The Idea of an Institution

On November 22, 2013 by admin




If media reports are to be believed, then Presidency University in Kolkata is on the verge of formalizing a set of mandatory guidelines for its campus (and off-campus) inhabitants—about maintaining ‘university’ hours, holding protests and dharnas, using campus walls and substances, and finally about making negative or critical comments on the institution on social media sites.

No institution can run without some form of rules and institutional mechanisms, of course. But what is important is to note the drift of those rules in this case. In other words, what do we gain by giving shape to this university in a certain manner—in order to inculcate a set of brilliant students and make the institution a site for a particular kind of excellence?  We shall come back to these two words—brilliance and excellence­­ – in a bit.

There has been an interesting legend about this institution in question, a significant myth that is circulated periodically in the media and in the Bengali imagination generally—that as a harbinger of a certain argumentative tradition in the Bengali psyche and by way of ushering in a relentless and rigorous form of scholarship to go with it, this institution has produced prodigal individuals and a climate where a no-nonsense exchange of ideas can take place—ideas that then might transform disciplines and laboratories, boardrooms and political platforms. From this idea of an argumentative institute, then Presidency College, again sometimes in a mythical fashion, got another quite different tag after the seventies—that here was an institution which was not coldly or instrumentally reformist and merely argumentative, that it could also infuse powerful forms of personal and political romanticism within its ambit of ideas, that ideas needed to be tested on historical and material ground realities; that it was important and possible to be contrarians in a climate of conformity and ruthless oppression.

On these twin towers of thinking—rigorously rational and considered romantic (which occasionally did clash with each other) – debates and ideas were bookended, even after it became clear that the institution was not marked by any particularly identifiable set of ferment or drive.

This began to change by the eighties with the mushrooming of the very idea of management and management institutes—just like it happened in another institute in another part of the country—St Stephens, though the character of the two institutes are in many ways quite different too. (About this shift in ethos in St Stephens, where the idea of babudom got layered with the incursion of management studies, Sanjay Subrahmanyam has eloquently written).

Singular events in the nineties showed this shift. In Presidency, many were surprised to see some student volunteers in formal jackets and all ‘tied up’, in their otherwise traditionally cerebral college festival Milieu. It seemed that in a place of robustness and laidback nonchalance, a set of people with a jarring set of principles had suddenly arrived or were trying to advance a different set of ethos which was neither classically argumentative nor like the ones undertaken by the risk-taking romantics.  Some of the new lot was very articulate, with good social skills (often powerful quizzers and debaters, so that it seemed like they were thinking minds with a sense of argument). But if looked at carefully, one would see that a champion debater can argue from many sides, dazzlingly, polemically sometimes. The culture of debate paradoxically resists analysis. It also makes you conversant with multiple viewpoints and might help blunt your principled and ideological moorings. This new group of people consisted of doers, focussed, utterly practical in mindset, with an antipathy for what they actually considered was a needless wallowing in the realm of ideas—be it rational or suicidally romantic. The demise of USSR and its aftermath greatly helped this group of doers to sharpen their pragmatic position in the one direction possible: the market. They wanted to have a say in the development of their own situation and usher in a new ethos in Kolkata that needed a facelift, they argued.

Finding it impossible to sustain their kind of dream in a powerfully laidback culture, they would flee the city and be highly successful in their chosen terrains. Not all were management people, mind you, but even if they were in more fundamental fields, the ethos was managerial and practical. It did not matter whether you debated for socialism in college. Success in the real world meant using social skills for creating and securing jobs, trying to relate theory through the lab to the market, helping create assets for the individual and the nation, fashioning happiness and happy events around our lives. And steadfastly keeping away from the robust and the transformative, the spontaneous and the morbid, even from the watery philanthropic and the civilized.

This new ethos, born in the late eighties, has now taken a much more virulent and powerful form.  And it is not just the administration and the faculty who think differently now. But primarily it is the students who have bought into this ethos—a zeitgeist of sorts that goes well with Thought and Literary festivals, with banning cycles and substances alike. Naturally, the idea of discipline has become a major rallying point now, even for otherwise progressive souls (or is it because they are progressives?).


Lumpens are everywhere—this fear has infected the middle class Bengali living room. And these lumpens have short-sighted, populist and young mavericks to egg them on too from within the university! They distract the meritorious and the brilliant—the future nation builders in whose safe hands must we bequeath our labs and conference halls, our library carrels and our quadrangles, our starched sarees and our closed circuit networks. What’s more—there will be a blanket ban on ideas being exchanged about the soundness of the policies that the university will undertake. So, no badmouthing your institution in the public sphere and social media sites. This gag order not just subverts all forms of ‘harebrained thinking’ but even the very dictum of the old world liberals is gone now: namely, Emmanuel Kant’s idea of the disinterested and argumentative scholar who was free to debate and disagree at the level of ideas.

It is amply clear that this new ethos has firmly set itself against the twin mythical pillars on which the erstwhile Presidency Colleg stood: the ability to argue and the capacity to take risks in life. It used to connect scholarship with life and work and love and death or at least aspired to do so. This will not be allowed any more. The prodigals have a different world view and there is a general consensus even among the larger fraternity on this (I repeat, including among students themselves)—that the student community and others need to remain under a tight tutelage. For if they begin to think like adults—they will begin to argue again at the cost of practical concerns and worse, may become passionate risk takers, in cahoots with the lumpens all around the campus and in the adjacent hostels and with those who come from distant suburbs—a dangerous idea for Bold New Kolkata.


And ironically all these grim new rules will have the final stamp of someone who runs a research centre on Romantic Studies. We can well forget William Blake’s artisanal craftsmanship and other messianic thundering in such a clime. But even that conservative poet and philosopher of the spectral world—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was ‘seduced into the accursed habit’ (yes yes, he kept it hidden, we know) in laudanum (opium) as an antidepressant and a relaxant. It will henceforth be an institution only for the bright and brilliant, not for those wayward. accursed minds on which that fateful Bengali myth until recently used to flourish.










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