"We are not interested in talent. We are only interested in toilets."
That bizarre and incredible statement came from a member of the Bombay University senate at a recent contretemps with other members on that body. He belongs to the Shiv Sena and his unparalleled statement is part of the university records, easily available with all senate members and indeed to the general public, whoever might care.
Unbelievable as it may sound, this member placed the building of toilets on college campuses on a higher pedestal than recruiting talent at the university or indeed creating talent for the future as the senate discussed new courses and quality hiring.
Now, in view of what happened during the senate meeting last week, when the Shiv Sena deliberately attempted to create an impasse through means other than democratic ones, that conversation is being recalled and quoted over and over again in university circles who are quite put out at the direction in which some members on the university decision-making body are taking one of the oldest universities in India.
When I checked with a senate member, he would neither confirm nor deny the conversation but stated rather wryly, "Is there any equation between a talent and a toilet? No doubt the best facilities on campuses are of importance. But what is the use of a spick-and-span toilet when you have only third-rate talents or are sending only poorly equipped students out into the world?"
Another member and an old students' activist, Ambadas Mohite, too, rages against the introduction of the Sena brand of politics into the functioning of the university.
"There are so many democratic means available to all Senate members. Where is the need to shout down the vice-chancellor or bring morchas and dharnas to our senate meetings?"
The Shiv Sena has always had representation in the university senate but Shiv Sainiks, I am told, have got rather militant in their attempt to build up their youth leader - Aditya Thackeray, Bal Thackeray's grandson and son of the Sena's working president, Uddhav Thackeray. Aditya tasted early success by successfully forcing vice-chancellor Rajan Welukar to pull Rohinton Mistry's book Such a Long Journey off the syllabus mid-term even while the semester papers were being set in 2010. So much flak did the VC receive at the time for his action and such was the outrage at this easy surrender to the attempt to throttle free speech and thought that he has, I am told, since been putting every demand from any quarter from the Shiv Sena to the Senate before acting upon it.
Nine times out of 10, the Senate has out-voted most of those demands -- so, this time around, they were determined to paint the VC into a corner and force him out. But other senate members outwitted the Sena and defeated its `toilet over talent' ideology that led to the high drama that happened over the last week.
For the kind of party that the Shiv Sena is, I can understand why it would value a tangible unit like a toilet or a canteen (the other thing they are fixated on) over abstracts like talent or intellect. After all, toilets and canteens can be cashed in by the Shiv Sena while talent and intellect, by the very nature of their existence, have inviolable freedom of movement and cannot be held to ransom by that party. So talent is a bad investment for the future. A toilet on the other hand...
"They are not even beyond exploiting God for their own political ends," Mohite points out, referring to the unique Sena protest through a maha-aarti inside the Assembly last week to protest against the recent theft of an ancient Ganesh idol in Diveagar town of Raigad district.
"So how can we expect them to spare education and not use the university to further their own political ambitions?"
I had hoped that the good work that Uddhav Thackeray had begun some years ago by cleaning up the Sena and bringing in some real good talent -- gentlemen-achievers like Suresh Prabhu, Sanjay Nirupam (now with the Congress), Eknath Thakur, etc would take root. But clearly the party is going back to its, er, old roots.
Still, toilets over talent? Tch, tch! Who would have thought that's how the Sena would want to be defined?