An interview with George Mathew, Chairman, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi
Wafa: When and how did your association with JNU begin? What were your first impressions about this University?
George Mathew My association with Jawaharlal Nehru University began in 1974 when I joined M.A at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems. I completed M.A, M. Phil and Ph. D in 1980. As a young scholar I could weave an academic, social, and political life that changed my world view. My first impression about this university was one of a world of academic excellence where new ideas are generated through clash of ideas and conflict of ideologies.
Wafa: How would you describe your years at JNU?
George Mathew During my six years in JNU – (1974—1980) I found that JNU had a pool of academic talent and it attracted eminent academics on its faculty from all over India. Apart from this, the students who got admission to post graduate and M. Phil courses came from all parts of the country from varied social background and their life together in the university created the best academic environment. JNU campus was a social political laboratory. The fraternity and camaraderie one developed in JNU stands in good stead everywhere, inside the country, all over the world and in one's areas of work.
Wafa: Have you visited JNU recently?
George Mathew I last visited JNU on June 18, 2012 at the invitation of Vice –Chancellor Prof. M. Sushir Kumar Sopory to participate in the interactive session of distinguished alumni with a committee of expert peers from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). This was an extraordinary occasion when the discussions took me down the memory lane.
Wafa: How has JNU shaped your perception in relation to your profession? Do you think JNUites do things differently in your field (academics)?
George Mathew JNU has provided opportunities for testing one's ideas and theories with like minded friends as well as ideological foes. The political, healthy and intellectually sound environment at JNU gave us enormous confidence to face the world and its many challenges better. There is no doubt that JNU has become a trademark over the years across the country and even in Ivy league Universities abroad, with its academic achievements and fame brought to it by its faculty and old students.
Wafa: What was the trajectory that your career took after you left JNU? How is JNU different from various other institutions you have been a part of (if at all you think it is)?
George Mathew Immediately after completion of my Ph. D. I was invited by the University of Chicago, as a visiting fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies. In early 1980's India was recovering from the turbulent times it passed through in the 70's when even democracy had been challenged. After spending a year in Chicago in 1982, I had to take a decision whether to continue there or return to India. I decided to return, to be part of the country's journey on the path of human development. Concentration of power in the hands of the few was the norm in our country; it had pushed the people to the margins. Instead of people's power, the country had an oligopoly of power. Therefore, I decided to work for the cause: "power to the people" by integrating research with action which was a rallying point for many intellectuals and activists. When I used to meet committed democrats, civil society and human rights activists of the time, the idea got crystallized to start a forum dedicated to systematic study of social issues and problems that confront India in a trans-disciplinary perspective. Against this back ground, the Institute of Social Sciences was founded to create knowledge and share with it with policy makers, workers, practitioner's organizations and others. The primary aims of the institute were the evolution of an informed and action oriented public opinion. It is a matter of great satisfaction that an Institute which started with only an idea without financial resources could find its feet. The institute has made modest contributions in areas such as decentralization of power, local governance, empowerment of women, fiscal decentralization, multi level federalism, and Human Rights to name a few, nationally and internationally.
Wafa: Which aspect of JNU did you love the most when you were a student here? Any particular memories that you would like to share?
George Mathew JNU was not only an intellectual centre but it also the hot bed of politics which had responded to the emerging socio political situations. For me JNU was a socio political laboratory. In a sense JNU'S exceptional intellectual ferment was grounded in the reality which showed the way where one should spend the rest of one's life.
The time we passed through in JNU during the political emergency in 1975 was most memorable. I was on the old campus in the married students flat and we passed day and night with agony and anxiety when many of our friends and student leaders were arrested and put behind bars. The Congress party's defeat and a couple of articles I wrote in BLITZ at that time as research fellow of JNU come to my mind now.
Wafa: Is there anything in your life which can be dedicated to JNU?
George Mathew The work I have done through the Institute of Social Sciences for the last 27 years can modestly contribute to the academic life, especially to social sciences. Exchange of ideas, field work experience by our researchers and JNU's doctoral students will be very important and it can enormously strengthen JNU's contribution to the knowledge base in the country. I will be happy to share my ideas and experiences with JNU fora on a regular basis. Since the Institute and JNU campus are near each other there is a lot of potential in this regard.
Wafa: What message would you like to give to the present JNU student community?
George Mathew We have entered the 21st century with great hopes. But the challenges we face are enormous. The JNU students must have a vision and mission for the future; a vision to be change agents and the mission to build a humane society. This can evolve from their campus life, discussions, debates, and discourses in the classrooms as well. Then, once they are committed to a clear mission in their life, that is to build a humane society, whichever career or profession they choose, with dedication and hard work they can achieve. There may be difficulties on the way, but one should never give up.