If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Visva-Bharati: Where the mediocre converge

"Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam" (Where the world converges to build a home) - Motto of Visva-Bharati, founded by Rabindranath Tagore

Two hundred and fifty million Bengalis today would have been a different people if Rabindra Nath Tagore had not been born. Many of my generation would agree with this rather bizarre statement. Tagore had tremendous impact not only on Bangla literature and language, but also on the Bengali way of life, and to a lesser extent, on the country and the world. It is also a fact that Rabindranath is becoming increasingly irrelevant. His ideas do not find many takers in a consumption driven society where greed is considered good.

The school set up by Tagore, Visva-Bharati, is no longer an important centre of learning. It is also plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and repeated violence and strikes. The latest was a strike by employees and teachers, which shut down the institution for six long weeks from 24 September 2009. The strike was withdrawn after an appeal by the Prime Minister.

Any discourse on the recurring strife at Visva-Bharati and its steady downhill journey should examine to what extent its problems reflect the incongruity of the guiding principles of its founder in today’s world. In a letter to the editor in The Statesman (5 Nov 2009), Mr. Bibekananda Ray goes to the heart of the matter when he says: “… a question that well-wishers of Visva-Bharati have to address is, whether this unique and affluent central university should remain wedded to the century-old tradition of imparting man making education or compete with most other universities in awarding degrees that have value in the job market in India and abroad.”

Students no longer study to gain knowledge. They do so to find well-paying jobs. To many, knowledge is worth pursuing only if there are concomitant material benefits. Simple living is on no one’s agenda. The teachers and employees of Visva-Bharati today are different from their predecessors who earned a pittance and suffered much hardship to run the institution. That began to change in 1951, when Visva-Bharati became a Central University. How can these unalterable facts be reconciled with the ideal of “man making education”?

A way-out from this apparent impasse can be found if we recognise that “man making education” does not necessarily reduce a student’s worth in the job market. None from the alumni of Visva-Bharati have headed airline or soft-drink companies, but countless among them have excelled in their respective fields. Ramkinkar Beij, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Mahasweta Devi, Suchitra Mitra, KG Subramanyam, and Amartya Sen are not exceptions, but dazzling motifs on a general pattern. And in an increasingly complex world, technology cannot deliver everything. Experts from the fields of language, literature, arts, and social and natural sciences too are needed.

Visva-Bharati therefore, hasn’t fallen between the two stools of pursuit of knowledge and “marketable education”. Its problem simply is a vast decline in standards and a lack of quality education. And it is necessary to analyse the causes behind these.

Much has been said about how the CPI M has filled the state-run universities in Bengal with their cadres and cronies. This irrefutable fact is contested by none, including that party. I do not know why nobody ever mentions that the Congress Party has done exactly the same in Visva-Bharati thanks to it being a central university, and their long stints of power in New Delhi. It is widely known that a powerful central minister and his sidekicks have had significant control over recruitments in Visva-Bharati over decades. To illustrate, one might point out that the three principal leaders of the workers’ and teachers’ unions today are former leaders of Chhatra Parishad of the same university. As Birbhum district, where it is located, has no industries and little potential for employment, congressmen treat Visva-Bharati as a goose that lays golden eggs in the shape of lucrative government jobs for their members and followers.

Aside from that, in the small and somewhat closed world of Santiniketan, everyone knows everyone else. Over time, this has created a network of employees, retired employees, ex-students and their families who can influence either the administration or sundry politicians to push their candidates at the time of recruitment.

Consequently, merit has become a casualty at all levels. And instead of the world coming together at this seat of learning, as its founder had envisioned, mediocre people from a small area around Santiniketan have converged to make Visva-Bharati a comfortable nesting ground.

Visva-Bharati does not serve the local community only by providing jobs. At all stages of admission, from primary school to post graduation, internal candidates are given preference. It is expected that a toddler joining one of the preschools run by the university will eventually get a post graduate degree in a discipline of their choice. Merit naturally has a limited role in such a scheme. To attract students from far and wide, the present Vice Chancellor (VC) got admission tests conducted at various centres across India in 2009. But the attempt failed.

On top of these structural problems, Visva-Bharati has been saddled with a succession of failed VCs in the recent past. A mathematician of doubtful standing who was subsequently arrested for financial malpractices was followed by the former head of a nondescript B-School of Kolkata. They apparently cared little for Tagore or his educational philosophy. It is likely that these eminently ordinary gentlemen were political appointees too! The present incumbent, a noted historian, has shown that academic eminence is no guarantee against administrative failure.

There is no easy way out for Visva-Bharati. Without pretending to know the answers, one might suggest a few steps.

The central Congress leadership must rein in their local satraps in the long-term interest of this once unique school of international renown. (Let’s hope good sense will prevail!) Simultaneously, the administration needs to be strengthened by replacing senior officials of proven incompetence. It would be incorrect to focus only on the VC. He/She ought to have a good team. Special chairs may be created to attract outstanding academics to various departments. The revamped administration should get unstinting support from the Centre, with zero tolerance for disruptive trade-unionism.

As regards a roadmap for the institution, a high-level committee appointed by the President of India in 2006 suggested that Visva-Bharati shun courses like law and management. The Committee, headed by Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, was aware that it had the potential to become a model traditional school that could stand as a counterpoint to the market driven education factories that dominate the scene now. Visva-Bharati may still reinvent the magic that produced a galaxy of stars from Ramkinkar Beij to Amartya Sen if there is visionary leadership, and if the deadwood is removed ruthlessly.


  1. A thoughtful, erudite and responsible depiction of what most of us helplessly feel.

    This destiny about Tagore's mission was duly crafted in 1951 when, reluctantly by Gurudev himself, his noble mission was made to be defined as a University. Now, it looks as if we are in a point of no return. Now,if it were to be transmuted into what other Universities are about, Tagore's mission would, as such, go into oblivion. Or else, being what it is, Tagore's ideals have almost evaporated from everything except our memories.

    While I may sound pesimistic, I do live with towering faith in the eternal truth - the Upanishadic philosophy, based on which Tagore had formed his schools. In that vein, I proclaim that the marathon is not yet over. Nothing can be more reliable than Truth for rediscovering itself. The reality is, as history has always evinced, changes have come by surprising all sternest predictors..

  2. Thanks for writing this article. Isn't it surprising while in most places of the world educational establishments tend to become better with time, in India it is exactly the opposite.

  3. This is a sad situation Sir, I am not aware of any particularly ideological place like the one you have mentioned, in Tamil Nadu. But some fine universities have gone to seed for want of care. The Presidency college comes to mind..

  4. The ideology on which Visva Bharati was built is faltering today. I also agree that institutions that were of repute and put India on the global map because of their existence have slowly lost their way. This holds true for Shibpur engineering college as well as Jadavpur. The VC of BESU said the other day, when he visited Muscat that BESU has not featured in the newspapers for the last 6 months which in itself is very good news for the university!!

  5. Very true and lamentably so! Being situated in the eastern region of the country in general and the state of West Bengal in particular, Visva Bharati, obviously, could not, insulate itself from the general ethos of mediocrity and slovenliness (fed by petty corruption and party cronyism) characterizing its faculty and staff; while slowly, half-consciously, letting the situation spin out of control by lending the intransigent and viciously entrenched unions to dictate terms at will!

    West Bengal, we all know, is a witness to a generally appalling educational state all these years. With merit based specialised institutions both along the upstream (the knowledge-centric hubs) and downstream (large industry houses) ends of the spectrum, being qualitatively indifferent and quantitatively few, a large body of aspiring students has flocked to other states for greener pastures.

    Visva Bharati has been caught at the wrong ends on both the counts, it seems!
    At one end, despite being blessed with adequate central funds, relative administrative autonomy and Vice Chancellors of academic and administrative repute, (of the likes of Prof Surajit Sinha, Amlan Dutta, Ashin Dasgupta, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya et al) it has failed to develop competent pool of faculty/infrastructure to groom graduates/post graduates of general streams to get relatively assured employment in the immediate job markets in the services sector (management/IT/ banking/insurance/journalism etc).

    Even if you concede that the University’s USP does not lie in these areas and it has, for one, literature, philosophy, linguistics, environment, music and fine arts etc to flaunt as its core disciplines, fused as these are in the not-so-commercially-marketable holistic ideals of Tagore, why is it, as you have so feelingly lamented, that we do not find, among its burgeoning alumni, a fair number of academicians of high caliber, adorning the university/college chairs or heading Research institutes; or litterateurs, language experts, et al carrying out quality work (whatever that implies in the horridly restricted regional parlance) in their respective fields, with a modicum of distinction?

    As Santanu da has taken pains to point out, the university has come to reflect more of a vertically integrated/closed factory system which produces its finished products out of its exclusively in-sourced raw materials, often at costs which are economic but with qualities, dubious!
    And this, you would admit, has lethal consequences when a university, deigned to impart higher learning, replicates a close factory shop.

    Here most students become teachers, (if they have not dropped out, that is!) the latter, by dint of reasons remotely related to academics, have their wards enrolled/appointed as students/clerks to eventually take on the roles of faculties/Union Heads - while some of their less fortunate brothers, almost as the residual option, have the local catchment areas of Sriniketan/Shantiniketan/Bolpur etc as their ready recruitment centres.

    This is a vicious cycle. We need a strong, potent and an exogenous force to bring about systemic changes/reforms from within (in the physical/ hard part of the academic infrastructure and, possibly, on the softer and more formidable part of the mind-state) to turn the cycle into a virtuous one! Ode to Midas?

    Thanks Santanu da for your brilliant exposition.

  6. Thank you All.

    Sujata and Vaishnavi, yes, there is steady deterioration all around. The situation is so bad that no one even talks about the terrible state of Calcutta University. It has been accepted and forgotten. While we talk about management schools and dozens of new IITs, only a handful of colleges/institutes offer quality education in natural sciences and humanities. The situation in state-run high schools is appalling. That doesn't seem to worry our policy makers.

    Tanmoy, why does it have to happen in India? Since 1991, the rich in our country have become enormously richer, there has been a sea-change in the economic condition, attitudes and confidence level of the middle class. We also have bigger markets, wider roads and flashier cars. But there is nothing to indicate that we are even marginally better human beings. Has decline in our educational standards got something to do with that?

    And Kaushik, thanks for your comments. I couldn't agree with you more. I am naturally inclined to share your pessimism, but whatever little I have read convinces me that without optimism, there is no hope. At the same time, I wish I had the towering faith that Asit talks about. Thanks Asit, for your views. I hope more and more people will be "infected" by your optimism.

  7. I invite you to visit the following URL:
    http://www.visva-bharati.ac.in/GreatMasters/GreatMastersName.htm at the official Visva-Bharati web site.
    You will notice that all the personalities VB proudly showcases there were people who came to Santiketan for idealism, not for money. In 1951, after VB was made a Central University, money came in at the cost of idealism, it seems!
    Today Visva-Bharati is a "white elephant" being fed with tax-payer's money.
    Either Visva-Bharati should produce results, or it should go...the wastage must stop.

  8. Dear Commentator, Thanks for reading my post and for your comment. I do agree with you, money has come to VB at the cost of idealism. You have hit the nail on the head. Perhaps we need to go back to a simple lifestyle if we wish to rediscover the magic of Visva-Bharati. Thanks for the link too.

  9. On March 1, 2010 The Hindu carried a front page story with the following heading:
    "Violence mars Santiniketan festival", further down the line the shocking news was given. I quote:
    "Early on Sunday morning, a clash between two groups of students resulted in irreparable damage to artworks, notably murals created under the supervision of the famed artist Nandalal Bose, at “Black House,” one of the university’s hostels."

    We were given to understand that two groups of University rascals, nay students, clashed violently to vandalize the exquisite architecture with a treasure-trove of bas-reliefs created about seventy years ago under the direct supervision of Nandalal Bose by his band of Kala-Bhavana students on its walls.

    A huge metal bell at Visva-Bharati was stolen way back in 1970s, but nothing happened. Nobody tried to catch the culprit. Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel medal was gone in 2004...nothing happened even then ! Apart from tall talks and gas...and now the new year of 2010 brought us the exhilarating news that the VB "students" are vandalizing Nandalal's creation !
    A good show indeed !

    In the meanwhile, a small tax-payer like me can only hope for the day when the Government of India stops fooling around with our money in funding such a den of goons, as is Visva-Bharati University today.

  10. I m agree about your writings and feel worried for Visva Bharati today with the hope things will be arranged and problems resolved.As a resident of this place,I wish it will recover the abode of peace of R.Tagore.

  11. Thanks for your comment. I share your feelings and concerns. I do believe things cannot possibly become worse in Santiniketan. And like you, I too hope things will become better in the days to come.

  12. Santanu da, dear,

    I think the commentary of Dr Ashok Mitra, in today's 'The Telegraph', (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1110926/jsp/opinion/story_14522856.jsp) in spite of it going characteristically acerbic and even mildly emotionally overboard at times, does lend a strong endorsement to your view and we just can't agree with it more!

  13. Thanks for sharing Dr. Ashok Mitra's essay. Yes, we cannot but agree with him. Something radical needs to be done if VB is to be saved. But some of the solutions offered by him, like packing off Visva Bharati students and teachers to Midnapore etc. ... Well, I am sure he was joking.

    His point about the song and dance about Rabindranath is most appropriate. This morning, I got stuck on the road as a boy and a girl were dancing on a truck to "celebrate" Mahalaya and the truck was moving at a snail's pace. Mahalaya ... Kabiguru ... ersatz culture at its shabbiest.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.