"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 The strike was withdrawn after an appeal by the Prime Minister.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.