An interview with Dr Mathew on the 30th anniversary of ISS.
How did it all begin? From your childhood growing up in Kerala (India) to teaching in the U.S and Europe, finally setting up a think-tank like ISS in New Delhi, how has it been like especially the challenges involved considering the scale of what you have achieved over these thirty years?
My childhood was one of the most challenging phases of my life; perhaps the most crucial I would say that gave me the strength and courage to persist towards what I believe in, even to this very day. My father passed away when I was 15 years old and I was the eldest to be with my mother supporting six siblings. My mother was a primary school teacher and that period, where I had learnt to support her and our family inherently taught me what it means to serve people and make a difference in their lives. Later in life, I lost my youngest brother when he was 23 years old. So when I look back at my life, the loss of my loved ones have had considerable impact on how I think of those people, millions across the country who are deprived of even basic needs and rights. As for achievements, they are a result of highly committed people who stood by my side and continue to do so and believing in what I want to do. It is as a team and more importantly as a community that we have managed to make a difference. Every phase including the two periods of stay in the United States and regular visits to America nearly twice every year since 1999 have been a learning process for me personally.
About your period of stay in the United States, what inspired you to go there and importantly, what motivated you to get back to India?
That perhaps is the simplest to talk about and something that I really cherish recollecting. I have always been fond of America, the land of opportunities, that has motivated me in leaps and bounds. The manner in which people are at liberty to pursue their passion and ambition is incredible in America. Listening to their experiences and seeing them frequently was highly inspirational. Another significant aspect was the education system. The investments in the education sector by all including corporates reflected all through my period of stay in the US. And of course, the hard working Indian Community with whom I had the opportunity to interact and learn from was another factor. In fact, in1985, when thinking of the various social issues facing India and the need to actively pursue research such matters, I recalled a sign board saying ‘Social Sciences’ put up at the University of Chicago when I was at the South Asian Studies Centre. It is this sign board that helped me name our research organization as Institute of Social Sciences after I returned from the U.S. Engaging with brilliant minds was an opportunity in itself which I looked forward to everyday when I was in Chicago, but the thought that I could do much more for my people back in India, who do not have access to basic schooling, kept driving me to the decision of getting back to India. Even today, over 70 % of the country’s population lives in its villages across the country. From strengthening the basic tenets of democracy, preventing violation of human rights especially women, to bringing the marginalized to the centre-stage, warrant attention not only from policy-makers but research scholars and the civil society across the world especially Indian citizens. Even after all these years, I realize there is critical need for more research and constructive activism to make a difference in the lives of the people. My motto is integrating research with action.
Your film “Swaraaj” has been to nearly 30 international film festivals winning over 7 awards including the President’s gold medal; what inspired you to take such a project up?
The film was made through the efforts and commitment of the ISS family and its friends. Since its inception, ISS has always been and will continue to be committed towards women’s empowerment. We host, organize and train women from villages all over the country to conscientise them about their constitutional rights. The country cannot progress without women being empowered to realize their true potential and the values they bring to the society. Through a medium such as the feature film as well as documentaries, we try to bring this issue to wider audience. This year the theme for our women’s political empowerment day celebration was ‘Violence against Women and the role played by village councils (Panchayats)’ across the country, which was supported by UNICEF. Our next film-project is again on prevention of violence against women which is in its preparatory stage.
What are your plans ahead through the Institute of Social Sciences?
To march ahead with even more fervor and enthusiasm to ensure that the pillars of democracy reach the heart of India. At present, we are strategizing to expand our scope of research and activism programs that call for significant capacity-building and raising resources from across the world.