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.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Education for the highest bidder

A report in the Statesman, Kolkata on 12 June 2011 carries these nuggets.

Kerala health minister Adoor Prakash purchased a post-graduate seat at Pariyaarm Cooperative Medical College in Kannur for his daughter for Rs 80 lakh because it is “the responsibility of any father to ensure a better future for his children.” The minster runs a chain of liquor bars which I guess somehow qualifies him to be the health minister of a state that has overtaken Punjab as the biggest consumer of alcohol.
Unfortunately, Prakash had to give up the seat because of criticism even from his party, the Congress, which as we all know, believes in austerity and value-based politics!

The comedy of ironies doesn’t end there. The seat was sold to him by the CPI M-controlled college, headed by party leader AV Jayarajan.

Education minister Abdu Rubb is under pressure from his party, Muslim League, to return the MBBS seat which he got for his son at the Jubilee Mission Medical College, Trissur. The Christian management of the college charges Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore for an MBBS seat, but cynics allege that the seat has been gifted to the minister for supporting its stand that it can sell even government seats. (I presume this refers to the seats allotted to students who find themselves in the merit list prepared by the government.)  But to his credit, the education minister hasn’t yet succumbed to the pressure.

The DYFI, the youth wing of the CPI M, marched to the medical college demanding that the minister’s son not be admitted. The commendable protest by the DYFI against the sale of medical seats lost a bit of sheen when it was revealed that its state treasurer, VV Ramesh, too had bought a seat from the Pariyaram Medical College for his daughter under the NRI category, which costs Rs 50 lakh.

Ramesh, poor fellow, had to forego the seat at the instance of CPI M leadership. He said he had been driven by a father’s instinct when he had sought the seat rather than the discipline of a comrade. “The moment I realised my flaw, I corrected it by giving up the seat. For a communist, the party is above everything,” said he. It is sad that the people of Bengal and Kerala, who have seen the comrades closely, do not notice these simple virtues amongst them. BTW, the said Ramesh is also the director of the college.

In Kerala congressmen, communists, the Muslim political elite, padres, you name them, have their hands in the education pie. It is worth noting that these political parties / pressure groups have ruled the state alternately since the 1950s.

The situation is no different elsewhere. In Karnataka, possibly all the private engineering colleges are owned by congressmen and politicos other than from the BJP, who are Johnnies come lately in the state. The BJP chief minister therefore has developed a soft corner for the aspiring engineers of the state. He instructed the private engineering colleges to charge Rs 30,000 for meritorious students, that is, those who qualified through the common entrance test (CET). The colleges demanded they be allowed to charge between Rs 50 and 80 thousand. Ultimately, the chief minister arm-twisted the private colleges to accept the following fee structure:   

45% of engineering seats [will go] to students who have cleared the CET for Rs 35,000 and the remaining 55% seats under Comed-K and management quota for Rs 1.25 lakh. In addition, a supernumerary quota of 5% mandated by the All India Council of Technical Education will provide free seats [to] economically backward students.  (Deccan Herald, Bangalore, 3 June 2011)

In West Bengal, most of the private engineering colleges were set up by the CPI M leaders and their cronies during the second half of their 34-year regime. (Engineering colleges and cold storages were the only businesses that flourished in rural Bengal, both cornered by comrades.) In 2010, the reds read the writing on the wall. They knew they would be thrown out in the assembly elections in 2011. So they did something neat. They increased the annual tuition fees of private engineering colleges from Rs 56,000 to Rs 70,000. No protests, no wrangling, and no arbitrator to decide what the fees should reasonably be! Today, a student studying at a private engineering college in Bengal may reasonably ask why they should pay twice as much as their counterparts in Karnataka. 

Lots of good things have happened in our country since independence. And lots of bad things. The worst perhaps is commodification of education.

When we were young, a bright young boy or girl considered higher education their right, as college education, including at the IITs, cost next to nothing. One only had to be smart enough. The situation has changed. Higher education is now something that the rich can buy for their children so that they qualify for a job.

If you can afford it, you can buy a comfortable future for your offspring, just as you can buy a house or a car. Is anything wrong with that?

Well, till the other day, young Indians, who had neither houses nor cars, had the option to work hard and arm themselves with technical education to make a decent living. That option has been taken away, for all practical purposes, the official sop of 5% supernumerary quota notwithstanding.

Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has said a time might come when one part of India will resemble California and the other part will be like sub-Saharan Africa. If that ever happens, privatisation of education, rather, making business out of education will contribute much to the process.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Magical Spell

Santanu Dasgupta

[In popular perception, rocket science stands for the ultimate, unfathomable, and mysterious frontier of science. If we wish to convey something is not really complex, we say: It’s not rocket science! By extension therefore, rocket scientists are amongst the most brilliant, profound, and creative people. Thanks to my years in Thiruvananthapuram, I have come in close contact with some rocket scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). And I believe they belong to the intellectual cream of their generation.

Dr. Santanu Dasgupta, one of them, is highly regarded by his peers. But unlike most of them, he wears several other hats too. He is an accomplished singer, a brilliant story teller (a field in which his wife Shyama gives him a good run for his money), and regularly pens plays that are staged by the Trivandrum Bengali Association. After retirement from the ISRO, he has been teaching at an engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram.

Here is a sample of his writing. I thank Santanuda for allowing me to publish this story.]

Whenever Tagore songs are being talked of, it is a cliché to say: “Oh! There is a kind of magic in them.” Much has been written and said about the magic of Tagore’s songs and poems, but I have been fortunate to have witnessed real magic woven by a Tagore song.

It was the morning of Rabindra Jayanti a few years ago. Even inTrivandrum, we could feel music in the air. Duly dressed and armed with books like Geetobitan, Sanchoita etc., we, the Bengali families had gathered in Tagore Theatre in Vazhuthacaud for yet another celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary.

Children ran up and down the dark aisles of the auditorium chasing each other. Mothers sat in groups, most of them in animated conversation. Men moved around looking bored and showed interest only when their wife or children were on stage. All waited for the next event, politely clapping after every song or dance. … Generally speaking, Tagore was far from any serious thought of most, except one ….

As I learnt later, his name was Ashokan. Of about seventy years, he was very frail, had unkempt hair and he carried a small book of Geetanjali with him. He had translated it himself from Bengali to Malayalam, he said.

I had heard of translations of Bangla literature into Malayalam by many eminent scholars and poets of Kerala. Ashokan was certainly not one of them. Had he learnt Bengali? I wanted to find out.

‘A little, just to translate some of the poems,’ he said apologetically. Would I care to read his translations?

My knowledge (rather, ignorance) of Malayalam even after being in Kerala for over forty years is well-known. But courtesy demanded that I accept a copy of the book offered by the author himself. And I did.

‘I see that many of you can sing. Will you please sing one particular song for me?’ Ashokan was very polite in his request. The song he wanted to hear was Ami rupe tomay bholabo na (I will not entice you with my looks, but with my love)Rupe tomay is a difficult song to sing and I was not surprised when none of our singers could oblige him. I explained to him that without proper notations this song cannot be rendered and hence the reluctance of our singers to sing it in public.

His face paled and I could almost hear one of his ribs crackling in pain. He had come here hoping to hear that particular song. ‘Where can I go to listen to this?’  He despaired. Turning to me he said. ‘Will you please come to my home and sing it for me? I have the notations in Bengali.’

A stranger invites me to his house and wants me to sing one of Tagore’s most beautiful compositions for him. ‘Trust not’ said my intellect, for he is a stranger. ‘Why do you feign love and admiration for Rabindranath if you can’t fulfill this humble request?’ said my soul.

Soul prevailed over mind and soon I was ushered into a small dingy room laden with books and dust. Amidst the clutter and papers strewn all over the place stood a harmonium. It was an ancient piece in desperate need of overhaul.

Ashokan fumbled his way through the clutter. He was in a state of excited anticipation, much like a child about to be handed over an ice-cream. As I turned the pages of the book of notations to trace the right page, his eyes lit up. I bellowed the first two notes of the song which were a serene sa nicorresponding to the words ami …. His eyelids slowly came together and by the time I reached bholabo na … tears welled up behind those closed eyelids. I knew only the first few lines of the song but I sang them repeatedly for him. Tears rolled down his chapped, wrinkled cheeks in meandering lines.

For a long time after I had finished my song, Ashokan sat in a trance. We sat in silence until he woke up with a smile of bliss written on his face.

As he held my hands to bid good-bye, a realisation dawned upon me. What chord the song struck in Ashokan’s heart I may never know, but what I did witness was a magical spell that can only be cast by a Tagore song!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Remembering Binayak

I came across this letter to the editor in the Statesman two days ago. I feel I must share this with you.


In 1969, I went to Vellore for the treatment of our month-old son. The day after our arrival, a group of medical students in the Christian Medical College and Hospital entered the paediatric ward. Among them was a bright young man aged less than 20. He spoke to me in Bengali and said he was Binayak Sen.

At once I felt that I had met a younger brother, more so because my maiden surname is also Sen. During our week’s stay in Vellore, he helped us in every way, even took us for sightseeing.

While walking along the streets in the town, he stood in front of the post office and said, he would send a telegram to his younger brother to wish him on his birthday which fell on that very day, 7 February 1969. One afternoon, as we were packing our bags to leave our hotel for the return journey  to Kolkata, a beaming Binayak had come to see us off. He carried our luggage to the taxi, accompanied us to the railway station and helped us to board the train. I still vividly remember him standing on the railway platform waving us good-bye.

I have known him only for a few days. He is now in the news and I am shocked to learn that he has been sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition. He is a kind-hearted, sympathetic, amiable, polite, soft-spoken and helpful person.

Binayak and sedition, Binayak and life-sentence. I simply cannot co-relate. I am 79 and terribly sad over the news. I hope and pray that everything will move in the right direction very soon and that wonderful person will be hale and hearty and smiling as ever before.

Yours, etc.,

Dipti Dasgupta, Sodepur, 7 January.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Christmas this year brought the shocking news that Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “sedition”. The prosecution case is that he passed on three letters from a Maoist leader to someone. Sometime in 2007, he had gone to a Raipur jail as a physician to examine the Maoist leader. Naturally, he met the latter under the supervision of jailors. While returning from the jail, he was arrested at a railway station. Two other persons too were handed down life sentences along with Dr. Sen by a Raipur court on 24th December 2010. 

You would certainly have read about Dr. Binayak Sen, but let me jot down some essential facts here. A brilliant student and an alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Binayak Sen is a paediatrician. Instead of practising in the comforts of a city and making money, he chose to provide medical assistance to the poor and marginalised adivasis of Chhattisgarh. He has been working there since the early 1980s. The impact of his work has been recognised by many and he has been awarded several international honours.

Mineral rich Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states of India and is also a major centre of Maoist activities. In 2005, the state (BJP) government set up a vigilante army Salwa Judum to fight Maoists. According to historian Ram Chandra Guha, Salwa Judum “spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection to Maoism were rendered homeless.”[i] Activists like Arundhati Roy and Gautam Naulakha put the figure close to three hundred thousand.

Dr. Sen has neither been a part of a Maoist organisation, nor their sympathiser. On the contrary, he has condemned Maoist activities as “an invalid and unsustainable movement.” But as a national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he was also amongst the first to document the human rights violations committed by Salwa Judum and police.

That indeed was crime enough to send a 60-year-old internationally respected social worker and doctor to prison for the rest of his life. The verdict looks even more grotesque if you consider that in India many parliamentarians are mafia dons, and the major political debate of the day is how much a central minister cheated the exchequer in a single deal – fifty thousand crore or one hundred and seventy thousand crore!  

The Raipur verdict has been condemned by a wide cross-section of informed voices, from the Amnesty International to Amartya Sen. Retired high court judge and the president of PUCL Rajinder Sachar called the judgment as “ridiculous and unacceptable”. [ii] In an uncharacteristically strong reaction, Professor Sen says, “To turn the dedicated service of someone who drops everything to serve the cause of neglected people into a story of the seditious use of something — in this case, it appears to be the passing of a letter, when sedition usually takes the form of inciting people to violence or actually committing some violence and asking others to follow, none of which had happened — the whole thing seems a ridiculous use of the laws of democratic India.”[iii]

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 was taken away from his home sometime in 2009. But it was not until nearly one month later that the Chinese authorities confirmed his arrest. He had a one-day trial in December 2009 and was sentenced to 11 years a few days later – on Christmas Day. Some suspected the Chinese authorities had chosen that day because most people in the West would be on holiday, and not notice.[iv] 

Binayak Sen’s trial dragged on for three years and during the period, many, including 22 Nobel laureates, condemned the politically motivated and patently fake prosecution that was not backed by a shred of material evidence. But in the end, Binayak Sen got life imprisonment, compared to 11 years that Liu Xiaobo got. The other similarity is disturbing too. The verdict against Binayak Sen was announced on the Christmas Eve.

No, I am not insane enough – not yet, anyway – to compare our judicial system with that of China. But surely, there are many people in power in Indiawho would love to have the kind of unfettered powers that the Chinese authorities enjoy. It is significant that for several days after the verdict, none of the mainstream political parties except the Communist Party of India (CPI) have spared one word to condemn the verdict, nay, even question the validity of the monstrous judgment. Some of them might, sooner or later, if they perceive the political cost of silence unacceptably high!

Considering the facts, it would be reasonable to demand that Dr. Sen is set free. Hopefully, that will happen once the case goes to higher courts. But what has happened to our justice delivery system? If this can be done to an eminent person despite international protests, what chance do ordinary citizens (like the two convicted alongside Dr. Sen) have against mighty governments in our law courts? Doesn’t this verdict reinforce the extremists’ claim that India is not a democracy?

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, the Supreme Court has recently stated: something is rotten in the High Court of Allahabad. The former Chief Justice of India (CJI), who is now the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission is involved in a public spat with a sitting high court judge. One of them is lying. There have been reports that the same former CJI’s daughter and son-in-law amassed Rs.7 crore while he was the CJI.[v]

Politicians have failed us and bureaucrats have largely proved themselves to be spineless yes-men. The judiciary may be the last hope for the Indian democracy. After the Raipur verdict, one wonders if it’s much of a hope.

Postscript: I think every Indian who cares for the future of this country should do something now. You can do something easily, almost without any effort. Please cut and paste the essential facts about the case either from here, or from a better source, onto an email and send it across to whoever would care to open and read a mail from you. Let this message reach every Indian who uses the Internet. Let us inform others; let us register our protest.

[i] Hindustan Times, 27 December 2010