On 14 December, bulldozers and mechanised backhoes moved into one of India’s oldest – and most storied – urban areas. They ripped the facade out of one of the world’s oldest centres of higher education, wrecking historic structures and cutting down a banyan that could be as old as the city of Calcutta, now Kolkata.
The epicentre of this wilful destruction is Presidency College (now University), Calcutta, established as Hindu College, 1817. It was renamed Presidency College in 1855; the latter celebrated its centenary in 1955.
But Hindu College is the oldest college in Asia after the Philippines’ University of Santo Tomas. It will celebrate its 200th birthday on 20 January 2017. But can it do so now?
Not if the rubble around its perimeter today is any indicator. The majestic wrought-iron gates of the College, always open – for 144 years – have been ripped up. The walls on both sides have been demolished. Major victims are a dozen or more bookshops, stuck to those walls for generations, turned to rubble.
Mad Rush for Modernisation
The banyan, which old-timers say already stood on the site on which today’s Presidency College was built in 1855, has been uprooted in this rush to ‘modernise’ the premises.
“The old gates are gone and I am sad for that. But it is the banyan, which saw so much of our history, whose death I grieve for,” says Dilip Da, the octogenarian former registrar of the college, who now runs the alumni association with his computer-like mind.
Call Dilip Da from any part of India or the world – and Presidency alumnus are everywhere – and Dilip Da will ask your name… and if you were wayward as a student, as I was, recall every embarrassing detail of your collegiate past.
“Didn’t you pay the fee for bunking classes to sit in the exams?” he asked. True. I paid Rs 15 as penalties for bunking classes. Presidency fees for science students – Economics was classified as such – was a mere Rs 18 per month. And the College was giving me a ‘scholarship’ because of my entry grades, worth a princely Rs 250 every year.
So, many generations of Indians passed through those ancient gates and received the finest education the subcontinent, nay Asia, could offer – at almost no cost. Let us see one example.
In 1955, a former student delivered a speech, in chaste Bangla, to celebrate the formal ‘centenary’ of Presidency College, “Aaj amar hridoye otul ullash hochhey.” (Today, my heart overflows with joy.)
The speaker concluded: “Ami asha kori College jerokom aage kaj korechhey, jerokom khyati peyechhe, tar cheye aro beshi kaaj ei nuton je Bharater itihash nirman hochhey tar moddhey korbey.” (I wish the College works to its earlier purpose, to the fame it gathered, it should gather more and contribute even more to the history of the new,
The speaker was no Bong intellectual, but Babu Rajendra Prasad, a native of Bihar, who Presidency College had absorbed into her soul in 1902 as a young science student. By the time he gave his speech in Bangla, tears in his eyes, he was the first President of independent India.
Presidency, or Hindu College, started in a humble but revolutionary way. A committee of so-called ‘Anglicists’ who wanted modern education, as opposed to Sanskrit grammar and Hindu theology dished out by so-called ‘Orientalists’, met quietly sometime in 1816.
Raja Rammohan Roy, polymath and reformer, was among them, though he
kept himself wisely in the background. He was a hate-figure among conservative Hindus and his overt support might have scuttled the creation of the institution. Anyway, the committee raised Rs 113,179, with Maharaja Tejchand Bahadur of Burdwan and Gopee Mohun Tagore each contributing Rs 10,000. Hindu College was set up on 20 January 1817.
There were 20 students to start with at its Colootola Street address but the numbers grew rapidly. By 1855, the College was renamed and moved to its present, majestic building on College Street. Among its early Indian principals was a former alumnus of physics, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, founder of the Indian Statistical Institute and
the Planning Commission.
Caught in a Political Wrangle
Despite all this, Presidency has always come under attack from conservative forces and entrenched political interests. During 34 years of CPI(M)-led Left rule, repeated attempts were made to ‘transfer’ talented faculty to the boondocks and substitute them with party apparatchiks.
Some, including economist Mihir Rakshit and English professor and historian of Calcutta, Sukanta Chaudhuri, left in disgust. Others, like economics dean Dipak Banerjee struggled to defend cherished institutions and libraries under assault.
Things were supposed to get better when the Trinamool (TMC) replaced the Left in 2011. The TMC set up a committee to suggest ways to revamp the institution. The only ‘progress’ has been to replace the word ‘College’ with ‘University’.
Presidency students have struggled to maintain political autonomy, refusing to elect unions of the CPI(M) or the TMC to student bodies. This infuriated the Left, but apart from gnashing their teeth, they did little. Not so Mamata’s TMC.
On 11 April 2013, TMC goons attacked Presidency students and staff with knives, javelins and lathis. Many were beaten ruthlessly, as policemen stood idle. To vent their anger, the goons barged into Presidency’s Baker laboratory, established by Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose in 1913, and wrecked it.
Targeted by TMC?
Nobody, including the mayor of Kolkata, has any explanation about why the 14 December demolition took place. Bangla media reports that an official at Nabanna, where chief minister Mamata Banerjee operates from, said the gates were too narrow for fire engines to pass through.
This is untrue. A small conflagration recently at one of its libraries was easily put out with fire trucks.
What seems more plausible is a dispute, brewing since October, between the booksellers lining Presidency’s walls and the government, which wants them to relocate. The demolition puts paid to the dispute – and the booksellers out of business.
Maitreesh Ghatak, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, who learnt the subject at Presidency during the late 1980s, says, “For me, that gate was a symbolic entrance from the chaos of city streets to an oasis of tranquility and a rich intellectual and cultural sphere that was and remains unique. Change and modernisation are desirable but one can’t literally uproot history and heritage.”
Ghatak asks: “And what does this show about how change is being carried out, without consulting heritage authorities, distinguished alumni or faculty and students?” Many would like answers to his question.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @AbheekBarman. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)