Education News

West Bengal: Wishful thinking

The overwhelming victory of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which won 227 of the West Bengal legislative assembly’s 294 seats (with its ally the Congress party winning 63) in the recently (May 13) concluded assembly election, has been followed up with a good start by the new government which ended 34 years of uninterrupted rule of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front alliance in the state.

Since she was sworn in as chief minister on May 20, Banerjee has interacted freely and frequently with the media — true to her word to keep open lines of communication with the public and provide transparent gover-nance. Writers Building, Kolkata, headquarters of the state government, is plunged into a level of activity it has not experienced for over three decades. For instance the new government’s first cabinet meeting was held on the afternoon of May 20 i.e the day it was sworn-in and one of its first decisions was to make Saturday a full working day.

Wisely, Banerjee has retained the education portfolio for herself and has appointed party loyalist Bratya Basu (an apolitical actor and dramatist) as the minister of higher education to assist her. Shortly after taking charge, on May 25 Basu faxed the vice chancellors of West Bengal’s 18 universities asking for financial and personnel status reports apart from academic reviews. Noting that there are about 200 faculty vacancies in the year-old Presidency University (which was hived off from the University of Calcutta last year), Basu said: “These vacancies will be filled shortly through public advertisements and a transparent process. Party membership or loyalties will not be a criterion for selection.”

But although the Banerjee-Basu duo seems determined to write a new chapter in the state’s education history, academics with experience of college and university life during the past three decades when CPM loyalists and apparatchiks have infiltrated into all echelons of the higher education system, believe they underestimate the power of the CPM-affiliated West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association (WBCUTA). The faculty and staff in West Bengal’s 18 universities and 354 colleges are heavily unionised and can be expected to fiercely oppose all reform initiatives.

“Most junior faculty members are card-carrying members of the CPM and WBCUTA remains firmly entrenched in the state’s universities. For them, cutting the umbilical cord with WBCUTA and CPM will be very difficult. They have been conditioned to do as directed by the CPM apparatchiks who are not likely to give up power in the universities easily,” says a veteran Presidency University professor who preferred to remain anonymous.

Meanwhile Basu is determined to cleanse the university senates, councils and syndicates of non-academic CPM loyalists. On May 26, he issued a public statement requesting non-academic CPM nominees to councils of higher education institutions to step down voluntarily. “I would request govern-ment nominees serving in college and university councils to kindly resign from their posts. Some have already resigned, the rest should follow. I assure you vacancies will not be filled up with nominees loyal to the Trinamool Congress. We are determined to de-politicise higher education and restore the academic reputation of West Bengal’s institutions of higher education,” the statement said.

According to monitors of West Bengal’s academic scene, there’s more than a dash of wishful thinking in the minister’s public appeal, and a battle royale reminiscent of the 1970s is brewing in West Bengal’s — and especially Kolkata’s — colleges and universities.

Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)