Category Archives: Education

For the self-serving elite, mother tongue poses hindrance

[ DNA, 27 May 2014; Echo of India, 7 June 2014; Dhaka Tribune, 3 June 2014]

My parents, both of whom went to Bangla-medium schools, had decided to send me to an English-medium school. Among other things, this was a marker of relative affluence. From Kolkata’s insular perch, it was perceived to be an essential lubricant to socio-economic ascendency. It was also true that much of Kolkata’s upper-middle and middle classes had deserted public institutions – schools and hospitals were the major casualties of this trend because institutions of the poor and administered by the rich without a stake in them run very poorly. This reality may have also worked in my parent’s minds – the only son needs to succeed and earn. In the 144 municipal wards of Kolkata, there were only a few Bangla-medium schools that matched the English-medium schools in public imagination. This illusion of being the choicest medium of successful (however defined) education was perpetuated partly by a cabal of ‘good’ English schools (places where the superiority of people-like-us was ingrained as ideology), which competed against in other and created their own legends. Public imagination is not the same as a public examination and this is where many of these English-medium schools were cut to size. The state board examination results (Delhi head-quartered boards are numerically marginal and hence irrelevant in this discussion) brought into our consciousness these ‘others’, some in Kolkata but mostly in other districts of West Bengal, who competed successfully with ‘us’ and often out-competed us. What one must not forget is the competitive advantage English as a medium had, given that the elite had invested hard in English medium schools when it came to infrastructure and most other things that state-funded public institutions could not match. But still they matched. And when I gained admission to my undergraduate institution, a medical college, I saw that a majority of my classmates came from a non-English-medium background. The odds of gaining admission to a medical college were higher if one was from the Bengali-medium Bankura Zilla School than from my alma mater South Point High School. One saving grace of my high school was that its English-medium was only in name. We wrote our answer-scripts in English but the instruction and rebuke was in Bangla. Thankfully, there was no ideology or ‘manners’ that was taught – making unlearning an easier and less self-destructive process. The alienated chose to be alienated and they had their circles and ‘hobbies’. By Mother Saraswati’s grace, most of us remained Bengalis writing answer-sheets in English. I felt that this long introduction to my background was necessary for readers to know where I come from. Disclosure is good practice.

On May 6, when the 5-judge constitutional bench struck down the 1994 language policy of the Karnataka government that mandated that either Kannada or mother-tongue be the medium of instruction for Classes I to IV. The judges cited the lofty ideal of freedom expression and speech as well as protection of minority rights. It has been widely documented that mother-tongue instruction is far superior when it comes to grasping ideas and foster creative thinking. In fact, all the judges agreed that children ‘learn better’ when initially taught in their mother tongue. One can easily guess which sector of society will feel most ‘persecuted’ by the 1994 language policy. This is the same class that increasingly converses in English with people from the same mother tongue. Some of them even scoff at the idea of mother tongue in this ‘globalized era’ of ‘cosmopolitan ethos’. Lord Macaulay must be a happy man today.

The judgement goes against the spirit of the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 that also points out that the child’s mother language or home language is the “best medium of instruction”. This judgement is a triumph of the powerful Anglicized class which has typically punched above its weight. The implications of this judgement go beyond the court matter. It signals the confidence of the elite in using the language of rights to marginalize the masses.

Let us be clear on a few things. This push comes from English and Hindi-ized sectors of the Indian Union, the most vociferous cheerleaders of the new Indian project. By their inordinate grip over certain urban centres (Bangaluru, Delhi, Mumbai), they have been exerting an influence over policy that they cannot otherwise gain by democratic means. Karnataka’s populist Chief Minister Siddaramaiah knows that his people have no great clamour against mother-tongue instruction. In recent times, Karnataka has been one of those few states that have tried to restore dignity of their languages. The deliberate marginalization that comes with terms ‘regional’ / ‘vernacular’ language has now become normal. If the judiciary is so concerned about freedom of speech and expression and rights of linguistic minorities, it might want to look at the primacy accorded to English and Hindi. A staggering majority of the people in the subcontinent does not know English. The same goes for Hindi outside the Hindi-ized belt.

The elites and decision-makers of the subcontinent comes from a class that would start perspiring if they were asked to speak their mother’s tongue only, even for a week. The classes of people who actually perspire due to hard labour that puts food on the tables of the urbane and the entrenched elites can accomplish this easily. The subcontinent is almost unique to have a class that looks to non-mother tongues with so much pride. No wonder, when it comes to scientific creativity, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, etc surpass this nation. What is common between these nations is that their mother-tongue is their language of instruction, often all through the university level. The narrative of incompatibility between ‘higher education’ and mother-tongue is a creation of the self-serving Anglicized classes of the subcontinent whose privilege and entitlements would be threatened and their ‘authentic spokesperson to goras’ status threatened if mother-language education in the subcontinent went the Japanese way. But privilege doesn’t self-destruct. Hence we remain a self-hating land of forgotten mothers and persecuted tongues, good for creating a class of cyber-coolies and enthusiastic documenters of Euro-American mood-swings. From building high-rises to making highways, the real heavy lifting in the cosmopolitan cyber-coolie haven of Bengaluru is done by Kannada mother-tongue folks. Next time, look at the counter-girl in a chain-coffee store, uncomfortable in her dress. You walked up to her and placed an order in English. She breaks into Kannada when you are not looking. We are all complicit in the annihilation of her cultural self. Perverse word play is displayed when the calls for the rights of the marginalized majority is denounced as chauvinism. Freedom of speech and expression, anyone?

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আমাদের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলির উত্কর্ষ – পিছিয়ে থাকা নিয়ে কিছু ভাবনা

প্রতি বছর বিশ্বের কিছু নামী সংস্থা দুনিয়ার সকল বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের একটি বিশাল রেঙ্কিং তালিকা এনে উপস্থিত করেন। কোন বছরেই কোন তালিকাতেই সেখানে ভারতীয় সংঘরাষ্ট্রের কোন বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় প্রথম ২০০-র মধ্যে আসে না। সেই নিয়ে এখানকার কিছু লোক একটু চিন্তা ব্যক্ত করেন। আর কেউ কেউ বলেন ওসব রেঙ্কিং আসলে পশ্চিমা দুনিয়ার চক্রান্ত, যাতে কিনা আমাদেরকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দেওয়া হয় (তারা বেমালুম চেপে যান যে শ্রেষ্ঠ ২০০-র তালিকায় একাধিক এশীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় থাকে, থাকে চীনের একাধিক বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়)। যেসব পন্ডিত মনে করেন যে সমগ্র বিশ্ব একমাত্র আমাদেরকে কোণঠাসা করার জন্য এই শ্রেষ্ঠত্বের তালিকা থেকে আমাদেরগুলিকে বাদ দ্যান, তাদের জানা উচিত, এই ধরণের বিশ্ব-ষড়যন্ত্র মার্কা ধারণা গভীর মানসিক অসুস্থতার লক্ষণ। অনেক ক্ষেত্রে কিছু রাজনৈতিক ধারা বা ধর্মীয় ধারা এমন ভাবে নিজেদের সকল বিশ্বের ষড়যন্ত্রের স্বীকার বলে প্রচার চালায়। এই সব সেয়ানা কারবারীদের চেনা প্রয়োজন। এরা কেউ অসুস্থ নয় – ষড়যন্ত্রের শাঁক দিয়ে নিজেদের ভেতরের পচনের মাছ ঢাকার একটা নিষ্ফলা চেষ্টা করেন এরা। এর ফলে বন্গায়ে শিয়াল রাজা হয়ে অন্যান্য রদ্দি শেয়ালদের থেকে বাহবা পাওয়া যায়, কিন্তু বিশ্ব-দরবারের বেঞ্চিতে এক ইঞ্চি জায়গা-ও জোটে না।

এই ধরা যাক বিশ্বের শ্রেষ্ঠ ৫০-টা  বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় – সেগুলির কিছু বৈশিষ্টের দিকে একটু মন দিয়ে দেখি। তারপর নিজেদের সাথে তুলনা করি। আপাতত টাইমস হায়ার এডুকেশন রেন্কিং মেনে চলি, যদিও কিউ.এস এবং এ.আর.ডাব্লু.ইউ, এই দুটিও যথেষ্ট খ্যাতনামা। আমাদের সঙ্গে সবচেয়ে বড় একটা তফাত হলো যে এই শ্রেষ্ঠতম বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলির স্নাতক স্তরের কোর্সগুলো মূলতঃ হয় সেই দেশের প্রচলিত মাতৃভাষায়। এবং সেই দেশে ইস্কুল্গুলির, পাঠ্যবই-এর মধ্যেও মাতৃভাষার দাপট-ই বেশি – এটা কোরিয়ান, ম্যান্ডারিন চৈনিক, সুইডিশ, ইংরেজি, জাপানি, জার্মান, অর্থাত যে সব দেশের মাতৃভাষার দেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের নাম শ্রেষ্ঠ ৫০-এর তালিকায় আছে, এই সকল ভাষার ক্ষেত্রেই সত্যি। আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশে তথা দিল্লি-তে অনেক পন্ডিত বলেন যে মাতৃভাষায় ব উচ্চ-শিক্ষা হলে সমাজ পিছিয়ে পড়বে। তথাকথিত এক আন্তর্জাতিক পরিসরের দোহাই দিয়ে বলা হয় এইসব। তথ্য থেকে এটা পরিষ্কার যে মাতৃভাষা-হীন উচ্চ-শিক্ষা দিয়ে ইংরেজি-ভাষা প্রচলিত দেশের জন্য প্রযুক্তি-ব্যবসার ঝাঁকা-মুটে  বা মূলতঃ শ্বেতাঙ্গ বাচ্চাদের আমদানি করা ‘বৈচিত্রময়’ অধ্যাপক হওয়া সম্ভব, কিন্তু নিজ দেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে মাতৃভাষাকে দুরে রেখে উত্কর্ষ তৈরী কঠিন। রাজনৈতিক নেতারা যতই ‘সেন্টার ও এক্সেলেন্স’ লেখা শ্বেতপাথর উদ্বোধন করে জনগণ-কে ধোঁকা দিন, এক্সেলেন্স-হীনতার এই ফাঁকি এইসব রেঙ্কিং তালিকায় ধরা পড়ে যায়। এছাড়াও এর ফলে মাতৃভাষায় শিক্ষিত ইস্কুলের গন্ডি পেরুনো যে শিক্ষার্থী-সমাজ, যারা কিনা ছাত্র-ছাত্রীদের মধ্যে ব্যাপকভাবে সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ, তাদেরকে অবহেলা করে, প্রান্তিক করে দিয়ে, হীনমন্যতায় ভুগিয়ে তাদের মেধা সম্পদ নষ্ট করা হয়। এই সম্পদ থেকে বঞ্চিত হয় দেশ ও জাতি।  অবশ্যই এর পিছনে রয়েছে আমার মতো ইংরেজিতে পরা ভদ্রলোকের বাচ্চার কায়েমী স্বার্থ। এই মাতৃভাষায় শিক্ষিত সমাজকে প্রান্তিক করে রাখা নিয়ে রেঙ্কিং হলে ভারতের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়-গুলি যে বিশ্বে প্রথম ৫০-টি স্থান অধিকার করবে, এ নিয়ে আমার সন্দেহ নেই। তবে নিজেদের কায়েমী স্বার্থকে কি করে সর্বসাধারণের স্বার্থ হিসেবে দেখিয়ে ক্ষমতা ও প্রাধান্য ধরে রাখতে হয়, তার ইন্টেলেকচুয়াল ট্রেনিং দিতে আমরা ওস্তাদ।  পশ্চিমবঙ্গে অধ্যাপকের চাকরি লোভনীয়। নানা দেশের অধ্যাপকের মাস মাইনের সঠিক তুলনা (অর্থাৎ সেই পরিমাণ অর্থের সেই দেশে ক্রয়ক্ষমতা – যাকে বলে পারচেসিং পাওয়ার) করলে দেখা যায় যে এদেশের অধ্যাপকেরা গড়ে মার্কিন যুক্তরাষ্ট্র, জার্মানী, ফ্রান্স, জাপান প্রভৃতি দেশের অধ্যাপকদের থেকে বেশি ক্রয়ক্ষমতার অধিকারী। আমাদের পিছিয়ে থাকাটা টাকাকড়ির কারণে না।

কি কি দেখা হয়েছে এই সব রেন্কিং-এ ? রয়েছে গবেষনার খ্যাতি ও পরিমাণ, শিক্ষা-দানের খ্যাতি, তবে সবচেয়ে বেশি জোর দেওয়া হয়েছে ‘সাইটেশন ইম্পেক্ট’-এ।  অর্থাৎ এই যে জনগণের টাকা নিয়ে বিদ্যাচর্চা ও গবেষণার আয়োজন, তাতে যা পয়দা হচ্ছে, তা কি জ্ঞান-বিজ্ঞানের বিশ্বে অন্যদের নজরে আসছে, তারা কি সেগুলির কথা বলছেন, নিজেদের কাছে ব্যবহার করছেন ? আমাদের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলি মূলতঃ জ্ঞান দেবার জায়গা, নতুন জ্ঞান তৈরী অধিকাংশ ক্ষেত্রেই গৌণ। এর ফল খুব সহজ। আমরা এখুনো  হা-পিত্যেশ করে বসে থাকি সাহেব-মেম-রা নতুন কি বার করলো। যেহেতু নিজেদের উঠোনে হয়না সেসব কাজ, তাই আমদানি করা জ্ঞান সিলেবাস ভুক্ত করতেও হয়ে যায় বিরাট সময়ের ব্যবধান। আর এই কারণেই চলে বিদেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের ছুটি-ছাটার সময়ে দেশে আশা স্বজাতীয় পরিযায়ী পাখি অধ্যাপকদের নিয়ে একটা আদেখলাপনা। সাফল্যের মাপকাঠি হয়ে ওঠে বিদেশে কে কত নাম করলো। ফলে গবেষনার বিষয়-গুলিও মূলতঃ হয়ে যায় বিদেশের সমাজের মাথাব্যথার উপশম করার
‘আন্তর্জাতিক’ প্রকল্পে হাথ লাগানো বা শ্বেতাঙ্গ পন্ডিতকুলের আভ্যন্তরীণ বিতর্কে নাক গলিয়ে জাতে ওঠার চেষ্টা। আমাদের দুর্ভাগ্য যে এদেশের
ব্যবস্থা ঠিক এই ধরনের আচরণ-কে পুরস্কৃত করে।

অথচ এহেন গুরুদের প্রশ্নবিদ্ধ করার সংস্কৃতিকেও এখানে বেশ জোর দিয়ে ধামাচাপা দেওয়া হয়।  যেখা চিত্ত হওয়ার কথা ভয়-শূন্য, সেখানে
সামন্ত্রতান্ত্রিক গুরুবাদের ঠেলায় তৈরী হয় ত্রাসের পরিবেশ। প্রশ্ন করতে নেই, নিলে স্যার রেগে যাবেন, তারপর স্যার তার ক্ষমতা-মতো ‘দেখে
নেবেন’, তখন কে বাঁচাবে ? জ্ঞানচর্চা ও গবেষণা এমন এক জিনিস, যেখানে সব কিছুকে অনাবৃত করতে হয়।  যেখানে যুক্তির শানিত ব্যবহারে অধ্যাপক-কে কাছাখোলা করাটাই শ্রেয়, সেইসব ক্ষেত্রে গুরুর ঘরের সামনে মাথা নোয়ানোকে মনে করা হয় আদর্শ ব্যবহার। মেধার বিকাশের জন্য গুরু-ভজনা নয়, গুরু-মারা বিদ্যা আয়ত্ত করা প্রয়োজন।  এবং দরকার সেই ধরনের গুরু, যারা ছাত্রদের গুরু-মারা জ্ঞানচর্চা করতে উত্সাহিত বোধ করেন, ‘আমি জানি না’ -পরিষ্কারভাবে  এই বাক্যটি  ভাবে বলতে পারেন সকলের সামনে।  এক্সেলেন্স ফলে মানুষের মাঝে মুক্তচিন্তার অঙ্গনে, শিক্ষামন্ত্রীর বাণীতে  না, ফলকে না, অধ্যাপকের চেয়ারে রাখা তোয়ালের নিষ্ফলা ‘মর্যাদা’তেও না।

মতান্তর ও বিতর্ক হলো বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের প্রাণ। ক্ষমতার সান্নিধ্য মুক্ত-চিন্তার কাছে বিষময়। ঠিক সে কারণেই চিরকাল-ই প্রতিষ্ঠান-বিরোধী ছাত্র রাজনীতির নেতৃত্ত্বের সাথে মেধা ও উত্কর্ষের একটা সম্পর্ক থেকেছে আর ক্যাম্পাসে সরকারপন্থী ছড়ি ঘোরানোর রাজনীতি জন্ম দিয়েছে গতদিনের
প্রফেসর অনিল ও আজকের  প্রফেসর শঙ্কুদের। এই বাংলার অন্যতম ভালো বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় যাদবপুরে কাশ্মীর নিয়ে আলোচনা-সভা করতে অনুমতি দেওয়া হয়না, উপাচার্যের টুকলি-করা গবেষণা-পত্র ধরা পড়েও চাকরি থেকে সে বরখাস্ত হয় না – সসম্মানে ফিরে যায়ে পুরনো আস্তানায় – আরেক ‘উত্কর্ষ’ কেন্দ্রে, নিরাপত্তার নাম করে ছাত্র-ছাত্রীদের উপর সিসিটিভি নজরদারী চালানো হয়। যে দেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে চিন্তা ও আলোচনার বিষয়
কর্তৃপক্ষের অনুমতিসাপেক্ষ, অধ্যাপক-বেশী চোরেরা আসল অধ্যাপকদের দন্ডমুন্ডের কর্তা হয়ে বসেন, খাঁকি জামাপরা পুরুষ সরকারী কর্মীরা
সুরক্ষার নামে যুবক-যুবতীরা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় চত্তরে কখন-কোথায়-কি করছে, তা টিভি-তে দেখার মত অশ্লীল কাজে লিপ্ত থাকে, সে দেশের কোন
বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় যে বিশ্ব-বরেণ্য তালিকায় নেই, এতে এত আশ্চর্যের কি আছে। তবুও এর মধ্যেই যাদবপুরের নয়া উপাচার্য্য সুরঞ্জন দাস যাদবপুরে
সিসিটিভি-গুলি নামিয়ে নিতে নির্দেশ দিয়েছেন।  শুরুটি ভালো। কার তাতে কি, আমরা যদি এই আকালেও স্বপ্ন দেখি।

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বোর্ড, শিক্ষা, আদর্শ – দিল্লী আমাদের ভবিষ্যত লুটছে

আমি যখন ডাক্তারী পড়তাম, একটা কথা বেশ চালু ছিল।এই যে পৃথিবীতে ডাক্তারদের বাজার কখুনোই কমবে না।  কারণ জনসংখ্যা বাড়তেই থাকবে, ফলে রোগীর সংখ্যাও বাড়তেই থাকবে। এই যুক্তিটি জন-সংখ্যার সাথে যুক্ত অনেক কিছুর ক্ষেত্রেই খাটে – যদি না ভয়ানক গোলমেলে কিছু ঘটে।  ঠিক তেমনই কিছু একটা ঘটছে আমাদের এই পশ্চিমবঙ্গের শিক্ষা-ক্ষেত্রে। এবং আমরা উদাসীন।  একটু খুলে বলি।

শত্রুর মুখে ছাই দিয়ে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের জনসংখ্যা দিন কে দিন বাড়ছে, স্কুল পড়ুয়ার সংখ্যা বাড়ছে আর এসবের মধ্যেই এই বছর মাধ্যমিক পরীক্ষার্থীর সংখ্যা কমে গেছে ! ভাবা যায়? তাও সামান্য, নয় – নয় নয় করে প্রায় ১৫ হাজার। একই সাথে অবশ্য এ বাংলায় প্রতি বছর বেড়ে চলেছে দিল্লীর নানা বোর্ডের পরীক্ষার্থী সংখ্যা। পর্ষদ কর্তারা বেহায়া হয়ে অদ্ভূত সব কারণ দিচ্ছেন। কলকাতা শহরে পশ্চিমবঙ্গ মধ্যশিক্ষা পর্ষদের পরিচালিত মাধ্যমিক পরীক্ষা দেওয়া ছাত্র-ছাত্রীর সংখ্যা এতই কমে গেছে যে নানা রকম অজুহাতের শাক দিয়ে পচে যাওয়া মাছ থেকে দুর্গন্ধ আটকানো যাচ্ছে না একেবারেই। এ কেমন করে হলো? এবং এমন চলতে থাকলে, ক্ষতি কি? ক্লাস টেন পাশ করাই তো মোদ্দা কথা – মাধ্যমিক হোক বা সিবিএসই /আইসিএসই। ব্যাপারটা এত সহজ নয়।

শিক্ষা নাগরিক গঠন করে। তাই একজন স্কুল-পড়ুয়াকে কি শেখানো হবে, সেটা গুরুত্তপূর্ণ। আমাদের বাংলাদেশের জাতি ও সমাজের ভবিষ্যত এই ‘কি শেখানো হবে’র আদর্শের উপ নির্ভরশীল। একেই বলে সিলেবাস। মাধ্যমিক ও দিল্লী থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাস এক নয়। পার্থক্য আছে।  এই পার্থক্য মানের তারতম্যের প্রশ্ন না , ভিন্নতার প্রশ্ন। ভারতীয় যুক্তরাষ্ট্রে এতগুলি রাজ্য বোর্ড, তাদের সিলেবাসের ভিন্নতা আছে কারণ এই এলাকার মধ্যে বিশাল বৈচিত্র ও ভিন্নতা রয়েছে। তাই সিলেবাসকে যদি হতে হয় বাস্তবমুখী ও ছাত্রের আপন পরিবেশের সাথে নিবিড় সম্পর্কযুক্ত, রাজ্য বোর্ড ছাড়া তার গতি নেই।  আর যদি ছাত্রটিকে তার পারিপার্শিকতা থেকে বিছিন্ন করে, তার বাঙালিত্বকে ছেঁটে দিল্লি-নির্দেশিত এক কল্পিত ভারতীয়ত্তর জোব্বা পড়ানোই হয় সিলেবাসের লক্ষ্য, তাহলে দিল্লির বোর্ড-গুলির জুড়ি মেলা ভার। যা শুরু হয়েছিল সৈন্য বাহিনী ও বদলির চাকরির লোকেদের সুবিদার্থে তথা মিশনারী কিছু প্রচেষ্টায়, সেই গোষ্ঠী-গুলির দ্বারা পরিচালিত বোর্ড-গুলি এখুন কেন্দ্রীয়-সরকারী নীতির মদতে এক-কালের শক্তিশালী ও খ্যাতিমান রাজ্য বোর্ড-গুলিকে পরিকল্পনা-মাফিক মুমূর্ষু করে তুলছে – শিক্ষার বানিজ্যিকরন তথা নাগরিকদের বৈচিত্র হরণের দ্বিমুখী উদ্দেশ্যে।  তার ফল ভয়ানক।

বাংলার বোর্ডে ইংরাজি, বাংলা বা হিন্দী মাধ্যমে পড়া ছাত্রটি জানতে পারে পশ্চিমবঙ্গের ভূগোলের খুঁটিনাটি বা বাংলার ধানের খেতে কি কি বোকা লাগে। তার ইতিহাস শিক্ষা স্রেফ দিল্লির  প্রাচীন ও বর্তমান সম্রাটদের গুনগাথায় সীমিত থাকে না। ভবিষ্যতে, জলে আর্সেনিক দুষণের প্রভাব দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাসে না ঢুকলেও আমাদের ছেলে-মেয়েদের তা নিয়ে শিক্ষিত হওয়া ছাড়া গত্যন্তর নেই। আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশের বৈশিষ্টগুলিকে বিশেষ-ভাবে অন্তর্ভুক্ত করা ইচ্ছা বা দায়, কোনটাই দিল্লীর নেই। ওদের থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ড-এ  আপনার ছেলে-মেয়ে এই বাংলায় বসে ক্লাস-টেন পাশ করতে পারে এক বর্ণ বাংলা না শিখে। এই বঙ্গদেশের অধিকাংশ দিল্লী-বোর্ড-ওয়ালা ইস্কুলে প্রথম ভাষা হিসেবে বাংলা পড়ার কোন সুযোগ নেই। ভারতীয়ত্বের হাঁড়িকাঠে বাঙালিত্বের বলি দিয়ে যারা গুরগাঁও-বেঙ্গালুরুর দিকে শিশুকাল চেয়ে থাকবে চাতকের মতো, স্বপ্ন দেখবে হিন্দীর দেশের ইংরেজি মরুদ্যানে খেজুর গাছ হবার, আমরা কি সেই সন্তান গড়তে চাই? আত্মঘাতী হবার জন্য এর চেয়ে অনেক সহজ পথ আছে। 

এই বোর্ড-গুলি কার, এবং কাদের প্রাধান্য রক্ষা করতে গঠিত ও পরিচালিত, তা তামিল নাডু বা কর্ণাটকের অনেক শিক্ষাবিদের কাছেই পরিষ্কার।  শুধু এই অধম বাঙালি তার নিজের বোর্ড-এ পড়া ছেলেমেয়েদের ভবিষ্যত অন্ধকার করতে চায়, দিল্লির বোর্ড-গুলির সুবিধা করে দিয়ে।  কি ভাবে ? অনেক ভাবে।  একটা উদাহরণ এরকম।  অনেক  ছাত্র-ছাত্রীর স্বপ্ন পশ্চিমবঙ্গে ডাক্তারি বা ইঞ্জিনিয়ারিং পড়ার।  তার জন্য দিতে হয় জয়েন্ট পরীক্ষা। তার সিলেবাস অধুনা বদলানো হয়েছে – যাতে কিনা পশ্চিমবঙ্গের বোর্ড ও দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাসের মধ্যে যে অংশটুকু কমন, প্রশ্ন আসবে শুধু সেখান থেকেই।  অথচ, কেন্দ্র যে আইআইটি বা  অল ইন্ডিয়া প্রি-মেডিকেল পরীক্ষা নেয় , সেখানে কিন্তু কোন কমনের বালাই নেই – একদম সোজাসুজি দিল্লির বোর্ড-গুলির সিলেবাসকে অনুসরণ করা হয়।  অথচ, যেটুকু সুযোগ আমরা আমাদের ছাত্রদের দিতে পারি, সেখানে আমরা তাদের লেঙ্গি মারছি ‘কমন’ ‘কমন’ খেলায়।  আর বাংলার মেডিকেল কলেজগুলি থেকে যে ডাক্তার বেরুবে, যে কলেজগুলি বাংলার মানুষের টাকায় গড়া, তা কার  স্বার্থে? নিশ্চই কতিপয় কলকাতাবাসী ‘এস্পিরেসনাল’ যুবক-যুবতীর কেরিয়ার গর্তে নয়।  বরং তা বাংলার মানুষের স্বাস্থ্যের স্বার্থে।  আজ-ও বাংলার কনে কনে যে ডাক্তার , তারা অধিকাংশ সেই পশ্চিমবঙ্গ বোর্ড-এই পড়া  .গুরগাঁও-বেঙ্গালুরু-লন্ডনের স্বপ্নে বিভোর আধুনিক শহুরে ভারতীয় দিয়ে এই বাংলার স্বাস্থ্য পরিসেবা চলবে না, তার জন্য চাই সেই বাংলা বোর্ডের ছেলেমেয়েগুলিকে  – যারা জেলাগুলিকে চেনে, বাংলার গ্রাম-মফস্স্বল চেনে, এলাকার ভাষা জানে।  কোথায় আমরা তাদের আরো আরো সামনে আনব – তা না করে আমরা  ‘আধুনিকীকরণের’ নাম বাংলার নিজের বোর্ড-কে ধ্বংস করছি। এ সকলেই জানেন যে পশ্চিমবাংলায় দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি করা বোর্ডে পরা শিক্ষার্থীরা তুলনামূলকভাবে  বেশি  শহরকেন্দ্রিক, বেশি বিত্তশালী বর্ণহিন্দু প্রভাবিত। পাশ করলেই বাংলা ছেড়ে ফুরুত হবার স্বপ্নে বিভোর শ্রেনীর ত্যালা মাথায়ে তেল দিয়েই কি আমরা  সোনার বাংলা গড়ার চেষ্টা করছি ?  গুরগাঁও-এর কর্পোরেট হাসপাতালের ডাক্তার গড়ার কোন দায় পশ্চিম-বাংলার মানুষের নেই। বাংলা বোর্ডের সিলেবাস নির্ধারণকারী আধিকারিক যারা, জয়েন্ট এন্ট্রেন্স বর্ডার পদাধিকারী যারা, তাদের সন্তানেরা কোন বোর্ডে পড়েন, সেটা জানা দরকার। নইলে এসব ক্ষেত্রে  অন্য কি কি ধরনের স্বার্থ  কাজ করতে পারে, তা জানা যাবে না।  আমাদের বুঝতে হবে কাদের চক্রান্তে বাংলা বোর্ড ক্রমে পরিনত হচ্ছে দ্বিতীয় শ্রেনীর বোর্ডে, যেখানে বনের জলে ভেসে আসার ঠাই পাবেন।

বাঁকুড়া জেলা স্কুল, বর্ধমানের সিএমএস। সিউরী জেলা স্কুল – এই নামজাদা প্রতিষ্ঠানগুলিকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দিলে শেষ নিরিখে বাংলা হারবে। দিল্লির নামধারী ইস্কুলে দিল্লি থেকে আমদানি সিলেবাস পড়ে শহুরে বাঙালির  বাচ্চারা মানুষ হবে – বাংলার ভবিষ্যত আর যেখানেই হোক, এই উড়ে এসে জুড়ে ব্যবসা করা ইস্কুল্গুলির অলিন্দে খোঁজা অনুচিত। ব্যাপারটিকে যেন আমরা  মাতৃভাষায় শিক্ষার সাথে গুলিয়ে না ফেলি।  পশ্চিমবঙ্গের মধ্যশিক্ষা প্রসদের অনুমোদিত স্কুলগুলির সিলেবাস বাংলা ও ইংরেজি মাধ্যমে অভিন্ন।  আমি পড়েছিলাম সাউথ পয়েন্ট-এ , এক কালের নামজাদা ইস্কুল, পশ্চিমবঙ্গ বোর্ডের মুকুটের একসময়কার মণি।  এখান সময় পাল্টেছে – সেখানেও দিল্লি ও কেন্দ্র ঢুকেছে। শুনি ব্যবসা বেড়েছে। বেনিয়া কেন্দ্রীয়করণের এই প্রকল্পে, বাংলার মাজরা পোকা ও আলুর ধ্বসা রোগে নিয়ে শিক্ষার কোন জায়গা নেই।  তবুও কি আমরা আশা করতে পারি না, আমরা আমাদের বাংলার বোর্ড সেই ভাবে গড়ব , যাতে কিনা শহুরে বাঙ্গালী  ‘মিডিল-কেলাস’-এর গ্লোবাল ও ইন্ডিয়ান পোলাপানের সাথে মফস্স্বলের, গ্রামের, শহরের মধ্যে অন্যত্র শহরের সেইসব ছেলেমেয়েরাও সুযোগ পায় সাফল্যের – যাদের আজ দিল্লি ও তাদের বাঙালি দালালেরা জোর করে হারিয়ে দিচ্ছে।

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Bostonian accent and coconuts / Urban vision blind to the poor and their languages

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Apr 2014 ; The Independent (Bangladesh), 16 Apr 2014 ; Millenium Post, Apr 23 2014 ]

The greater Boston area of the United States of America has a very good public transportation system. This comprises of buses, local trains, boats and the metro rail. The Red line is one of the metro routes, stopping at Harvard and MIT, the two institutions where I have spent all of my academic-professional life outside Bengal. This means that I have taken the Red Line metro many, many times. One of the stations on the route is called Porter Square. Soon after the metro leaves a stop, there is a recorded voice which lets the passengers know what the next station is. The way that voice said ‘Porter Square’ was in what can be called a Bostonian accent. That is apt since the metro is in Boston, most users of the metro are from Boston and that is the accent they are most comfortable with.

The Unites States of America exists much beyond its territorial limits. Specks of California and Manhattan are scattered in urban centres of the southern world, including our subcontinent. Here, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and beyond, those specks of Amerikana exist with a lot of vigour thanks to the brown-outside-white-inside coconut desis whose rootlessness attracts them to these ‘cosmopolitan’ areas. The subcontinent lives with such offsprings, proudly alienated, consciously ‘liberated’ and hip. With sentences peppered with ‘like’ and liberally spreading their ‘sh*t’,‘cr*p’ and other four-letter jewels among the rest of us, they constantly want to signify their ‘cosmopolitan’ awareness, maturity and liberation. Picking up the expressions of their own life’s many moments not from their living environment but from but from American/western popular media styles is the principal marker of these types. The problem is, it does not end there.

Given their numbers, they wouldn’t have mattered unless wielded inordinate power over policy and public life, given ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy’, as Hartosh Bal astutely puts it. They speak English in ‘cafes’ and restaurants, Hindi to their domestic helps. They prefer to live within self-created bubbles where they perform predictable ‘firangi duniya’-philia rituals with a commitment that often amuses the West. This is like the amusement of a father who has just come to know that the rape he had committed actually resulted in a child who loves him more than its mother.

Coming back to public transport. The coconuts constantly lament that brown cities are not ‘outsider’ and tourist friendly. This is rich coming from those who are voluntary outsiders in their birth-lands. They lament that the buses often have things written in ‘local’ language. The same goes for street signs, shop names and so much more. This constant reminder of brown-ness is an eyesore that they have successfully removed from their bubbles. Their all-English restaurant menus, their all English working spaces, get-togethers, poetry-readings, book-launches, debates, discussions, malls and supermarkets help them, at least in certain hours during their daily life, forget the horrid brown land whose imprint they carry, whether they like it or not. And so they complain of their spaces being ‘too vernacular’, harbor ideas of transforming the subcontinent’s urban areas into ‘world class’ – which is a code for a place where a firang would not feel lost. The fact is that in the last couple of decades, in the language of street names, public signage, private spaces and much more, the staggering majority of the people have been progressively told to ‘get lost’.

The poor and their language have been excluded for long. Now even the middle-class is under attack. In the brown subcontinent, even a telecaller now starts in default in English or Hindi, irrespective of whether it is Chennai or Mumbai. We are staring at an increasingly exclusionary urban vision which is undemocratic and downright insensitive which consciously overcounts the few and ignores the majority. At the root of this is an elite idea of citizenship, what constitutes a human being, who is counted as a person of value.

Yet, our languages live among the people on whose back breaking work everything is made, while angrejiwalas have their sausage, wine, banter and sophistication, building tapestries and ‘narratives’. If there is good in this universe or there are gods and goddesses who care about human dignity, something must give.

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Tropical universities and knowledge production / University rankings and India / University rankings and Indian academia

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Sep 2013; Kashmir Reader, 17 Sep 2013; Millenium Post, 20 Sep 2013; Shillong Times, 21 Sep 2013; Hitavada, 22 Sep 2013; Echo of India, 25 Sep 2013]

As world rankings of universities are being discussed, we are back to that sad truth. No university in the subcontinent figures in the top 200 universities in the world. However, one would not realize this when one looks at the cocksureness and pomposity of desi academics in the subcontinent. There is a Bengali idiom called ‘Bon gaye sheyal raja’ which means that in a far-way forested village, even a fox can be king. Such is the state of affairs around us.

Some would have us believe that it was not always so. Around the time of the great uprising of 1857 led by the mercenaries of the East India Company, 3 universities were also established in the 3 presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. In no small way the result of a 1854 dispatch sent by Charles Wood, a top dog of the Company, to James Broun-Ramsay, the then governor general of Company territories in the subcontinent, these 3 institutions continue to be important institutions of higher learning in the Union of India.

Founded in the same year, all these institutions celebrated 150 years of their existence, with a lot of pomp. I graduated from one of these afore-mentioned universities and I was present at more than one such ‘celebration’. Four years after 1857, on the other side of the globe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institution I am affiliated to at present, was established. I was also present at its 150-year celebration events. Thus I had the opportunity to compare what I had seen and heard in the subcontinent and in Massachusetts, USA. The difference could not have been starker. Much of what I heard in the sub-continental anniversary celebrations was about a supposed glorious past, long-standing ‘heritage’, a lot of talk about famous personalities associated with the institutions and gloating over all this. At MIT, almost invariably I heard about plans about the future – new avenues of research, newer expansions, and newer challenges. There was not much mention of personalities in the institute that has produced 78 Nobel laureates till date. Neither is MIT peppered with ‘museums’ dedicated to Nobel laureates. Museums are same as temples and mosques – places of praying for things to go right miraculously, not places of action.

In the subcontinent, when one thinks of MIT, a centre of excellence for research in engineering and technology is the typical impression. While that is true, according to the 2013 update of the well-regarded QS World University Rankings published last week, in the whole world, MIT is second only to Harvard in Biological Sciences and Economics. What this means is that it has not simply stuck to its one-time strengths but has actively diversified its ‘priorities’. In doing so, it has also shut down departments and divisions whose shelf life was perceived to be over. These are signs of a living institution in conversation with the cutting edge of knowledge production – situated squarely within the social needs and agendas of the society it derives meaning from.

In the QS rankings, MIT tops the list Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Princeton are also among the top 10. It may be news to some readers that not one of the top 10 universities of the world has a department of botany at present. In most cases, they ceased to exist decades ago. All that remains are museums bearing that erstwhile department’s name. Contrast this to the large departments of botany in most universities of the subcontinent. May be there is something we get that ‘they’ don’t. Given that the occidental university system and department making is something that ‘they’ taught us, could it be that there is something they get that we don’t?

It is worthwhile to continue with the example of botany. When the white colonial powers set up universities in the subcontinent, why did they set up departments of botany? What knowledge did they seek to produce? For whose benefit? What made them wind up or fuse certain departments? To cut whose loss? All knowledge production and prioritization exists in a societal context – the colonizer’s societal context fashioned their decisions, at home and in the colonies. Given that we are not only inheritors of such university systems but also active perpetuators, do we have an appreciation of our own reasons to do so? Why are there so few institutions like the Indian Statistical Institute that was conceived in a social context, whose agenda is in conversation with the society it derives funding from and blooms in and also is a centre of excellence?

But then this is part of a bigger problem. So let me broaden the ambit a bit.Why do certain things, like homeopathy and psychoanalysis, have long after-lives in the once-colonized tropics compared to places from where they were imported? Lets hone in on psychoanalysis. To understand the mind, one needs to study the mind and yes, people are studying the mind. Much of these studies are not aimed towards illness or pharmaceuticals, in any foreseeable way. If some have a muse in the form of psycho-analysis, an outdated fad which has all but died except in ‘fields’ insulated from currents around them, they can have it. Just not with people’s funds. The tropics can ill afford it. Understanding the mind shouldnt be a dead idea but unverifiable tracts cannot replace inquiry and can hardly be called a knowledge project. And again, the social context is crucial to all these things. The question in the piece is, why do such things continue to live in tropics long after they are dead in their places of origin. The answer may partly lie in the very skewed class-caste composition in the academia of the subcontinent – this enables socially insulated indulgence to a dangerous degree.

When the site of knowledge production is far off and they cater primarily to needs of alien societies, transferred knowledge and ideas create a sense of awe. This results in a lack of confidence to manipulate, to break, to discard. In so far as universities are fountainheads of societal knowledge yearnings, what do our societies want to know? Have we even asked? We better start doing that. Otherwise we risk becoming expert cleaners and preservers of other people’s furniture, even lacking the confidence of changing the arrangement. However the cleaner’s wage is paid by our own brown people. This is how the third world continues down the path of being  2nd class at the 1st world’s priorities and it is mightily proud about it.

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Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

Recently I was exposed to an interesting concept called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ This means, the longer an online discussion gets, it becomes more and more likely that someone would bring in some comparison with Hitler or the Nazis. Those who inhabit the fractious world of online discussions (and I sometimes do) would be able to appreciate whether Mike Godwin has a point or not. The more general point of Godwin’s ‘law’ is that certain words, concepts and themes (like ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazi’) have such a wide currency (at least among a majority of Westerners and a minority of browns) as powerful symbols that they have been used in almost any context, to counter anything, to badmouth anyone. Of course that reflects poorly on the user of these terms. If every debate with me involves me throwing the same debate-stopping expletive at the other person, I have just put my intolerance on display. And if one cannot counter someone else’s point of view except by throwing back words that are mostly used as exaggerations out of context, then we have someone who is also petulant and insecure.

Be that as it may, this Godwin’s ‘law’ reminded me of certain similar things that I have often faced in discussion with some modern brown people (a.k.a. ‘enlightened Indians’ who have a particular distaste for those who use hair-oil). When one discusses any element that might faintly sound as a defence of things whose ethno-cultural roots are to be found among brown-people, certain alarm-bells and defences go up among the hair-oil haters. And by chance if something relatively indigenous is counterposed to something imported from a White domain, all hell breaks lose. Specifically two hells – Sati and snakebite. In that predictable and unimaginative barrage, any talk of being comfortable in one’s inherited brown mode of life in defiance of the newest imported flavor of the week makes one a supporter of wife-burning. And of course, the same person would be confronted with the ‘gotcha’ question – so what would you do in case of a snakebite?  Such is the potency of these two symbols of brown viciousness and backwardness respectively that even partner-assaulting modern males and patient-gouging medical practitioners liberally use these without an iota of shame and self-reflection. It is the ‘ideology’ that matters, stupid.

This same class of moderns typically exhibits a near-complete lack of understanding of the fall and the rise of Sati, its caste specificity, especially in the context of the subcontinent’s colonial encounter. Any engagement with modern Sati is apologia; any nuance is ‘obscurantism’. Again, when they go after ‘witch-doctors’ and faith healers with the certitude of a neo-convert, they hardly want to understand the reasons behind the continued presence of these institutions in society, against the tremendous odds of denigrating propaganda. This lofty non-engagement reminds me of those savarnas who ‘do not believe in caste’, ‘hate casteism’, have savarnas over-represented among their friend circles and cannot name even 10 shudra caste surnames.

The struggle against the practice of Sati were led by fighters with a social connect, and could not have been decisive without people’s consent. This was true then, this is true now. It is in this context that the Maharashtra ordinance against ‘black magic’ has to be seen. The anti-superstition bill criminalizes displays of miracles, doing ‘black magic’ to search for missing things, saying that a divine spirit has possessed oneself and various other things. Far from being criminal, many of these things are deemed to be within the domain of real happening by a significant number of people in whose name the ordinance has been promulgated. Paying homage to the respected rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is something, passing laws as a knee-jerk reaction that criminalizes activities which enjoy wide social acceptance is quite another. Yes, there are organized vested interests in some of these activities. But to think that whole people are being manipulated and that they need to be saved by know-it-all people is not only demeaning to the personhood of the believers, but also demeaning to the concept of unfettered universal adult franchise. It infantilizes the people, opening the gates of paternalistic legislation. And that, my friends, is not good for democratic functioning.

Beyond fundamental rights of individuals like right to life and right to consent to bodily intervention, whether a practice in society is harmful or not is not something that only ‘experts’ can decide. Social practices are multi-dimensional and can have more consent and agency built into them that have ‘uses’ beyond the immediate ‘efficacy’ of ‘black-magic’. One also has to understand how and why a witch doctor whose interventions could not save a life is looked upon as a bigger criminal than a MBBS doctor whose negligence causes the death of a patient. The social alienation of those who look upon the people as backward and superstitious might do well to ask themselves – why is it more likely that they have heard of Richard Dawkins, the fiery rationalist from England, but may not have a clue who frail, brown Aroj Ali Matubbor was? The problem is that metro-bred and metro-based alienated life-forms have infected the decision making and power centres of the nation-state – the government, the ‘NGO’s, the universities and the like. The socially alienated cannot expect people’s support and no wonder people’s support eludes them – if anything, they live in fear of their alienation and contempt being exposed in front of the people on whose name they so often speak and act. Narendra Dabholkar knew that and had been wise to avoid that posturing. I hope those who are mourning this selfless man’s death also keep that in mind.

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Next time you hear intellectual mumbo jumbo/ On the accountability of ‘intellectuals’ / Knowledge in these times / Lacking in intelligibility and accountability

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 23 Aug 2013 ; Daily Excelsior (Jammu), 25 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 1 Sep 2013 ; Millenium Post, 24 Aug 2013 ]

A kind of human being derives strange pleasure in appreciating music that few others like. In fact, if too many people start listening to it, they get dejected. Their special thing has become too commonplace like a road-side tea stall. Such is often the case with those academicians and their acolytes who love big words and impenetrable sentences. They protect their rarified lens to the world with smugness. They are quick to defend their demi-gods of helped them build these lenses. Why would legitimate knowledge seekers be so invested in thinkers than thoughts themselves and whether such idolatry is healthy for frank and critical knowledge production is another question.

In the first year of my PhD at Harvard, I sat in a 2-semester long statistics class. Professor Jim Sidanius, a former Black Panther, taught us concepts – breaking them down for us. But he also wanted to make sure that we were digesting the broken bits. He knew that hiding behind jargon is the best way to evade clarity. And he would have none of it. So, when he asked us questions, and we started replying in jargon, he would promptly cut us short and ask with a smile – ‘How will you explain that to my grand-ma?” This was a crucial question. In many cases, it called our bluff and made us more honest to ourselves. This was more than knowledge acquisition. Jim was trying to drive in a characteristic that academicians and thinkers owe to society – clarity.

Clarity is something that ought not to be limited to knowledge acquisition, but also knowledge production and communication of ideas. But are not some ideas inherently so complex that an insistence of broad intelligibility would somehow make those ideas flatter than they actually are. And to this, a response came from Steven Pinker, another professor from our department at Harvard. To simplify is not to be simplistic, he said.

Fine, but why should we care about such issues at all? Ideas shape people, their ideas about themselves, other and the world at large. So, if certain kinds of ideas gain currency, it is important that these do not become received wisdom but are critically evaluated by the people. For that, it is necessary that knowledge and ideas are available to the people at-large, with clarity, in forms and sites they can best engage in. Academicians occupy the most privileged centre of knowledge production in our times – the university. Hence they have to be held particularly accountable in this regard.

However, when we look into the academic circles that universities have been breeding, they seem to breed a pathetic tendency to jargonize and speak in tongues that are largely (and I daresay, intentionally) unintelligible to people. The intention is not necessarily conscious for most practitioners of this dubious art – it is something they pick up to be counted. This gulf between ‘high-brow’ knowledge and its public intelligibility is most acute in those practitioners to invoke that shameful phrase ‘in our field’. Typically, this implies that one would take liberties about facts or be oblivious of contrary facts, not expose the underbelly of assumptions to scalpels, would discount fundamental criticisms as being ill-motivated or worse, expressions of ‘power’. Such a petulant water-tightness is typically seen in ‘fields’ full of ‘-isms’ or those where sentences are peppered with things like, ‘in a –ian sense/paradigm/view’. And so forth. The latter is a classic method of saying – I will say this to you without explanation. Either you will not along as you wont admit to knowing what the ‘-ian view’ is, or if you say so, I will give such an exasperated look and say, well all this has been known for so long, and you are not at an intellectual level where I deem fit to engage with you. And such elements still have the gall to say that society owes their keep to them. It takes an immense amount of hubris to think that ideas articulated in forms unintelligible by much of perfectly intelligent people have added that much to that understanding that it can demand funding in spite of being unintelligible.

In the subcontinent, a rich tradition of handed-down knowledge in the form of songs and sayings attributed to thinkers like Kabir and Lalon Shah and myriad other unnamed ones, makes one thing very clear. The subcontinent has had intellectuals who have engaged with the public in terms that were clear and have been thought leaders who have shaped people’s conceptions. In such interactions, knowledge and ideas are located within society, and not in some cabal outside it, claiming to ‘understand’ society. Song and pravachans which people still know and remember have helped people deal and make sense of the human condition for millennia.

Only in a self-important and delusional view of human existence do recently produced knowledge and ideas come to be considered so groundbreaking and crucial for understanding the human condition. This view, in which the recent is so privileged, expresses the same kind of attitude that concepts like jahalaat embody. The difference is that the last 100 or 400 years are considered unprecedented.

Some would have you believe that the last 50 years have been crucial. But then we know there is nothing special except the kind of self-importance that confuses recency with progress. In such a ‘progressive’ world-view, earlier times are deemed bland. For example, the 50 years between say 1200 AD and 1250 AD would be considered much less ‘eventful’ which the period between 1950 and 2000 apparently has been world-changing is terms of idea productions. But the world was there then and it is there now. The same is true for the humankind and the human condition.

To think of ourselves of having been born in some special time can be nice. But it gets problematic when, to make careers out of ideas generated in the last 50 years, people start over-selling these times. That the selling involves more hocus pocus does not help. And hence, public scrutiny becomes important to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the end of the day, we know that two humans make more sense of the world than one, and three more than two, other things being the same. So, claims of certain geographical locales being particular sites of production of relevant and crucial knowledge, especially when such locales are also centers of colonial capital accumulation, have to be viewed with suspicion. Ideas from these locales also are in lock-step with the idea that the last 400 years or so have so uniquely informative in understanding the human condition. Decolonization of the mind is not an easy thing. It is especially hard to accomplish when such concepts live so comfortably within us, become like our skin and self-identity. We are not only slaves in what we follow, we can also be slaves in what we deem important, how we organize our mental worlds around exotic concepts, especially when we exhibit a distinct lack of understanding of the knowledge and ideas around us, in the specific geographies where we are embedded, in flesh, descent and culture. How did we come to be the way we are is a question we ought to be asking ourselves.

I again return to the role of the intellectual, the academic, the thinker. Like most people who live off the public exchequer, earning one’s keep has to have people’s assent. Speaking over the head of the people, in the name of the people, remaining unintelligible and all the time claiming to unearth some deep understanding of the people, of their lives, desires, politics, structures and what not, is good for conversations inside such cabals. The outside world has not been scathing in asking for accountability. Like the Sanskrit mantras of today, these are performed technically in public view but are insider-talk at the end of the day. Such insider-talk, whatever its purported merits and brilliance, come with a severe lack of checks and balances, like any other priestly order. This is a dangerous thing for knowledge production as load fulls of quality bull shit can pass off as insight if its sounds and feels right to the ‘initiated’. The world, especially poorer societies, can ill afford the luxury of continually feeding white elephants whose public engagement ends within the ramparts of the university or other such spaces. It is about time that the real world asked for explanations about what is being done with their money.

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Close the gap / NEET ways of killing off competition / Nothing ‘national’ about this entrance test / Entrance test and bias

[ Daily News and Analysis, 11 Jun 2013 ; The Telegraph (Kolkata), 26 Jun 2013 ; Millenium Post, 19 Jun 2013 ; Echo of India, 22 Jun 2013 ; Hitavada, 20 Jun 2013 ]

The medical entrance scene in India has changed with the introduction of the undergraduate National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). This was meant to be a single window test. In one go, the NEET has replaced most of medical entrance tests that were prevalent. By qualifying in the NEET, students would be able to compete for a percentage of seats in most medical colleges, throughout the Indian union, by their ‘national’ rank, while their ‘state rank’ would be useful to compete for medical college seats in states where they fulfill domicile requirements. From the very start, the NEET scheme scheme has been mired in controversy, with the initial steadfast refusal of the apparatchiks of the Medical Council of India (MCI) to allow question papers in non-Hindi subcontinental languages. In the non-Hindi states, a majority of students study primarily in their mother tongue. The status of English as the pre-eminent language of the science in the world today is clear – but that didn’t explain why the MCI was fine with Hindi (not really known to have some long-standing language of science heritage) but not with other languages. Finally, the MCI had to buckle under severe pressure exerted by several non-Hindi states like Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, etc. The disgraceful compromise was that students can opt for question papers in Telugu, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Bengali (languages corresponding to the states that showed some spine) but those who do opt for the test in the ‘regional’ language will not be eligible for the all-India quota. ‘Regional language’ is not a term that exists anywhere in the constitution of the Indian Union – it is a figment of imagination and is a telling clue to the mindscape of Delhi-based administrators. This term has been used in the information booklet issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), another Delhi based outfit that is in charge of conducting the test. However, if a student took the test in Hindi, they would be eligible for the all-India quota. There have been very few instances where the federal system has been abused to such a grave degree in matters of education. The abject surrender of the states is even more sordid as they finally buckled under the pressure.

The results of the NEET were announced on June 5. The states stood in a pecking order of sorts, in terms of the percentage of students who qualified. Assuming an equal medical seat density throughout the Union ( this is not true), a worse over-all result from a state would mean that more seats in medical colleges of  that state would be bagged by out-of-state individuals while there will not be any corresponding parity. For states, which have a greater then average medical seat density and a low performance in the NEET, this is a double whammy. This has been the case with Maharashtra in the results that were announced.

One may ask, in this India-wide marketplace, it is only ‘merit’ that should matter, isn’t it? This ‘merit’ talk falls flat on its face as we know, that for decades together, private medical colleges have been admitting students who need not demonstrate any more merit than a 50% score at the Class XII examination. They have gone on to become doctors. It shows that the undergraduate medicine course-work is not something that requires top ranks. The ranks have become important as a sieving tool due to the severe dearth of medical seats in a territory as populous as the Indian Union. The problem is compounded by the fact that a MBBS degree is a sure-shot ticket to the top 5% income bracket in the nation. Hence the over-subscription for medical college seats and all the merit talk that comes with it. There is no systematic empirical evidence from the subcontinent that one’s rank in a medical entrance has anything to do with one’s success as a medical practitioner or researcher.

It is useful to ask what are medical entrance exams for. It may not be out of place to take one step back and ask, what are medical colleges for? To answer that, it is important to remind ourselves what it is not for. It is not for providing good exam takers of 12th standard science with a prize in the form of a lucrative career. It is also not for nourishing holy cows like ‘national integration’, filling the medical college seats with the most ‘meritorious’ (with all the dubious assumptions associated with that term) or worsen the already skewed urban rural divide in the density of doctors. At a very basic level, it is to produce trained health workers who would provide healthcare to the multitude and/or advance the understanding of human biology and diseases by research. The way in which the NEET is set up, is a grave challenge to these objectives. The results of the first NEET bear out that bitter truth.

Framed from Delhi, after ‘consultation’ (it has to be one of the most abused terms in a flawed federal system), the NEET syllabus favours those who have undergone their schooling and training in the CBSE/ISC framework, the syllabus being a vital component of that framework.  States  boards with syllabi that differ considerably from the CBSE are at an unfair disadvantage – they have to change or perish, for absolutely no reason. The viability or ‘worth’ of a board of education’s science syllabus then is not in how well it teaches science to the students but incredibly, by how well it has adapted (or not) the basic framework of a Delhi-based boards’ syllabus. Are students studying science at the 12th standard in the CBSE syllabus uniquely equipped with an understanding of the sciences that is unparalleled by the state-boards? Or in other words if the state-boards are being forced to emulate the CBSE (in the name of removing aligning syllabi), is it something worth emulating? By rigorous research work (published in Current Science, 2009) that reviewed the comparative performance of students from different boards, Anil Kumar and Dibakar Chatterjee, scientists at the Indian Institute of Science , showed that  when it comes to science proficiency, CBSE is not numero uno. West Bengal board students did better than CBSE students in all 4 science subjects – Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. Andhra Pradesh does better than CBSE in Mathematics and Physics. By the same metric, Maharashtra is hardly the worst performing state as it was in the NEET. Tellingly, neither West Bengal nor Andhra Pradesh were top performing states in the NEET. Independent non-CBSE excellence has thus become an albatross around their neck. the CBSE ‘pattern’ of syllabus has become the standard, even though research shows it isn’t the best.

At a time when the urban-rural divide in doctor density is a matter of serious concern, the NEET favours a certain breed of to-be-doctors. Within a state, it favours students who study in central syllabi. This means, those segments of society who study in non-state boards will be disproportionately over-represented in the NEET. What are the implications? It means, more seats in medical colleges in states will be occupied by those who are more likely to be urban, non-native speakers of the state’s principal language, from a higher economic class who can afford to send their wards to well-established entrance exam factories in Kota and elsewhere, with feebler roots to the state and so on. Central boards have a lesser penetration in the non-Hindi regions. A recent 2-page advertisement from a Kota-based entrance-exam factory mentioned nearly a score of its clients in the top 50 NEET ranks. Of these 20 odd students, almost all were clearly North-Indian names. The south, on the other hand, has a higher seat density. The implications are not very encouraging as it can be assumed that those who are from a state are more likely to serve in rural outposts of the state as a career-physician. All these speculative points can be debated, but for that we need data. The NEET was conceived without any such data being made publicly available.

The NEET was sold on the point that it minimizes the number of entrance exams. What proportion of students studying science at the 12th standard took multiple medical entrance exams? This data is crucial. This is a very low number. And those of the central board profile likely to be over-represented even in that low number. So this grand scheme forces everyone to change to help an already privileged minority. This puts science education at the higher-secondary level in jeopardy all over as it reduces its goals to professional course entrance examinations. What the whole NEET exercise may be doing is to widen the pipeline that supplies medical manpower for snazzy hospitals that are being opened in metropoles that attract capital. There is a feverish rush of activity in an industry quite ironic for India – medical tourism.

The humble status of central boards to such commanding heights of dictation ( and not necessarily excellence) has happened with a concomitant fall in the status ( and again, not necessarily quality) of state boards. This phenomenon cannot be divorced from the centre-state context of the Indian Union where federalism means what bit of power that the states have can be wrested from them under various ruses. Education was classified as a state subject after partition.  It needed the Emergency under the Indira Congress to push education to the concurrent list by a constitutional amendment. Education, like most other concurrent list subjects has seen the slow ceding of power from state to centre, ‘consultations’ notwithstanding. The long-term implications of such India-wide tests are a future two-tier education system – the CBSE/ISC route for ‘people like us’ and state boards for the rest. As it is now, more students will continue to study in state-boards. In this year of ‘federal front’ talk, the return of education to the state list should be considered seriously for greater common good. For starters, the states which take rural healthcare seriously  should consider quitting the NEET.

Disclaimer: Garga Chatterjee was educated in a state board and was once a ‘topper’ of a state medical entrance examination.

*** DNA version ***

The undergraduate National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) was conceived as a single test by which students would be able to compete for seats in medical and dental colleges all over the Indian Union and also in states where they can prove domicile. Since inception, this scheme has been controversial — Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) initially refusing to allow question papers in non-Hindi subcontinental languages. Under the

compromise formula, those who do choose Telugu, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil or Bengali would be ineligible for the all-India quota. Hindi comes with total eligibility. Few of Delhi’s interventions have been so blatant.
NEET results were announced on June 5. States varied widely in their performance. Let’s clarify what medical entrance exams are not for. It is not for providing the kid who can answer many questions in a stipulated number of hours after months of training at costly coaching institutes with a lucrative career prospect and possibly a good bargaining chip for dowry or to provide manpower for medical tourism or worsen the already skewed urban rural divide in the density of doctors. It is to produce human resource that would provide health care to the multitude and advance the understanding of human diseases by research. NEET is a grave challenge to these goals.

The syllabus of NEET, framed by the CBSE, favours those who have studied in the CBSE syllabus. State boards with non-CBSE syllabi are at a distinct disadvantage. Are 12th standard students studying science by the CBSE syllabus uniquely good? Research by Kumar and Chatterjee shows that when it comes to high-level science proficiency, state boards like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are excellent. West Bengal board outperformed the CBSE in all science subjects — Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. Andhra Pradesh outperforms CBSE in Mathematics and Physics. Maharashtra is not the worst performing state as it was in NEET. Neither Bengal nor Andhra Pradesh makes it to the top three states in NEET.

The syllabus issue is important as within a state it also favours those segments of society who study in CBSE — they are likely to be urban, non-native speakers of the state’s principal language, from a higher economic class who can afford to send their wards to Kota- based entrance exam factories, with feebler roots to the state and so on. What are the long-term effects of such individuals occupying more seats?

The USP of the NEET was that it minimizes the number of entrance exams. What proportion of students studying science at the 12th standard took multiple medical entrance exams? This is a very low number. Higher-secondary level science education’s goal must look beyond medical/engineering entrance examinations.
In medical research, the Union is abysmally backwards. This is only to be expected from a system that increasingly produces doctors evermore distant from people’s realities with medical colleges having become assembly line for private hospitals that will be opened in the greater-greater-NCR.

Such NEET ways of killing off the state boards points to a future two-tier education system — the CBSE/ISC route for the elite, uppity and the aspirational and the state boards for the rest. Children of the elite- predominantly do not study in state boards — they too ‘national’ for the ‘lowly’ states. But at the end of the day, education is a state subject. Caesar should claim what is rightfully his and push back the encroaching beast. If equitable healthcare is a goal of medical education, the states should considering quitting the NEET.

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