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EMPTY CHAIRS

Serious educationists are likely to be startled by, and not a little alarmed with, the West Bengal chief minister’s promise to the Singapore prime minister of a chair at Calcutta University named after the latter’s father and Singapore’s first prime minister. The idea of such a chair was announced as a decision made by the chief minister. This makes it necessary for everybody concerned with the state of higher education in Bengal and India to ask whether it is at all a chief minister’s prerogative to make such decisions regarding matters that are, and should remain, purely — apolitically — academic. On a lesser note, why should Calcutta University be roped in to clinch the Bengal government’s business deals with another country? Taking a larger view of the matter, it is perhaps no coincidence that only a few days after the chief minister’s announcement in Singapore, the president of India expressed his concern — while inaugurating an institute of science and technology in Bengal — that no institution of higher education in India is in the list of the world’s top 200. According to the president, Indian standards in higher education, compared to the international benchmark, remain “abysmally low”.

Why is there a crisis in India, not only of actual standards, but also of serious and original thinking around the idea of higher education? And to what extent is the State — successive state as well as Central governments — responsible for this? The only role the State plays in the realm of education in India is a meddlesome one — either at the level of bureaucracy and administration, or at the level of different ideological agenda (usually religious and/or linguistic). Think of the Union human resource development ministry and the University Grants Commission, under whatever regime, and their persistent attempts to intervene in the running of the institutes of technology and management. Or think of Hindutva, school textbooks and history-writing; or the Left Front government’s disastrous experiments with English in Bengal. The level of thinking shown in these instances, in purely intellectual terms, is — to borrow from the president — abysmally low. Yet, the mindlessness always manages to translate itself into political and bureaucratic will, with catastrophic or debilitating consequences. And this, in a country battling with widespread illiteracy, and its economic and social ramifications.