Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

A downhill journey

[This article has been published by The Statesman today under a different heading. The photograph is from Wikipedia]

In the recent past, violent protests were reported from places where students were not allowed to copy during the Madhyamik exam in West Bengal. These incidents were spread over five districts: Murshidabad, Birbhum, South 24 Parganas, Hoogly, and Malda. Significantly, parents too joined examinees in the protests. After the last day’s exam, there were demonstrations at six places in Murshidabad, during which the protesters broke furniture and injured a headmaster. The most bizarre incident took place at Lashkarpur High School in Lalgola where irate parents went in to beat up teachers as punishment for “strict” invigilation. The teachers were not lesser men. They overpowered one of the parents, thrashed him, and handed him over to police.

From cheating in exams to parents actively helping their offspring to cheat is a precipitous downhill journey that illustrates massive erosion in values. And such anomie does not exist only in the rural backwaters, where India doesn’t shine that brightly.

At Visva-Bharati, the university set up by Rabindranath Tagore, a different kind of incident revealed a similar decline. On the night of 27th February, some students of the Arts Faculty entered a hostel for girls and used filthy language to harass and intimidate them. As if this was not bad enough, the perpetrators of this shameful act also beat up the boys who protested, injuring seventeen fellow students. They also vandalised some priceless works of art .

The students who sexually harass their own classmates are despicable. The incident is more disturbing because it happened in Santiniketan where one of the tallest Indians tried to recreate a traditional Indian school, an ashram. Instead of holding a beacon to the rest of the world and show what India can offer, Visva-Bharati has become academically insignificant and a home for the undeserving.

Education these days means acquiring saleable knowledge; it has nothing to do with building character. In olden days, parents from many corners of the country sent their children to the school set up by Rabindranath not because it would assure them of good jobs, but because they were expected to become better human beings. That the education that produced better humans also produced brilliant creative artists and professionals is another story. Countless among the alumni of Visva-Bharati have excelled in their chosen fields. Syed Mujtaba Ali, Pramatha Nath Bishi, Ramkinkar Beij, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Mahashweta Devi, Suchitra Mitra, KG Subramanian, and Amartya Sen are not exceptions, but dazzling motifs on a general pattern.

Visva-Bharati stopped producing people of such calibre long ago. And it no longer attracts talented students from far and wide. These days, mostly ordinary and substandard students from the nearby areas – not even from the rest of the state – join the university because it has become so bad that hardly anyone from outside enrol there. Consequently, Visva-Bharati has become a cesspool of mediocrity, with the exception of one or two faculties.

But the reign of mediocrity is one aspect. What make the students ignore the norms of civilised behaviour so completely, just like the parents who fight for their children’s “right” to copy in exams?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, most parents have fuzzy ideas about education, and do not have a roadmap for their children’s holistic growth. Many of them do not inculcate values in their offspring; on the contrary, they offer poor role models for their children to follow.

It is common knowledge that many parents cut corners to admit their children to good schools. Many would not even hesitate to pay bribes to secure admission. Seats in private medical and technical colleges are auctioned to the highest bidders. Such children begin their education through deceit or money power. But who cares?

About thirty years ago, a father-son duo, who ran a flourishing high school for mainly middleclass Bengalis in Kolkata, were under a cloud after the unnatural death of the son’s wife. While the case lingered on for years, the school continued to produce state toppers. Although a shadow of doubt hung over the principal, particularly during the progress of the criminal case, no parent withdrew their children from the school. And many more were eager to get their offspring admitted to a school run by someone they thought could have been a murderer.

It was not a question of someone being treated as innocent until proved guilty. The question simply was whether one was prepared to put one’s child in the hands of people of questionable morals. The parents, among whom were my friends, thought that if a school improved the chances of academic success, nothing else mattered. In other words, for many educated Bengalis, education had little to do with values. Should anyone be surprised that thirty years down the road, parents demand their offspring be allowed to cheat?

The second reason that emboldens people to do what they like is the absence of the rule of law in West Bengal; every transgressor today knows there is a fair chance that they would get away with murder. After the vandalism by the examinees and their parents, the police super of Murshidabad district said, “Police will take action if written complaints are lodged.” He also added, rather thoughtfully, “It is also important to identify the parents who indulged in violence.”

Who will identify them? One thought it was the policemen’s duty, which they perform shabbily in Bengal. The decline began with the unionisation of the policemen after the present government came to power in 1977. The process was accelerated by unbridled political interference in running the force.

On 22nd January 2002, five men of Calcutta Armed Police died on the spot in front of the American Center when four terrorists sprayed bullets on them. Fifty-four shots were fired by the attackers, but the 34 policemen present there didn’t shoot back one round . Many of them took bullets in their back, while fleeing. The incident ripped open the abysmal state of the training, preparedness, and morale of the police force in the state. Yet, not one senior police officer was taken to task; neither did the home minister resign in shame. In many other organisations, functionaries would lose their jobs for much less, because there is something called accountability. Should we be surprised about what happened in Silda in 2010?

The police alone don’t suffer from lack of accountability. There has been a metastasis that covers many organs now. The first organised act of violence happened in Santiniketan during the hoodlum years of 1970s. Some students belonging a mainstream political party attacked the students of a different political dispensation. It is no one’s case that the victims were angels, but they were unarmed. Armed to the teeth, the attackers launched a pincer attack from two sides of a boys’ hostel. Several boys were seriously injured. The offensive had been planned at the house of a professor. After the assault, the attackers took shelter in the same house. Everyone knew who the perpetrators were and who backed them. The university took no action against the guilty.

Thereafter, there were many instances of violence in Santiniketan, but the guilty were never punished. Things naturally went from bad to worse. The time has come for people to demand that the university authorities throw out the latest bunch of ruffians from the premises of the central university run with tax payers’ money.

We have come to the present sorry state because of general corrosion in people’s attitude and a decline in the quality of governance. Attitudes won’t change anytime soon, but something can be and must be done to enforce the rule of law. People must be made to believe that a high price tag is attached to breaking law.