The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Long sessions of sit-ins, slogan-shouting and speech-making, ably supported by fraternal union leaders from outside. Business as usual in Bengal, one would think, except that the scene was outside the gate, not of a factory, but a college in Calcutta; the protesters not lowly labourers, but the college teachers and their leaders from the West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association; and the target of attack not an employer or the government but the college principal. Unlike industrial agitations which rarely end in victories for labour in these capital-friendly days even in left-ruled West Bengal, this one against the principal notched up an easy success. Unable to take the humiliation, the principal took voluntary retirement.

The principal of Bagbazar Women’s College was unusual in that she dared to take action against some errant teachers and stuck to her guns in the face of combined opposition from the teachers and their WBCUTA leaders. And, of course, she was extremely unusual in putting in her papers rather than giving in to unionism.

But scores of college principals in the state daily live and work under the shadow of the WBCUTA. The principals who are themselves nominees of WBCUTA leaders or their Communist Party of India (Marxist) bosses have few problems. Most others buy peace with them; but those who dare defy their diktat are usually forced to bite the dust. Over the years, the WBCUTA has changed its role from fighting for teachers’ rights to becoming a parallel centre of power and a threat to academic administration. More often than not, its protective arms are taken to be a licence for errant teachers to flout rules and authority.

Ironically, it is not just the principals but large numbers of college and university teachers themselves who smart under the WBCUTA’s trade union tyranny. In the organization’s office on Mahatma Gandhi Road, leaders dole out favours to camp-followers and plan punishments for dissenters. Even the organization’s members who rub the leaders the wrong way, wittingly or otherwise, are made to rue their mistakes.

The WBCUTA’s show of strength at Bagbazar Women’s College came within days of Amartya Sen publishing the first full report of the Pratichi (India) Trust on primary education in West Bengal. The report’s damning denunciation of errant primary school teachers could well be a comment on large numbers of college teachers, especially those the WBCUTA is keen to protect.

The Pratichi team’s sample survey in three districts presented a disgraceful picture of absenteeism by primary school teachers — at an “alarming 20 per cent”, as Sen said in his introduction to the report. No wonder only 41 per cent of the parents said they were “satisfied” with the teachers’ work.

Why and how do these teachers get away with such gross dereliction of duty' Two prominent local leaders answered the question. Satya Ranjan Mahato, senior Forward Block leader of Purulia district and a former minister in the Left Front government, said he had lost the last assembly elections because he angered the school teachers by asking them to teach, instead of “dabbling in politics”.

Even a CPI(M) sabhapati of a gram panchayat was candid enough to admit that “teachers’ absenteeism has grown quite high in the rural areas and no political leader dares to touch them as they play a decisive role in elections. Not only are they politically active, many of them are also panchayat members”. Obviously, people who have no qualms about bunking classes and cheating their young students cannot be expected to bring a high moral code to their politics.

Much of these findings would be valid for an alarming number of college teachers as well, except that the school teachers are much larger in number and their acts of omission and commission proportionately more damaging to both education and society at the grassroots. In 1984, the Bhabotosh Datta commission on higher education also highlighted college teachers’ neglect of their academic duties. No matter what it says in public, there is no denying that the WBCUTA’s support and protection embolden these teachers to go as they like.

“Teachers’ unions ...,” the report continued, “have been very successful in pressing for the rights of teachers in different fields (varying from prompt payment of salaries to desired transfers), but given their pivotal role in the sphere of social interaction, there is an urgent need for a fresh approach to unionism.”

There is the same need, one would argue, for not only the WBCUTA but also for other organizations of college and university teachers. No one can quarrel with their claim to fight for teachers’ rights. They are perfectly within their rights to debate academic policies and other issues concerning higher education. Teachers, like any other sections of society, have a legitimate right to politics, too.

But the trade union syndrome still seems to pervade the WBCUTA and similar organizations. In fact, the long reign of the CPI(M) has infected many a teacher-politician with the arrogance of power and cronyism that are usually associated with the party bosses. It is this unionist mindset that makes the WBCUTA’s college unit leaders more powerful than both the principal and the governing body. It is with the WBCUTA’s connivance that many teachers’ councils have become forums for principal-bashing and groupism and have little to do with the institution’s academic interests. At the same time, principals and governing bodies can get away with any violation of rules if they keep the teachers’ union leaders in good humour.

The problem is that things can change only if the CPI(M) mandarins at Alimuddin Street change their attitude to education, be it in primary schools or in colleges. The CPI(M)’s control of education has been deeper and more widespread than in most other spheres of public life. And the party-affiliated organizations of teachers — of schools and colleges alike — have been the backbone of this partisanship. Leaders like Anil Biswas and Biman Bose make no secret of their continuing grip on education.

The incident of the Bagbazar college highlights the old tradition of unionism at a time when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his party are sending out strong signals of change in other areas. Workers are being asked to strike less and produce more. Government employees are being asked to come to office on time and work to schedule. Even doctors are being told to heal themselves of bad old habits like absenteeism.

It is only to be expected that teachers too would be asked to teach. The majority of them still teach to the best of their abilities, just as Sen noted that absentee primary schoolteachers are a minority. But a small minority, backed by powerful political groups, can be a big bully. Even in education, private enterprise, financial restructuring and other initiatives are opening the doors to a new regime. But it is crucial to free education from the WBCUTA-type trade unionism.

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