By Sukanta Chaudhuri
Last November, West Bengal’s Education Minister Partha Chatterjee issued an advisory he was neither empowered to make nor compelled to by circumstance. He announced that elections to student unions in Bengal’s colleges and universities, normally held in January, would be deferred till June in view of major school-leaving exams in February, themselves advanced to accommodate the State Assembly elections in March or April.
There seems no obvious justification for the move: the students’ elections would have ended before the public exams, let alone the Assembly polls (it is taken as axiomatic that these mega-events make such demands on the police and administration that only one can be held at a time).
More crucially still, students’ elections are the responsibility of the institutions: the government does not have statutory authority to announce or withhold them. The cry has inevitably gone up that the minister has infringed on institutional autonomy.
Chatterjee may have only himself to blame, as he has consistently maintained that the government can call the shots because it pays the salaries.
The acts governing the state’s universities have been revised three times in four years to that end. The indispensable statutes that, with much else, govern the election of teachers’ representatives to university bodies were suspended soon after the present government took charge; new statutes are awaiting approval for periods ranging from one to nearly three years.
The government has consistently pitted itself against a university community making a last-ditch stand to protect academic dignity and independence, principles that many states seem already to have surrendered. The most explosive outcome was the six-month ‘Hokkalarab’ movement of 2014, when not only students and teachers but guardians and civil society contended successfully to free Jadavpur University of an unpopular and damaging regime.
Despite their notoriously politicised image, Bengal’s leading universities keep up a notable record of teaching and research. In the recent Times Higher Education rankings, Jadavpur topped the list of Indian institutions formally called ‘universities’, outranked only by IISc Bengaluru and some (not all) IITs.
Calcutta University was fourth. Particularly in the high-profile Calcutta, Jadavpur and Presidency Universities, campus activism is transmuting into a battle for freedom of thought and operation, breaking free of formal party politics.
Not unexpectedly, the first outcry against the ban on elections has risen from Jadavpur. Mounting student protests climaxed in a 54-hour blockade of the administrative building, with the Vice-Chancellor, Executive Council and other officials inside.
The last phase was a moral blockade, so to speak: the students declared that the Vice-Chancellor could leave but his departure would be read as a hostile gesture. By a decision as conciliatory as politic, he declined to do so till an understanding was reached.
The authorities were also trapped metaphorically in an unenviable position. The students’ stand is entirely correct in constitutional terms: the University is an autonomous body that has every right to conduct its own elections.
Despite its far from unsullied record at other times, the Jadavpur campus has been consistently free of violence during elections and is likely to remain so this time, unless trouble is introduced from outside. There seems no plausible ground not to conduct elections as usual.
At the same time, to an extent the students do not realize, it is difficult if not impossible for a public university to function in defiance of a hostile government, and an impasse would harm the students the most.
There is also the piquant complication that the Chancellor of the University is the Governor of the state: governmental edicts are issued in his name or even with his direct concurrence.
In the circumstances, the adaptive and infinitely patient Vice-Chancellor Suranjan Das, with the broad support of the academic community, has entertained the students’ demands to an unprecedented extent, short of unilaterally announcing elections.
He negotiated a joint meeting of the authorities and the students with the Chancellor-Governor. The latter’s decision is awaited: he too will be in an equivocal position if he takes his role as Chancellor seriously.
The current situation is utterly different from that a year ago, when the whole campus united against the previous Vice-Chancellor, Abhijit Chakrabarti.
Das, by contrast, is widely seen as trying to restore not only order but an academic resurgence.
The most damaging outcome of the students’ blockade was that it scuttled an official visit to China to seal the deal for 10 exchange bursaries a year for Jadavpur students.
Like many colleagues including this writer, the secretary of the Jadavpur Teachers’ Association professed herself ‘pained’ at the language of the protests: one union spokesperson explained every sympathetic move to present the students’ case to the government by the authorities’ ‘bowing down’ to student pressure.
This is mild compared to the venom spouted habitually by student leaders in Bengal and elsewhere; but Jadavpur students had shown a more responsible, not to say creative line of campaigning during the much more vital ‘Hokkalarab’ movement of 2014.
The government will have the last laugh if the students paint themselves into a corner of the TV screen as an unruly crew on a notoriously volatile campus.
It does no good to a student body’s image to have blockaded four successive vice-chancellors for 50+ hours, only once (in 2014) in a cause attracting much public support.
In most places, student unions have taken the deferral of elections with almost uncanny calm, despite a record of far more appalling and mindless violence all through the recent past.
Most of the unions are run (as under any regime) by the students’ wing of the ruling party: they will call the shots whether formally elected or not, most effectively during the forthcoming elections. Once again, the government will have got away with an attack on institutional autonomy. One fears it may lead to more such assaults in the future.
Worse than student movements, Bengal’s universities have suffered much ‘non-violent’ administrative rampage in the last few years, unlike the slow, astutely controlled bleeding inflicted by veteran leftists of the past.
The latter, moreover, included some of the state’s genuinely academic-minded intelligentsia, thereby limiting the damage or, rarely, even advancing the cause of learning. Jadavpur was one of the chief success stories of that era.
To maintain that position, even legitimate protest can hope to succeed only within a culture of order and cohesion, on a campus speaking with one voice. It is even more important that the various stake-holders within Jadavpur should make their peace with each other than with the government.
The writer is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University.