West Bengal – Rising student unrest

Against the backdrop of an estimated 31 million youth registered as unemployed in official employment agencies across the country and the BJP/NDA government at the Centre having abandoned all claims to generating 12 million new jobs per year, students in the country’s 39,000 colleges and 900 universities are becoming increasingly militant. The eastern seaboard state of West Bengal (pop. 91 million) is no exception.

Most of the state’s high profile education institutions have experienced strident student protests and agitations this year, including the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital (CMCH, estb.1835), Jadavpur University (JU, estb.1955) and Presidency University (PU, estb.1817). In July, JU experienced a four-day students’ hunger strike in protest against abolition of the university’s 40-year-old entrance exams for admission into six liberal arts subjects — English, comparative literature, history, Bengali, political science and philosophy. At CMCH and Presidency University, students protested hostel beds allotments which led to 14-day and 11-day hunger strikes.

Several deep-thinking academics in the state are inclined to link the recurrent unrest and agitations in West Bengal’s higher education institutions to inadequate student representation on college councils.

Under existing rules, student councils in undergrad colleges are headed by a president who is a teacher nominated by the principal or vice principal of the college. The state’s higher education ministry has now proposed two vice presidents instead of one, with the second VP being a students’ representative. Currently, the treasurer is nominated by the principal, vice principal or the teacher-in-charge of the college from among faculty. A new proposal is to induct a student assistant treasurer.

The rules regulating the constitution, functions, procedure of election and other matters relating to the students’ councils of state-aided universities and government-aided colleges in West Bengal are framed by the government following introduction of the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act, 2017. This Act needs to be amended to incorporate the new proposals.

The proposal to induct a student treasurer is welcomed by faculty representatives. “Students should also have a say in the expenses incurred by students’ unions,” says Partha Pratim Biswas, a construction engineering lecturer at JU. “Besides, if one of the two vice presidents is a student, there will be greater students’ representation in the administration which will improve student-faculty relations.”

While Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP), the student wing of the All India Trinamool Congress, has welcomed these proposals, rival unions including Students’ Federation of India (SFI), affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), West Bengal State Chhatra Parishad, the students’ wing of the Congress and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) discern a design to infiltrate TMCP representatives into student councils of undergrad colleges.

Within West Bengal’s beleaguered academy still suffering the after-effects of 34 years of uninterrupted rule over the state of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government (1977-2011), the dominant sentiment is that instead of restoring the autonomy of West Bengal’s colleges and universities, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has opted to emulate the classic communist strategy of infiltrating and capturing the state’s higher education institutions. This is prompting a slow and steady second exodus of faculty and students from the state’s institutions of higher education.
With General Election 2019 scheduled to be held next summer, Banerjee, who has emerged as a leading light — and possible prime ministerial candidate — of a proposed mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of opposition parties crystallising to take on the BJP juggernaut and allied parties, has little time or patience for dealing with recurrent students unrest, or the shenanigans of the TMCP’s ad hoc tinkering with the higher education system in her backyard, which are creating a groundswell of resentment in the state’s 25 universities and 374 undergrad colleges.

That’s a dangerous blindspot.

Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

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