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STOP Boycotting Classes!

VisvaBharati (VB) a central university which by the virtue of being founded by Rabindranath Tagore, and owing to the customary tradition of its Chancellorship, Visitorship, Rectorship being held by the Prime Minister, President and the Governor respectively, has always been considered an institution of national importance. But lately this illustrious acclaim has been reduced to a farce with the relentless demand for an Internal Quota.

On the 24 of November, 2014 a protest broke out demanding a retraction of the administrative decision to abolish the Internal Quota, which reserved 50% of the seats in undergraduate and post-graduate courses for the students of the two schools run by the university, Patha Bhavana and Siksha Satra. The protest that stretched over a month reached its zenith on the 22nd of December, the eve of ‘Pous Utsav’, when the VC and other officials were gheraoed by angry protesters at the central office from late evening till mid-morning the next day.

Caving in to the pressure, the VC agreed to reinstate the Internal Quota. However, the agitation disrupted the Foundation Day functions of the university, as well as the   programmes of the visiting president of Bangladesh who had to leave without being properly attended. Although the protest was celebrated as a “success” by its organizers, they also received a fair amount of criticism for the means they had adopted to gag faculty members who did not support their cause, which included pelting stones at their houses, abusing them in the darkness of night, and, notably taking the chief administrative wing hostage at a crucial time in order to force a favourable judgment. Although the VC had told a newspaper that the administration was not “blackmailed”, the flexing of muscle and the twisting of arm was a public spectacle for all to see.

Meanwhile in a visit to Santiniketan Amatya Sen, the illustrious educationist and alumni of Visva Bharati, speaking against the Internal Quota remarked, “If our interest lies not in the greater good of the society, if our only concern is limited to the academic opportunism that would benefit our own children, and to this end we employ Quotas, then it is safe to say that there is a fundamental lack in the thought process”. Also recently, the result of the transparent referendum on internal reservation conducted by the Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association, revealed that 69% of its faculty is against the Internal Quota.

However, since then, a committee has been set up by the HRD ministry to probe into the various allegations that have been levelled against the VC, ranging from sexual harassment, irregularities in appointments and jeopardizing the academic atmosphere by his autocratic style of functioning.

So when the second phase of protest broke out a few days back, one was quite uncertain what was it for. Slowly it emerged that the protesters are demanding immediate resignation of the Vice Chancellor for his inaction in reinstating the Internal Quota, and his alleged corruption. Since a high level committee is being set up by the central government to look into the matter and since the HRD ministry has made it clear that it “would await the report of a fact finding committee before considering any action against him”, protesters should show patience and wait for the committee’s report. While the agitators have the right to present their case before the committee, they should restrain from disturbing the academic functioning of the university through autocratically enforced closures.  

There are pertinent questions to be asked regarding the standard of education at the VB schools. The students need to be better prepared rather than being protected through internal quotas. The anxiety that the Internal Quota would give rise to rat-race seems misplaced since competence can be cultivated without necessarily resorting to a cut-throat competition. Further it should be remembered, competence ensures confidence in students to explore opportunities rather than to seek securities. And if there are technical problems regarding the marking systems of the different boards that are adversely affecting the VB students, this can be addressed properly and resolved without difficulty.

It is a pity that a group of agitators is presenting themselves as the voice of a larger community. I chanced upon a Facebook post by the active protesters who are calling for support, and condemning those who stay at home “enjoying holidays shamelessly”.

The large number of students accused of shirking the protest are actually the silenced majority, who repudiate the protest, yet cannot attend the classes fearing repercussions. Furthermore, a “boycott” has to be a voluntary decision and should not be imposed with fear tactics by external agents or other students. While those who are protesting definitely have a right to express their views and even protest, if they are democratic, as they claim, they should also respect the right of others to disagree and attend classes if they wish to. The “boycotting” we are witnessing today is but a high-jacking of the majority of the non- partisan students’ right to attend classes. The protesters who swear in the name Tagore should remember that although in 1905 Rabindranath had joined the protests against the proposed partition of Bengal, he was quick to quit the movement and return to Santiniketan simply because he did not approve of the means that were employed by the protesters — especially the boycotting of classes and disrupting of the university’s functioning.

The present situation at VB also tends to show the dangerous trend that allows a vocal, belligerent minority to suppress the majority, as well as misrepresent the reality in order to push their own agenda. We need to be cautious because we are all aware how such interlocutors, through their representations, are capable of corrupting certain core ideas and values beyond recognition and repair. The disconnect between the real concerns of the majority and the self-appointed sentinels who claim to represent them should be carefully noted.  

We should also remember that the motto Rabindranath adopted for VB is Yatravisvambhavatyekanidam or “Where the world makes a home in a single nest”. It is needless to say that spirit of this adage cannot be fulfilled by perpetuation of Internal Quotas. The agitators also need to understand that even those who may not have found a place in one of the Santiniketan schools because he or she was born in a far-off place or did not get through the lottery at the KG level can have a desire—or rather, even a right to be associated with Rabindranath’s institution or ideas. Presently, the external students have to compete for the remaining 50% after the internals are through. But ideally speaking, he or she should get no less than 100% chance to secure a seat in an international institution like VB.

Such openness would encourage academic excellence rather than inhibit it, as exemplified by Kala Bhavana, VB’s art institution, which in 2013 ranked 1 in the India Today survey of “Top Ten Colleges of Fine Arts”. This art institution that has produced illustrious artists who have shaped the making of the Indian art scene is one of the few Bhavanas where there is no Internal Quota. Kala Bhavana can also be singled out for being the most diverse campus in the university, where students of many languages and cultures come together and to an extent, upholds the motto that Rabindranath chose for his university.  

In sports a Magic Spray can beguile the hurt sportsman into believing in the cessation of pain, but in reality it is a deceptive moment where one fails to feel the pain. Nonetheless it is only a matter of time before pain starts to hurt again! Thus it is advisable that the protesters should stop looking for a quick-fix, and focus on a constructive resolution to eliminate inherent problems. And boycotting classes is simply not one! 

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