The Presidential Transition
By Paramita Banerjee
The Domain of Meaning
University: the term phonetically seems to have something to do with the universe and by derivation with the universal, and there is, indeed, a connection. Both the words – universe and university – have been derived from the same Latin word ‘universitas’, which originally meant a whole, but developed another meaning in medieval legal Latin – a community, a collective, a company, a corporation. The word ‘university’ emerged out of the second sense. The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that the term was derived from the Latin ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium’ – which would roughly translate to ‘a community of teachers and scholars’.
The Latin word, ‘collegium’, from which the English word ‘college’ has been derived, means almost the same, as per the online Latin-English dictionary: corporation/brotherhood/guild/society/school. However, there is one interesting difference: the first meaning mentioned is – ‘college/board (priests)’. Etymologically, then, a university refers to a community of teachers and scholars while a college may refer to a collective of priests. It is, of course, a matter of discussion whether any of the two collectives is higher than the other. But, there is a definite hierarchy between the terms ‘college’ and ‘university’ in their current usage. A college is a part of a university.
My story lies in that precise hierarchy and relates to the erstwhile Presidency College, transformed into an autonomous university since 7 July, 2010. As an alumnus of this institute of unquestionable legacy, I keep wondering which of the two dates would now deserve to be observed as the Foundation Day – 20th January as it had always been, or 7th July, or both. That, however, has nothing to do with the story I want to share, though my narrative relates precisely to that transition of the prestigious institution from a college affiliated to the University of Calcutta to the autonomous Presidency University of today.
The Personal Narrative
I joined the Presidency College within three months of the National Emergency being declared by the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi. One of the first debates I got exposed to was about the autonomy of the college – desired by the activists and supporters of Chhatra Parishad, the students’ wing of what had by then become the Indian National Congress (Indira) and fiercely opposed by the radical Left. I’m not sure about the position taken by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on this issue back then – for in the college that I had attended, they hardly had any presence. Opposition to the ‘stooges of the ruling party’ consisted largely of students adhering to left of Left ideologies, with minor differences in their positions. The few supporters of the CPI(M) worked together with the radicals in an atmosphere of stifling Indira-Congress dominance.
Chhatra Parishad was consistent in its demand that Presidency College deserved to be an autonomous university while the leftist students argued that such a transition would make this institution even more exclusivist and elitist than it already was. The Chhatra Parishad’s arguments were that the college suffered from the irregularities of the University of Calcutta, its syllabi unrevised for many years, and its often erratic system of marking. Elevated to the status of a university, this institution would be free to decide its own syllabi, set its examination systems in order and generally benefit students by freeing them from the behemoth that Calcutta University had become with a large number of colleges of varying standards affiliated to it and a gigantic body of students to tackle, therefore. These protagonists were so sold to the idea of an autonomous Presidency University that one of them didn’t refrain from slapping a fellow girl student – an incident that went viral even in those days of no social media – when she tried to defend a classmate from being beaten up. This classmate had the ‘audacity’ of speaking on Doordarshan – the only television channel then available in a city where only a handful of houses had a television set installed – against the college being granted autonomy.
The subtext behind the leftist position remains more difficult to decipher even today. Presidency College was an elite institution anyway. It had the stiffest cut-off marks among all the colleges affiliated to the University of Calcutta – other government colleges of repute included, and other universities in the state of West Bengal – just for collecting an admission form. It was one of the few colleges where one needed to qualify in an admission test. Only the crème de la crème of students could get admission there. The set standards of this college did not permit just any average student to get enrolled here. Students from this college inevitably topped the graduation results among all the colleges affiliated to the University of Calcutta– a trend that continued right up to the post-graduation level.
How would the transition of this college to an autonomous university make it any less ‘democratic’ than it already was? Many of us nurturing radical left beliefs in those days of transitioning from adolescence to youth had no qualms about sneering at fellow students from Jadavpur University – an integrated university with both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, complete with engineering and technological faculties as well. To us, a first class first from Calcutta University in the humanities or science streams – almost inevitably a student from the Presidency College – was unquestionably superior to her/his counterpart from Jadavpur. Much larger competition (in terms of the number of examinees), tougher examination norms (unknown question setters and examiners to Jadavpur’s ‘all at home’ advantage), stricter marking (admitted and acknowledged in the larger academic world). . . In our minds, there was no contradiction between opposing the autonomy issue and basking in the feeling of superiority that we inevitably inherited as students of this premier institute.
In retrospect, it certainly seems far more rational for both parties to have joined hands to demand setting up more universities so that colleges affiliated to the University of Calcutta could be distributed, as would happen later – rather than fighting over the autonomy of Presidency College. But then, being opposed to each other was perhaps more important than working out an actual solution. Indeed, the struggle between the centrist and leftist students seems to be far more easily explainable as typical of pro- and anti-establishment positions. Chhatra Parishad – representing the party in power – advocated for the hierarchically superior status of a university. The leftists, on the other hand, were in no mood for this rise in status – the actual exclusivity of the institution notwithstanding. Autonomy was read as a departure from democracy, which the obvious meritocracy was apparently not.
The Transitional Riddles
It is perhaps ironical that the autonomous status of a university was granted by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya just about a year before his party and its allies were to lose power in the state after thirty-four long years of Left Front rule. Was it being in power that allowed this shift of position, or was the CPI(M) always in tacit support? It might even be that Bhattacharya was a supporter of the autonomous university demand, at variance with his party line – as on other issues, too.
These are riddles with no answers readily available in the public domain; nor to this writer. But it does seem difficult to gauge exactly what the institute has gained from its transition to a university. It has been in the news in recent times for all the wrong reasons, both academically and politically. Reputed academic and Presidency alumnus, Sukanta Chaudhuri, resigned from the Mentor Group, in protest against special favours being shown to the fledgling university even before it could prove its mettle through performance – reconfirming what the radical leftists had been arguing for so many years. Noted physicist Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, an alumnus of Presidency College, resigned from his teaching assignment because of a stifled atmosphere, reflecting the newly formed university’s inability to retain the best. ‘The kind of pluralism I looked for on the campus was missing’ – quoted the ‘Metro’ section of The Telegraph, Kolkata edition, dated 18th July, 2015. Earlier this year, Vice Chancellor Anuradha Lohia denied permission to the Alumni Association at the eleventh hour to hold a seminar in the institution’s auditorium named after Derozio, citing ‘unavoidable reasons’. Due to be held on 5th March, the seminar was on ‘Freedom of Expression and Students’ Politics: Influence on Film Making.’ Aparna Sen and Srijit Mukherji, both filmmakers of repute and alumni of the institute, were to speak. Readers would probably remember that the JNU controversy was raging at this point; the ideas of nationalism and the right to dissent were at the centre-stage of debates and discussions.
Historian Sugata Bose, Presidency alumnus and Chairperson of the Presidency Mentor group, Harvard professor and a Member of the Parliament from the ruling party in the state, was openly surprised at this denial of permission. ‘The auditorium named after Derozio was the best place to have such seminars’ – the ‘Metro’ section of The Telegraph, Kolkata edition, dated 2nd March, 2016, quoted him. A direct response to Lohia’s comment to the ABP News channel: ‘Why only at Derozio? There are other places where they can have such seminars.’
I had gone to Presidency College with the sole aim of becoming a Naxalite, convinced that this elite institution was the place to be accessed for that dream to come true. A clear reflection that the college had managed to hold on to strong dissent even during the staunch repression of the Emergency. Has that been the casualty at the altar of status upgradation?
Photo: Debaditya Bhattacharya
Paramita Banerjee shifted from academics to the social development sector way back in the early 1990s and has been working in that sector since – with a focus on child rights, gender justice and queer activism. Paramita has worked with children living in red light areas of Kolkata, and dreams of using her pen to ruffle status-quoist feathers. She currently writes a column titled ‘Qafe’ in The Kindle Magazine. She also writes and publishes short stories in both English and Bengali on issues of gender and sexuality. Paramita has translated children’s stories by Mahasweta Devi, published as a volume Our Non-veg Cow and Other Stories by Seagull Books. A couple of her translations have also been included in Elizabeth Bumiller’s book, May You be the Mother of a Thousand Sons (Random House, 1990).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.