The professor threw the newspaper down with force. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Yet another ominous cloud looming large on the educational campuses,” he replied with a sigh. He belonged to that rare genre of teachers for whom teaching was still a mission and passion and not a mere profession.
The newspaper reported that a charismatic gentleman about to launch a new party had exhorted the students to involve themselves in politics. Well, what is wrong? His call is in tune with democracy as our country understands it, it sounds “progressive” as we understand the term! Why be orthodox enough to believe that the campus was for imparting knowledge on subjects necessary for the society or for preparing the students for earning and living legitimately, even though we had forgotten that education had something to do with ideals and ethics?
It was different 70 years ago. Hardly anything was more important than our struggle for freedom. Gandhiji called upon the students to quit the campus and agitate; for he was pragmatic and understood that formal study and the ideal of “do or die” could not go together. Even “Dharna” inside the college, he wrote in Young India, was “barbarity”, “for it is a crude way of using coercion. It is also cowardly because one who sits in dharna knows he is not going to be trampled over.”
Once freedom came, the attitude of politicians towards the campus should have completely changed. The nation needed brilliance in every discipline: social, scientific and administrative. Even though some of our scholars individually shone bright, how the degrees conferred by our educational institutions are evaluated by top universities abroad is embarrassingly well-known. The volume of study hours wasted is colossal, thanks to political intervention and rivalry.
Soon after World War II a friend had been to Tokyo—a city still under shock. He was put up in a guest house, all alone, at the top floor of a three-storeyed building. The first and the second floors accommodated a training college and its administrative office, respectively. One midnight the guest suspected some subdued commotion and came out and saw the staff and students of the college seated under dim light on the veranda of their floor with placards, and some men, obviously from the administration, talking to them. In the morning the friend asked a professor and understood that they were conveying certain grievances to the authorities. “But why at midnight?” enquired the guest. And the stunning answer he got was: “But the daytime belongs to the nation!”
Led by our politicos, we, including the students of our famous universities, dedicate our daytime to torching the nation’s assets. In the fifties, political parties started knitting webs to catch susceptible students, surreptitiously. Most parties launched their students’ wings, but shied away from openly announcing their identities during union elections.
The inhibition has since vanished. While driving by a prominent university, the walls and posts splattered with pictures of candidates and hackneyed slogans, I was informed that each candidate must have spent twenty times more than the total amount allocated to the university union for cultural and academic events. There was no practical benefit for the sponsoring parties beyond sweetening their vanity for a while. “I wish”, commented a guardian, “that huge amount had gone to some meaningful purpose and the office-bearers ascended their chairs not by the vice of pomp and external influence but by the virtue of wit and merit!”
But unimaginative politicos are not the only saboteurs. They have imaginative collaborators, affluent, powerful and lusty. Not long ago a women’s college at Chandigarh prohibited the use of cell phones during the class hours. Well-groomed young ladies reacted immediately—smashing the movable properties within their reach—mostly earthen pots overflowing with well-groomed flowers. An alert TV channel fed innumerable eyes with the exciting denouement, closing up on the leading lady of that liberation struggle. No sooner had the lady reached home than the phone rang to convey that a Mumbai film-maker had chosen her for the role of his proposed picture’s heroine.
A newspaper and the TV channel vied with each other in claiming credit for the lady’s luck. She was engulfed by wannabes “all struck by glamour, all wanting fate to rewrite their ordinary scripts.” It is irrelevant how far she advanced along the path which the smashed pots had paved for her, but the filmmaker gained publicity worth a million.
India needs youth who have genuinely earned their degrees. Let them study and debate politics in the campus, but those wishing to undertake active politics can wait till the convocation. Imagine the health of our medical education if the medical students were busy in politics. Let the fate of our students be better than the three riders who galloped along a lonely road in a moonlit night and suddenly heard a voice commanding them to stop.
Next, the voice asked them to collect whatever was lying under their feet, as much as they wished. But what lay were only pebbles. However, the majesty of the command obliged them to pocket handfuls of that stuff. Then was heard the last command and the intriguing prophecy: “Resume your journey. At daybreak you will be happy and sorry at the same time!” On reaching their destination they found that the pebbles turned into diamonds. They were happy. But they were sorry that they had not collected more.
Students must derive as much knowledge they can in their campus days, even if it looks drab. It will glitter in the future. Politicians can never return them their lost moments.
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship