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Presidency V-C, a Mamata Lackey, Politicises Hallowed Institution

Presidency College alumnus Chandan Nandy is outraged by TMC’s insidious means to capture a venerated institution.

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From time to time, Presidency College (it’s been given the status of a university, but I prefer to call it a college), Jadavpur University and Calcutta University go through paroxysms of violence and students’ unrest, largely the creation of the students themselves, a highly politicised administration and the ruling party in West Bengal.

Over the past few days, Presidency College has been in the throes of a convulsion, this time over the vice-chancellor’s attempts to kowtow with the ruling Trinamool Congress which, since it came to power in 2011, has been trying to engineer unrest on campus and placing pliant teachers with affiliations to it in key administrative positions – all in a bid to control an institution whose students have historically lived up to the reputation of being passionately independent, intellectually and politically.

The latest friction between the college authorities and students is over vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia’s attempts to seek funds from the state government for an institution that has dropped into an abyss. This move, coming on the heels of her all-expenses-paid visit to London along with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s mammoth delegation, so angered the students that they went on the rampage, holding her responsible for bending over backwards to please the Trinamool Congress and allowing it to get a stranglehold over the college’s affairs. There is some truth to this.

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Self-Seeking Mentors

Ever since the Trinamool Congress vanquished the CPI(M)-led Left Front, which too sought to meddle in the college’s administrative functions, it has been trying to “penetrate” the institution. The TMC’s first attempt was seemingly benign. The chief minister appointed alumnus and Gardiner Professor of History at Harvard University Sugato Bose as mentor to oversee Presidency’s transformation from a college to a university and modernise it as an institution of excellence.

From that point onwards the downhill gained momentum. Bose, now a TMC MP, would fly in from Massachusetts, his air passage paid for by the college, lord over the group tasked to modernise Presidency and fly back. Another member on the Mentor Group, Himadri Pakrashi, a college alumnus who lives in the US, also took air passage on the college’s account.

When I last visited my undergraduate alma mater in 2012, ‘Presidency College’ remained printed on its stationary, attendance continued to be recorded on old, worn-out registers (the kind that was used when I attended college between 1986-89), the History department had a solitary computer that ran on an antiquated operating system and the once excellent library a shadow of its former self.

Past students deeply involved with the college even now lament that the Mentor Group has done little other than paving the way for the Trinamool’s entry into Presidency. As for Bose, great scholars do not necessarily make effective mentors. They make for obedient lackeys and sidekicks who feather their own nests.

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 Presidency College alumnus Chandan Nandy is outraged by TMC’s insidious means to capture  a venerated institution.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Vice-Chancellor Anuradha Lohia during a program at Presidency University in Kolkata, August 21, 2015. (Photo: PTI)

Capturing the College

Preparing the ground for the TMC’s entry into historically apolitical Presidency College was inevitable. With the TMC unable to capture the students’ union body, it started at the top of the institution’s administrative pecking order: The Trinamool government selected a vice-chancellor, Anuradha Lohia, whose temperament, in the words of a Bengali daily Ebela, “is on the mould of the chief minister – impatient”; someone whose attention span matches that of the CM and does not allow others to speak.

A molecular parasitologist (who isn’t these days?) by specialisation with no teaching background and a danseuse by passion, Lohia bends perpendicularly to pay obeisance to Mamata. According to Ebela, such deference is the result of a deep desire on Lohia’s part to get some land in Rajarhat where she seeks to establish a foundation dedicated to her mother. And she wants a Rajya Sabha nomination, even if it is at the cost of lowering the hallowed reputation and standards of the college.

As the administrative head of the institution, Lohia recently did something that no principal in the past had ever dared to. In a break with tradition and Presidency College’s towering reputation as an apolitical institution of learning, Lohia invited Mamata to the campus. As an alumnus, not even former Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya had ever set foot on campus.

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Awe-Inspiring History

I recall the first day I entered the college’s main building which came up in January 1817 and was named Hindu College. The thoughts of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio who led the Young Bengal movement as assistant headmaster of Hindu College flooded my mind, as it did my batch mates and seniors. My skin broke into goosebumps when I remembered that hot and humid June day that the formidable and imposing staircase that led to the first floor of the main building was the very site where Subhas Chandra Bose had roundly slapped a college teacher Professor Oaten in 1916 for the latter’s anti-India remarks.

Some years after graduating, a centenary volume tome with brittle and sepia-tinted pages that I picked up from a bookstore in College Street, gave me glimpses of the awesome scholarly achievements of students who graduated from Presidency College in the first 100 years. You at once begin to relate with revolutionary minds, liberals and free-thinkers that the college produced over the years.

It is this rich tradition of scholarly excellence and students’ fierce independence that first the Left Front tried and now the Trinamool Congress regime is trying to tear asunder. In the mid-Eighties and through the Nineties, the CPI(M) tried to unsettle faculty: order after order was issued that sought to transfer out the best professors to colleges in rural settings where everything but education took place.

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 Presidency College alumnus Chandan Nandy is outraged by TMC’s insidious means to capture  a venerated institution.
SFI activists demonstrate during West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjees visit to Presidency University in Kolkata, August 21, 2015. (Photo: PTI)

Withstanding Marxist Onslaught

It was no mean achievement on the part of our professors that they withstood this Marxist onslaught. “During my time as principal, I resisted tooth and nail the Left Front government’s attempts to drive out faculty talent,” said Amal Mukhopadhyay, who was principal between 1991 and 1997.

“Today, whatever is going on reflects the TMC’s bid to capture the college and the current vice-chancellor is a willing handmaiden of the party in power,” Mukhopadhyay said. “The students’ resentment is justified, though I disagree with the manner in which they gave vent to their anger and frustration,” he added.

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