March 15, 2015

Politics First, Education Can Wait

Karuna Kanungo

IMPERIOUS and heedless, the Trinamool Congress decided that its priority, to hold and presumably win in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) elections was higher, in fact much higher than the needs of 1.53 lakh applicants from West Bengal and other states waiting to take the Joint Entrance Examinations for admission in engineering and medical courses. Submitting to its decision that the KMC elections must be held on April 18, the West Bengal Joint Entrance Examination Board has meekly changed the date for the examinations to May 5 and 6, disregarding the additional pressure that students will bear as the changed dates jostle with schedules of other all India entrance tests.

The message that the Trinamool Congress has delivered to the aspiring educated youth in West Bengal and other states is unequivocal: politics comes first, while the future of students comes second by a very long shot. It also underscores the attitude of the ruling party: denial of autonomy to the WBJEE Board and any other autonomous institutions that are struggling to maintain a semblance of order and normalcy.

In Kalyani, the vivid images of attack by Trinamool Congress workers on officials of the university inside the campus, underscores the style of its politics. The response of the West Bengal government headed by Mamata Banerjee to the incident so explicitly captured on camera emphasised the degree to which it is prepared to usurp the authority of the Vice Chancellor, and invade the autonomy of educational institutions like universities. It is extreme irony that education minister Partha Chatterjee hot footed it to Kalyani to meet the VC, along with the perpetrators of the violence, in a bid to resolve the problem that preceded the assault on the sub-registrar.

But it was not an unexpected interference. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set the precedent when she turned up unannounced at the Jadavpur University campus and on the spot obtained the resignation of Vice Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti and declared it to the hunger-striking students. It was a dramatic intervention that produced the outcome the students wanted, but it was intervention nevertheless. The chief minister does not have the authority to call for the resignation of a Vice Chancellor and announce it as fait accompli.

The disregard for order that demonstrates disrespect for institutions is the hall mark of the Trinamool Congress style of governance. The belief that power bestows on the powerful an indemnity against every transgression, even ignorance, is obvious in Banerjee’s astonishing capacity to alter fact, even history, to suit her needs. Therefore, Rabindranath Tagore had “good relations” with John Keats and “Shakespeare ta (that Shakespeare)” is loved by children according to the chief minister. But how is this surprising? Early on in her tenure, the irrepressible leader summoned the descendents of “Dahar Babu” on stage at a commemoration of legendary tribal martyrs of the Santhal uprising, Shidhu and Kanu. Published author and postgraduate, the quintessential combination of Ma, Mati and Manush, Banerjee did not know then that ‘dahar’ is the Santhali ward for road/track (Sindhu Kanu Dahar is a street in Kolkata named after the legendary tribal martyrs of the Santhal uprising.

Trinamool Congress’s political style, starting with the aggression of its students organisation against the principal, Dilip Dey Sarkar, and professors of Raigang Government College in January 2012, followed up by the attack on Rampurhat College principal Sibashish Banerjee and teachers, followed by an attack on the teachers of Meghnad Saha College in North Dinajpur for confiscating an answer script of Trinamool Congress Zilla Parishad member Gautam Pal’s wife, followed by the assault and intimidation of Debjani Dey of Bhangar College by Arabul Islam was the start of the ruling party’s differentiation between its era and “those belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and others.” It has made it difficult, if not dangerous for dissent, protest and opposition, because every act of violence has been condoned by the leadership, with the chief minister laying down the official line on it: ‘insignificant incident’, ‘media hype’, ‘youthful misdemeanour’.

By condoning the violence of Trinamool Congress’s student organisation and its local leaders such as Arabul Islam, the ruling party has legitimised aggression by appropriating to itself the authority to declare that the only political affiliation that will be acceptable is its own. In 2012, when Arabul Islam assaulted the Bhangar College teacher it was in connection with the West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association elections. In Raiganj, Rampurhat and Garden Reach’s Harimohan Ghose College, where police sub inspector Tapas Chowdhury was killed when Trinamool Congress and Chatra Prishad supporters clashed, the issue was clear: capture by the Trinamool Congress of college unions by reducing elections to a farce. It has become rule in the present authoritarian dispensation that intellectuals, writers, artists, doctors, primary teachers to university professors must either submit to the dictates of the ruling hawks or face reprisal. The list of horrific incidents and victims is unbelievingly long, what one having common intelligence could imagine. Even so, the chief minister and her underlings keep unblushing role with addle-pated campaign similar to her unabashed attitude towards ceaseless rape and atrocities on women in West Bengal.

The inevitability of the transformation of the space occupied by educational institutions into an arena of Trinamool Congress domination was implicit in the defence of Arabul Islam’s aggression when ruling party leader Subrata Mukherjee asserted: he (Islam) heads the Governing Body. The justification of violent interference to compel election outcomes to reflect the Trinamool Congress’s absolute control everywhere in 2012 by Banerjee and her team cemented the change that has robbed institutions of freedom, respect, autonomy, and authority.

When death followed this phase of overpowering the opposition or whoever was on the other side, a new and chilling fear pervaded the campuses. Sudipta Gupta died because the Mamata Banerjee government was intolerant of students organising protests against the ruling regime. Sudipta Gupta died in police custody because he and his friends from the Students Federation of India were manhandled by the police for protesting the government's decision in February to put on hold all college union elections for six months. When Presidency University was invaded, its students attacked, its laboratories and offices ransacked because the Trinamool Congress needed to retaliate in Kolkata against SFI’s heckling of Mamata Banerjee in New Delhi outside the Planning Commission in 2013, it signalled the means the ruling party would use against dissent and opposition.

Encouraging the Trinamool Congress and especially its students’ organisation to go on the rampage is characteristic of the regime. The atmosphere of violence across the state has intensified to the point where SFI could not file nomination for Calcutta University’s 826 seats and ABVP could file only 32 nominations. If the opposition is eliminated from college and university campuses as the Trinamool Congress regime seems to have decided, it will affect the larger political space by debarring from participation dissenters and critics of the government and the ruling party.