200 Years of Presidency: Didi, Mess With College at Your Own Peril
When I asked him what had been the most momentous occasion for Presidency College since Independence, pat came the response from Dilip Roy, fondly called Dilip da by one and all, who graduated from the historic institution of high learning: “The Naxal movement.”
As the college’s student affairs upper division clerk for years till he retired about 25 years ago, Roy has seen generations of students enter and exit the college. It is at present celebrating its bicentenary, that will culminate on 20 January, the day the first cohort – children of affluent Hindus – began classes at what was then known as Hindoo College. Age hasn’t blunted Roy’s razor-sharp memory. Name yourself and he will furrow his brows for a second or two before recalling – almost always correctly – your year of admission and graduation.
So it was not for nothing that Roy was felicitated a few days ago by the Presidency College Alumni Association. And in style: He rode a phaeton, another fading relic of Kolkata’s imperial past. Roy’s glasses turn misty as he recalls the tumultuous days of the late ’60s and early ’70s when most Presidency students were caught up in the revolutionary fervour marked by slogans such as ‘Mukti chayi’ (we want freedom).
Crucible of Student Rebellion
Roy remembers when tempestuous student Naxals such as Manadeep Mitra, Sunil Bhaduri and Asim Chatterjee would lead their comrades within and outside college. They held mass demonstrations, used homemade bombs called peto to target state institutions and their representatives, played hide n seek with the police who had express orders to shoot to kill the young rebels who dreamed of a classless society and battled the “enemies of the state” across most parts of Calcutta.
The Naxals, many of whom had brilliant academic records, became part of Calcutta’s urban folklore. Some were killed in police action, many hundreds were imprisoned and many more fled the repression unleashed by the then Congress regime of Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
By the time the Naxals were crushed, Presidency College had shot to fame for being the crucible of student rebellion which was not just anti-establishment. The Naxal andolan also brought sharp changes to students’ revolutionary sense of dressing and personal habits: Coarse cotton kurta-pajamas, a khadi jhola slung on frail shoulders, long hair and beard and either Charminar plains or bidis stuck in nicotine-tarred lips.
Known for Being Anti-Establishment
Roy turned his face away when I asked: “So what happened to that fire when the historic gates of the college (a university since 2010, though old students make it a point to refer to it as the college) and the old banyan that stood by one side were pulled down recently?” A minute later, Roy said, his face radiant with pride: “There was a time when the student Naxals would gherao the college principal and teachers of the time and say aapnara sir samrajyabaader daalaal (you sirs are agents of imperialism). They would rail against the teachers and haul them over charcoal, but would still address them with the honorific of sir.”
Anti-establishment has been Presidency College’s sine qua non, even since its inception in January 1817 when it was called Hindoo College which “came into being as the result of the spontaneous desire of the Hindus of Bengal to diffuse the knowledge of western science and literature,” according to a 1927 volume of the Presidency College Register which I had picked up soon after graduating in 1990, from one of the many small booksellers on College Street.
Centre of Learning for Liberal Education
The process leading to the establishment of Hindoo College was choppy to say the least. A few schools were set up by the late 1770s by some Hindu landlords who had “acquired a smattering of English, but all they taught was spelling and lists of common words useful in business”.
So, to fulfil the “general desire for a stronger intellectual pabulum”, a bunch of enterprising men – a Scottish watch-maker by profession, David Hare, the then Chief Justice Sir Edward Hyde East, Raja Radhakanta Deb, Babu Buddinauth Mukherjee and Raja Ram Mohan Roy – drew up a plan to establish “an institution for giving liberal education to the children of the members of the Hindu community”. Subscriptions to the tune of Rs 1,13,179 were promised by some of the Hindu landed gentry.
Once the rules – the principal being “the tuition of the sons and respectable Hindus in the English and Indian languages, and in the literature and science of Europe and Asia” – were drawn up, the first lessons were imparted to 20 “scholars” on 20 January, 1817, in a pathshala (school) and a mahapathshala (academy) functioning from a rented house belonging to one Gorachand Bysack, at Garanhatta on Chitpur Road. It was a Monday. The management of the College was entrusted to a body of upper caste Hindus. Muslims and members of lower castes and women were not allowed in as students.
The number of students “increased rapidly” from 20 to 69 “within three months”. Since the imposition of fees (Rs 5) “deterred many parents from sending their boys to college”, the payment system was abolished, though in subsequent years it was reimposed as more and more students flocked to the college.
Infringement on Autonomy
Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, a poet of mixed Latin-English origins, was one of the celebrated teachers who urged his Bengali students to question all abhorrent beliefs and practices prevalent in Hindu society of the time. By the early years of the 20th century, Muslim students enrolled in droves.
That spirit of questioning survives to this day, though the college has lost much – the old marble statuettes and busts of Englishmen and Hindus who founded the institution, priceless 19th century paintings, sketches and books, old documents that traced its history and that of imperial Calcutta, and I dare say, some of the fierce independence that our professors inculcated among us.
Today, as Presidency College celebrates 200 years of its existence and excellence, Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress is seeking to capture the institution, could do well with some advice: Messing around with Presidency could prove counter-productive.