The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Beating up foes and posturing are more attractive than hard work

We all know what has been happening in Jadavpur University. It has been ceaselessly broadcast by every TV channel in town. Thronging the campus, they have not only reported events but influenced them, offering all and sundry endless scope for posturing, spectacle and intemperate speech. The solution to the impasse has been made that much harder.

The media had no interest in something else happening on campus. Trying to shut out the noise, certain teachers ' including, incredibly, some interacting with the students ' were putting together a plan to implement Jadavpur's proposed IIT-level status. Those convinced of the demise of higher education in West Bengal must face the contrary fact that of seven such institutions chosen across India, two are from this state.

I am not suggesting that the latter activity neutralizes the former. The violence, disruption and politicking are, alas, as undeniable as the academic achievement, and rather more eye-catching. I am merely proposing a broader perspective, to understand an endemic contradiction at the heart of our higher education system.

It is hard to adopt a broader perspective even as regards facts. The police action of June 2005 has so fired the popular imagination as to erase all memory of November 2003 when, after a night of incarceration and insult for many senior academics, the Controller of Examinations was mercilessly attacked by a band of students. Along with many colleagues, I was witness to the attack, whose reality is being denied by uninformed outsiders and others who undoubtedly know better.

That nightmare recollection does not lessen my anguish at Friday's events. Rather it deepens it, as prefiguring the same pattern of violence and alienation. That assault spawned the punishment that spawned the hunger-strike that spawned the police action. The police attack on students was captured on film and widely shown. (This is where the media performed its legitimate and invaluable function.) Three days later, a senior police officer declared unblushingly that there had been no attack. The university authorities have steered themselves into sad complicity with the Ministry of Truth. They are now seen as morally compromised ' a more enduring and damaging stigma than the violence itself.

Amazingly, the campus had been fairly quiet in the intervening nineteen months. Jadavpur's recent history comprises long, peaceful, productive stretches broken by outbursts of extreme violence, like an appalling agitation after a rise in library fines. That so trivial a cause could produce such effects suggests the fires that still smoulder at the heart of higher education in West Bengal, even in the most eminent institutions.

A facile explanation would be in terms of political interference. A truer explanation is that in Bengal, as virtually everywhere in India, the ground realities of higher education do not match the framework drawn from a distant global model. We have done little to resolve the mismatch, leaving the field open for politicians to corrupt and distort the system further. A shaky superstructure of metropolitan institutions protects a privileged and meritorious minority (chiefly the former) from serious educational damage or loss.

An institution may be metropolitan even if located in Kanpur or Kharagpur. The IITs and IIMs, and a sprinkling of elite 'general' colleges, have absorbed something of the global ethos of higher education. In the 'general' colleges, the absorption can be precarious, as these places are usually affiliated to a university of more mixed and contrary composition. This is one reason why autonomous colleges are finding favour.

The modern university has been convincingly described as the most prevalent of all institutional legacies of the West. Whether we like it or not, its deepest ethos at the moment is careerist, capitalist and corporate. At the very least it prizes, at one remove, the focussed endeavour and productivity that such an ethos holds dear. One cannot attain to knowledge without these virtues: they impregnate all successful university systems, even in societies that profess other political principles.

Though careerism prevails more and more at Indian universities, our society insists on a contrary set of functions from them. They must accommodate more moderate levels of achievement and expectation, with practices and mindsets that militate against 'mere' academic productivity to satisfy other social urges. Even our brightest students often demand less by way of careers, indeed by way of intellectual discovery, because their social conditioning makes them distrust the dominant ethos. Rather, they would use their minimal empowerment as students to protest against that ethos, which they see as alien and, ultimately, hostile. Ten years down the line, nearly all will have become loyal servants of the establishment; for the present, that outcome is only a distant, unspoken possibility.

At its most inspired, this mindset can make for high idealism ' stuff of the romantic Naxalite image. More often, an inarticulate discontent hitches itself to the nearest political bandwagon, or seeks any handy platform for protest. These young men and women will suffer delay and disruption in their academic lives to make a statement about their different ethos and expectations. They will seek security by banding together ' often in disruptive acts to induce fear or awe, at however crude a level ' before they venture (if they do) to the rarer security of meaningful achievement. Needless to say, they will not bother unduly about the public image of their institution or even its smooth internal function, though any lapse here might affect their own futures.

This is the fertile soil in which politicians of all colours sow mischief without end. More interestingly, society itself accepts the youthful defiance as a familiar ritual, gratifying to more obscure adult discontents. Hence the young people opposing the establishment can also expect to be supported and protected by the establishment. Its opponents might command more sympathy than its supposed upholders. If a university official is assaulted, it does not disturb us radically: we feel subliminally that he is paid for the purpose. If his assailants meet the same fate at official hands, it vocally arouses our conscience. Ultimately, we feel, society must accommodate the young people who challenge it. Hence, whatever the high rhetoric when tempers are aroused, the challenge is little more than symbolic, like a game between children and their elders.

Like all games, it has its value. The establishment is abjectly disinclined to reform itself; these frissons of defiance induce some introspective murmurs, this article being one. They remind us that our educational institutions, like other institutions, are trapped in a contradiction. We outwardly clamour for their excellence at a level we do not inwardly support. We would readily compromise with that expectation for a reassurance on other value-fronts.

The root problem with this mindset is that it robs the nation ' including its most deprived members ' of the deepest benefits of higher education in a world where knowledge is power. This same week saw new starvation deaths in Purulia; there too, local officials uttered callous, unblushing lies on TV. This inhumanity did not command a hundredth of the media attention directed at Jadavpur.

Across the same spectrum of factors, our US-bashing intelligentsia will do nothing constructive to counter the frightening prospect of the US cornering the world's knowledge pool. Indian talent contributes substantially to that global programme. But to employ it at home would involve tenacious effort, eschewing the luxury of either vindictive violence or pious sermons. Bollywood has been immeasurably more successful than our academia in ensuring an Indian presence on the global scene.

Such a presence may not follow the path of our few, segregated global institutions like the IITs and IIMs. Many aspects of their ethos may prove inapplicable on a wider scale, or even be thought repugnant in absolute terms. There is desperate urgency for India's academia to work out a strategy of stable, unthreatened excellence engaging the general body of our students, teachers and society. Jadavpur is among the institutions that might pilot such a process. But that calls for sustained, concerted, unexciting toil. How much more gratifying to beat up one's adversary or hold forth before the media.

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