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Blot on Visva-Bharati

Print edition : Aug 10, 2012

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T+T-

The first institution that Tagore started is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high Where knowledge is free Where the world has not been broken up into fragments By narrow domestic walls Where words come out from the depth of truth Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit Where the mind is led forward by thee Into ever-widening thought and action Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

- Rabindranath Tagore

My father often told us how his real school education started. He lost his mother when he was about four. His father was a senior officer in the Posts and Telegraph Department and could not give the four-year-old the time he needed. He became, not surprisingly, a wayward and turbulent child with whom his eldest sister could barely cope. One day, my father said, he was called in to meet a close friend of his fathers. He said he went into the room where his father and his friend were sitting and was awed by the person he saw: very fair, with long greying hair and a beard.

Will you come with me to my school? this person asked my father.

My father told us that he was very suspicious and afraid and said nothing.

There you will have no classrooms, youll play all day long!

My father was immediately delighted, raced to his room and came down with a small case containing his toys. Im ready, he told his father.

His father was very apprehensive. Are you sure you will be able to manage, Robi? he asked his friend, Hes a very difficult child.

His friend laughed and said, Just leave him to me. Hell be all right. Turning to my father he said. Wont you be all right?

My father remembered that something about the man made him say firmly and happily, Yes I will.

Then followed, my father told us, the happiest years of his life. My grandfathers friend was Rabindranath Tagore, and he took my father to what he called his ashram, where, with some other little boys, my father was among the first children to study in that magical place that later came to be called Patha Bhavana. True to his word, Gurudev Rabindranath let the boys play all day, teaching them at intervals, and telling them stories in the evening. They had no classes but learnt sitting under shady trees, sometimes climbing them. It was a time of fun, frolic and learning which my father never ever spoke of without becoming misty-eyed. He had to come away, like all the other boys, when he was 14 or so because Rabindranath Tagores school was not recognised, and the boys had to join a regular school to pass their matriculation examination and then complete their university education.

Now, more than a century later, Patha Bhavana stands disgraced in the eyes of the country as a place where the most disgusting superstitions are practised. With the passing of years, Patha Bhavana, as a regular school, began admitting girls, something Gurudev would have thoroughly approved of. Some of them, like the boys in that school, stay in the ashram, as it is still called, in a hostel for girls.

Bringing up children is not a simple task, as any parent will tell you. There are problems to be dealt with, and a common one is bed-wetting, which children of both sexes are at times afflicted with. This is cured in most cases by the parents themselves, more particularly by mothers, who combine practical means (like cleaning up) with affection and reassurance. Others may take their children to child counsellors should the problem persist.

It is a matter of shame, and utter disgust, to think that in Gurudevs ashram, of all places, a woman warden made a 10-year-old girl lick her own urine after the child had wet her bed. And the warden had the insolence and stupidity to defend herself by saying that this was a traditional remedy for bed-wetting and that she had cured other girls in this way. This is no different from the calling in of shamans to exorcise evil spirits from possessed women. Patha Bhavana was the first institution Gurudev Rabindranath set up, and it is there that this defilement occurred. What is appalling is that the Vice Chancellor, known to be a reputed scientist, hemmed and hawed about the incident, saying things like Well, the girl was only asked to lick the urine, she wasnt forced and We will look into the matter. He removed the warden, but only from that position.

Not only did Vice Chancellor and his colleagues not apologise to the parents of the child, and, most importantly, to the child herself, they actually got the local police, who seem to be the counterparts of the village policemen Dogberry and Verges in Shakespeares Much Ado About Nothing, to register a case against the parents for going into the hostel and taking away their child. The distinguished Vice Chancellor should thank his stars that other parents did not rush there to get their children out of something worse than Dickens worst nightmare of a school.

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way...Gurudev wrote in that wonderful piece quoted in the beginning of this article. That was the heaven into which he wanted his country to awake. What happened in his own, beloved school would have filled him with misery and a sense of hopelessness that, after all these years, those who had been given the responsibility of nurturing this precious institution, which he prized above all others, should be such petty men.

One cannot, I suppose, blame the Vice Chancellor. He may be academically distinguished but is clearly a craven administrator, bowing before the various aggressive unions and associations in Visva-Bharati unions of staff, associations of teachers and students unions. The warden obviously belongs to one of these bodies. Any stern action against her, such as termination of her contract after due enquiry, would invite ugly repercussions. The Vice Chancellor knows this.

All that happened was that the Registrar issued a ridiculous statement that contained a specious apology and ended with a sanctimonious line about the commitment of the authorities to uphold the noble ideals of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. He would not know what Gurudevs ideals were even if they were to jump up and hit him in the face.

This is where we need to appeal to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. By now everyone has got to know that one of her great loves is the work of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. We need to have her step in, drive out these pussy-footing, if distinguished, academics occupying various positions of authority in the university, drive out the associations and unions ruthlessly, and bring back the ashram to what it was an abode of peace, tranquillity and learning. If anyone can do it, she can.

One can only hope that she will, and that in her efforts the Central government will back her fully, and let her make Visva-Bharati an institution where the mind is without fear, the head is held high and knowledge is free.

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