An Interview with Prof. Anjan Mukherji
Centre for Economic Studies & Planning, School of Social Sciences
Mansi: How and when did your journey with JNU begin? How has your experience been here over these years?
Prof. Mukherji: I joined the University in 1973; on 16 April if memory serves me right. I remember I had applied for the job while I was abroad in the US and received a telegram that I had been selected. The telegram was delivered to another Mukherji in the Physics department (he too was A Mukherji) but since he was far away from completing his degree, he realized that the telegram was for me. The telegram did not mention Economics (CESP had still not been formed.). And so I arrived in JNU. I have not regretted this decision.
The experience has been rewarding although the lack of support to research activities in social sciences, for most of my career, has been the most frustrating part of my experience. In this aspect, matters changed only around 2010 when I retired. At least now things appear to have changed. What did the University actually provide me with: we got the opportunity to build a programme up from scratch and that has been an opportunity which very few get. The University was fortunate in that students from all over India came at least in the initial phases, although later they were mainly from the metropolitan cities. But whatever there was good and great about the University was purely by accident; there was no great plan on the part of the University to build a great centre of learning. Whatever happened or whatever heights were reached were because accidentally some people got together, I am now convinced about that.
Mansi: You have been with the university from almost the very beginning, how do you see JNU having changed over the years that you have been here?
Prof. Mukherji: In some essential ways JNU has not changed at all: there appears to be still a directionless meandering hoping that some good people will come together: there is no active involvement in procuring them. The problem is that the definition of 'good' appears to have changed. But in some ways things have changed in that faculty members and students are provided with better facilities. Classrooms and lecture-halls look snazzy, there is internet everywhere with access to JSTOR and Science-Direct, but the toilets still stink.
In fact while I was in the University, I used to come in early and stay the whole day but used to go home for lunch- since I stayed in the Campus- this also was necessary to use the toilet at home rather than risk the vagaries of the situation in the school buildings. Except when I was Dean, the situation remained the same. Maybe just as I was told early on, that faculty and students are not entitled to certain things, but senior functionaries are. Clean loos and filing cabinets apparently belonged to this list. Cooling and heating was another. My room in CESP was on the third floor of SSS II and during the summer once, when I was Dean, I had to hold a meeting with senior people in the Administration; I decided to hold the meeting in the CESP room since I used to spend a part of the time each day upstairs; there were no coolers and all of them were made to sweat out and face what it was like in June on the top floor. But that had maybe some effect with coolers being sanctioned later on. On the CESP floor we were one cooler short and the Dean's office wanted to assure a cooler in my office in the CESP and I had to tell them that my room upstairs should be the one without the cooler.
So I do not see much change in a real sense. I am told that with an increase in the student size, retiring faculty not being replaced in a timely manner, facilities are under some pressure. In any case there is a real problem which people do not seem to appreciate: good faculty does not grow, low hanging, on trees, to be easily plucked off. These are an endangered species and need to be carefully nurtured. Clearly this is not appreciated at all. I had expected the JNU to take a leadership role in changing the University system but while the JNU had a premier position earlier, this position appears to have been surrendered.
Mansi: You have witnessed university systems at different places within India and abroad. How do you think JNU is different from these places?
Prof. Mukherji: I was once so frustrated with the situation in JNU towards the later part of my years at JNU that I actually went around spending time in different Universities, two or three days at a time. Unfortunately I realized that JNU with all its warts, was still the best place among Indian Universities. At the same time, almost any Institution abroad would provide a better environment. I remember once I was in Japan and I was told that they were sorry that I would be disturbed by the construction activity: all required to admit the needs of a physically handicapped student who was to be admitted later. Imagine a physically handicapped person on a wheelchair trying to come to the School of Social Science Building II. A professor from abroad wanted to meet some of us and we had to schedule the meeting in the administrative block since he was on a wheelchair! As I said we have not managed to think ahead. Even very recently, I was chairing a lecture in the so-called Convention Centre, the pride of JNU and there was no microphone which could be hung close to the speaker's mouth, a standard feature everywhere. The speaker suffered from a low voice and the table microphones were inadequate.
I think the purpose of a University is to be a centre of excellence; maybe in the various brochures, JNU also says this somewhere but being part of a whole University system it is subjected to various measures which appear to be counterproductive. Let me give an example; in the early years, we used to admit students on the basis of an interview; these interviews were really good because we could gauge the students aptitude based on what the student had been exposed to. The system changed in mid 1980's. The three best students I taught during 1973-2010 were all admitted during the previous system and I am reasonably sure that two of them would not have made it under the current system. We have moved into a system which is perhaps easier to administer given the great demand for JNU seats but surely quality is bound to suffer. Of course there are still outstanding students; these are the random things, not anything which the University either strives for or encourages.
Mansi: Being a Professor Emeritus, do you wish certain goals or vision which this university or your school should adopt?
Prof. Mukherji: Being a Professor Emeritus is a privilege and honour certainly; but look at what this great distinction actually confers: an ID card which says Permanent on the top and is valid for five years (presumably because we are not expected to live longer?), a right to perambulate the corridors and look into some one's office if that person is not too embarrassed to be caught lurking there. And a right to supervise students while perambulating corridors. Apart from the last, the only other difference that I can see is that on other retired professors' ID it says RETIRED on the top instead of Permanent. Is retirement not Permanent? I am told that JNU is not to be blamed but it is the School or Centre's responsibility as if the School or the Centre can conjure up facilities. Of course, JNU is not especially to blame in this respect. Recently, the ICSSR while conferring its presumably prized Jawaharlal Nehru National Fellowship, mentioned that the stipend was Rs. 25000 per month and one could not have any other employment during the tenure basically converting the terms and conditions of the entire award to a post-doctoral fellowship. There is a lack of parity between what the system says and what it does and no, it is not only the money involved. On Googling "Professor Emeritus" one finds the rather rude explanation: "Dude, you are retired". Maybe that's the reality and to expect anything else is foolhardy.
I would like to hope that one day maybe this dichotomy between what the University does and what it says or implies, would end. I have also witnessed a lack of appreciation of scholarship: it has become so bad that routinely when I have praised some person, I have been asked, do I know the person concerned? On saying that I do not, but have looked at the person's work, I am generally treated with great disbelief. It is expected that one praises only those who are one's friends or students or share the same school of thought. This is a very serious problem in academia and I do hope the School and the University does not succumb and fall into such a hole.
Mansi: Any special memory of JNU that you would like to share with us?
Prof. Mukherji: There were two aspects of being a faculty in JNU which were quite unique. The first was being in a special position to see the growth and development of shy students from various corners of India flowering into scholars of repute. I would say in my opening lecture to MA students that I shall feel really happy when I am able to teach future classes from the work done by students in this class. Fortunately in one or two cases this did happen.
The other attractive part of being in JNU was the campus and the walk in the evening up to the JNU Eastern gate and back: it is really great to find such a place within the city. I hope it is preserved and maintained. And of course raising a child on the campus was so much easier than elsewhere. I learn with great regret that the dogs have taken over the campus.
Mansi: A message you would like to give to the JNU student community?
Prof. Mukherji: I think it would be presumptuous on my part do so. But my suggestion, rather than a message: Carefully analyze any argument presented; question everything you read.