It is a sunny July day at Jadavpur University. Sheltered from the sun beneath the canopy of the Arts building, a bunch of postgraduates stand and talk. All of them belong to the Department of English. A couple of them have recently returned from Europe, and the group laughs about the continent’s propensity for wine. The conversation turns to a posh private school in the city many of them are from, and those not in the know exchange a few uncomfortable glances.
Just then, a younger girl rushes into the scene, panting, backpack unzipped. Her hair is the short, natural kind ubiquitous to girls on this campus, and she holds a notebook, proffered to the general public. She is a second-year undergraduate, conducting a survey for her class, as instructed by the professor. Since then, students of the department have been faced frequently, on campus and on Facebook messenger, with some uncomfortable questions that demand to be answered: is the department elitist? If so, how? What do we do to rectify this?
These are not new questions. They have always been around, lining the corridors of the department, from the sunny ledges overlooking the professors’ rooms to the dusty stairs littered with cigarette stubs. They have been around, often muttered and marginal.
Everyone knows why they are plastered all over the walls now. These are doubts about the fancied revolutionary credential of the university and the department that cannot be cast away as a right-wing conspiracy. Or maybe they could have been, but amidst the humanities departments’ latest crusade, a postcolonial professor from Cambridge had approvingly shared an article on Facebook about the whole thing as being *gasp* elitist.
For years, admission to the department of English had been conducted through a test. The criteria for appearing in this test was not set high, and thousands would show up. The entire campus would be taken up to accommodate examinees, and current faculty and students, along with members of the alumni would volunteer to conduct it. Other humanities departments conduct tests too, but the English department believes its test to be the most iconic. Indeed, it is the one drawing phenomenal numbers.
This year, university authorities took upon the suggestion of an irate state education minister Partha Chatterjee, pushed to the edge by the disruptive students of Jadavpur University and Presidency University, to scrap admission tests at the undergraduate level and introduce a procedure of admission based on marks obtained in the end-of-school board examinations. Of course, students of colleges and universities across the state have rebelled against and resisted the tyranny of successive repressive state governments, but if students of JU and Presidency have appointed themselves the flag-bearers and gatekeepers of the revolution, the casting of them as bad eggs is a matter to gloat over.
Arrogance issues aside, Jadavpur University students, along with their professors, can be pretty good at getting things done. So, a complex series of protests, and teenagers risking their lives with hunger strikes later, admission tests were re-introduced. The extent to which this was a victory was debated, since half of the weightage in the selection procedure has been allotted to board examination grades. All this while, another debate has been brewing up.
Those campaigning for the re-introduction of admission tests have largely seen their partial victory as the right step on the road to something revolutionary – resisting the state. A counterview wishes to portray the entire ordeal as an elaborate theatricality of the bhadralok – the Bengali elite that comprises the ranks of spaces like Jadavpur University Department of English. It is a little mystifying as to how the alternate mode of admission is something more ‘subaltern’. After all, preparations for board examinations in the city are long drawn out procedures that feature expensive schooling, tuition centres and mock testing galore. This is not to say that admission tests are automatically more egalitarian, and much of the discourse in favour of the same within the department, and university at large, has been one of exceptionalism and elitism. It is a little amusing when the discourse around selection procedure – essentially a process of elimination, comes to centre around egalitarianism. Studying English in a postcolonial country, some argue, is an inherently elitist endeavour, and can one accommodate the subaltern here? Can the subaltern read Shakespeare or Spivak? To add to this, English in India is not simply a subject of study or a language of communication, it is immense socio-cultural capital.
At the end of the day, it can be both true – doing away with admission tests is a bad idea, and the department of English, here and in many places else, has severe problems it had better address. The entirety of this debate brings us, really, to the paradox of public education in India. School education becoming increasingly privatised means socio-economic class and financial resources becoming increasingly important to access to quality education, and impeded social mobility, this goes without saying.
The recent fiasco at Jadavpur is only one in the line of reminders of the threat public universities, and the humanities in particular, increasingly face in India. It points also, however, to the problems within these public universities – quality public education is scant and busy gloating over low acceptance rates; and eligibility procedures can never completely free themselves of class impediments.
The admission exams test a great many things that are required for the study of English literature at the university level and the acquisition of many of these skills does not rest solely upon the student applying. In a country where English is the only remotely acceptable way to study literature, if at all, choices become narrower. Students mould themselves to fit the right department rather than seek out the departments that fit them best. These are not problems that can be addressed in isolation, or in their entirety at the level of, or within the space of the university, but they are something to consider. Considering these does not dilute the importance of all the department, and the university have fought for. And besides, validity has never been a synonym for the perfect revolutionary.
Update: On July 5, Jadavpur University reversed its stand and scrapped the entrance test for 6 humanities subjects, including English.