The fiery protests were soaked, but not doused, in the driving rain. Ostensibly, the campus agitation that erupted at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University on the afternoon of July 4 and continued to simmer unabated through the next couple of weeks—all through torrential rains in the monsoon-wrapped city—was a student-teacher revolt against an arbitrary decision by the institute’s governing body, the executive council (EC). The EC had announced that starting this year it would scrap the practice of holding entrance tests for admissions to six of the undergraduate courses of the university’s arts programmes, going back on their decision taken in late June, which promised to stick with the established practice.
It meant that the only basis for getting admission in these departments—English, comparative literature, history, philosophy, and international relations—would be marks obtained in the 12th-standard final examinations. Incensed by the decision that would, it was deemed, inevitably lower standards and erode JU’s reputation as a centre of excellence across India, students and professors descended on the campus, protesting what one professor calls the “complete disrespect for the university’s high standards”.
“These tests are prepared by professors in each department and it has been the only way to ensure that the most deserving candidates are admitted from the thousands of applications,” explains an English department professor. He adds, “Final examinations conducted by different boards have different standards of marking and a student from one board who has scored high marks is not necessarily qualified to compete with students of another board with equal marks, because the latter may have taken part in a more challenging examination of a board with higher academic standards. Marks cannot be the only yardstick for judging merit.” University sources say the department of English relies 100 per cent on entrance test marks, while in international relations and history departments, admission test scores and 12th grade marks are given equal weightage.
During the protests, students gheraoed the vice chancellor, Suranjan Das, holding him up in his office for hours, demanding a retraction. Signature campaigns supported not just by students and professors but also former professors and alumni were sent to various authorities. Eventually, a group of students took recourse to a hunger-strike, during which two fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital.
Yet, why jettison a system that, in the end, redounds to the credit of the varsity? What appeared to be an internal tussle was merely the unlovely facade of an insidious political game.
Explaining the circumstances that allegedly led to the EC decision, Om Prakash Mishra, a professor of international relations at JU and a Congress spokesperson, told Outlook, “Weeks back, state education minister Partha Chatterjee had said that while he was happy with the way most educational institutions functioned, he found two universities problematic; one of these was Jadavpur University.”
Mishra says these observations by Chatterjee was a prelude made to clear the way for him to appoint people in key positions of the university’s administration. “It is an open secret that the state government has been trying to infiltrate educational institutions by cramming it with people connected with the ruling Trinamool Congress. Political establishments have always wanted to control educational systems as it gives them access to and control of the way education is imparted. But during the current rule the infiltration has become brazen.”
As an instance, Mishra points out that for the first time ever, the chairman of the state’s higher education council is not an academic, but the education minister himself. “To further infiltrate the institutions, the government is trying to weaken the admissions process so that TMC party members can pour in unchecked. And the EC, instead of acting as the administration of an autonomous institution, is letting itself be dictated to by the state government,” he adds heatedly.
Other opposition parties also didn’t mince words against what seems a blatant state interference. BJP leader Chandra Kumar Bose says, “It is disturbing to see that an institution of the stature of Jadavpur University is succumbing to political pressure.”
Over the past week, in the midst of the agitation, Calcutta’s newspapers flashed photographs of vice chancellor Das near Partha Chatterjee’s house, with captions and headlines wondering what he was doing there.
Predictably, a Trinamool source stoutly denies the charge of infiltrating educational institutions. “That used to happen on a regular basis during the Left rule,” he says. “Unless you were with the CPI(M) or CPI etc, you had little chance of getting a position in institutions, not just educational, but even the police force.”
CPI(M) MP Mohammed Selim counters the charges, saying, “The agitation in the campuses across Bengal is happening now, when the Trinamool is ruling.”
As the political mud-slinging thickened around them, JU’s faculty and students kept their eyes on the one goal—to protect and uphold the “honour of Jadavpur University”, as a student put it. “The admission test is a safety net to ensure that only the best are admitted to this prestigious institution.”
Their persistence paid off. On July 10, the EC revoked its earlier decision and declared the restoration of admission tests. The VC, possibly to refute allegations that he acted under pressure from the powers that be, signalled that the retraction was not his choice and offered to resign. The brazen attempt to breach the ramparts of merit is beaten back for now.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta