Debating the Attack on Presidency University: Pratyay Nath

Guest post by PRATYAY NATH.

This piece is in response to Waled Aadnan’s post on Kafila titled ‘Because Presidency is an Idea – All You Need to Know about What Happened at Presidency University’ (dated 15 April 2013). Mr. Aadnan’s well-written and succinctly argued piece is not an isolated voice; it echoes a dominant way of thinking that has been noticeable among the various protests against the recent incident of vandalism in the Presidency University (erstwhile Presidency College). Let me begin by stating, like many others already have, that the vandalism that happened in Presidency on 10 April 2013 should be condemned in the harshest of terms. My discomfort lies in some of the ways in which these condemnations are being articulated in the public domain over the past few days. I would suggest that the majority of the protests emanate from a sense of hurt delivered to the idea of eliteness of the educational institution in question, which cannot unfortunately be supported because it tries to detach this incident from the broader socio-political forces of our times by sensationalising the issue. Mr. Aadnan, in his piece, clearly points out that the unfortunate incident is no exception – it is yet another case of political violence in contemporary Bengal.  Yet his argument is not fully immune to a celebration of Presidency University as an exceptional space, requiring exceptional attention, capable of an exceptional politics, as compared to other colleges in Kolkata. Lack of clarity about which exceptional trait of this space is to be condemned as a sign of elitism, and which is to be celebrated as a future hope for a better politics, renders his argument susceptible to the elitism that I am uncomfortable with.  Throughout the article, he indulges in a sort of self-glorification and mythologisation of Presidency, by using phrases like ‘it has nurtured Indian Nobel Prize and Oscar winners and consistently over its history’, ‘[I]t has been one of India’s elite colleges and a hotbed of left-wing politics’ and ‘[P]residency has always been the harbinger of change in Bengal’.  Each of these formulations, when celebrated, becomes problematic in their own right. In a sense, myths and stories about Presidency, circulating in the public and private domains often maintain a precarious balance between how the college has been a hotbed of radical politics and at the same time continually produced world-class academics and artists, whose pursuits of excellence apparently have remained beyond mainstream politics, or in Aadnan’s words ‘the political’. The key to Presidency’s eliteness is its existence in this concocted grey zone between the apparently mutually exclusive realms of radical politics (much maligned, but yet having a certain aura associated with it) and the pursuit of excellence (in whichever field it may be, but essentially beyond ‘the political’). In a way of speaking, the institution sees itself as partly submerged in ‘the political’, yet in a way remains untouched and untainted by it. The present incident of vandalism, like other such instances in the past, has perhaps created an exceptional sense of hurt because ‘the political’ touched Presidency much too closely for its comfort.

The ways in which the Presidency vandalism has been sensationalised by the mainstream media is not dissimilar to another shocking incident from the recent past – the Delhi rape incident of 16 December 2012. We have seen how spending majority of their news hours on the incident and asking questions like whether Delhi is the rape-capital of the country, many in the mainstream media tried to seclude the ghastly incident as an aberration and thus disconnect it from the broader socio-cultural tendencies. The fact of the matter, as most of us know, is that gender violence is structurally embedded in Indian society and works in our day-to-day lives in innumerable normalised ways. Talking of rape, without grounding it in the everydayness of gender violence, amounts to a partial de-politicization of the issue. But by isolating the Delhi rape incident in particular and rape in general, what large sections of the  media tried to achieve was to ensure that questions about the more normalised ways in which gender violence operates in our society are not raised, and hence not addressed, and thus in a way preserve the overall patriarchal status quo of our society which thrives on misogynist lyrics of item numbers and sexist songs by the likes of Honey Singh on the one hand and controls the female body to make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ girls out of them on the other.

In an uncannily similar manner, the way mainstream Bengali media and a large part of those protesting have handled the Presidency vandalism dissociates the incident from the larger socio-political picture. As Ranabir Samaddar argued in the succinct piece ‘Presidency: Nicher tolar protyaghat?’ [‘Presidency: Retaliation of the Lower Strata?’] in the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika [dated 17 April 2013], over the past three decades, college and university elections in West Bengal in particular and the country at large have become arenas of contest among political parties. One of the reasons behind this is the manner in which much of the student politics in most of these institutions have come to be reduced entirely to winning or losing students’ union elections. Over the last one year, following the succession of a new party to the state government, Kolkata saw a series of bloody battles between the student wings of the new party and the displaced party over the control of student elections. An atmosphere of full-blown violence often reigns supreme in student elections in many cities and towns. The Presidency vandalism, although not election-violence per se, nevertheless exemplifies this process of the educational space becoming the site of muscle-flexing by political parties. Democratic dialogue and decision-making on campus, within as well as outside the electoral process, is undeniably a hard-won right of the students and the back-bone of student-politics, and hence needs to be defended at all costs. The challenge in front of us, students, then, is to engage creatively with political questions from the space of educational institutions going beyond the limitations of vote-bank politics.

Bypassing all these larger questions and focusing only on the specific incident of Presidency vandalism will only serve to obscure the larger issue. The instantaneous protests against the Presidency vandalism vis-à-vis a relative silence in the public domain by the same voices regarding the million incidents of political violence within electoral politics suggests that these protests emanate majorly, of course not entirely, from the idea of this incident being an extraordinary one that calls for some action. This sense of the extraordinary originates directly from the notion of the Presidency as the elite institution. What this also directly implies is that if instead of Presidency, the vandalism had been instituted in some non-elite obscure college, so many protesting voices would perhaps not have been heard. As I have mentioned earlier, such instances of political violence are not uncommon in different educational institutions across the state in recent times; but they seldom grab the news hours the way the present incident did. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, for obvious reasons, the news of attacks on such non-elite institutions (very much like the rapes happening every single day in villages and small towns as well as to marginalised women in urban spaces) do not sell as well as those of incidents like the present one do.

Mr. Aadnan’s concluding lines read: ‘And this is yet another instance of how Presidency can change the tenor of student politics in Bengal. No matter what violence is perpetrated by state actors in Presidency, this enduring belief will persist. Because ideas are bullet-proof. And Presidency is an idea.’ This ‘idea’ is something that our author repeatedly refers to, but never really defines. It appears that this ‘idea’ is not far away from the idea of the unbridled elitism and cultural snobbery of Presidency College that we are so familiar with. The questions to him, then, are very simple. Why is Presidency suddenly an idea and the other educational institutions not? What about the violence, perpetrated by the state and other political actors in/against other colleges? Most importantly. How do the believers of this ‘idea’ propose to engage with that violence?

The incident of vandalism in Presidency University, then, needs to be condemned in the harshest of terms not because of some vague (or, as I have argued, not so vague) ‘idea’ that Presidency stands for is under attack, but because it is yet another instance of the reduction of an educational institution to a battleground of physical forces of political parties. The vandalism needs to be condemned, not because ‘it has nurtured Indian Nobel Prize and Oscar winners and consistently over its history’, but in a manner more rooted in today’s larger political picture. Only then will our protest stand the chance of being shaped by our broader political understandings rather than by the hurt generated from our collective socio-cultural snobberies, as in a major way has been the case in the incident under question.

Pratyay Nath is pursuing doctoral research in Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also a former student of Presidency College, Kolkata. The author thanks Akash Bhattacharya for his comments.

2 thoughts on “Debating the Attack on Presidency University: Pratyay Nath”

  1. Thanks Pratyay. A welcome response after a heap of insensitive, moronic, arrogant attempts to justify the pseudo-elitist usurpation of public money and patience in the name of an “idea.” One point I want to add. The assault and the ensuing debate made one thing pretty clear. The relation between Presidency University and its “outside” will remain one of constant tension, and much of the tantrums of the insiders will add insult to injury. The closed gate of the university during a procession in College Street symbolizes the widening gap between those who score high and make smooth passage through the shiny glass doors of multi-million dollar corporations and those who open these doors for them in uniform. The convenient next move will be to demand proscription of affirmative action upholding the flag of meritocracy, and Presidency will turn into the biggest breeding ground of corporate depoliticization. One thing we need to understand: the snobbery in question is not different from that cultivated in the rest of country, as it once was. It reeks of money now, not cultural superiority and casual parochialism – the two essential conditions of Presidency elitism in the previous decades. And that’s a major shift. For better and for worse.

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  2. The historical emergence of Presidency as the sure proof of imperial benevolence echoed the colonial and then post-colonial ‘ideology of formal subsumption’, where a parasitical, token space of change substitutes the necessity of total and structural change. That IS the basic structure of Indian education, and Presidency remains the most manifest figuration of such an ideology. In that sense, Presidency, and other elite institutions of this country, are ‘an idea’, a most pernicious one.

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