ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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An Expanded Perspective of Doing Philosophy

Satya Pal Gautam (1951–2018)

Meena Dhanda ( is at the University of Wolverhampton and Pritam Singh ( is at the Oxford Brookes University.

Satya Pal Gautam was a scholar in philosophy but his wide-ranging interests in literature, poetry and music made him a wonderful conversationalist and teacher. He played a key role in building up teachers’ organisations in the Panjab University.

It was a bleak morning when the news of leading left-wing philosopher and teacher Satya Pal Gautam’s untimely death was shared by friends and family in frantic phone calls. His colleagues in the Department of Philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where he worked for the last 12 years (2004–16) of his long academic life, were waiting for him to join a seminar—ironically—on death. On that day, 30 January 2018, Gautam (as he was fondly called) died in his rented apartment in MunirkaDDA close to JNU, Delhi.

Gautam had a distinct presence, with a characteristic, brisk walk, usually matched by a measured tone of voice, for he loved to talk while he walked. Occasionally, his voice would rise with excitement as he got carried away with the conviction of the argument he was about to clinch. But he always listened to others, and listened carefully and well. He often paused to collect his thoughts, to formulate an answer and then to push the conversation to another level of intensity. With a phenomenal memory he would effortlessly recall conversations and events from the past to embellish his stories.

He rarely issued categorical injunctions but suggested gentle hypothetical ones. It was a mark of his respect for the autonomy of every individual—man, woman, child—that, typically, he chose never to decide matters for others; but rather offered his insights to make it easier for them to make their own choices. A votary of owning responsibility for oneself, and embodying one’s principles in the choices one makes, he lived an exemplary life of honest self-reflection. His commitment was reflected in every arena of his life: as a philosophy teacher and colleague, a public intellectual and social activist, a friend and comrade, and a university administrator at the highest position of a vice chancellor.

Gautam was cosmopolitan in his outlook. Born in a village (Masaniana, Hoshiarpur district, Punjab on 22 November 1951) he went to school and graduated in Jalandhar. He completed his BA in Philosophy, Political Science and English at Doaba College (1968–71) in a period of political radicalism: many of the Naxalites who studied alongside him were to become his friends, along with activists of other mainstream left-oriented organisations. His love for literature bloomed early too, as he became the editor of the Hindi section of the college magazine. Since he came from a rural landowning family of Brahmins—a minority social grouping among Punjabi Brahmins—he shared the sense of the personal journey made by his intellectual comrades from farming backgrounds. He eschewed the taken-for-granted priestly status of Brahmins that would otherwise have made him an intellectual by birth: light-heartedly, he would sometimes call himself a “Jat Brahmin.” He wanted to emphasise the distance he too had traversed from village farmlands to university teaching.

He joined Panjab University, Chandigarh as an MA student in philosophy in 1971 and wrote his dissertation on “Dialectical and Historical Materialism.” After passing with a first class and first position in the university, he became a lecturer in philosophy in 1977 and was promoted to Reader in 1989. He went on to head the department from 1994 to 1997.

Teacher and Activist

Throughout his time at the Panjab University, Gautam engaged in left-wing teachers’ activism. It was perhaps a price he paid for his activism that his promotion to Readership was stymied for so long by the right-wing dominance of Panjab University’s governing bodies.

Gautam played a key role in strengthening the Panjab University Teachers’ Association (PUTA) as secretary in 1984–85. At this juncture, left-wing teachers debated many times whether it was right to spend one’s time and energies to defend the rights of a reasonably prosperous middle-class section of society. But, the fear that the PUTA too would be taken over by right-wing elements led Gautam and his intellectual allies to contest successive elections to keep such elements at bay. So as not to be swallowed up by draining trade union work, a group of teachers, led by Pritam Singh, formed the Socialist Teachers Forum (STF) in order to debate issues of socialist theory and politics as well as participate as an autonomous bloc in the PUTA. Gautam was a central figure in the STF, which engaged with all tendencies of the left, including discussions with Harkishan Singh Surjeet of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—Jagjit Singh Anand of the CPI and Krishan Kant (elected to the Lok Sabha from Chandigarh in 1977–80 and later the Vice President of India) from the Janata/Socialist tendency. The PUTA has continued to play a key role in strengthening the Punjab Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations (PFUCTO) and the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations (AIFUCTO) to defend academic integrity in higher education and bolster the bargaining power of teachers. Gautam’s work with the PUTA in the 1980s was formative in building this legacy.

From 1998 to 2004, he played a leading role in the governance of Panjab University as a member of the senate, the syndicate and the board of finance. All vice chancellors depended upon his advice—his influence was such that he was jokingly called “the real vice-chancellor.” Deservedly, he went on to become the vice chancellor of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Rohilkhand University of Bareilly from 2009 to 2012. In this role, he earnestly attempted to institute academic quality standards across institutions governed by the university.

Alongside his academic, administrative, pedagogical and trade union work, Gautam was erudite and discerning in his appreciation of cinema, music, theatre, and poetry. He wrote a memorable preface to a collection of Punjabi poems by Amarjit Chandan, a left-wing Punjabi poet. Gautam had a large circle of friends among the literary and artistic community of Punjab, Chandigarh, Delhi and other parts of India. He was perhaps the sole philosopher in the city of Chandigarh with whom creative artists—photographers, painters, sculptors, theatre actors and directors—discussed heady questions of ontology, authenticity, choice, representation, beauty, justice, and the ethics of violence. He introduced the appreciation of art cinema to the city, arranging screenings, talks and discussions with leading directors from the parallel cinema movement and scholars from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India.

Meeting Joan Baez

During his two visits as a scholar to the United Kingdom (UK) at the University of Oxford and at the University of Liverpool, we had the pleasure of hosting him in Oxford and taking him to a concert of his favourite singer Joan Baez. Meeting her was perhaps the most exciting moment in Gautam’s life. As our common friend Asit Jolly writes,

one wall in his living room in Chandigarh was adorned with large photographs of an obviously delighted Gautam alongside Joan Baez. He talked about his meeting with her for months after with a happy gleam in his eye.

From his time in Oxford, Gautam also built enduring emotional bonds with our friends from a Western Punjabi background. Indeed, he had close friendships throughout his life with writers, intellectuals, artists and social activists from Pakistan, due to his strong belief in the shared cultural heritage of Punjabiyat. When he retired from teaching in 2017, he selected a few thousand of his collection of books to donate to the library of Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan in Delhi, a Punjab studies research centre. His vast collection of literature in Punjabi and Hindi was matched by a rich music collection regularly savoured by his visitors.

Gautam’s love for the Punjabi language marked his very handwriting—crafted beautifully, like calligraphy. He was mindful of the tendency of some urban Punjabi Hindu elites to show disinterest and even varying degrees of hostility to the language. He took this to be one of the sources of sectarian communal divisions in Punjab. In contrast to the disdain of Hindu elites, Gautam’s organic link to Punjabi language and culture led to remarkable contributions to enriching and popularising the language. These contributions are truly unique. Notably, he will be remembered for his scholarly articles in Punjabi on leading Western philosophers. These articles were so highly appreciated that a group of Punjabi TV documentary makers were planning to record Gautam delivering a series of philosophy lectures in Punjabi. They had fixed dates to record these lectures but he died a few days before recording was to start.

His Philosophical Mother

In 2006 and 2007, Gautam wrote extended book-length essays on Jean Paul Sartre, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Simone de Beauvoir for a Punjabi magazine Hun (Now). His passion for the philosophy of de Beauvoir was deep. She was his “philosophical mother,” as he put it. He made a special journey to a library in Ohio, United States (US), as if on a pilgrimage, to access her correspondence with her lover, Nelson Algren, an American novelist. Cupping one of her tear-stained letters in his hands, he said to his accompanying friend: “Look Biba, I am holding her tears in my hands.” Wherever he went he looked for books by de Beauvoir, or on her. Choosing to introduce her writings and thought to the Punjabi-speaking world was a singular act of love and devotion to a woman philosopher overshadowed by her more celebrated partner, Sartre (who Gautam deeply admired).

As in his study, so in his teaching, he was consistently supportive and respectful to his female philosophy students. One of his last PhD students to complete her dissertation with him in JNU, Zairunisha says “He was not only a teacher, but my best friend.” She describes him as a “wonderful and amazing” person with whom “anything could be discussed.” He was “always encouraging and positive.” In the good old days of chalks and blackboards—which Meena remembers as his former student—Gautam would use his neat and orderly writing to initiate a dialogue in class. The discussion was often provocative and intense. This pedagogical approach was not liked by all students, especially those who were disturbed by his challenge to received thinking. He reproved students who mechanically took notes instead of engaging in conversation: the active articulation of ideas in an unfettered environment was his way of doing philosophy.

Gautam’s students went on to research and teach in several universities in India and abroad. Compared to the curriculum taught in the University of Oxford, where Meena went for her DPhil in 1987, the syllabus that Gautam taught in Panjab University was path-breaking. He taught Simone de Beauvoir, Stanley Cavell, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, R D Laing, Karl Marx, Jean Paul Sartre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein in the days when most philosophy syllabi across the world remained mired in crusty academicism. His radical approach to teaching social and political philosophy and the philosophy of literature was a sign of his cutting-edge thinking.

Gautam moved to JNU in 2004 as a professor of Philosophy. In his role as chairperson from 2005 to 2007, he built from scratch the university’s Centre for Philosophy. This experience opened doors for him and his new students. He participated in conferences and gave lectures in South Korea, Pakistan, UK, US, Turkey and across Western and Eastern Europe. He brought back reflective experience, which he used to update the teaching of philosophy in India through his work with the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. However, his vision of the importance of philosophy extended beyond formal institutions, classrooms and textbooks. This vision remained a continuous part of his life as a philosopher from Punjab to JNU and beyond.

From this expanded perspective of doing philosophy, he was particularly proud of having translated Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder’s best-selling novel Sophie’s World into Hindi in 2016. This book held special significance for Gautam because of its format as a novel about a teenage girl and a philosopher who introduces her to philosophical ideas and the history of world philosophy. It is written from Sophie’s perspective as she discovers new ways of thinking—for Gautam, this was the most effective way of popularising philosophy as an activity of clarification of thought. He was also working on a Punjabi translation before he died.

Friends, Laughter and Children

Gautam’s last public lecture was on professor Daya Krishna on 6 January 2018. He was unhappy that he had to miss our daughter’s wedding as it coincided with his lecture commitment. Gautam did not marry, nor did he have any children of his own, but he was a remarkable father figure to the children of his siblings and friends. He took keen interest in their development and often developed friendships with them, independent of his relation with their parents. His prudence and his conviviality enabled him to form distinct and long-term personal friendships with different people—some of whom did not get along with each other, either due to mundane animosities or to deeper regional, religious, class or caste distinctions.

These were borders he crossed easily, as he entered many worlds. He was quiet in his acts of kindness and particularly protective of those who worked for him, ensuring that they were treated with dignity in as non-exploitative a manner as was possible within relationships of subordination. Underneath his reserved public persona there was also a mischievous Gautam, brimming with insights and anecdotes, who sat for hours drinking merrily with friends and who laughed heartily with children.

He has left behind an acute absence in many lives—his comrades, ex-students, old friends, colleagues, drinking buddies, helpers, and immediate family. He is survived by his father, his siblings and their children, who he cared for as his own.


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