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“Let us honour if we can
The vertical man,
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.”
— W.H. Auden
In early May 2007, seven former students of Presidency College, acting as pall bearers, lowered the coffin of Presidency College into an undistinguished grave. The padre who performed the ceremony was a communist, another alumnus who had studied Bengali honours and has since been elevated to the position of chief minister of West Bengal. It is difficult to think of another group of former students of the college who have acted collectively and deliberately to harm and kill the college. They have betrayed the college’s long and illustrious history.
As a former student of Presidency College who also taught in an honorary capacity in the History department for over ten years, I must confess I am angry, and the previous paragraph is born out of anger and a sense of profound disappointment.
I refer of course to the report submitted by the committee of experts appointed by the government of West Bengal to look into the question of granting autonomy to Presidency College. The committee recommended that the college should not be granted autonomy, and should remain under the aegis of the University of Calcutta.
The committee’s recommendations are based on one fundamental premise. The committee believes — and this is set out in the second page of the report — that Presidency College’s links with Calcutta University have been altogether beneficial for both institutions, Presidency and Calcutta University. To quote the report: “After long deliberations, the Committee came to the conclusion, that retaining the age-old tie between the College and Calcutta University would be beneficial for both the institutions, and for that matter, the entire State. After all, the College flourished and attained its glory within the umbrella of the University. The college also stood out as the most famous affiliated College of Calcutta University and its illustrious alumni brought glory to both the college and its mother body. Together they have made the ‘brand’ name.”
This assumption needs to be questioned. First, it carries within it a small but important sleight of hand. When the report says that Presidency College “attained its glory within the umbrella of the University”, it separates Presidency College from its previous incarnation as Hindu College. There are no historical reasons for doing this. The transition from Hindu College to Presidency College was smooth and only a formal one. The tradition created by Hindu College — especially the movement associated with the name of Henry Vivian Derozio, and the tradition of teaching established by persons like D.L. Richardson — has always been seen as an integral part of the history of Presidency College. This tradition obviously predates the founding of the University of Calcutta in 1857. Also, it stands to reason to argue that Calcutta University did not attain its “glory” immediately after its inception. It took a few years to establish itself as a seat of learning and to become famous. In this intervening period, from 1857 to, say, the late 1870s, the tradition and fame of Presidency College grew and developed independently of Calcutta University, and may have, as the most important affiliated college, contributed in a significant way to the University’s reputation. The University, since it was then only a fledgling institution, could not have done the same for Presidency College. So to say that Presidency College “attained its glory within the umbrella of the University” is not historically accurate.
But there are even more fundamental grounds for objecting to this assumption. The report asserts that “Together they [Calcutta University and Presidency College] have made the ‘brand’ name.” Really' May I request the members of the committee to draw up a list of 150 distinguished alumni of Calcutta University (I say 150 arbitrarily since the University is 150 years old)' They will find that most — if not all of them — will be students of Presidency College. Is Amartya Sen or Satyajit Ray or, for that matter, any other famous student of Presidency College — Sukhamoy Chakravorty, Satyen Bose, Bhabatosh Dutta, Hiren Mukerji, one can name any number, including some who are members of this committee — remembered as someone who got his degree from Calcutta University or as someone who studied in Presidency College' I am sorry, but Calcutta University enters nowhere when the student days of these personalities are discussed. Professor Sushobhan Sarkar also taught in Calcutta University but he is always recalled as the great teacher of history in Presidency College.
Exactly the opposite of what the report has asserted is true: Presidency College has added to the reputation of Calcutta University, and not the other way round. (I hesitate to use the word ‘brand’, derived as it is from the world of advertising, in the context of two educational institutions.) It is not as if the members of the committee do not know this — the more eminent of them only have to look at their own past — but for reasons best known to them they are indulging in a piece of deliberate dissembling. To cover this up, they use the most ridiculous kind of rhetoric, like, “The tip of a javelin gains force only when it is flung with the force of the pole behind it. No spearhead has a point without the spear.” All that this proves is that the committee’s understanding of the javelin and the spear is a little better than its appreciation of the independent status Presidency College has always enjoyed in the world of learning.
For most students and teachers of Presidency College in the past, Calcutta University was a remote — and at times threatening — presence. When the College was at its best, its reputation was based on two things: one, the quality of the lectures delivered by most members of its faculty, and two, the tutorial system through which students, at least in the arts departments, were taught to read, to think for themselves and to write lucidly and logically. Most of the great teachers of Presidency College were good at lectures and in camera when they took tutorials. The tutorial system has been more or less absent in the pedagogy followed in Calcutta University. In fact, at one time, in the glorious days of the College, students who studied for their post-graduate degrees through the College attended lectures in Calcutta University but came back to the College for their tutorials.
The report admits that Presidency College had entered a phase of decline in the late Sixties and also makes a broad and valid analysis of this decline. But then it proceeds in its recommendations to freeze the College in that decline. It recognizes that its teaching faculty is no longer what it used to be but recommends that transfers should be stopped. This means that those who do not deserve to teach in Presidency College will remain there and keep the College in the quagmire it is in. What kind of suggestion for improvement is this'
Nowhere in the report is there an attempt to engage with the problem of the size of Calcutta University and the harm this does to Presidency College. Nowhere is there a questioning of the system of affiliating colleges and the need to decentralize the University. The whole idea of autonomy for Presidency College is grounded on these issues.
The committee had the chance of freeing Presidency College from the government and the University, and recommending that the college be rebuilt de nuovo — by recruiting its own faculty, making its own syllabi and granting its own degrees. It failed to do this by arguing fallaciously that the link with Calcutta University benefits Presidency College.
The committee, whether it likes it or not, has done exactly what the government and the CPI(M) have wanted for Presidency College — to keep it at its present mediocre level where party cadre and not genuine scholars teach. In this context, when one reads the pious and righteous protests that no political pressure was brought on the committee, one can only react with the words of the mad Lear: “Fie, fie, fie, pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination.”