Special Report

Special Report

Red shadow over West Bengal academia

When the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government completed 30 years of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal last year, there were massive countrywide celebrations among party faithfuls. But in the state’s once flourishing and vibrant universities there is growing disquiet — perhaps even despair. Minu Dasgupta reports

By all accounts June 21, 2007 was a red letter day for the estimated 867,763 cadres and commissars of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), popularly known as the CPM. On that day the CPM (which overwhelmingly dominates the eight-party Left Front coalition government of West Bengal) celebrated 30 years of uninterrupted rule in the eastern state of West Bengal (pop. 80 million) with a massive rally of party faithfuls in Kolkata’s Netaji Indoor Stadium.  

The celebrations were justified. The CPM is the longest serving democratically elected communist government worldwide, following a resounding seventh consecutive victory in the state legislative assembly elections held in May 2006. "It is a clear mandate in favour of the policies of the Left Front government, particularly industrialisation," West Bengal’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told reporters at the party rally, following the Left Front’s landslide victory in the state.

"The mandate is overwhelmingly in favour of the policies that the Left government has pursued for the past 30 years," added Biman Bose, secretary of the state CPM speaking on the occasion.

Such chest-thumping is not unwarranted. Not only in West Bengal (and Kerala) but even at the Centre in New Delhi, the CPM which unexpect-edly won 66 seats in India’s 13th general election held in May 2004, wields unprecedented clout. It has effectively torpedoed the much hyped, laboriously negotiated Indo-US nuclear cooperation deal, vetoed privatisation of white elephant public sector enterprises which are a drain on government finances and has stalled labour and higher education reforms. As an ally lending critical "outside support" to the Congress party which heads the 17-party United Progressive Alliance in Delhi, the CPM is a dominant and celebrated force in contemporary Indian politics. 

But while there is smug satisfaction in CPM headquarters in Delhi and in 6, Alimuddin Street, Kolkata which houses the top brass of the West Bengal unit of the CPM, within the state’s once flourishing and vibrant academic community there’s growing disquiet — perhaps even despair — about the Left Front government’s neglect of primary education and infiltration of institutions of higher learning. 

"Education in the state is marked by high school dropout rates in the six-14 age group. The total number of such children is 960,000, even higher than in adjacent Bihar state, considered India’s worst cesspool of social and educational backwardness. Of India’s 24 districts (of a total 604) that have over 50,000 children out of school, as many as nine are in West Bengal," admits Praful Bidwai, the well-known Delhi-based journalist and political commentator, and CPM sympathiser. 

Data compiled by the Delhi-based National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), which for the first time last year expanded its annual survey of primary education in India to cover all 604 administrative districts of the country, highlights the low priority given to foundational education during the past three decades of communist rule in West Bengal.

According to NUEPA’s report titled Elementary Education in India 2005-06, of West Bengal’s 59,223 schools (including 6,433 private institutions), 15 percent (8,883 schools) have only one classroom; 5.1 percent (3,020) employ only one teacher; 37.4 percent (22,149) seat more than 60 students per classroom; 34.6 percent (20,491) don’t have any toilets for children; only 31 percent (18,122) boast separate toilets for girl children, and the average teacher-pupil ratio is 1:55 — way above the national average of 1:40. Little wonder that of the 2.21 million children who enrolled in class I in the academic year 2005-06, only 1.60 million are likely to make it to class IV — a drop-out percentage of 27.6 percent (see box ‘Primary education: How West Bengal compares’). 

Elementary Education: How West Bengal compares 
Literacy (%)Govt. primaries (000)Total schools (000)Single classroom schools (%)Single teacher schools (%)Teacher-pupil ratio
Uttar Pradesh166.15696.6161.7181:57
Madhya Pradesh60.36477.9121.29.4251:36
West Bengal80.16849.359.1155.11:55
Tamil Nadu62.47424.
Source: NUEPA State Report Cards (2005-06)

he state’s record in higher
education is equally abysmal, if not worse. "For three decades the Left Front government has dumbed down the state’s colleges and universities by converting students and teachers into the CPM’s notorious election apparatus," says Dr. Sunanda Sanyal, a retired college teacher and educationist.

According to Sanyal, West Bengal’s once highly revered institutions of higher education such as Calcutta University, Presidency College and Shantiniketan (founded by Nobel laureate Dr. Rabindranath Tagore and later renamed Vishwabharati University) have suffered sharp decline. "Bengal was a pioneer of modern higher education in India with colleges such as Presidency and Jadavpur University producing intellec-tual stalwarts like Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray. But now school- leaving students are fleeing the state in hordes looking for quality higher education." 

The minority of bona fide educationists who have not been transformed into supplicant minions of the CPM despair that even mediocre students with modest ambitions are fleeing West Bengal, whose leaders pay lip service to egalitarian education opportunities for all. Student migration from West Bengal to other Indian states has turned into such a flood that every year Indian Railways runs special trains from West Bengal, transporting thousands of ambitious young achievers looking for qualitatively superior tertiary education beyond state boundaries. 

Educationists in states across India confirm the annual mass exodus of the brightest and best school-leavers from communist-ruled West Bengal. Says Arvind Dhar, spokesperson of the Rai Foundation College in Delhi: "The influx of students from Kolkata to colleges in Delhi is increasing at an amazing rate with every passing year."  This observation is seconded by Kavita Sharma, principal of Delhi’s Hindu College, who says that nearly 30 percent of students admitted into Hindu are from West Bengal. "Middle class students who’ve been to private schools in West Bengal and the north-east are well schooled. But they don’t have much faith in tertiary education institutions in eastern India which don’t offer good placement opportunities either," says Sharma. 

Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, joint director of the Symbiosis group of colleges in Pune, adds that nearly 50 percent of the group’s annual intake of students is from Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal. "Most of these students are from middle class families. Parents don’t wish to enroll their children in West Bengal’s colleges which are in the doldrums because of excessive political interference from the state government," says Yeravdekar. 

Thirty years after the CPM-led Left Front coalition was voted into power in West Bengal following countrywide revulsion against the internal Emergency (1975-77) imposed by the late Indira Gandhi, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the CPM leadership focused its attention mainly on land distribution reforms in rural Bengal, to build a mass rural base. But in a sharp departure from usual communist practice in the Soviet republics, China, and even the Indian state of Kerala, it paid scant attention to primary education, presumably to create a massive pool of electoral cannon fodder in rural Bengal. 

Although the commissars of the CPM in New Delhi and Kolkata seem unaware, the steep education tailspin of West Bengal (which once nurtured towering intellectuals such as Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, Satayajit Ray and Amartya Sen), is built into its Chinese style rural-oriented development model. Thirty years on the party cadres who forcibly deprived rural landowners, "slaves of imperialist exploiters", and "capitalist lackeys" of their landholdings to give a "new look" to the state’s agriculture, industry, education, and health services, have become very powerful at the grassroots level, and control all teacher appointments in West Bengal’s 52,790 government schools.  

Coterminously quasi-literate urban commissars of the CPM have packed higher education — colleges and universities — with party faithfuls who have banded into powerful teachers’ unions. With party loyalty rather than academic credentials being the prime consideration for employment in West Bengal’s institutions of education, it’s hardly surprising that teaching-learning standards in schools and colleges across the state have plunged, adding to the state’s huge pool (5.6 million) of ‘educated unemployables’. 

In effect the estimated 867,763 party cadres of the CPM have assumed the role of Red Guards who engineered the cultural revolution (1966-76) in Maoist China. Hell-bent upon ensuring that bourgeois intellectuals with ‘revisionist’ and ‘capitalist roader’ tendencies were not employed and ideological purity was maintained in education institutions, the Red Guards almost destroyed China’s education system until Mao’s death in 1976 and the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, who put an end to their anarchic ideological experimentation. 

Similarly the powerful party cadres who rule village Bengal with an iron hand and urban commissars who control the state’s powerful teachers’ unions, are preventing deviation from teaching gobbledygook Marxist economics and the class struggle, theories which have been discredited around the world. With all syllabi and curriculums obliged to incorporate these central tenets of Marxism, it’s hardly surprising that education standards in the state have experienced a steep fall. Comments Fr. Jimmy Keepuram, vice principal and professor of sociology at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata: "Parents who pioneered the students movement in West Bengal a generation ago, now send their children to other states for higher education. Or to missionary institutions like the Ramakrishna Mission or St. Xavier’s, the only institutions that the CPM’s Red Brigades have not been able to capture."

The havoc imposed upon the rural school system by CPM comrades has been complemented by Left-inspired student unions in urban Bengal, particularly in Kolkata (formely Calcutta). Powerful CPM-backed student unions such as the Students Federation of India have ensured that college tuition fees have remained frozen since the 1950s, with student and teacher vigilante committees ensuring that liberal economics, politics and sociology is taught only to be criticised.  

In this connection it is important to note that West Bengal’s powerful student unions drew their inspiration from ultra-left Naxalities whose avowed objective (in the 1960s) was to demolish bourgeois educational institutions. Recalls Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri, currently  emeritus professor of political science of the University Grants Commission: "The student union movement in West Bengal started with the beheading of the statue of Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, the guiding star of Bengal’s 19th century Renaissance whose contribution to Indian education and upliftment of the social status of women cannot be exaggerated. The student union movement has no philosophy, no ideology, and no sense of history. They understand neither Marxism nor Leninism, and their idea of revolution is little more than moronic stargazing." 

IAS entry litmus test

Ever since the hallowed Indian Civil Service (ICS) began admitting highly educated Indians (usually Oxbridge graduates) into its officer cadre in 1861, applicants from Bengal dominated the ranks of Indian entrants into the ICS. Among the most prominent Bengalis of the ICS were Subhash Chandra Bose (who was admitted but didn’t join), Hironmoy Banerjee, Karuna Ketan Sen and Sudhangshu Bose. This trend of Bengali domination in the ICS continued until 1947 when India attained its independence. But thereafter when the ICS transformed into the IAS (Indian Administrative Service), the number of applicants from Bengal admitted into the IAS has suffered a steady erosion. Not a few academics believe there is a direct nexus between declining standards of higher education in West Bengal and the steady fall in the admission of Bengalis into the IAS.

"You don’t get the basic infrastructure for IAS coaching in West Bengal. In Delhi/ Mumbai several colleges and universities establish special coaching classes for IAS aspirants, but in Bengal you won’t find anything of that sort," says an IAS officer attached to the state government’s ministry of commerce.

Almost ten years ago two city colleges —Ashutosh and Presidency — had started coaching centres to prepare students for the Union Public Service Commission’s exam, but both the centres were closed because of poor teaching standards. "I was able to pass the UPSC exam last year only because I left Bengal and joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. JNU and the coaching centres surrounding the campus actively prepare students for the UPSC exam," he adds.

Last year three people with Bengali surnames — Anindita Mitra, Moumita Basu and Juhi Mukherjee — were admitted into the IAS. All three completed their higher education outside Bengal.

Stoked by the CPM leadership drawing inspiration from rampaging Red Guards across the border in neighbouring China, in the late 1960s teachers in schools, colleges and universities were instructed not to teach ‘lies’ written in the books authored by bourgeois intellectuals even as communist-backed teachers and students ‘captured’ the state’s academic campuses. In 1973, before the CPM was voted into office in West Bengal, the late Prof. Rama Chaudhury, then vice chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, wrote, "Those who hope that West Bengal’s education will soon shine are simply building castles in the air. These pseudo-revolutionaries have brought down the educational system to such a murky abyss that the restoration of Bengal’s glory can only be possible if another renaissance is brought about in this state."  

The consequence of the extreme politicisation of the education system in West Bengal is that academic issues have been relegated to distant back-burners in the state’s institutions of education. Following the successful CPM model, rival political parties — especially the opposition Trinamool Congress party — have also promoted militant student unions leading to internecine clashes between rival unions, dirty poster wars and sloganeering often prompting prolonged closure of educational institutions. Student unions tend to be pre-occupied with issues entirely unrelated to education resulting in anarchy and chaos on campuses.  

On April 5, 2007 the science club of Jadavpur University was ransacked by storm troopers of the Forum of Arts Students, an organisation inspired by ultra Maoist ideology. Their grievance: the Left Front government’s land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram districts to create a special economic zone for the promotion of large scale industrial units. Comments Rajat Bandyopadhyay, registrar of Jadavpur University: "The ransacking of Jadavpur University is comparable to the activities of Nazi Brownshirts in Germany of the 1930s. None of the three student unions of Jadavpur University have expressed any apology for this incident."

Since then the Left Front government’s land acquisition initiatives in Singur for the automobile factory of Tata Motors, and in Nandigram for the Indonesian-based Salim Group, have provoked violent protests in Kolkata’s Ashutosh College, Presidency College, and Bankura Sammilani Medical College, among other educational institutions.  

Against this backdrop of external political issues heavily impacting West Bengal’s academia, and tuition fees having remained static for over five decades, it’s hardly surprising  that infrastructure such as libraries, laboratories and sports facilities have gone to seed. Of West Bengal’s 374 arts, science and commerce colleges, only 14 have merited the top A grade rating of the Bangalore-based National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC).  

With college managements well aware that as a consequence of continuously festering political activity little teaching-learning happens, they are reluctant to provide placement services to graduate students. They rightly suspect that the overwhelming majority of students awarded degrees by West Bengal’s 374 arts, science and commerce colleges and 60 engineering colleges are likely to be rejected by industry or offered small-time jobs and packages, which will result in loss of face for college administrations. 

This issue came to a head in 2007 when Jadavpur University — by common consensus regarded the best in the state — failed to invite companies and firms to interview graduates for placement/recruitment. According to Amit Chakraborty, a spokesman for the Federation of Engineering and Technology Students Union (FETSU), neither the vice chancellor Shyamal Kanti Sanyal nor registrar Rajat Bandyopadhyay took any initiative to end a strike of non-teaching employees. Conse-quently placement services were not provided at the end of the academic year in 2007.

Yet it’s hardly surprising that the Jadavpur University management thought it prudent to skip the annual placement process last year. Most of the time and energy of the graduating batch of approximately 432 students was spent in agitating and debating the volcanic issue of the Left Front government’s land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram.

Unsurprisingly, given the intensity and violence with which student union elections are fought in West Bengal, most educationists believe that militant student unionism has been the root cause of the decline in academic standards which  prompts massive migration of students to other states. Comments S. Madhusudan, senior vice president of the Manipal Education Group which manages Manipal University — India’s largest private sector provider of professional (medical and engineering) — education: "The largest number of admission applications we receive are from West Bengal. And Manipal University’s major attraction is that our students have little time for politics and are focused on their studies." 

However even if somewhat belatedly, communist-ruled West Bengal’s student community is beginning to appreciate that fighting back against SFI and other party-backed student unions is a preferable alternative to flight. Since 2002, a broad coalition of anti-SFI students gathered under the banner of the Independent Consolidation (IC) has been winning the annual students union election in Kolkata’s high-profile and well-respected Presidency College. Much to the frustration of the SFI and CPM commissars in Alimuddin Street, IC has been continuously besting SFI on the simple promise of doing all it takes to "maintain and improve academic standards". 

But five years on, it’s a moot point whether West Bengal’s showpiece arts, science and commerce college (estb. 1817) has been able to upgrade — or even prevent — the decline of teaching-learning standards. So comprehensive is the domination of the CPM-led state government over higher education in West Bengal that despite its high A grade NAAC rating, Presidency has consistently been denied autonomous status. Moreover it’s an open secret that the transfer of teachers of Presidency College is dependent upon the whims and fancies of student union leaders. Gone are the days when teachers of Presidency were never transferred to any other government college, because they were scholars of international repute and needed the conducive environment of the college to pursue their teaching and research work. 

It’s hardly surprising that the Left Front government has consistently baulked at the idea of granting autonomy to Presidency College which has been granted to its rival St. Xaviers. The conferment of autonomous status would empower the college manage-ment to frame its own curriculum and choose its faculty.

Autonomy soap opera

Perhaps the clearest indication of the stranglehold that the Communist Party of India-Marxist aka the CPM has over higher education in West Bengal, is demonstrated by the long drawn-out soap opera over the issue of the grant of autonomy to Kolkata’s — and West Bengal’s — most famous institution of tertiary education: Presidency College (estb. 1817).

Despite this 191-year-old college being eminently qualified for grant of autonomous status under the guidelines of the Delhi-based University Grants Commission, the Left Front government — and CPM student and teacher unions in particular — are loath to loosen the party’s grip over this jewel in the crown of the University of Calcutta.

For almost two decades the Left Front government has dilly dallied over the issue of granting autonomy to Presidency College. A timeline:

1990: A proposal for grant of autonomy to the college mooted by the Presidency Alumni Association.

2003: The state government discusses the issue of grant of autonomy to colleges in West Bengal.

2005: The managements of Presidency and St. Xavier’s colleges formally apply to the higher education ministry for grant of autonomy.

2006: St. Xavier’s College is granted autonomy.

May 2007: A seven member committee appointed to suggest ‘improvements’ in Presidency.

July 2007: Chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya announces that Presidency College won’t be granted autonomy following the recommendation of the seven-member expert committee

But liberal opinion in Kolkata is unimpressed by the expert committee’s report. "What is difficult to understand is why (the Left Front governmen) needed a motley and meaningless committee of so-called educationists to recommend that West Bengal’s most famous college should not be granted autonomy… In fact, the committee, by design or otherwise, has done exactly what the teachers’ front of CPM would expect it to do. This casts doubts on the credibility of the committee and its ability to comprehend the needs and functioning of a modern university. It has sacrificed excellence at the altar of political expediency," commented a lead editorial in Kolkata’s premier daily The Telegraph (July 11, 2007)

Following considerable public and student pressure, last summer the state government appointed a carefully packed committee comprising seven noted Presidencians, which rejected autonomy to Presidency College. "We want to create our own model of autonomy for state-controlled colleges," Sudarshan Roy Chowdhury, West Bengal’s minister for higher education informed the state legislative assembly last July.

Thirty years after it won its first clear majority in West Bengal’s state legislative assembly and formed the unbeatable Left Front government in the state, under its Deng Xiaoping style chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the CPM has acknowledged the failure of its public sector driven industry development model. It has put up a white flag and rolled out the red carpet for private sector and even foreign firms in a big way by forcibly and brutally in typical communist style, acquiring huge tracts of farmland for industrial projects. In doing so, it has implicitly accepted the failure of its traditional PSE (public sector enterprises) driven industry development model. Quite clearly, to make up for lost opportunities in industrial development, the state government and commissars of the CPM in 6, Alimuddin Street have pragmatically taken the capitalist road.

A similar spirit of enlightened pragmatism needs to infuse the education policies of the Left Front government and the CPM in particular, if Bengal’s once revered education system, especially institutions of higher education, are to recover their lost glory. The education reform agenda is self-evident. Coterminously with stepping up investment in education from the current 1.05 percent of GDP to 6 percent, the stranglehold of local party cadres over the state’s 52,790 primary and secondary schools needs to be broken with management and governance of schools restored to principals, teachers and parent communities. And in West Bengal’s 25 universities and 437 colleges, the anti-academic activities of students and teacher unions need to be curbed with an iron hand, failing which the exodus of the state’s best students and faculty to institutions of higher learning in other states will gather momentum.

Can the commissars and comrades of the CPM who dominate the Left Front government in West Bengal summon up the will and courage to usher in a renaissance in the state’s rapidly obsolescing education sector? Although the CPM politburo in A.K. Gopalan Bhavan, New Delhi and the party top brass in 6, Alimuddin Street, Kolkata may not be aware, this is a more urgent priority than taking to the capitalist road, to realise the latent potential of this critically important eastern seaboard state which had a distinguished tradition of learning at all levels until 30 years ago