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Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011

Tribute to Santosh Bhattacharyya

Thursday 21 April 2011, by Barun Das Gupta

Santosh Bhattacharyya, the former Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University, who passed away in Kolkata last month, was an eminent Left intellectual, a distinguished economist and an uncompromising crusader for preserving the independence of educational institutions from intrusive political interference of the government in narrow partisan interests.

He came in touch with the nascent Left movement in undivided Bengal as a student in the early 1940s and later became a wholetimer of the undivided CPI. He was one of the few Communists to have been imprisoned for six months during the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942. At the time of the split in the CPI in 1964 in the wake of the Chinese aggression, he chose to remain with the parent party though he had, at that time, many friends and admirers in the newly formed CPI-M also.

His contributions as an economist were recognised by the United Nations which made him a Senior Economic Affairs Officer at the Development Planning Centre of the world body during 1966-68. He had to cut short his tenure and come back home for family reasons.

He was keenly observing the intolerant attitude of the CPI-M to anyone who disagreed with the party and its attempt at dominating every field of social and political life in West Bengal, including the educational field. He was opposed to the intrusion of party politics in the world of education—from school level to the university. But the bitter disillusionment was yet to come. It came when, much to the party’s displeasure, the then Governor and ex-officio Chancellor, A.P. Sharma, nominated him as the Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University from a panel of three names. The CPI-M was not reconciled to his nomination and the battle between the VC and the ruling party started right from day one.

Day in and day out, the varsity employees owing allegiance to the CPI-M would insult him in every way possible and obstruct his functioning as the executive head of the varsity. He had to put up with the daily dose of vulgar abuse, from which even his old mother was not spared. The intention was to make him throw up his hands in despair and quit the varsity of his own accord. That, however, did not happen. Bhattacharyya was a tough man, never to be cowed down by threats and intimidations. He completed his full term of four years and retired in 1987, vowing never to set his foot again in the precincts of his alma mater.

HE has left behind a detailed and graphic account of those turbulent days in his voluminous 683-page book Red Hammer Over Calcutta University. In the Preface he writes: “They (CPI-M) knew my political past and views, and were pretty sure that I would not be a ‘Yes, Minister’ to the party.” He adds that right after he demitted office, he was urged by many colleagues, friends and admirers to write down a comprehensive record of those days. But, “knowing the CPI-M’s sensitivity for records and their wide reach over the academic community, I was very apprehensive of possible sabotage by their agents. Hence, single handed, I delved into the task …”

He lays bare the objective of the CPI-M for controlling educational institutions and its consequences:

“There is no implicit conflict between high standards and political control in university education, even if Communists are in power. In fact, Moscow University under the erstwhile communist regime was, and the Beijing University under the present Communist Government, too, have been very strict about maintaining high standards and extending the frontiers of knowledge. But the CPI-M in West Bengal, lacking absolute power under one-party rule, as in the above such examples, has always chosen the populist path of unmerited expansion and com-promise with standards in higher education even for attaining and retaining control over university-level education, rather than pitching for the best, thus encouraging mediocrity in the process. Calcutta University has gone downhill because of such politically motivated interference by the present political masters, who dictate appointments, lay down academic policies even and fine-tune the university’s executive actions too in step with political exigencies.”

This obituary note on Prof Santosh Bhatta-charyya would remain incomplete without mentioning the last hypocritical act of the CPI-M-controlled Calcutta University authorities. After his death, they came running to his home and told his family members that they wanted to take his body to the University to pay their “last respects” to him. Bhattacharyya’s wife, Arati, told them she would not allow this as her husband had told everybody categorically that he would never again set his foot in the University. So they could not pay their “last respects” to the man whom they had once tried their level best to hound out.

A few days later, Arati Bhattacharyya came to know from a friend that the University Senate had passed a resolution condoling the death of Bhattacharyya. “I am still hoping that they will send me a copy of the resolution as is the custom,” she said.

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