Abode Of Non-Peace

From Dream to Nightmare

Pranjali Bandhu

Among knowledgeable people Visva-Bharat, Santiniketan, is recognised to be a third-rate university. NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) gave it a B grade in 2015. Being awarded the 11th rank by the HRD Ministry under the National Institutions Ranking Framework devised by it lacks credibility because the rankings seem to be politically motivated. They have not been done on the basis of an objective assessment, but on the basis of data supplied by the educational institutions themselves, which have not been verified externally. There is an opinion that having moved so far away from the ideals and vision of its original creator—Santiniketan having largely become Asantiniketan (abode of non-peace) and Visva-Bharati (with its concept of universal knowledge) having got sunk in local and Bengali bhadralok parochialism—both names have become misnomers; in all decency they should be given up and the university should rename itself. Is it fair to trade in the reputation of Gurudev and other self-sacrificing pioneers and fatten yourself and your progeny?

What follows is a sketchy attempt at enumerating the many negative features that Visva-Bharati has accrued over the years, and thus indicate the disgraceful reality of an educational institution that could have been a trail blazer.

Visva-Bharati (V-B), as a university was started in 1918; it includes the schools Patha Bhavana and Siksha Satra in Sriniketan, where a rural reconstruction centre was founded by the poet and his collaborators in 1922, after he was not a little disappointed by the direction the Brahmacharyasram school (later called Patha Bhavana), begun in 1901, was taking in its accommodation to middle class values and aspirations. At the start, the Ashram school was run on a Gurukulam model with the Guru taking no fees from his students who only initially were confined to the dominant castes. Soon a fee-paying system had to be introduced and for the sake of the future employment of students an examination system was introduced and school board affiliation sought so that they could sit for public exams. To this end the original curriculum too was modified. Set up within rural society in natural surroundings for urban middle class people with the idea of making a meaningful connect of the haves with the dispossessed the link between the two has degenerated over the years into that of master and servant.

Sriniketan focused on rural reconstruction by training the villagers in agriculture, animal husbandry and rural crafts even using advanced technologies developed abroad with the idea of assimilating the best the West has to offer, but keeping local requirements in mind and not as an appendage to Western industries for their profits. Maybe there was not enough emphasis given to reviving and learning from the 'backward' farming techniques of the Santhal and other local farmers, and there may have been a misplaced enthusiasm for uncritically taking over modern machines such as tractors and inorganic manure and pesticides dependent farming techniques along with efforts to replenish the degraded earth with natural dung and manure. Notwithstanding these mistakes, the basic approach was that colonial rule and oppression were to be withstood and overcome by learning to stand on one's feet in a solidaristic way through resolving the racial, caste and religious issues within local communities. If this was not done, and if the British were fought only politically, as much of the Congress-led nationalist movement was doing at that time, then once they were ousted a disunited people would fight each other to death. A Swadeshi Samaj—a self-reliant society—and not nation, which he considered an epitome of evil incarnate due to its collective self-aggrandisement and selfishness raised to the nth destructive degree, was the goal and Sriniketan was to take baby steps in that direction. Here learning was not purely theoretical, but practical and theoretical, that is, vocational in nature. Skills learnt in this way were meant to generate income in the non-farming seasons for the rural population.

The original idea of learning in the open under trees planted on arid soil continues to this day up to standard VIII in Bengali-medium Patha Bhavan. Arts, crafts and proficiency in the Bengali language have a prominent place in the curriculum and the students get well acquainted with Rabindra Sangeet and Nritya during their school days. However, an ossifying and petrifying tendency is visible in that the dance dramas enacted regularly fail to experiment, innovate, reinvent and problematise ideas in the contemporary context. They have become rituals, in which vacuous pride is taken, and they fail to play a role in throwing light on and trying to resolve burning current social and political issues.

There is also selectiveness in the works showcased; some plays like Chandalika on marginal groups and untouchability do not get performed. A conscious attempt at doing away with casteist thinking among students—as in Tagore's time—is also a neglected terrain. The amazingly vast repertoire of a genius has given rise to a parasitic livelihood generating industry which does help in transmitting a certain tradition from generation to generation but only by fossilising it and thus rendering it impotent, leading to the somnambulism, sloth and lethargy of the place. Duties are carried out mechanically and lackadaisically; the vision is blinkered and not much time lost to think out improved standards and ways of doing things.

Tagore had the wonderful idea of designing secular festivals on seasonal and work basis taking off from indigenous traditions, in which all castes and creeds could participate, such as Basantutsav (combination of Spring Festival and Holi); Vriksharopana (tree planting festival), Halakorshona (ploughing ceremony), Silpotsava (exhibiting products of the Sriniketan industries) and seasonal fairs such as the Paush Mela and Magh Mela to promote rural crafts. But some of these have taken on ritualistic dimensions and provide mainly photo-ops on mobile phones. The colourfully choreographed Basantutsav with its catchy folk songs composed by the poet, popular to this day, and telecast nation-wide has become a major tourist attraction also.

To a great extent there is museumi-sation of a great tradition. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with museums; they can play an important role, if they and archives are used in a living way to continue and enhance positive life-sustaining traditions. But this does not seem to be the case here. You cannot settle an urban middle class in a rural setting and expect them to serve the rural people unless there is a very conscious effort on their part. They tend to be self-serving in their goal of upward mobility. Today, the dominant caste well-paid professors are employing the local Santhal and other poor women as domestic workers. They are the cleaners, sweepers, toilet, bathroom and clothes washers, and table wipers in the university guesthouses at low wage rates. Poor youth are employed in the menial tasks of cable laying, road works, garden work etc. Some of them work as cycle rickshaw drivers. A casteist mindset prevails. When asked why a particular sweeper is not doing his job of cleaning the toilet, a university employee remarked that one should not expect a non-SC (who was holding this post) to do this job. It is not his calling!

Many of the dominant caste teaching staff progeny have used the place as a stepping stone to settle abroad and have their links abroad. In Tagore's time there was greater interest and involvement of students and teachers in social and political issues, in going out into the rural society, understanding it, to cater to its health and education needs and to render help in times of crises such as droughts and floods. Tagore did not encourage student or teacher involvement in the political aspects of the anti-colonial nationalist movement, but did not strongly prohibit it either. C F Andrews, who worked here, was heavily involved in the nationalist movement. Tagore did not believe in over-emphasising the charkha as part of the rejuvenation of village industries, but did not forbid Nandalal Bose from plying it regularly and diligently in a nationalist spirit. Artists like Nandalal Bose, Somnath Hore and Ramkinkar Baij immersed themselves in the real surrounding world and found their subjects there. Today abstract art and installations are the in-thing.

Post-independence, in 1951, the university got the status of a central university and soon began receiving UGC funds. Receiving regular high salaries at UGC scales and having to follow UGC norms has taken its toll in many ways. A cult around Tagore and his works, started by an interested clique during his last years, has been built up and this is being cashed on. Erudite peer reviewed articles are written on various aspects of Tagore's oeuvre for the sake of adding on to one's points in the Academic Performance Index set up by the UGC and thus climbing up the career ladder and getting one's increments. This does not make the prospect of helping villagers around in any way meaningful. It seems the intellectual class has been bought up as a labour aristocracy. So while there is a veritable Tagore industry in place the spirit is missing. The place has lost its soul, its moorings; though still alive it is beginning to resemble the ruins of Nalanda.

'Reservation' of seats and posts for one's own over generations has given rise to a culture of nepotism, corruption and complacency, and to a division between 'insiders' and 'outsiders.' Being a central university 40% of the recruitment is supposed to be of non-Bengalis. This has often been circumvented by recruiting Bengalis living or working in other States of India resulting in preponderance of Bengalis in the university as a whole and of specifically Bengali Brahmins among the teaching staff. Teaching staff coming from other States, particularly from the North-East including Assam, feel discriminated against. Moreover, culturally this is a highly male-dominating university.

It has largely lost its character of being a meeting ground of cultures, within India and worldwide in a process of mutual learning. This goes against the university motto: "where the world makes its home in a single nest," which Tagore formulated in the belief that knowledge and the search for truth have no boundaries and are a collective endeavour of all men of all time and all lands. The diversity of India and Asia were to be studied in this university aiming at mutual understanding and synthesis of her different cultures and classes. The arts, humanities and natural sciences were to be taught in an integrated interdisciplinary way, not segregated into separate disciplines as they are today.

The number of students coming from other countries (except Bangladesh) and other parts of India (except North-East) has reduced over the years. Little effort is expended to 'integrate' those coming from outside, to make them feel at home and initiate them into the workings of the place. Outsiders coming to work here, even Bengalis, take a lot of time to orient themselves and find it difficult to put in an optimum work effort. There is no community centre or help cell for such a purpose. There is an Indira Gandhi Centre for National and International Integration, but its efforts to that end are not very visible.

There is a division between permanent and casual daily-waged employees. This division is now there also among the teaching staff with the introduction of guest and visiting faculty. There is a major pay differential between them. Such a differentiation in the workforce does not add to an energising work culture in the place. Those who are permanent have no great incentive to push themselves and those who are low paid and casually employed with no benefits and with hardly any training given for improving skills or for learning new ones for upward mobility have no incentive either! Double the number of people gets hired than necessary for getting things done and yet matters move at a snail's pace; dynamism is lacking. Files and papers get misplaced or lost leading to delays in getting things done. This is a third-world bureaucratic work culture where personal affairs take priority and connections matter and may help in moving things at a faster pace.

The endemic corruption that has crept in has resulted in huge maintenance problems because of ostensible lack of funds. Misappropriation and unjust and inappropriate allocation of funds on a coterie basis was the hallmark of the previous VC and a few VCs before him. Funds were found to build multi-storey posh buildings as the Bhasha Bhavan and a wall to ineffectually cordon the university area from the surrounding population—both moves against the original ethos of the place. Many trees were cut down to build this wall. Corruption has also allowed the cutting down and smuggling away of a large number of valuable sandal wood trees from the university area. It is alleged that a mafia consisting of retired university personnel plays an advisory and gainful role behind many of the corrupt practices that have crept in. New buildings and the wall entailed engaging contractors where there was ample scope for palm greasing and pocketing of funds. Though in many ways a heritage place with many statues made by Ramkinkar Baij and murals done by Nandalal Bose together with his students, it is sad to see that some of these murals are getting faded out due to seepage and there is no attempt at restoration.

Lack of a proper garbage disposal system is another lacuna in the university. Environmental Studies and Tagore Studies are compulsory subjects at the undergraduate level, but hands-down application of principles learnt is lacking in the way the courses are handled. This is again contrary to the Tagorean spirit which insisted on students participating in building up the environment, in gardening and road repair works. The visit of the NAAC committee in early 2015 ensured a certain amount of cleaning up of a campus and departments that wore in a shocking condition. Rotten, termite ridden furniture that had been lying around for decades in various departments was hurriedly shunted away, white-washing was done, and broken windowpanes were replaced. But all this hectic activity for around a month in the middle of the academic term, for which suddenly funds were found, bypassed all those departments, for example the Santhali Language Department, which were not due for a personal visit by the NAAC team!

Though the Patha Bhavan curriculum includes Nature Studies and there are a number of teacher-student Sammelans (associations) for various activities on junior, middle and senior levels that meet regularly for discussion and self-governance, teachers are so behind the times in their approach that as yet there is no realisation of the importance of active engagement in environmental management of the campus and its surroundings.

The huge crowds that visit the Paush Mela (Winter Fair) often using petrol driven vehicles add to the pollution that is being emitted on the highway with its already large number of heavy vehicles and other public transport now cutting through the heart of Santiniketan contributing heavily to giving it the feel of Asantiniketan. The earlier paddy fields have given way to houses owned by the local middle class and those from Kolkata, who sometimes rent out their houses to students or teachers. The surrounding rural areas of Santiniketan are a tourist hub for the urban rich and glitterati including cine stars. Rustic looking housing is on offer for city folk who wish to enjoy a booze-rich weekend getaway. Real estate activity is booming with no real cares about the rural folk of course!

The conditions of some of the girls' hostels are said to be appalling. Those who can afford it rent privately and cook their own food, or can even afford to hire cooks. But, not all can, of course. The amenities in the boys' hostels are more than those provided to the girls and they enjoy much greater freedom. A boy's hostel can be supplied with many newspapers; a girl's hostel may receive none. Boys can be out any time of the day or night. Girls have to be in by a particular time and they are not freely allowed to even bring their girl friends in. Gender-based discrimination is clear-cut. A number of student protests have taken place, but such events are hardly widely covered given that V-B is a high profile national heritage place. The reality is that an educational institution that could have been a trail blazer is in a disgraceful state.

As the university since quite some time has lost its sense of social purpose and the West Bengal economy has also since long been in the doldrums due to the ineptitude of the Left Front government and the succeeding TMC there is large-scale unemployment and loss of values in the State in general and in Bolpur in particular, the town housing the university. Thievery has become a serious problem at Santiniketan. The class divide between high-income professors and university employees and the surrounding rural population, where agriculture does not give sufficient returns and is crisis-ridden, is glaring. A criminal approach of outsiders to the university population is manifested not just in the high incidents of thievery, which can take the form of snatching on the roads by motorbike riding youth, rich, middle class or poor. It is also manifested in sexual teasing and harassment of girl students. Even older women are not spared given the chance. This is also a manifestation of the generally lumpenised anti-woman culture in West Bengal, which has seen an exponential rise in rape cases in the State.

In late 2015 roadside small shops and eateries were demolished without compensation by the State government saying they wanted to widen the roads. Many people lost their livelihood, made losses for a few days, are earning half or less of what they were earning earlier by setting up their small establishments again at their own cost. There has been at least one case of suicide on this count in Sriniketan. No faculty or employees of the university reacted to this.

The V-B examination system is another comic opera. Patho Bhavan, the school, is still keeping up the Tagorean principle of not putting too much stress on exams, but at the graduate and post-graduate levels the university has become completely examination-oriented in a highly bureaucratised process which only ends up lowering academic standards rather than improving them. The urban students who come in for higher education today belong to the WhatsApp/selfie generation, who are by and large frivolous in outlook and without any ideals for the future. They are narcissistic, self-absorbed with hardly any feelings of interest or sympathy for the life around them or for each other. The undue emphasis given to examinations and marks makes them unduly competitive and nasty amongst themselves, they are valued and value themselves by the marks they can score in the exam making the learning process become examination oriented and not a lifelong service oriented process. Cooperative qualities are not developed. And, regretfully, it has been noted that the teachers look at the face and give the marks. Favouritism is there. It results in a learning process that is highly mechanical. The teacher drones on and the students sit in class with very blank and empty faces with no eagerness and real interest in imbibing the knowledge offered.

The atmosphere is not one of intellectual stimulation. This is due to the antediluvian authoritarian teaching methods of most faculty members, who for the most part are unable to enter into any dialogic intellectual or other conversation with the students or with each other. It is mostly one-way and it is difficult to expect the students to learn to think, analyse and research for themselves in such an atmosphere. Improvement and upgrading of skills and knowledge base among faculty or among other staff also does not happen in the requisite way as a result. The spread of ignorance rather than light is the result. There are, of course, those who survive despite the system, but there are far too many, who become victims of the general mediocrity. Academic backwardness is evident by the fact that the same teaching material and text books are used for years on end without any change or innovation by many teachers in many departments. A fear of change is there, though change is happening all around, and one's education is meant to help one to deal with it.

The students need to learn how to learn, study, research, create, innovate and communicate as a life-long process. Learning should be experiential, living as part of Nature and society, and not a mechanical short-circuited process of force-feeding capsules of fragmented, undigested and undigestable knowledge to be vomited out during an 'examination/evaluation' process.

Associations and student activities largely remain on the level of pure aestheticism without any social concern for the people around them and their problems leave alone in the rest of the world. Whereas education in the highest sense, particularly in V-B, should actually help in establishing bonds of friendship between humans bitchy, unfriendly, callous behaviour can be the norm among students and teachers. This can lead to psychological breakdowns and depression in sensitive students and they may feel the need to go in for counselling. There is hardly a day of peace because basic needs of students are not met due to the mindset of many of the people in charge. Many a sensitive student and teacher consider the place a Narak (hell), they find it nightmarish. Some good faculty have resigned in disgust because it is difficult to do serious academic work in a peaceful way here; some students look for other places to continue their education because they do not find the place congenial to their academic pursuits.

Moreover, the university is getting integrated into the globalisation processes. This is very much evident in the Japanese Centre and the newly started Centre for Modern European Languages, Literatures and Culture Studies. Ultimately, the idea is to create a workforce for the respective Japanese, German, Italian and French multinationals that are getting ever more involved in the country. In the process the purpose of education, as envisaged by Tagore and progressive nationalist thinkers, is largely forgotten by teachers and students. Looking for global markets and link-ups is the trend in Sriniketan too, for example in their crafts departments. White-collar jobs of being intermediaries sitting at computers as designers rather than at the looms are aspired for by the current students. This goes against the constructive programmes of Tagore and M K Gandhi, which were meant to lay the foundations of a self-reliant economy satisfying basic needs of the people particularly in the rural areas while providing relief from imperialist economic exploitation.

In summary, one has to concede that Tagore's core values emphasising love and sympathy over knowledge and information are on the whole abandoned. After all, he had no faith in the value of rites and rituals per se but believed in the internalisation and expression of core humanistic values and morality in the educational process. What one finds here instead is a deep-seated degradation of the human personality. In V-B people hesitate to voice their opinions. In some departments people push each other down rather than help all to come up and give of their best. A cold, lying and falsifying, nauseatingly uni-dimensional burea-cratic culture reigns redolent of feudal minded 'left' culture, environmentally insensitive, which has ruled West Bengal for decades. Institution building has not been the agenda of the Left in Bengal. What they wanted was to grab as many jobs as possible within educational institutions and the administration and find comfortable sinecures for a small coterie using muscle power. For that they competed with other political parties in the parliamentary framework and did not hesitate to use extra-parliamentary forces (the Harmad Bahini) to remain in power for many long years. They did not have any agenda for deep-going changes, particularly not in the rural areas. Multinational-led industrialisation was and remains their panacea for generating employment just as it is for the other ruling parties. They could not create a culture of freedom and lack of fear, of innovativeness in responding to actual conditions in India, West Bengal and the world.

Just as many Gandhian institutions in the country have got fossilised and dependent on a state that is starkly neo-colonial and neo-fascist rescinding their political thrust, so also it has happened in the case of Visva-Bharati. The present tussle of right-wing forces with the Congress and the parliamentary Left to control educational institutions all over the country is making itself felt in V-B too. As the right-wing forces have sought to bring M K Gandhi and Ambedkar within their framework of thinking and make them a part of their heritage, so they are trying with the legacy of Tagore. This obviously cannot happen without wilful distortions. With political interference in the university its autonomy gets eroded and its educational purpose vitiated. This malaise is common to all central universities in the country and the challenge that has to be faced is how to make them meaningful educational institutions again linked to and working in the interest of the common people. The political class seems to want to kill such universities with the possible aim of furthering profit oriented privatisation of higher educational institutions and the entry of foreign universities. As V-B functions at present, it is slowly committing hara-kiri; it is moribund if not already dead.

Vol. 49, No.18, Nov 6 - 12, 2016