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West Bengal: Trinamul fire

EducationWorld May 12 | Education News EducationWorld
Perhaps no politician in post-independence India’s history has precipitated as wild a run on her bank of goodwill as West Bengal’s mercurial chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Exactly a year ago when Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress party won a sweeping victory in the West Bengal legislative assembly elections to end 34 years of continuous rule of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government in the state, she was hailed as a messiah and saviour of the people, groaning under the weight and excesses of CPM Red Guards and apparatchiks.
 
But a series of intemperate acts and utterances of omission and commission — including the storming of a police station to free arrested Trinamul Congress (TC) goons, abusing the victim of a gang-rape atrocity, failure to abate the incidence of child deaths in government hospitals and forcing the resignation of a TC Union minister for railways for refusing to present a populist railway budget, among other lapses of judgement — have plunged Banerjee’s popularity in West Bengal and nationwide to the nadir. And the latest gaffe which has antagonised the state’s academia cabined, cribbed and confined under three decades of CPM rule, was the arbitrary arrest last month of two respected academics — an internationally acclaimed scientist and university professor — on flimsy charges.
 
On April 8, molecular biologist  Partha Sarathi Roy, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), was arrested for participating in a peaceful protest against the eviction of slum-dwellers of the Nonandanga area on the eastern fringe of Kolkata. Even though 62 protestors who had allegedly clashed with the police, were promptly released, Roy and six others were detained in police custody for nine days before being granted bail by an Alipore court on April 17.
 
Prof. Roy’s arrest and prolonged detention for peacefully protesting the eviction of bottom-of-the-pyramid slum-dwellers, aroused widespread indignation within the academic community in West Bengal and beyond. A protest letter addressed to prime minister Manmohan Singh and signed by 55 academics, social activists, writers, and foreign scholars (including US-based Nobel laureate Noam Chomsky) said the arrest and detention of Prof. Roy had “serious implications” for the “larger democratic ideals which this country espouses”.
 
Unimpressed by the protest of academia, four days later, Banerjee ordered the arrest of Prof. Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University (JU). His crime: forwarding a cartoon lampooning West Bengal’s chief minister by e-mail. Although Mahapatra was granted bail the next morning, once more, over 2,000 teachers and students of JU took to the streets of Kolkata to protest his arrest for exercising his fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. The protest march organised by Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association on April 18 stretched a distance of 4 km and included several former vice chancellors.
 
Addressing the mammoth protest rally, Abhijit Gupta, associate professor of English at JU, commented: “The use of party and state machinery to harass and intimidate Prof. Mahapatra should be condemned in the strongest of terms. Any mature government should be able to tolerate, and indeed welcome, criticism and dissent.”
 
But constitutional rights and academic proprieties are likely to be lost on chief minister Banerjee, a doughty practitioner of street-level agitational politics. Now academics in West Bengal — a state which prides itself on its academic tradition — are rueing their misfortune for having escaped from the CPM frying pan to land into the TC fire.
 
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
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