Jawaharlal Nehru University Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar has courted controversy by asking last week for a tank to be stationed on the campus to instil “love for the Army” among students. North Bengal University in Siliguri has been there, done that.
The university, administered by the West Bengal government, has displayed a captured Pakistani tank on its sprawling campus since the 1971 India-Pakistan war in Bangladesh. And for precisely the reason Kumar wants one in JNU. “It is indeed a national monument, a tribute to the victory and valour of Indian soldiers,” said Lakshmikant Phadi, the university’s acting registrar. “If the display of the tank instils a sense of nationalism or not is any one’s guess. There can be hardly any doubt about its relevance as a national achievement.”
Phadi continued: “The university has budget allocations for its upkeep and it gets a periodic coat of paint. This 46-year old exhibit has not yet become a junk. It has become a part of the university’s proud landscape and legacy.”
An inscription placed near the display explains how the tank got to the campus: “Presented by Lt Gen ML Thapan and all ranks of XXXIII Corps to the University of North Bengal. This tank was captured from the Pakistan army in Bangladesh, December 1971.” On the tank is painted the crescent and star, Pakistan’s national mark.
During the 1971 war, the campus had been turned into army barracks and an operational base for the Army’s 33 Corps. Officials at the Army’s Eastern Command headquarters in Kolkata said the force stationed at Siliguri had played a crucial role in the war, leading the attack through the Hilli border in Dinajpur and aiding the Mukti Bahini, the resistance militia of Bangladesh, fight off the Pakistan Army.
The area’s strategic importance is again in the spotlight because of the border stand-off between India and China at Doklam. The Indian security establishment is worried that the Chinese military build-up and road construction at Doklam could threaten the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip of land connecting the North East with the rest of India.
Entwined with history
North Bengal University was established in 1962, the year India fought a war with China and lost. The university in Siliguri was meant to fill the growing need for skilled manpower in the hilly areas of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. The institution has about 36,000 undergraduate and 1,500 post graduate students on its rolls. It has centres for specialised studies in Himalayan Culture, Tibetan Diaspora, Nepali Literature and for research on tea plantations. It also maintains a museum of Himalayan anthropological exhibits. The university received “A” ranking from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council in 2016.
SB Karanjai, president of the North Bengal University Alumni Association, enrolled in the institution soon after it was established in 1962 and passed out in 1965, only to return as a teacher. He taught on the campus until his retirement in 2008. He said the tank has always been a “proud monument” for the students, most of them from far-flung rural areas of North Bengal. “They of course look up to the trophy as a matter of glory,” he added. “But there was no noise or controversy over its installation on campus at that time, unlike at JNU now.”
Prof Karubaki Datta, who teaches Tibetan politics and diaspora, however, felt that the mere display of a battle tank does not evoke or enhance “nationalism” as is being propagated.
The university’s vice chancellor, Somnath Ghosh, agreed. “I personally do not subscribe to the view that an Indian Army tank on the university campus will enhance the sense of nationalism among students,” he said. “We are fortunate to have one on our campus. But the sense of nationalism grows among students through the environment they grow up in, through studies and through education. Our students are respectful about the tank on our campus. It is well looked after.”
What about the students? Has it made them more “nationalistic” seeing the tank on their campus almost everyday. Mithun Baisya, who is studying for a graduate degree in Rural Development, said: “We are proud Indians but I do not support the idea of installing a tank on a university campus to evoke nationalistic feelings.”
Baisya added: “What has happened in JNU in the past is utterly condemnable but it is ridiculous to harbour the idea that the sight of a battle tank will make students more aware about the sacrifices of Indian soldiers or instil in them a sense of patriotism. Patriotism has to grow spontaneously.”