The undisputed supremo and leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), which ended 34 years of uninterrupted, disastrous communist rule over West Bengal in 2011, chief minister Mamata Banerjee is all set to emerge as a national kingmaker in the aftermath of General Election 2019, now less than a year away.
But even as she is busy cobbling a grand national alliance (mahagathbandhan) of political parties to oust the ruling BJP at the Centre, she continues to struggle with ongoing unrest, hunger-strikes and dharnas in the state’s most reputed institutes of higher education, including Presidency University (estd.1817), Jadavpur University (1955) and Calcutta Medical College and Hospital (1835).
Presidency College, which was conferred the status of an independent university in 2010, has been witnessing massive protests since August 3 with students having staged an indefinite sit-in before the main block demanding approval to move into the unfinished Eden Hindu hostel, which has been shut down for renovation since 2015. According to Presidency University vice chancellor Anuradha Lohia, the hostel cannot be declared fit for occupation unless the PWD (public works department) completes its work for which it has requested a further five-months time window.
Meanwhile earlier this year (January 20), the day on which the bicentenary celebrations of Presidency University (PU) — the state’s showpiece university — ended, Dr. Sugata Bose, professor of oceanic history and affairs at Harvard University and chairman of the Presidency Mentor Group (PMG) whose members included economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, requested the chief minister to dissolve the group “as it has served its purpose”. The high-powered PMG comprising 11 eminent academics was constituted with great fanfare in 2011 to suggest ways and means to transform this prestigious varsity into a “pre-eminent institution of international repute”.
Its abrupt dissolution has baffled academics in West Bengal and has left several questions hanging in the air. Among them: What are PMG’s recommendations? To what extent has the state government implemented them? Had the PMG been dissolved because it was an exercise in futility? And has PMG left its job unfinished?
Similarly in Jadavpur University’s once highly-reputed engineering school, the vacancy count this year is way higher than last year. School-leavers opting for engineering studies reportedly prefer to write the joint entrance examination of the National Institutes of Technology, Silchar and Agartala (ranked below JU in the HRD ministry’s latest National Institutional Ranking Framework). The state’s intelligentsia attributes the lack of public interest in JU to recurring students’ agitations. On July 10, students staged a hunger strike protesting abolition of the 40-year-old entrance exam for admission into six liberal arts subjects — English, comparative literature, history, Bengali, political science and philosophy — which coincided with opening of the admission counseling time window for engineering disciplines.
Simultaneously, a hostel accommodation allotment issue sparked a 14-day hunger strike by students of Calcutta Medical College and Hospital which began on July 10 and ended only after the administration agreed not to restrict allocation of accommodation in the new 11-storey college’s hostel building to freshers.
Seven years after TMC, led by Banerjee ended 34 years of levelling-down communist rule in West Bengal and promised “positive change” in the state’s education sector, the academy is beleaguered with frequent campus violence, student protests over trivial issues, mass copying and irregularities in admission procedures. According to Sukanta Bhattacharya, associate professor of economics at Calcutta University, instead of orderly reforms, the TMC government has been busy infiltrating the party’s youth cadres into the academy hitherto dominated by CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) students and faculty unions. Moreover, its arbitrary ad hoc reforms have resulted in continuous campus unrest which has prompted a steady second flight from even the state’s most reputed institutions of higher education.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)