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West Bengal: Business as usual

EducationWorld May 13 | Education News EducationWorld

When the comrades-weary West Bengal electorate ended 34 years of uninterrupted rule in the state by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government, and overwhelmingly voted in the Trinamool Congress party led by Didi (sister) Mamata Banerjee in May 2011, it believed it was voting for poribortan (change). Two years later, it’s becoming increasingly clear they voted for more of the same.

One of the defining features of three decades of Left Front rule in the state was the free run given by the CPM to its mixed-up intellectuals, youth wing and apparatchiks to call the shots and routinely run amok in the state’s 18 universities and 374 colleges. In the process, West Bengal’s higher education institutions, which right up to the 1970s were renowned for scholarship and research and acknowledged the best countrywide, were run into the ground. Today, while employers still accord a modicum of respect to degree certificates of Presidency and Jadavpur universities, degrees of other universities of the state are regarded a joke.

But on April 10 it became more than apparent that after voting in Banerjee and the TMC into Writer’s Building, Kolkata, it’s business as usual in West Bengal academia. On the day, a posse of TMC cadres or sympathisers ran amok on the campus of Presidency University, Kolkata (estb. 1817), widely acknowledged as West Bengal’s best arts, science and commerce university, and which shortly after her election victory, Banerjee had promised to transform into a world-class education institution.

In the mayhem, the historic baker Laboratory — established in 1913 by Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose and made famous by globally renowned scientists Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha — was vandalised. According to media reports quoting TMC sources, the attack on Presidency was prompted by heckling of the chief minister and finance minister Amit Mitra in Delhi by members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) — the youth wing of the CPM — protesting the death in Kolkata on April 2 of Sudipto Gupta (23), a political science student and SFI activist, while participating in a rally protesting Banerjee’s decision to postpone college union elections. Apart from running amok in Presidency, TMC cadres vandalised over 1,000 offices of the CPM in Hooghly, Howrah, Bankura, Birbhum, North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia, Cooch Behar and Darjeeling districts.

“The police were mute spectators to the whole incident. They also beat up students and teachers who accused them of inaction. The criminals weren’t students but a group of hooligans with TMC flags who attacked students, chased teachers and smashed panes,” says Malabika Sarkar, vice chancellor of the university. 

Curiously, Banerjee is yet to make a direct statement on the Presidency violence leaving it to her senior ministers Partha Chatterjee, Bratya Basu and Subrata Mukherjee, who have singled out vice chancellor Sarkar, registrar Prabir Dasgupta and even the campus gate-keeper Pappu Singh for “inciting trouble”, to respond. Moreover, they dismissed the incident as “trivial’’ and described it as “staged’’ before retracting the latter allegation.

However, the Presidency University Mentor Group, constituted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and globally respected academics who have volunteered to upgrade the varsity to world-class status, has spoken up for vice chancellor Sarkar and demanded a “thorough and impartial investigation” into the incident. “We publicly affirm our full support for vice chancellor Malabika Sarkar and commend her for the wisdom, courage and dignity with which she dealt with a most aggravating situation. We demand a thorough and impartial investigation of the violence perpetrated by outsiders on our campus. We want to see the guilty swiftly brought to book,” said a press statement issued on April 15 by the Mentor Group. Earlier on April 12, West Bengal’s governor and ex-officio chancellor of the university M.K. Narayanan publicly apologised to students for having failed to protect them.

Meanwhile even as a committee of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission chaired by Amal Mukherjee, former principal of the erstwhile Presidency College, is investigating the incident, the vandalism has sparked severe criticism from West Bengal’s academic community. “Right around the world students are becoming increasingly politically conscious and vocal. By banning political activity on campuses and preventing teachers from speaking their minds on political matters, the TMC government is allowing the political space to be captured by thugs and criminals bereft of any sense of our history, heritage or culture. What the vandals have done in Presidency is happening day in and day out in education institutions across the state without being reported,’’ says Sukanta Bhattacharya, associate professor of economics at the University of Calcutta.

Quite obviously West Bengal’s academic and intellectual renaissance is on Didi’s back burner.

Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

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