Free thinking in Indian universities now under threat: Dr. Manmohan Singh

Free thinking in Indian universities now under threat: Dr. Manmohan Singh

Sutirtha Gupta, Kolkata,


The prestigious Presidency University, steeped in history and heritage, launched into its bicentennial celebrations on its foundation day, 20 January 2017. The Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh were present on the occasion.

In his keynote speech Dr. Manmohan Singh said, “We must make efforts to protect the autonomy of our university and to foster the right of our students to express ideas.” He also said that “independent thinking and free expression in Indian universities are now under threat. Attempts to suppress peaceful dissent are not only inimical to learning but also undemocratic.”

Eminent alumni, including former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chattejee, former state finance minister Asim Dasgupta, poet Shankha Ghosh, former union minister Satyabrata Mukherjee and historian Sugata Bose, were also present.

Earlier on 15 January 2017, a heritage walk was held from the house of alumnus Swami Vivekananda on Bidhan Sarani to Presidency University on College Street. Around 2000 Presidency alumni, some who had studied there back in the 40s, walked, sang, joked and recalled their campus days.

Vice Chancellor of the University, Anuradha Lohia, said that the bicentenary was a rejuvenation of Presidency through a new concerted civic initiative enabling it to play a role in the global transformation of university education in the twenty-first century.

The institute has a unique place in history, from being the Hindoo College to Presidency University. It was one of the first institutes of modern higher education in Asia. In 1817, a civic initiative in the city of Calcutta led to the establishment of Hindoo College, aimed at imparting liberal education. With the support of David Hare and Raja Rammohan Roy, the college began with 20 scholars.  It was taken over by the British Government win 1855 as the Presidency College of Bengal, and placed in 1857 under the newly founded Calcutta University. Then it became a government institution.

Although a Constituent College of Calcutta University, it preserved a tradition of research matched by few universities in India. The pioneering discoveries of Jagadish Chandra Bose in physics and plant physiology, and and Praphulla Chandra Ray in chemistry, were made in the laboratories of this college. CV Raman, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930, performed many of his famous experiments in light spectrometry in Presidency’s Baker laboratory. Teaching of both liberal arts and empirical sciences acquired true excellence in the nineteenth century and the tradition continued even after independence.

In recognition of its rich heritage of academic excellence the Legislature of West Bengal conferred the status of a University on Presidency College on 7 July of 2010. This was enacted with a view to enabling Presidency University to function more efficiently as a centre of teaching and research in various branches of learning, especially in humanities, social and basic sciences, and promoting advancement and dissemination of knowledge and learning in the service of the society and the nation.

Vice Chancellor of the Institute, Anuradha Lohia said, “for two centuries, the Presidency College has inspired countless world-changing ideas, creations and discoveries. Our alumni and alumnae are legends – from Nobel laureates, writers, philosophers, historians to presidents, Oscar winner to pioneering scientists.” Its distinguished alumni have left their impressive mark in academia and all walks of life across the country and in different parts of the world.

The institute produced notable leaders and avant-garde thinkers such as, Keshab Chandra Sen, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, Subhaschandra Bose, Rajendra Prasad, Anandaram Barooah, Humayun Kabir, Satyendranath Bose, Meghnad Saha, Shahidullah Kaiser, Muhammad Shahidullah, Jibanananda Das, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen and Gayatri Spivak and more. India’s first president Dr Rajendra Prasad was one of the alumni of Presidency. He wasn’t the only head of state to come out of Presidency. The list includes two presidents of Bangladesh (Abu Sayeed Chowdhury and Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem) and one prime minister of Pakistan (Mohammad Ali Bogra). The political leaders like AK Fazlul Huq, Prime Minister of Bengal, Bishnu Ram Medhi, Prime Minister of Assam, Azizul Haque, former Education Minister of Government of Bengal, Nawaab Syed Shamsul Huda, first Indian Muslim President of the reformed legislative council of undivided Bengal, Humayun Kabir, Education Minister  of India and Fazlul Karim, former Mayor of Cox’s Bazar are also the distinguished alumni.

Since its foundation in 1817, this institute has played a major role in shaping the intellectual and socio-political fabric of Bengal. By the mid-1960s, the radical leftist Naxalite movement engulfed the minds of the students of this institution. The best and brightest students lost their lives in search of revolution. According to an alumnus, the youth of 1967-77 are truly Presidency’s lost generation. Even today the students of this institute are politically aware and show active interest in the current political and social scenario.

Though upgrading Presidency College to university status offered freedom from government control, there is a controversy on the actual autonomy the university enjoys and attempts to suppress peaceful dissent. In one of its interactive sessions, internationally renowned economist Pranab Bardhan took a dig at political and bureaucratic interference in education institutions. He said that politicians and bureaucrats should be kept away from academic institutions. He observed that politicians and bureaucrats and mediocre faculty can pull down the quality of education.