NIHIL ULTRA: Nothing Beyond

Difference spotted and appreciated

Posted on: 17th January 2015 | The Telegraph Calcutta, India

Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi (left)
with St. Xavier's principal, Father Felix Raj,
at the college convocation on Saturday.
Picture by Pabitra Das

 Two convocations in three weeks - the difference was telling.

At the annual convocation of St. Xavier's College today, Bengal governor Keshari Nath Tripathi lauded the academic atmosphere of the institution and the absence of students' unrest.

"I appreciate the apolitical nature of the students' union and the fact that there has never been any form of students' unrest (at St. Xavier's) has complemented the academic ambience of the institution," the governor told the annual convocation of the autonomous college.

More than 15 students took their medals from Tripathi today. At Jadavpur University on December 24, he was supposed to hand the honours to three young graduates. One of them accepted it, the second did not turn up and the third politely declined to accept it. Tens of students waved the black flag, shouted slogans and beat plastic drums outside the open-air venue throughout the programme.

At St. Xavier's today, the procession of governor Tripathi, higher education minister Partha Chatterjee, Calcutta University vice-chancellor Suranjan Das, St. Xavier's College principal Father Felix Raj, along with senior officials of the institution, proceeded towards the dais in pin-drop silence.

Over 1,000 students were in the audience, all of them on their feet for the guests. The governor's speech came towards the end of a two-hour programme that went without a hitch.

Pramita Chowdhury, who completed her masters in microbiology and received her degree today, said she chose to study at St. Xavier's because it did not have a history of disruptive politics.

"I chose to study at St. Xavier's because student politics here doesn't lead to disruption or violence.... I was elated to hear the governor mention this in his speech," she said.

Anirudha Ghose, who has completed sociology honours from St. Xavier's College and received his degree today, has had a taste of both. He has joined JU for his masters. "I can see the difference between the two institutions now," he said.

A JU teacher said the governor's statement today is important as it came in the middle of a debate on whether there was a need to depoliticise student polls and whether involvement of mainstream political parties was at the root of the students' unrest.

The Trinamul government had a plan to pass a bill in the Assembly to implement apolitical students' polls but the proposal was shelved following opposition from various students' wings.

None of the institutions in Calcutta that have apolitical student unions has disruptive politics. The Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (erstwhile Besu), Belur Vidyamandir, run by the Ramakrishna Mission, Loreto College, run by Christian missionaries, and the state-run Lady Brabourne College are among them.

"St. Xavier's College has a long tradition of being apolitical. It has always encouraged a rich academic atmosphere that automatically kept students away from politics. The people of Calcutta also appreciate the apolitical nature of the college," said Fr. Felix Raj.

At St. Xavier's, polls are held to elect class representatives (CR).

The CRs of all the classes and the secretaries of various societies like the Bengali Literary Society, Hindi Literary Society and the Theatrical Society vote to elect the general secretary, assistant general secretary and an 11-member working committee. The principal is the president of the students' body.

"We have our own constitution on the basis of which our elections are held," said Bhavika Surana, the assistant general secretary of the students' union at St. Xavier's.

Loreto follows a similar model. Since 1939, a panel of teachers has been overseeing student polls at Lady Brabourne. The panel interviews candidates. The general secretary's post is the most important. There are 16 other posts like the library committee convener and the debate committee convener. Candidates can put up posters, but only at a designated place. Manifestos must be apolitical.

IIEST, which has had a brush with student violence for several years when it was the Bengal Engineering and Science University, hasn't had a political election since 2009. It has had no violence since then too.

It has adopted a different model. The union has been replaced by students' senate, made of 27 members. A professor is in charge of the senate. The presidents of the 12 clubs - such as innovative robotics, debate and photography - and the 15 departmental societies become members of the senate. The members elect the president, secretary and the treasurer.

Former Bengal governor M.K. Narayanan had first voiced the need to delink politics from student elections. "There can be student politics. But not the politics you see elsewhere," the former governor had said.

Echoing Narayanan's words, a retired teacher of St. Xavier's said his institution, too, had politics but not the kind of party politics that breeds disruption and violence. "There is a lot of politics at St. Xavier's during the student union elections. But that politics is very different from what we see in institutions like Jadavpur University and several other city colleges," said the teacher.

But some feel students - who are tomorrow's voters in the outside world - should have exposure to mainstream politics.

Political leaders who have cut their teeth in college politics are the biggest votaries of this school of thought.

Someone who will vote for one political party or the other in local, state or national elections should be exposed to the values and ideologies of these parties by being in contact with their students' wings on college campuses, said many political leaders.

A teacher at Presidency University listed some institutions that he felt had a political presence as well as a good academic atmosphere.

"We have institutions like Presidency University and JNU, both of which have very vibrant student politics that includes the students' wings of political parties. Yet, these universities are academically very good. On the other hand, we have St. Xavier's College, the IITs and IIMs that do not have student politics of a kind present at Presidency or JNU. These institutes, too, are academically very good. So, it is tough to say whether one is better than the other," said Maidul Islam, an assistant professor of political science at Presidency University.

A former JU vice-chancellor had blamed lack of enough academic engagements among both students and teachers for the kind of disruption JU has witnessed over the past four months.

Source: The Telegraph, Kolkata : Sunday, January 18, 2015
Picture by Pabitra Das