Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
The mysterious death on August 10 of Swapnadip Kundu, a first-year Bengali literature student of Kolkata’s high-ranked Jadavpur University (JU, estb.1905), because of alleged ragging by a group of senior students has once again brought the issue of harassment and ragging into the national spotlight. Thus far, 13 students, including three former students, have been arrested for abetment of suicide.
Swapnadip’s death has sent shockwaves across the state because JU is West Bengal’s show-piece university ranked #4 nationally in EducationWorld’s government multidisciplinary universities rankings 2023-24, and #4 by the Union education ministry’s NIRF University Rankings as well.
With ragging continuing in Bengal’s top-ranked varsity, it is a clear indicator that the recommendations of the anti-ragging committee constituted in 2009 under the chairmanship of former Central Bureau of Investigation director R.K. Raghavan which inter alia recommended separate hostel accommodation for first-year students and installation of CCTVs, are not being followed in West Bengal’s 26 universities.
According to academics in Kolkata, one of the major reasons for persistence of ragging in JU is weak administration. After the nine year tenure of last full-time vice chancellor Suranjan Das ended on May 31, the VC’s office has been vacant because of an ongoing dispute between the state government and the Central government-appointed governor of West Bengal C.V. Ananda Bose, ex officio chancellor of all universities statewide.
As reported in June by this correspondent, although this is a ceremonial office, Governor Ananda Bose suo motu appointed interim vice chancellors in 11 state universities (including JU) whose appointments were revoked by the state’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) government. Therefore on August 10 when Swapnadip died, JU didn’t have a VC and the offices of three deans were also vacant. Moreover, student union elections traditionally held annually, have not been held regularly over the past decade after the TMC government’s clampdown on them following incidents of violence. The last student union election at JU was held in 2020. So there wasn’t a students’ governing council at JU when this young scholar met his end, either.
Moreover, with the UGC discontinuing its grant of Rs.4 crore per year and the state government also having slashed its budget for JU with dues pending since 2019, JU is experiencing a serious funds crunch. Evidently despite being the show-piece university of Bengal, JU has been floundering in a sea of troubles.
Therefore, within the students’ community there is apprehension that the state government is all set to raise tuition fees, which have remained static for 22 years. Tuition fees are a hot potato subject in public higher education countrywide — especially in West Bengal, which was ruled by the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) for 34 uninterrupted years (1977-2011).
Currently, monthly tuition fees are Rs.75 for arts stream students, Rs.150 for science, and Rs.200 for engineering. Moreover, the hostel fee has remained frozen at Rs.25 per month since 1970. With teachers and student unions, continuing to be affiliated with the CPM, prospects of their agreeing to fee hikes to shore up JU’s finances are dim.
Within a week of Kundu’s alleged suicide on the JU campus, without consulting the state government, Governor Ananda Bose appointed Buddhadeb Sau, a professor of mathematics at JU, as its interim vice chancellor on August 19. Sau’s appointment despite his lack of ten years teaching experience which is mandatory for the post of VC, his association with unions linked with RSS-BJP, his endorsement of economic status rather than caste as the criterion for reservations which aligns with the RSS’s agenda, have led to widespread public outrage and scepticism.
According to Nilasis Basu, secretary of the CPM-affiliated All India Students’ Association (AISA), the governor has “capitalised” on turmoil in the university to “indirectly pave the way for the RSS’ involvement” through Sau’s appointment as vice chancellor of JU. “This manoeuvring is part of a larger trend wherein individuals are strategically placed at the helm of the nation’s educational institutions to undermine their integrity,” wrote Basu in the popular anti-establishment online magazine The Wire (August 21).
With charges and counter-charges flying thick and a political slugfest taking centrestage following Swapnadip’s tragic death, teaching-learning is on the back burner in this showpiece state-funded university with female students being subjected to slut shaming on social media.
Campus chaos is bad news for Bengal where the GER (gross enrolment ratio) in higher education has experienced a steep fall. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education Report 2018, the state’s GER is 19.3 percent against the national average of 27.1 percent. With a large number of newly-emergent private universities capturing the limelight, and UGC having recently given the green light to foreign universities to establish campuses in India, government universities — especially state universities — are fast losing reputation. Jadavpur U is not an exception.