"When politics decides your future, decide what your politics should be."
The student community in the United States was the first to call for an end to their country's involvement in the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, students in France and Germany protested against the authoritarian rule of the then governments and successfully brought an end to years of conservative rule in the two countries. With their shared identity as students, they were able to overcome divides of class, caste, religion, language, colleges and universities to interact as a united force. And it is this unity that has given the Jadavpur University students' movement, arguably the biggest since the Naxal movement in West Bengal, its thumping success.
September 2014 saw students from the university - who were demanding a probe into the alleged molestation of one of the students - facing brutal police action, purportedly at the instigation of Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty. What followed was unprecedented support for the protesting students, who organised marches and rallies demanding that Chakraborty step down. Entire Kolkata emerged on the streets in support of the students. After months of rallies, the students went on an indefinite hunger strike. The deadlock finally ended in January after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's visit to the campus, followed by the announcement of the vice-chance-llor's resignation.
Following the events at Jadavpur University, two other West Bengal universities, Presidency in Kolkata and Visvabharati in Santiniketan, have seen similar student unrest. "The agitation in Presidency started predominantly due to the lack of information provided to students," says Suman Sen, a student of the university. He says that the problem started when the university authorities suddenly decided to implement the specification of the University Grants Commission (UGC) for 75 per cent mandatory class attendance. It became clear, however, that under this rule, the majority of the students would be disallowed from sitting for exams. Even at a cut-off of 60 per cent, 500 to 600 students would still be debarred. So, the authorities decided to invoke an internal power and stipulate the required attendance at 50 per cent. "This made 180 students ineligible to sit for exams," says Sen. "We immediately went on to a hunger strike in which about 20 students participated."
Foreign universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard do not have a roll-call system, leaving the decision to attend or skip classes to the students. But most Indian universities stipulate a certain level of compulsory attendance. UGC, which regulates university education in the country, itself suggests that students should log 75 per cent attendance to be able to appear for examinations. The agitation at Presidency has opened the debate on whether attendance should be made compulsory or classes made more interesting so that students automatically attend them. The university has since rescinded the order and the students have called their strike off. The students who were barred from taking their exam in November will now be appearing for it in July and this would not be reflected in their marksheet.
Tug-of-war over quota
To understand the genesis of the student agitation at Visvabharati, one has to understand the university set-up. It not only offers degree courses, but also runs two schools, Patha Bhavan and Siksha Satra, students of which get weightage during admission to the undergraduate course. This system effectively ensures that every "internal student" gets admission into a college course. The trouble started on November 22 last year when Vice-Chancellor Sushanta Dattagupta abolished this longstanding admission quota and proposed instead a common admission test, sending the campus into an uproar.
The need to cling on to the quota arises from the students' fear of competition, says Siddharth Sivakumar, a student. "To a great extent, the abysmal standard of English in Patha Bhavan is to be blamed for this fear psychosis," he explains. "The students of Patha Bhavan, who opted for courses in science or the visual arts, have confessed how dearly they have paid for their poor English since in the undergraduate courses they are required to read and comprehend books written in English and also write examinations in English." In other words, were the students from the university schools to sit for a general entrance examination with students from other institutions, they would be likely to be relegated to lower positions in the admission list.
Sivakumar admits he benefited from his quota system, but feels that his experience has taught him that merit gets compromised in the process. He points out how the seats available for the BA English course were 44, of which 22 seats were reserved for the internal students. With the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward class quotas in place, only 11 general category students would have made it to the final list. "Had there been no internal quota, I could have easily secured a place in the department because then there would have been 22 seats assigned to general students and 22 to SC, ST and OBC," says Sivakumar. He says he still is unsure whether he got admission through luck or on merit.
There is, however, another section that does not see the logic behind the scrapping of the quota. "We don't agree with the logic of enhancing academic standard by doing away with the quota system," says Shubhasish Mitra, a former student of Patha Bhavan. He argues that the academic excellence of any higher learning institute depends on its ability to get engaged in interesting and meaningful research activities, while Visvabharati finds itself unable to prevent its best students from leaving the university for better universities, first after school, after graduation and then for doctoral courses. "When Visvabharati cannot even retain its best students for research activities, I do not feel the scrapping of reservation for undergraduate courses will elevate the academic standards in any significant manner," says Mitra.
Following a 20-hour-long blockade by student agitators in December, Dattagupta relented. The vice-chancellor has now stalled the decision to scrap the quota, according to a source in the university office. However, Dattagupta could not be reached for confirmation of this information.
Student politics has a cherished history in West Bengal, from the time students participated in various movements during the Freedom Struggle. The mainstream Left movements in the early 1950s formed the bedrock of student agitations in Kolkata and other parts of the state. Some analysts say these only validate the view that the students of the state are more politically aware, sensitive to their social surroundings and most importantly, have a well formed collective conscience.
Will their involvement in disruptive politics on campus adversely affect the confidence prospective employers have in the students? "It is a question of perception but I strongly feel that this attitude is not based on factual evidence and rather tries to paint an alarmist view of the situation," says Somak Mukherjee, a student of Jadavpur University. "I can name several toppers and other brilliant students who were at the forefront of Hok Kolorob ["Let there be noise", the protest motto at Jadavpur], yet they wrote their exams with great seriousness, commitment and dedication."
However, many people do feel that political instability on campus does create doubt among potential employers, making them more apprehensive and cautious about their choice of prospective employees. At the same time, they also say that students often make a smooth transition from being student agitationists to obedient corporate executives.
There is, however, no denying that colleges and universities have historically been places that teach the value of criticism. When there is political turbulence, as has been the case in West Bengal, it automatically finds reflection in the education policies of the government. Students have risen in protest across the country against many issues; Bengal may have perhaps shown the way, but it has hardly ever been an exception.