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A dialogue at Midnight

I am afraid that this is going to be a rather long and personal note; it has to be as it concerns some of the things and some people I have always cherished, revered and looked up to. The most impressionable years of my life were spent at Santiniketan; Santiniketan is the place I still think of as ‘home’, in spite of living in–and slowly falling in love with– Kolkata for the past seven years. It is the place where I want to go back to die. I am proud of the fact that I have been to Patha Bhavana, I am equally proud of the fact that I have been  a part of the Department of English and Other European Languages at Visva Bharati. These two institutions have shaped me.

Of late, there has been a lot of furore over the scrapping of the internal quota at Visva Bharati, a lot of anger, despair, anxiety, and- unfortunately- a lot of nonsense have found its way into the virtual as well as the real world. I did talk about the matter initially on some forums at FB but stopped after a couple of days for reasons I will elaborate upon below. First let me make it clear as to what my position is regarding this matter. Nick Carraway, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby says something very pertinent about human nature—“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues”–Nick’s is honesty, mine I believe is fairness. That is precisely why I feel bound to look at both sides of the coin in my summing up of the relevant arguments.

The first argument in favour of retaining this quota has been that Patha Bhavana and Siksha Satra are two unique schools in terms of their curriculum and their general approach to the question of education.  Yes, I do believe that these two schools are, or were at least meant to be, unique. Here we have two schools where almost equal emphasis is placed on curricular and extra-curricular activities. We have an academic calendar which is frequently punctuated by “Sahitya Sabhas” and “Utsavs” of various descriptions; we do have regular (and not optional) lessons in music, dance, painting, clay modelling, “Haater Kaaj” or “Kaather Kaaj”; we go for “Gram Paridarshans” and “Daan Sangrahas”—in short we are meant to integrate ourselves with our surroundings and let our creative impulses, if we do possess any, have a free reign. True enough. And now comes the flipside. My first-hand experience tells me that apart from the residential students of Patha Bhavana, a handful, and I repeat, a handful, of students take part in all these activities. I do remember the names and faces of every single student in my section and a rough estimate tells me that hardly 40-50% of them, including the residential students, actually attended these programs on a regular—or even, irregular –basis. I can, right at this moment remember the names of at least ten people from my batch who never wrote a single piece for a Sahitya Sabha, never actually learnt to sing or dance, never acted in a play in short, never did any of those things which make these two schools unique. They probably didn’t even consider PB and SS as “unique”, that privilege was to be sought only at the time of admission.

The second argument is that the students of Visva Bharati do not score as much as the students of other State Boards, especially the Central Boards, do. In order to prove or disprove this point I need to be in possession of certain statistics—for example the average of the score for every single board— which I do not have. But this seems to be the case generally, if we keep in mind the fact that in many subjects , including the languages, students generally score close to a 100% in many of these boards, I am saying this from my first hand experience of scrutinising forms submitted for admission.  Again, I must mention the other side of the argument, when I passed my School Certificate in 2000, I scored an 83%, and I was placed at the eleventh rank on the merit list. The one who stood first had scored more than 90%. By the standards of 2000, it was not really a very low score. The case almost was the same when I passed my Pre-Degree in 2002. On the other hand, I know very well that in the last few years there have been cases in VB where students had scored almost a 100% in aggregate with the help of the additional subject, issues like these then, should be seen in the proper perspective.

This brings me to the last argument that I want to engage with in the course of this discussion. When the news of this administrative decision reached the world at large, I did talk about this on certain forums and commented on certain threads. In all these forums and threads I invariably came across the following argument—the so-called “good” students with high marks will get through any college or university, but what will happen to those who score around 40-50%? The frequency with which this argument cropped up made me uneasy, because it left me with the impression that that is the real fear. I also witnessed quite a bit of personal attack, bad mouthing and that typical “Santiniketani” antithesis between internal/external rearing its ugly head in these comments. I decided to quit. But now I do want to counter that argument. As a teacher, as someone intimately engaged with the higher education sector, I also want to pose a few questions to those who subscribe to this argument.

a.       How is this hypothetical student with 40-50% supposed to deal with the load of the UG and subsequently the PG syllabus? If this student graduates with a 40% what good will this result be of?

b.      I have seen a lot of people talk about the incompetence of the teachers at the university level. I am not entitled to talk about other departments but as far as my own one is concerned, I want to state unequivocally that I have had excellent class-room teaching in my days and whatever I have learnt, I have learnt from my teachers. And can we really talk about the supposed ‘abysmal’ standards of teaching and the right of that hypothetical student of ours ‘with 40-50%’ to get direct entry into the UG or PG course in the same breath? I do not remember coming across any form of agitation in VB about the poor standards of teaching–or of an inadequate syllabus for that matter—before the present matter came to the fore. Why exactly is this the case? A couple of months or so ago, students of the English Department of Delhi University expressed their views strongly about the quality of teaching at their department, had the disgruntled students of VB ever done that?


As a matter of principle I am against all kinds of reservation. At the same time I also know that all State Universities do reserve a certain percentage of their seats for their own students. VB is a central university and hence is bound by other limitations. I do not know what exactly led to this abolition but I did feel that there could have been a legitimate and defensible demand for proportionate reservation. If there are only 250 odd internal students who seek direct admission to the UG courses, then why reserve a whopping 50% seats for them? I never came across anyone arguing for this. Frankly speaking I wasn’t surprised. The reservation for the internal students in practical terms doesn’t merely ensure a seat at the UG level, it actually gives her a much wider choice than an external one. That probably explains why nobody chose to talk about this formula.

Let me add this much for the sake of clarity that I never liked the pattern of VBCAT, neither do I think that the entrance tests should be done away with. Admitting students merely on the basis of their HS marks seems arbitrary and does not ensure quality. But these are matters that need to be taken up with a certain degree of logic and comprehension. There is an urgent need of initiating a dialogue with authorities at various levels, and dialogues are not held at the middle of the night by hurling stones at people’s house.

Last night a group of people gathered in front of my house to hold such a “dialogue”. Instead of arguments they came armed with stones and abuses, instead of the office they chose the private residence of my father to express their ‘legitimate demands’. They wanted my father to resign within ten days or, they had threatened, they will harm him physically—“Kete felbo” was the expression that they had used. According to them, my father is still working for the university because he wants me to get a job at the varsity! Unlike these people however, I do not need any recommendation, or any sort of reservation for that matter, to get a job. I already have one which I am very happy with, thank you very much. Again, unlike these people, I will not counter them with abuse and threats, my teachers and my parents taught me better than that. I will only politely ask these “honourable” men and women to come in front of our house in broad daylight, I want them to come when I will be there, since these ‘learned’ gentlemen and ladies know so much about me and my family, they would definitely know when I am down there. I want them to stage their “legitimate” protest when I will be available to record their activities with a movie camera. I assure them instant popularity and widespread appreciation on the social media. My cordial invitation is being extended to one and all. Veni, veni, Mephistophile!

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