Posts Tagged ‘Bengal’

The Times of India carried an editorial yesterday on the on-going unrest in Jadavpur University (JU), and blamed the political polarization of students, teachers and administrators alike for the sorry situation in which the University finds itself today. Even as this assessment distressed me as an alumnus of JU, I could not help but agree with it completely.

Politics in university campuses as such is not an undesirable thing, for politics is not divorced from any branch of society. In fact, the values and philosophies that drive the nation as a whole, like freedom of thought, equality of opportunity and democracy in decision making, should inform all aspects of life and activity on university campuses as well. After all, these are the places where the minds and opinions of the future stakeholders of society are moulded, and if this all-important process does not take place in an atmosphere inspired by debate and dissenting opinions, then the extension of this tradition to society at large shall remain at stake.

The problem arises, however, when concepts like democracy and freedom are interpreted in a loose and self-serving manner. The recent protests following the decision of the university to install surveillance cameras in the campus illustrates the point. The student union is opposing, by means of the practice of gherao and class boycott which it has mastered over the years, what is purely a security measure on the ground that it infringes upon their personal liberty. Any person remotely acquainted with the social culture on JU campus can well understand what the union means when it talks about ‘personal liberty’ and ‘democratic space’. In fact, one of the posters that they have put up in protest could not make the meaning clearer: it reads ‘Let us breathe freely’, the implicit assumption being that the word ‘breathe’ be interpreted in the most liberal sense to include inhalation of every kind of narcotic effluvium, presumably as tribute to a culture which the rest of the world has left behind in the eighties. One does not wish to sound sarcastic, but do these students sit in protest when their liberty is taken for a toss in public places like shopping malls, airports and stadia? Do they even raise their voices above a whimper when they go on to work in offices where they are denied access to every conceivable social networking and emailing site?

Student activism in JU in recent years has been completely misdirected, and most of their protests are desperate attempts to retain their relevance amongst students. The union seldom raises issues that really matter to students. Take for instance the issue of working hours. At present, the entire university, like a post office, ‘shuts down’ at 5.00 pm, along with all its libraries, classrooms and discussion halls, and does not open until the staff arrive at their leisure the next morning. (A visiting professor once quipped that the emblem of the university, which is the image of a burning lamp, ought to be replaced by that of a padlock to do justice to its true culture!). As a result students find it very difficult to work on group assignments after class hours. These, and many other real issues, like improvement in teaching and evaluating standards, quality of faculty, provision of residential facilities, restructuring of curriculum, increase in the number of exchange programs, involvement of students in placement activities and the like are never raised by the unions. Instead, they waste their energies protesting vociferously against fee hike and reduction in the number of holidays, matters which have no bearing whatsoever on academic standards. (If anything, an increase in fee would at least reduce the University’s dependence on the state government for funds.)

It would be unfair to blame the students alone for their misguided ‘political’ behaviour. The other stakeholders – faculty, staff and administration, are equally misguided in their convictions and commitments. They are all aware of the importance of politics and political awareness in the campus, but they interpret it as affiliation to either of the two powers that are constantly fighting it out in the halls of government and on the streets outside. As a result, the colonnades inside become indistinguishable from the streets outside. The campus loses its academic environment, and the public exchequer is drained to train young men and women in the martial art of gherao and dharna. That politics is fundamentally a tool for collective decision making, and can be employed in constructive ways without taking recourse to party affiliations and ideological commitments, is beyond the scope of the sterile imagination of teachers and students alike.

University campuses are established to serve as crucibles of thought and experiment, so that they may give birth to new ideas and ways of thinking, and provide society with new directions and novel aspirations. A university need not be insulated from politics to achieve this end. It must, however, be insulated from the political culture that prevails outside its walls, so that it may develop its own superior culture in the hope that it may one day permeate outside and supplant the original and inferior one. On the contrary, universities in Bengal (and particularly those funded by the State) are pitiable imitations of the decaying social system. The corruption, bureaucracy, favouritism, petty political bickering, factionism and stagnation of thought that are unfortunate hallmarks of social and political life in the state are to be encountered in miniature within the four walls of the University campus. Once a university ceases to give something new to society, but instead begins to imitate its ills and infirmities, it suffers an intellectual and moral death; and society can not be expected to bear the heavy burden of its corpse post mortem. JU seems to be heading in this direction.

Jadavpur University was born as the product of a socio-cultural renascence. Nothing short of another renascence is called for if it has to be rescued from the downhill course it has set itself. The first step in this direction would be to make the university self-dependant, since dependence on and influence of the state government is at the root of most of its problems, including that of a decadent student culture. As an alumnus, I can only hope that the fabled canteens of my alma mater shall once again come alive with heated intellectual debates (and budding romances) over bread chops and cups of coffee, while the anxious lovers are, after all, left to their cosy corners, away from the prying eyes of the surveillance cameras!

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How does someone of my generation or age judge a public figure like Jyoti Basu? I grew up in a Bengal that was dominated by the later half of his ‘reign’ (1987-2000), by which time the early fruits of the communist movement in the state, like land reforms, Panchayati Raj and social uplifting of farmers in the villages had already begun to ring hollow, particularly in the urban areas, where a comprehensive apathy towards industry and neglect of urban development had caused a certain degree of disillusionment with the Communist Party (CPI-M) amongst the educated classes. This was at least so in my hometown of Durgapur, a city founded by a visionary Congressman and a predecessor of Basu, and which saw many of its fine industries being wasted by unhealthy trade-unionism. As a school student, I recall how strikes were a fairly common affair (which is so even today), and which meant that our parents, or those who were employed in the Steel Plant, would have to be in their offices by the midnight preceding the day of bandh, lest they be denied entry by the striking workers. On every such occasion, one could hear the adults cursing either Jyoti Basu or his party, the CPI(M), for its hijacking of industrial development in the state.

Most of these curses were arguably well deserved. At the time, however, I did not understand much, and would wonder why such a seemingly charming and innocent person should be at the receiving end. But later, and now, I have witnessed at first hand some of the scourges of the Jyoti Basu era. Universities continue to be deeply infested with party sympathizers, if not members, the culture of bandhs has transcended party lines and become an accepted means of protest, and the once great city of Calcutta is now a massive and putrefying urban slum. I can also vouch for cadre hooliganism from experience. Notwithstanding all this, Jyoti Basu remained defiantly popular, and emerged victorious election after election, his strength being the unshakeable rural vote-bank. It was only after he relinquished office in 2000 that the fortunes of the CPI(M) began to decline, and the final chapters in this story remain to be written.

There have been many effusive comments and fond recollections on TV by political rivals about Jyoti Basu, now that he has passed away. But to judge objectively, and not charitably, one must take into account a host of issues and weigh them on a fine balance. Each and every action and inaction of his must be evaluated against its consequences, and in this evaluation, the skewed development of one sector at the cost of gross neglect of another must earn heavy penalties. In which direction the scales will ultimately tip is something that I can not decide, if only for want of knowledge or objectivity. Let wiser minds than I decide, or let it be left to history.

What can be said without loss of objectivity, however, is that Mr Basu was the undisputed representative of a certain age and a certain ideology in 20th century India. He was one of the last remaining products of the independence movement, and belonged to that age in Indian politics where achievement came through sacrifice and not by birth, and the only agenda necessary or permissible to become a politician was a vision for a greater India. That age is regrettably in the past, and this is the age of dynasties and parivaars, and the narrower your political agenda, the better your chances of winning a seat. The ideology was Communism and Marxism. Basu was one of the very few leaders in the world who got to implement it through a democratic process and in a parliamentary system. While you could easily say what Jyoti Basu stood for, it is very difficult to decide the leanings of many of our present-day politicians. The relevance of his philosophy in the current day is the matter of a different debate, but at any rate, it was a philosophy which attracted the most passionate of adherents in Bengal once upon a time, most of them young and educated people. Together with its many offshoots, some of them rather extreme, Communism brought youngsters and college-goers into politics, though some say at the cost of politicizing them at too young an age.

Today very few youngsters, if any, are mourning his death. The newly enfranchised among them might even have been responsible for his party’s routing in the latest elections. I went out for a movie today, only to find the cinema closed. But I also found many others like me outside the theatre equally dismayed at the closure, and some were thinking of checking out the nearest multiplex. Perhaps the owner of the cinema is a genuine old-timer, or perhaps he is foregoing his day’s profits out of ‘deference’ to the local CPI(M) boss. One can not tell, and it is just as well not to linger any further on Jyoti Basu’s legacy. As a Communist, he would not approve of the ‘cult of the individual’ himself. But if I have to retain a single image of the man who bestrode Bengal politics and Indian communism like a Colossus for decades, it would be one taken from the BBC’s online obituary:

“As a young student of a Catholic school during the British colonial days, Mr Basu led his friends on a daytime raid of the posh, whites-only Calcutta Club. Fully-clothed, they splashed merrily in the swimming pool until they were fished out and arrested.”

I would choose this for it represents what Basu started off with and was capable of, and not what he failed to accomplish nevertheless.

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