From where I sit: Presidency politics

January 7, 2010

With more than 18,000 colleges in India, why did the decision to make one of them a university make the national headlines?

For one, this decision pertains to Kolkata's Presidency College, which is among the oldest liberal-arts institutions in India. Founded in 1817 as Hindoo College, it was renamed Presidency College in 1855 - "Presidency" being a reference to the Bengal Presidency of British India, the capital of which was Calcutta (now Kolkata).

For another, its alumni have helped to shape modern India, graduates such as: Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India; P.C. Mahalanobis, India's first planner; Satyajit Ray, the renowned film director; and Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist.

Among the hundreds of colleges in the state of West Bengal, all notoriously marked by crass interference from the ruling Left government and its party cadre, Presidency's reputation is still robust enough, even if considerably dented by such interference, to ensure that it features among India's pre-eminent undergraduate colleges in annual surveys of academic excellence.

But more than the idea that this is an opportunity for the college to reclaim its institutional legacy, it is the timing of the state government's decision to start the legislative process of converting Presidency into a university that is so unusual.

The demand is not a new one. It was first articulated in an unsigned article in the Presidency College Magazine in 1972 on the grounds that in a system with a few hundred thousand students, individual colleges should be allowed to function independently to maintain academic standards.

This demand, surfacing intermittently since then, has been consistently opposed by the powerful education czars in the West Bengal Government.

So, in making this move, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has defied his own party. Why he chose to do so at this juncture has nothing to do with academic concerns or the fact that he himself is an alumnus of Presidency. Rather, the timing has to do with wider political conditions in the state.

The Government has been in power for 32 years, but is now losing ground to the main Opposition party, the Trinamul Congress. In November, Trinamul's leader, Mamata Banerjee, publicly expressed amazement at the fact that the college remained in the clutches of state control.

Rather than let his bete noire earn brownie points, within a month the Chief Minister had moved to earn a few for himself: after all, making Presidency a university would help redeem his party's image among Kolkata's middle class.

The easiest part of the exercise is piloting the legislative bill. The real challenge, as Sukanta Chaudhuri (a celebrated scholar of English literature who once taught at Presidency) has noted, will be to ensure that it gets land and funds. Above all, Presidency needs talented teaching staff. Teachers such as Professor Chaudhuri, instead of facing the threat of constant transfers, have moved to other institutions, so restoring the college to its halcyon days will take a lot of doing.

More than harking back to its once-glorious tradition, it is such deficits that must swiftly be made good if the Government is serious about recreating one of the best colleges of India in its new avatar.

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