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Why Tagore Wouldn’t Have Stood With The Protestors At Visva Bharati University

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By Siddharth Sivakumar:

The recent unrest at the Visva Bharati University campus regarding Internal Quota is a virtual tug-of-war between the university administration that seeks to dismantle the age-old quota system citing UGC instructions, and the majority of school and UG students who want the Internal Quota to continue as it is. While the administration prepares to scrap this internal reservation policy to comply with the norms set by the UGC, the students and the teachers demanding status quo swear by the Rabindranath’s ideology and philosophy of education. As far as the Internal Quota and the ideas of Rabindranath are concerned, my own experiences make me believe that they are more complex than what is made out to be.

Picture credit: Saurodeep Mandal
Picture credit: Saurodeep Mandal

I still remember the July of 2011, when after passing my pre-degree examination from Patha Bhavana with 80% in aggregate, my hopes of securing a seat in the English Department of Visva Bharati faltered although I had high marks in English. So in utter distress, I sat with the externals to test my luck at the common admission test to see if I could secure a spot as an external. I use the word ‘luck’ consciously to suggest that the common examination was not designed to judge one’s ability or merit in a particular language as it was supposed to.

Interestingly, for the second time it was made clear to me that one need not know English to secure a place in the English department. The question paper required us to tick mark the right answers from the choices of four, covering questions from Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit, Oriya and English literatures. So theoretically, one could score high marks even without answering any of the questions related to English and still find oneself in the English department. As the results came out, I once again found myself in a difficult position. I wasn’t sure whether I could make it through or not.

At any rate, to my delight, I received an opportunity to study in the English Department through the Internal Quota as another candidate who had earlier enrolled in English finally settled for History. That’s how I got in. But how does the Internal Quota that helped me study in my choice of department figure in this situation? I was initially grateful to this policy until the time I realised that I got my seat through an academic gamble— with little logic, and a lot of luck. I recall that the total number of seats in English were around 44 for our batch. So 22 seats were reserved for the internal students and 22 for the externals. Thus, with the SC, ST, OBC quotas in place, only 11 general students could make it to the department. So, when I became the 21st person on the Bhasha-Bhavana list, which consisted of candidates for English, Bengali, Hindi, Oriya and Sanskrit —I realised that my chances were extremely thin, as it was an open secret that those who scored high marks eyed for a spot in the English department.

But had there been no internal quota in the first place (and taking into consideration the fact that most of the internal students also sat for the external admission test), I could have easily secured a place in the department. This is so because then there would have been 22 seats assigned to general students and 22 to SC, ST and OBC. What becomes clear is that either way, although with a small margin, I would have anyway secured a position at the department. But had there been a suitable admission test to judge a student’s aptitude, as there was this year, there would have been a subtle difference between the two ways of attaining a spot at the department. As a student who got in through the Internal Quota, I remain uncertain whether I got it through merit or luck.

So the hoopla regarding the Internal Quota seems to me a digression from other important issues. From what little interactions I have had and from the eavesdropping I have done while munching my breakfast in the campus, I have come to believe that there is a growing concern in both the school and UG students that they are not academically prepared for such a radical change. The quota system to them is like a solemn promise, a magical spell that is capable of securing their future. Their hopelessness nonetheless seems reasonable to me, being a product of the same system and realising that the students have reason to believe that the administration has let them down. But the onus lies with the university administration as much as it does with the schools themselves.

In my experience as a student of English literature at Visva Bharati, I can say this with conviction that there is a vast gulf between the English we learn at school and the English we are expected to bring with us when we enter the department as freshmen. While Patha Bhavana had a strong Bengali curriculum surrounding Tagore and other stalwarts who shaped the language as we know it today, the standard set for English was as low as it could get. I testify this, with my embarrassing encounters in Kerala with my younger cousins, who used to study the same Oxford text books in school although they were a good five or six years younger than me. In other words, they studied the same books in class five or six which were prescribed to us in class nine or ten. Moreover, this weakness in the school curriculum is not only felt by those studying English literature, but also by the students of Patha Bhavana who opt for courses in Science or Visual Arts. Many of my friends in these two fields have confessed how dearly they have paid for their poor English at the university, since unlike in Patha Bhavana they are required to read and comprehend books written in English and write examinations in English. I time and again refer back to English because it happens to be the only subject I have known from close quarters.

All quotas including the SC, ST and OBS quotas, were constituted to give equal chance to those who are religiously or socio-economically marginalised. I remember a gifted friend of mine who was born a SC, but considered this identity to be a stigma he would wash away if he could. He thought this way because the quota system robs him of his credentials. I recall his eagerness to claim his spot at the department of his choice as a ‘general student’, only to make the point that he got what he actually deserved. Thus, our demand for an Internal Quota gives the impression that we consider ourselves marginalised, and weak.

Seen in this context, the fact that the students are counting on the Internal Quota is something that should alarm the authorities. Perhaps what the conflict between the internal students and the authorities regarding the Internal Quota shows is that Patha Bhavana and Siksha Satra are failing to deliver the kind of education that the students require and the university demands.

This failure is also highlighted when we see how the students coming to these schools from humble backgrounds cannot achieve the minimum standard in English, and how the students hailing from families that are familiar with English cannot rise any further than what they are taught at home. If this is the case, then when it comes to subjects like English, the schools do not offer much to their students than what they already know. This disparity amongst students is something I have witnessed in my four years at the English department. This sharp disparity, as some teachers disclosed in private and public, made their job difficult. Although ours is a fantastic department faculty-wise, comparable to the best English departments in India, the severe disparity amongst students takes away from the department the potential it has.

According to a report published in Telegraph a couple of days back, the students and parents have questioned the removal of the Internal Quota on the grounds that Visva Bharati admits roughly 1500 students while only 200 or so pass out from Patha Bhavana and Siksha Satra put together. This suggests that 50% of the quota is never exhausted, implying that there is ample space for meritorious externals. But this is slightly misleading. For those of us who have gone through the system know full well that the demand for certain departments far exceeds others. For example, the internal seats in Chemistry and Physics or English and Geography never go empty, while there are other departments like the Oriya or Tibetan Studies that barely manage to attract any internal students. To get to the point, in the most sought-after departments—both in science and humanities—the internal quota is always exhausted. Thereby, if Visva Bharati truly aims at being an international, pan-Indian university, and desires to be known for academic excellence, then as I have shown through my experience at the English department, it should reconsider the present system, which ultimately places luck over merit.

Again, my use of the word ‘luck’ is conscious, the admission to Ananda Pathshala, the kindergarten section of Visva Bharati – abiding by the Supreme Court verdict that rightly disallows submitting young children to the pressures of competition at the very outset of their educational journey – is conducted through a lottery. But with the internal quota in place, many parents see it as the means to waltz their wards through the higher education system without setting them any real challenges. This mentality, which finds approval from supporters of the quota system is disturbing, because they seem to take as a right what they have acquired partially through luck. While rat race in education was not encouraged by Tagore, he surely should have expected the children of his school to be both academically competent and socially sensitive. The same Telegraph report quotes a university teacher saying, “Now if the quota is abolished, we will think twice before admitting our own children to these schools”, and an annoyed parent who says, “We admitted our children thinking they will automatically get chance in the varsity after finishing school”. Doesn’t this reflect poorly on our motivations and on the Rabindrik ideas we talk about? Although the schools in concern need a reform to set them in the right course, they nonetheless are different in more ways than one to most of the schools in India. The numerous extracurricular activities the schools offer and the freedom to cultivate various vocations are integral to Tagore’s conception of the schools. So while the schools should live up to the standards the founder had in mind, parents should see the schools as an embodiment of values which they want their children to develop rather than a ladder that guarantees admission to higher education.

Many suggested that being propelled by Rabindrnath’s ideals in our schools one cannot compete with students from CBSE or ICSE, at least as far as numbers are concerned. This argument might have some truth in it and thus a reality check at the highest levels of Visva Bharati is required to resolve any differences without sacrificing the values of Rabindranath. That said, one should not forget that the great man, in whose reference we rejoice, himself was extremely unsatisfied with his formal schooling. While, as we know, his idea behind Patha Bhavana or Siksha Satra was to present an alternative to the kind of schools he had to attend, it was also his way of creating a system where students regardless of their backgrounds could come and be educated. While Patha Bhavana may still be clinging to its identity as an alternative educative space, it surely lacks in its commitment to prepare its students for future challenges and making better human beings out of them. Whatever might Rabindrik values be, it certainly is not a confused aggression that some of us witnessed on the 24th evening, as a large gathering of students protested in front of the central office. The fact that clean walls were despoiled by the young students, as giant graffiti of hanging students appeared across the newly painted central office walls, even before there was enough information or a meaningful attempt at a dialogue, does not go down well with what we consider to be Rabindrik. Especially since we hear that the Vice Chancellor had suggested a meeting with student representatives or parents, the graphic turn the agitation took could have been avoided. Those who have been drawing parallels between our and the Hokkolorob movement are misreading the situation. Hokkolorob was relevant in its unique context, but its application elsewhere as a readymade imported frame for protest may not yield the same results. While it was a movement by university students, ours was primarily by young school students, even students who are a good few years away from any public examinations or admission tests. This gave one the bizarre feeling of watching young kids in reality shows, where they dance to Bollywood item numbers without comprehending its connotations.
Therefore if the schools have failed us, we too in some sense have failed our schools. While we do not know the fate of the quota system, this agitation is surely a wakeup call to remedy the crisis in the schools, which play a crucial role in the ecology of our university.

So what we need to understand is that the students want to cling on to the Internal Quota because they remain undernourished academically. The paradox is that if the quota is lifted the students might fail, and if it is not, the university might. Since the administration presently appears determined not to roll back its decision, an assuring effort has to be made by the university administration to make sure that the schools are restored to a standard that has diminished over the years.

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 and even a right to be associated with Rabindranath’s institution or ideas. It will not be fair to say only those who get through that first lottery should have that right. 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 ours.

Some of what I have discussed may not provide immediate solutions, but addressing them will have to be a part of a long-term solution that will look beyond the agitation. And both sides have to recognize this and work together towards it. Here the administration, the school and university teachers should come together and the students should also see and believe in the genuineness of that effort.

The need to speak my mind comes from the deep gratitude I have to my own department and Patha Bhavana, which has made me all the things I am, and I am not.

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