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When teachers teach more than just what is in books

Father Mascarenhas of Mumbai's St Xavier's College skated on thin ice but stirred long-dead culture of debate

Aparna Kalra  |  New Delhi 

"Hey teacher, leave them kids alone," belted out Pink Floyd in the 1970s. It seems the message is taken seriously by politicians, whether in power or contenders for it.

When Father Frazer Mascarenhas, on his way to an 11th year as the principal of St Xavier's College, Mumbai -which boasts of diverse talents as Soli Sorabjee and Vidya Balan among alumni - asked students to vote wisely and not get swayed by communal forces, he stirred a hornet's nest. Political parties panned Mascarenhas, criticising him for both the means of communication; he had used the college website to post his views, and the message itself.

Fellow academic Dipankar Gupta called him an ideologue as opposed to an intellectual.

A week later, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, student union president Akbar Chawdhary was up till midnight to defuse a situation when a group of students tried to screen a movie against BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's 'Gujarat model' of development.

The police arrived, Chawdhary intervened, speeches were made, the movie was seen.

"So teachers are not supposed to air political opinion?" he asked, sarcasm lacing his voice. Chawdhary is, a day later, lounging in a hostel room in jeans and a cotton shirt unbuttoned halfway to his waist. "They must teach in a vacuum, send students to class, make them sit in the library. That's all their job is, there is no need to engage with current politics".

Fight elitism

Universities in India were once a hotbed of political foment; leaders in the country started their careers on campus. Teachers actively supported them or looked on indulgently. Arun Jaitley of the BJP who is running for Parliament from Amritsar, was the President of the Delhi University Students Union or DUSU; both Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury cut their teeth on JNU campus politics.

When did the campuses become aseptic? Irfan Habib, who has taught economic history at Aligarh Muslim University or AMU for over two decades, points that universities are no longer stirring even academic debate.

"In the Delhi School of Economics, in the 50s and 60s there were a large number of debates on public sector, on planning," said Habib. "In Economics, there is so little debate, so little interesting debate."


Akriti Bhatia, 21, part of the audience at the Shri Ram College of Commerce or SRCC last year when Modi invoked the 'Gujarat model' at a large public platform, says she heard him while being aware of the suppression of protests at the college gate.

"I wanted to know what the hype is about. I wanted to (see) what lies beyond his words," said Bhatia.

Bhatia feels course curriculums manage to keep sections out of higher education, and seeing politics as dirty pushes higher education towards elitism.

The quietness of teacher and taught may be a result of successive governments tinkering with academic autonomy. A semester system at Delhi University got implemented despite a boycott from the academic council. The council has elected teacher representatives and any reforms have to go through it.

Legality

Mascarenhas skated on thin ice in his use of the official website of St Xavier's, autonomous but financially aided by Mumbai University, to write to students. AMU's Habib says university rules are clear in that those working in universities maintained by the government cannot use their official position for canvassing.

"The condition is that I must not use my official letter head or my title as professor to canvass for a party," said Habib, who himself has been a member of CPI(M) "all along".

The University Grants Commission sacked Yogendra Yadav last year when he became a card-holding member of the Aam Aadmi Party. Yadav is still part of faculty at Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. In an open letter to the UGC, Yadav challenged his dismissal.

Debate?

JNU student Shehla Rashid, 26, a Kashmiri, recalls how a teacher in her home state was put in jail for asking students a 'seditious' question in an exam: Is a stone thrower a hero?

(Kashmir University teacher Noor Mohammad Bhat was charged under the Unlawful Activities Act in 2010, kept in jail, and released on bail.)

On the day Mumbai voted, Mascarenhas had taken down his statement from St Xavier's website. He, surprisingly, fielded a call on the college's EPABX, denying any pressure on him but showing surprise at the media taking sides.

"There is a large tradition of debate in my college. What seems to have worked against it (my statement), is the timing of my communication to my students," Mascarenhas told Business Standard.

The college student council's Facebook page showed a meme, an irreverent online message conveyed through visuals, that while thousands of institutes such as schools run by Baba Ramdev are for Modi, St Xavier's is against him.

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First Published: Sat, May 03 2014. 22:24 IST
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