose powers can be concentrated in order to illuminate, thrown upon the mind itself, to know its own nature.’
Whether it is the intellectual world, or the sphere of religious faith, it is tolerance which is integral to both, and our traditions have taught us this. Even if some interpretations are critical of our myths or beliefs, should we not tolerate them? Is our self, our existence so weak, as to be threatened by a mere book or books? Here again, it is Vivekananda’s words that ring out: `Religion does not consist in doctrines of dogmas. It is not what you read, nor what dogmas you believe that is of importance, but what you realize. Books never make religions, but religions make books. No book ever created God, but God inspired all great books. No book ever created a soul. There is that beyond all books, beyond all creeds, beyond the vanities of this world, and that is the realization of God within yourself. So until your religion makes you realize God, it is useless. It reminds us of the donkey which carried a heavy load of sugar on its back but did not know the sweetness of it.’
When we refer to these percepts and insights from a philosopher, we might sometimes regard them as quotable quotes that someone has given us, and we might end up simply venerating them. But if we consider them carefully, we realize that these words are not from persons, or forms, but are voices from our past that tell us who we are, and also point out directions for the future. Today, we have enormous challenges in education. We are talking about the demographic dividend from a greater percentage of young people who will be crucial to the nation’s progress in the next twenty years. But how can we really equip the young people – which includes the young students present here – to contribute in the best way? It can be possible only if we turn our system around, including aspects of curriculum and evaluation, towards critical thinking rather than borrowing. We have an information overload from many sources, but these cannot be a substitute for thinking and critical interpretation. Again, what Vivekananda says is most relevant in the contemporary context: `We consider a man or woman educated if only they can pass some examinations and deliver good lectures. The education which does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for life, which does not bring out the strength of character, spirit of philanthropy, and the courage of a lion – is it worth the name? Real education is not for working like machines merely, and living a jellyfish existence. No-one can teach anybody. Within one there is all knowledge, even in a child it is so, and it requires only an awakening, and that much is the role of a teacher. But our pedagogues are making parrots of our children and ruining their brains by cramming a lot of subjects in them. Goodness gracious! What a fuss and fury about graduating, and after a few days all cools down! At last they cannot keep the wolf from the door!’ This is an important message for today. If we have degrees, and have a way of life which indulges in blind consumerism or outdated social practices, we will have lost the benefit of our education. If educated people, especially women, do not speak up for their rights, tolerate or even practice injustices such as female foeticide and violence, then the degree has not really contributed to their quality of life.
These are the challenges that lie before us even today. We must think about curriculum, or a programme of learning in the context of the twenty first century when the concerns of ecology, of human welfare and the welfare of the planet are equally imperative, and it is only a curriculum which relates and joins all these concerns and addresses them through critical thinking that will help us to make a crucial breakthrough. Approaches of a truly interdisciplinary nature are crucial. Thus, a well-defined curriculum is not a constraint, but actually a specific set of directions for a path of learning which is at the same time negotiable and open-ended. It is indispensable for the development of individual sensibilities which later coalesce to form social values. In the words of Paolo Freire, `Human ontological vocation is to be a subject who acts upon and transforms his/her world and in so doing moves towards new possibilities of fuller and richer life individually and collectively. This world is not static and closed , a given reality which must be accepted and adjusted to, but the material with which humans create themselves, overcoming the dehumanizing, daring to create the qualitatively new’.
For the students receiving their degrees on what is a momentous occasion in their lives, these ideas have a great meaning and resonance. It is certainly a privilege and an achievement to attain degrees of higher education at a premier university. Along with this justified sense of pride and achievement, there is also a sense of hope and expectation of what the future will bring. And it is also a time for planning the next stage of life, and of working in the competitive environment we see around us.
There is also a greater social responsibility that youth has to shoulder. There is a need to exercise judgement in looking at social issues and be part of the traditions of tolerance and respect that are characteristic of our pluralistic culture. The means of communication that technology has provided us should be used to facilitate social harmony and to cultivate a culture of healthy and civilized discussion on many of the pressing problems such as class and gender inequalities, and the needs of the less privileged in society, which we need to address with empathy and sincerity.
I conclude this address with the hope that with the grace of God, such self-realization and fulfillment of your most cherished goals will be granted to you, and you will continue to broaden your knowledge and work for the good of all in this world, and make your University and country even more proud. I wish you all success in your future academic and professional endeavours. I congratulate the distinguished persons who have received awards. I wish the University a great future ahead in the service of the country.