Sukanta Chaudhuri

I am the luckiest and unluckiest of Calcutta academics. My teaching life was divided equally between two premier institutions, Presidency College (as it then was) and Jadavpur University. Thirty years ago, I saw the party then in power deliberately bent on destroying Presidency for political ends. I am now seeing another dispensation out to destroy Jadavpur in the same way.

I would add that Jadavpur after 2000 has been much more productive and internationally distinguished than Presidency in the 1980s. My assessment may surprise many and antagonize some; no less my next remark, that the present government has devised a more effective strategy for its purpose. The leftists packed the academic bodies and manipulated the rules. Their successors are rewriting the rules, as often as need requires.

The onslaught on Jadavpur’s academic identity has attracted little public attention. The police violence on campus and its aftermath have diverted the gaze from the deeper academic damage. This legalized non-violent attack may be intensified if the campus is exhausted and browbeaten into the ‘normalcy’ of a ‘peaceful academic atmosphere’. That is the point the emeritus professors tried to make to the chancellor some weeks ago.

Bengal’s University Acts were revised twice in two years. Though each university has an act of its own, the amendments have been combined in a single act. This may be the prelude to one consolidated act for all universities – an acknowledged item on the government’s agenda. That would rob the universities of any voice in their own affairs.

We are witnessing a new strategy of political control from outside through legislation and governance, rather than the earlier abuse of democratic bodies within the institution. To take a bizarre instance, deans of university faculties are now selected by a government panel: even the vice-chancellor’s nominee cannot belong to Jadavpur. Nowhere else in the world are faculty deans selected by an external body.

This points to the procedure for recruiting teachers. Earlier acts detailed the structure of selection committees; the current one relies on “rules framed by the State Government from time to time” – in other words, executive rather than legislative provisions. Further,irrespective of UGC regulations, the vice-chancellor’s nominee will always head the selection committee. And the vice-chancellor alone (not the executive council, as formerly) will approve the appointment.

A huge backlog of vacancies has piled up since 2011. One begins to see the crucial stake of the ruling party in the choice of vice-chancellor. The act as initially amended held promise of freely selected, academically distinguished vice-chancellors. The politicians soon learnt better. The later amendment ensures State control over the selection, even impinging on the chancellor’s decision. The latter will be seriously compromised if other projected amendments are carried through.

In such a dispensation, the vice-chancellor will not look to the institution he heads but to external mentors. It may rightly be protested that the same held true before 2011. That is not a respectable precedent, and was seldom the case at Jadavpur. Moreover, the assault on academic autonomy is now written into the law. The only check on centralized rule might have lain with the elected teachers’ representatives on the university court and executive council; but the statutes outlining their mode of election (besides other crucial procedures) are awaiting approval for over 19 months.

Similar provisions apply to every university in Bengal. But deriving from that scion of the Freedom Movement, the National Council of Education, Jadavpur has a special tradition of independent operation. It advanced spectacularly despite the long leftist stranglehold over education in the state. That achievement needs more recognition than it has received. The Jadavpur community has enjoyed a unique liberty not only to exercise their minds but to run their own academic activities. The price for this productive freedom of spirit is sporadic protest and disorder. The same situation obtains in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the only university ranked higher than Jadavpur by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. We must work out how to stop this malady in our leading institutions. Obstruction and coercion are not acceptable means of dissent. Equally, commando raids are neither acceptable nor efficacious in tackling them.

To bring Jadavpur to heel (thus quelling any dissent elsewhere), the best means is clearly to obstruct its intellectual freedom. As it happens, Jadavpur’s greatest strength in this respect is also its most vulnerable flank. It lies in 21 interdisciplinary schools where researchers from all faculties explore specialized, often emergent, fields of knowledge, cutting across traditional subject boundaries. The schools were set up by small groups of like-minded teachers on their own initiative, as a second unpaid job over and above their departmental workload. They run on intellectual adrenaline.

Hence they are a miracle of academic financing. In ballpark terms, the university grants each school only Rs 1.10 lakh a year (about Rs 23 lakhs in all) from its disposable funds, but allows them the freedom to approach funding agencies and form collaborations. From the NAAC report covering six years from 2008 to 2013, they have garnered at least 25 times this amount per annum in income and project funds. They have also formed 55 national and 25 international collaborations, and provided employment (from their own funds) to a small army of researchers and project staff. They have contributed handsomely towards placing this state institution among India’s leading research universities.

There is nothing like the schools anywhere else in India, hence no standard procedure for administering them. They are focused centres of study following the unpredictable logic of their research interests. They are run by motivated academics who have built up research and funding networks over years and decades. The courses they run are specialized programmes in particular interdisciplinary areas.

An enlightened authority would value the schools as a unique academic asset. (The UGC has recommended them as a model.) Authorities otherwise inclined may view them simply as a political impediment. They are self-sustaining centres of activity, headed by senior faculty taking academic and administrative initiatives. The amended rules were designed to dislodge the incumbent directors and joint directors, who were made to relinquish charge in mid-August. In a few cases, they were replaced by a few (often junior) full-time staff who, along with the vice-chancellor and his nominees, now have sole decision-making power. Fifteen schools, where even this provision cannot apply, have been without directors and academic committees for nearly four months.

These decisions were taken without any discussion before or since, ignoring many appeals and suggestions. There are still ways to save the situation, but the authorities are clearly not interested. Instead, overtures are being made to people not connected with the schools – that is, not in the relevant line of research. It is like asking a professor of history to head a physics department. The situation is fluid as I write (on November 3), but the schools are already losing out on funding and collaboration. PhD enrolments have been in suspension for months. Another six such months will effectively block the new projects on which the schools’ survival depends.

That may be the point of the exercise. I recall the attack by Presidency’s leftist storm-troopers, thirty years ago, on colleagues so recalcitrant as to conduct research. Jadavpur without its research schools would be a tamed, demoralized entity. There is vague diversionary talk of reinventing the schools as teaching departments. One wonders whether anyone has remotely considered the implications. Shall we blithely accept the loss to research? Would such specialized fields of study constitute viable subjects for full departments? Above all, who would fund even the minimal levels of staff and infrastructure required for a teaching department? The answer, I suspect, is nobody. These would be notional departments, as in the embryonic universities being set up without a single full-time teacher. So much the easier to keep them under heel.

An undergraduate college in decline might possibly be revived. If a research school is destroyed, it cannot be rebuilt in a generation. When a university has many such schools, their impact extends even to undergraduate teaching. To destroy the schools is to destroy the excellence of the university.

That prospect may cheer on the demolition squad, as at Presidency College thirty years ago. Their goal is to shrink such institutions to a familiar undemanding model within an amenable education system. We can only pray that this time, some power might at least slow down the process.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University