Healing the wounds
An abode of learning, Visva-Bharati needs to be revived in accordance with the objectives of its founder Rabindranath Tagore
Much before Independence, great men and women of India tried to shape the motherland’s capacity to think of the common good, put into practice those thoughts and solve the problems of the countrymen from within, while acknowledging inter-dependence and inter-interestedness among communities, countries and civilisations. Rabindranath Tagore, who founded Visva-Bharati in 1921 as a logical step-up in the natural progression in education from the under-tree school founded in Santiniketan in 1901, stands apart as the ‘Gurudev’ of these greats. Parliament enacted the Visva-Bharati Act on 9 May, 1951, in deference to Mahatma Gandhi’s earlier promise to Tagore: “Whereas the late Rabindranath Tagore founded an institution known as Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan in the district of Birbhum in West Bengal, the objects of which are such as to make the institution one of national importance, it is hereby declared that the institution known as Visva-Bharati aforesaid is an institution of national importance and is as such hereby constituted as a university”.
Ever since, Tagore’s Visva-Bharati has been attracting great intellectuals and enthusiastic students from Europe, Asia and America — all of who came to realise the essence of India and took it forward to the world. Bringing the heritage of ancient Tapovana system, tenets of the Upanishad, discursive ambience of Nalanda, Taxila and Vikramshila Mahavihara in contact with the yearning for worthy existence in the country and abroad, Tagore challenged the mainstream of university and school education which were happily mimicking the West. Community engagement for faculty members as well as students, to gain knowledge and improve the community by realisation of atma shakti (self-strength), ensured that the culture of knowledge remained the same.
This challenge to the dominant discourse was acknowledged after prolonged debate in Parliament, in which Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Jawaharlal Nehru, CD Deshmukh and Abul Kalam Azad among others participated. The first three objectives of the Visva-Bharati Act, 1951, speak of the ambition of a resurgent India, once penned by Tagore: To study the mind of man in its realisation of different aspects of truth from diverse points of view; to bring into more intimate relations with one another, through patient study and research, the different cultures of the East on the basis of their underlying unity; to approach the West from the standpoint of such a unity of the life and thought of Asia.
Adopting Visva-Bharati as the first Central University was a promise of how free India would strive with a strong heritage of knowledge and harmony of cultures so as to be a contributor to the progress of the world, instead of remaining a receiver and mimicker. Visva-Bharati was the model already established to this end.
Satyajit Ray, an alumnus of Visva-Bharati, recounted how Visva-Bharati inculcated its goals to posterity by transforming receptive minds. He wrote: “Santiniketan opened my eyes for the first time to the splendours of Indian and Far Eastern art. Until then I was completely under the sway of Western art, music and literature. Santiniketan made me the combined product of East and West that I am.” Not only in art but in every sphere of knowledge and action, Tagore established broad-markers of Indian distinction and Asian tendencies as tools for a great purpose, enshrined as the fourth object: To seek to realise in a common fellowship of study the meeting of the East and the West and, thus, ultimately to strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the establishment of free communication of ideas between the two hemispheres. Amartya Sen, the second Noble laureate from Santiniketan and Tagore’s student recalled: “There was something remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical Western thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere.”
Unfortunately, such object-driven pedagogy and choice of broad sweep of knowledge and practice has been missing in letter and spirit for a while now from Visva-Bharati. India’s educational ecosystem has been degrading in pace over the last couple of decades and more so during the last six years due to reasons like, mass illegal appointments of persons without proper qualifications in faculty, directorial and officer positions, as observed by the Fact Finding Enquiry Committee Report (2015) and Comptroller and Auditor General report (2016). Severe damage done to the institution due to rampant violation of the Visva-Bharati Act and its statutory provisions by successive permanent and officiating Vice Chancellors and Registrars of Visva-Bharati is one reason for this. Systematic effort on the part of higher education agencies to turn Visva-Bharati into a conformist institution in the last three decades too has done much harm.
So much so that they forced Visva-Bharati to convert Tagore’s schools, which, according to him, were the root to holistic education, into central school-like entities, instead of ensuring Tagore’s tradition of adhyapakas having the quality and qualifications to teach in schools and colleges. Visva-Bharati needs strong persons at the helm who are believers in Tagore’s educational philosophy and are able to defend his philosophy without any fear.
By convention, the Prime Minister is the Acharya (Chancellor) of Visva-Bharati since 1951, as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, accepted the responsibility to lead Visva-Bharati. It was an acceptance of the role to ensure the five unique objects of the university which sum-up the aspiration of the country. The fifth object is: To provide at Santiniketan a Centre of Culture where research into and study of the religion, literature, history, science and art of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, Sikh, Christian and other civilizations may be pursued along with the culture of the West, with that simplicity in externals which is necessary for true spiritual realization in amity, good fellowship and cooperation between the thinkers and scholars of Eastern and Western countries, free from all antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or caste and in the name of the one supreme being who is Shantam, Shivam, Advaitam.
Fulfilment of this object requires converging of India along with the East and the West in one nest; Santiniketan must be true to the ancient Indian spirit of yatra bhabatyeka needam (where the world comes together in a single nest). The Government of India reflected its aim in its operational statement of Visva-Bharati Act 1951. Pages 13 and 14 of the Act reads, “The objects of the university shall also include harmonising the cultures of India, the East and the West by, among other things, the admission of students and appointments of adhyapakas from various regions of India and various countries of the world, and by providing incentives thereof." During last few decades, this provision has completely been ignored to bring Visva-Bharati to the level of other universities. University authorities neither had the time to ponder over the loss; nor the will to go against the diktat of higher education agencies.
Now, the Government is contemplating creating universities of excellence by providing chosen universities huge funds for infrastructure and the freedom to attract students and faculty from far and wide. In 1921, Tagore contemplated the same by founding Visva-Bharati. In 1951, Government of India took it as a unique educational programme to offer to the world. By taking it out of the cocoon of local vested interests and the dryness of higher education regulations which stifle it, and opening it to the entire country and the world, those who believe in Tagore’s educational practices can ensure Visva-Bharati is made faithful to its objects again.
(The writer is Professor of Communication, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan and Country Director (India), Asian Congress for Media and Communication)
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