Education

Targeting teachers

Print edition : August 07, 2015

Members of the Students Federation of India and other leftist students organisations block the road outside the University of Calcutta in protest against the July 1 attack on teachers and non-teaching staff. Photo: SANJOY GHOSH

An effigy of State Education Minister Partha Chatterjee being burnt outside the university. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

An attack on teachers and non-teaching staff of the University of Calcutta on the campus once again points to the poor state of law and order in West Bengal.

THE increasing lawlessness in West Bengal, and the utter disregard for academic discipline and the dignity of teachers by sections of the ruling Trinamool Congress, came to the fore yet again when an attack on the teaching and non-teaching staff of the University of Calcutta was carried out, allegedly by Trinamool activists, on the campus. Many in the university feel that this was part of an insidious plan by the ruling party to snatch what remains of the autonomy of the institution and bring it completely under its control.

On July 1, the newly formed CU Employees’ Joint Forum, comprising teaching and non-teaching staff, was holding a peaceful demonstration outside Vice Chancellor Suranjan Das’ office in protest against developments that were feared to be undermining the autonomy of the university, when miscreants not belonging to the university attacked the demonstrators, including teachers. The gang was led by Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (the student’s wing of the ruling party) leader Saurabh Adhikari. The attack, which seemed premeditated, drew widespread condemnation from both the academic fraternity and civil society.

“These people whom we had never seen before just surrounded us from all sides and started beating us up. Dibyendu Paul [convener of the Forum and a teacher of library and information science] was thrown to the ground and severely beaten and his clothes were torn. I myself fell down after being jostled about,” Ishita Mukherjee, who teaches economics, told Frontline. When the Vice Chancellor came out of his office to calm things down, he was also shoved around by the mob. According to Ishita Mukherjee, Sudipto Banerjee, a university employee, was injured and got beaten again when he was being taken to hospital.

“Later, when we were sitting quietly in the Darbhanga Hall of the university, Trinamool activists came in and walked around, clapping their hands in a provocative manner and making horrible gestures. It was harassment and intimidation, and that too in a place like the Senate Hall of the university!” Ishita Mukherjee said.When the victims of the assault went to Calcutta Medical College next door, local goons were already there to threaten them and prevent them from obtaining medical certificates for the injuries they had sustained. “These hooligans had no connection with the university whatsoever. More dangerous than the attack on us is this attempt to establish an environment of fear both within and outside the campus,” said Dibyendu Paul, who was severely assaulted.

Autonomy under threat

The teachers and non-teaching staff of the university feel that the real target of the attack was the movement that was under way to protect the autonomy of the university. They have pointed out that the Joint Forum’s campaign had nothing to do with students, nor was it an agitation against the government. It was aimed at drawing attention to the way the university’s autonomy was being undermined. Indeed, university staff have been airing their grievances over several issues in the past few years, but to no avail.

After the All India Trinamool Congress assumed power in the State in 2011, the new regime introduced the West Bengal University Amendment Act, making provisions for large-scale alterations in the governing structures of universities in the State. In the four years since then, however, the University of Calcutta has not received a statute on the basis of this new law. In a university, a statute is a set of rules formed on the basis of the Act that lays down the processes relating to the university’s functioning. In the absence of such a statute, the university’s functioning becomes vulnerable to government intervention.

Paul said: “We [the university] have no statute, no faculty council, no undergraduate council, there are no elected representatives in the Syndicate and the Senate [the two main governing bodies of the university]. Members nominated by the government take all important policy decisions. The Joint Forum was a spontaneous reaction to these developments.”

The Joint Forum was set up after the post of finance officer was abolished on May 14. The move acted as a catalyst for the campaign. There was speculation about several other posts and jobs being on the line, causing panic across the institution. In January, Finance Officer Harisadhan Ghosh was suspended (on fabricated charges, according to the Joint Forum) and replaced with a government-nominated adviser.

The allegation against Ghosh was that he put Rs.5 crore of university money into a deposit account in his own name. The person who made the allegation headed an investigation committee to look into the matter.

Shyamal Chakraborty, an eminent professor of chemistry and executive member of the West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association, told Frontline: “The bank sent a letter of clarification to the University of Calcutta, saying the said Rs.5 crore was not under any individual’s name, but under the University of Calcutta’s general fund. One of the joint operators of the fund was Harisadhan Ghosh. The bank wrote in bold letters that they were the joint operators and not the joint depositors.”

As of July 14, Ghosh continues to remain suspended, with his case pending in court. The High Court has stayed the order abolishing the post of finance officer.

Both Chakraborty and Paul said that it was now feared that fabricated corruption charges might be used to seize control of university funds, which were held in a fixed deposit in the university’s account.

“The fund comprises endowments, donations, money set aside for the stakeholders’ pension and gratuity, research projects, prizes, and so on. There is an apprehension among the stakeholders in the university that there may be plans to siphon off the university’s funds, particularly after State Education Minister Partha Chatterjee made a public statement wondering how the State Treasury was empty when there was such a lot of funds with the University of Calcutta,” said Paul.

The outgoing Vice Chancellor was initially non-committal on the incident. But he later met the Education Minister and expressed “pain” at the events that had taken place. “I told him [the Minister], you cannot run a campus with the help of the police,” he told the media. Das will soon assume office as Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University.

The economist Sugata Marjit, who is a vocal supporter of the Trinamool government’s policies and government control of academic institutions, has been appointed interim Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta.

“If he puts his opinions into practice, the interests of the institution will not be served,” Rimi B. Chatterjee, associate professor of English at Jadavpur University and a well-known novelist, told Frontline.

Repeated attacks

Repeated assaults on academics and academic institutions by members of the Trinamool Congress have been a regular feature under the present regime.

In January 2012, the Principal of Raiganj College in Uttar Dinajpur district was beaten up and his office ransacked. The government accepted his resignation, and those arrested in connection with the assault were promptly given bail. In 2013, Trinamool activists ran amok at Meghnad Saha College in the same district when a local leader’s wife was caught cheating and asked to leave the examination hall. The Principal, Swapna Mukherjee, and two other teachers were thrashed by the miscreants. The historic Baker Laboratory at Presidency College in Kolkata was vandalised by Trinamool supporters in April 2013 as a reaction to the attack on State Finance Minister Amit Mitra in New Delhi, allegedly by activists of the Students’ Federation of India. Such incidents have become practically commonplace in the State. “What is taking place is a crisis of political culture in the State; and that is being reflected almost on a daily basis at every level in the education sector—primary, secondary, college and university,” eminent educationist and teacher of economics Debasish Sarkar told Frontline (see interview).

Meanwhile, the Joint Forum is trying to set up a “Citizen’s Commission” in the education sector, which will look into incidents of violence and injustice against teachers and non-teaching staff in schools and colleges throughout the State.

“What happened to us at the University of Calcutta is unfortunate, but it is also undeniable that every day in some nook and corner of the State far more dangerous assaults are taking place on teachers and non-teaching staff of educational institutions. We will appeal to all the teachers’ associations in the State to be a part of this commission,” said Paul.

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