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To dissent or not to dissent

Free of political ideology, but lacking in a unified leadership, the students' movement in West Bengal finds itself at the crossroads

Kamalika Ghosh 

"Tomra… jodi ek na hoye shoshoner biruddhe rukhe na darao, tahale chirokal ebhabei pore pore mar khabe. Tomra eto bhiru keno?" (If you… do not come together and fight against exploitation, then you will always be beaten up. Why are you so scared?)

These words spoken by the protagonist of Samaresh Majumdar's Sahitya Akademi award winning novel, Kalbela, sum up the challenge for students in West Bengal. In yet another offensive against educational institutions in the state, on September 17, Jadavpur University (JU) students demanding a probe into a case of alleged molestation of a female student on campus, faced brutal police action, allegedly on the instigation of Vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty. Three days later, 40,000 people came out on the streets to protest against the police aggression. They included students from Presidency University, Calcutta University, the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur.

This spontaneous resistance by the students, most of them unaffiliated to any political organisation, recalls the 1960s and 1970s when Bengal saw volatile demonstrations with students across the state, inspired by Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal's Naxalite movement, fighting for a revision of the land distribution system and a more egalitarian government. That era's romance of the underprivileged fighting the forces unleashed by the ruling class, of course, doesn't mark the anger of the present-day student agitators.

Kolkata Police Commissioner Surajit Kar Purkayastha claimed that there were political motives behind the disturbances. But the protesters deny this. "It is easier for the authorities to shrug off responsibility by calling the clashes outsider-induced violence," says Nachiketa Roychoudhury, a former JU student.

In fact, the absence of a political motive is what makes the current agitation different from those of the past. Comparing the two eras, Brinda Bose, associate professor in Delhi University, says, "I do not think comparing student protest movements in different decades, in completely different socio-political situations even if in the same state, is really of great significance. The conditions and contexts are different, and therefore the triggers and responses are different, from both protesters and from various arms of authority." However, the events of those turbulent decades still reverberate within the student community. "We have either read about those years or have heard tales from our parents. For us, therefore, it is a secondary narrative," says Somak Mukherjee, a PhD student from Jadavpur University.

Delineating the ideological difference between what happened then and what is happening now, Prasanta Chakravarty, associate professor, Delhi University, explains, "The'70s agitation had a political intent. The students were reacting against the establishment. It was defined by a strong connection with the interests of the peasant community."

Mukherjee says that there have been various agitations in JU, for instance when the vice-chancellor was gheraoed over the issue of installing closed-circuit TV cameras on the campus. "This time, however, it was completely different," he says. "It began on an absolutely non-partisan issue. Students from various departments were protesting against the alleged molestation of one their own community, our friend. It is a universal issue," he says.

The issue of gender violence is what has made the protests appealing to not just the students, but to a wider cross section of people. "As far as gender violence is concerned, a campus is perceived to be a safe haven," says Shalmi Barman, a student at JU. "The incident has led to a complete breakdown of faith in the authorities. When your own people let you down, whom do you turn to?" Soumyajit Rajak, an MPhil student, agrees. "The molestation issue, you might say, is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it is the wider and the more disturbing issue of patriarchy." Educational institutes have been constantly censured by the political class for the kind of lifestyle that one finds on the campus premise. Victims of gender violence have been shamed publicly and their lifestyle and choices blamed for the crimes. "Ganja, cigarette and shorts" have been cited as reasons for sexual violence. "So it seems to me that there is a larger tacit agreement about policing the campus for safety that extends beyond the administrators, which the authorities are then taking advantage of and pushing for their own ends. It is important to track this sense of entitlement to moral policing that instanced the harassment in the first place," reasons Bose.

Recalling her own colleges days, Bose says, "In the Presidency College of the 1980s, we were strictly told by our seniors the day we entered college that the mantra for life on College Street was prem (love), politics, porashuno (studies) in that order. We had classes with the sweet smell of ganja wafting in through the windows from the canteen area. And not one of the professors ever dreamt of calling in the parents to complain about lack of class attendance of students."

The very act of questioning is today being attacked, feel many protesters. "Historically, a university is a place that had been created to relish the tendency to critique," points out Rajak. "With the coming of the new government, the higher education policies have undergone a change. There was a proposal to introduce a common entrance test for colleges. Every student has a different kind of schooling, different perspectives and inclinations. Questions were supposed to be of the multiple choice type. This itself is a blatant attack by the government to destroy the tendency to research and critique."

Many now believe that the process of silencing criticism by the government isn't restricted to the arrest of the university's Professor Ambikesh Mohapatra for being critical of some of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's political decisions or to Banerjee branding students who questioned the policies of the government as Naxals, but it is inherent in state policies. "The ordinance regarding the administration of colleges and universities says that 'certain' members of the governing body would not be 'elected' but would either be 'nominated' or would be 'ex-officio' members. This was done to ensure the students' only concern would be matters related to their campuses and not the wider social issues plaguing the state," says Rajak.

Adds Chakravarty, "Political influence has always existed in educational institutes in India. However, the infiltration now is of a very crude kind, very straightforward, when earlier it was more scientific and tacit."

Many teachers are, however, opposed to gheraos or class boycotts as legitimate methods of protest. "Protest does not necessarily have to mean a mass boycott. Out of solidarity, some of us do not mark the students as absent, but we do not condone violence in any way," says Samantak Das, associate professor of comparative literature, JU. "One cannot possibly fight violence with violence. That also doesn't mean that we do not express solidarity with our students."

On the other hand, the student movement has found huge public support on social media. Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with messages of solidarity, hash tagged as Hok kolorob (let there be an uproar). "The Facebook community called Students Against Campus Violence got 10,000 likes in just 20 days," says Mukherjee. Because of social media, solidarity marches were organised not only in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and other states, but also in Australia and the US. However, the use of social media has also led to the blurring of fact from fiction, and Chakravarty is prompt to point out that "there is no denying social media's immense reach, but more often than not, kangaroo courts are created which make quick judgements. This is a dangerous trend as it undermines the position of the judiciary."

The protest rally has also seen students from the smaller or lesser known institutions of West Bengal coming out on the street. "This has given our friends from such colleges a platform to make their voices and cries heard," says Barman. Students think that JU has a huge responsibility towards these students. "Now if we do not carry the movement forward," says Rajak, "we will wrong those students who have stood by us in our darkest time."

This raises the question: where to from here? Whether a spontaneous movement like this without a political leadership has a future is a concern plaguing both the teachers and the students. "As a parliamentarian, I believe that since the days of Bhagat Singh, spontaneous protests always come with a shelf life," says former student leader and Left Front Lok Sabha member Mohammed Salim. "There has to be a well-defined goal and a clear roadmap. If a proper procedure isn't followed, public rage will die down, whether it is about the rape of a student at Kamduni or the police action at JU."

Roychoudhury too believes that it is important for a student's movement to have a proper leadership. "It could be a movement-specific leadership. Political clarity is always helpful," he says. With students from numerous institutions joining hands to take the agitation forward, there is a feeling that it should be led by an organisation of students, "such as a United Students' Movement," suggests Roychoudhury.

Till the students organise themselves perhaps their protests will remain an individual's response to "Hok kolorob".

  • 1960s-70s: Presidency University, Jadavpur University, Calcutta University and various other colleges and universities of West Bengal were the hotbed of extreme Left wing politics. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who was then the chief minister of West Bengal, gave the police a free hand to deal with the armed struggle.

  • 2005: The police came down heavily on students protesting at Jadavpur University against the suspension of five students for allegedly assaulting senior officials.

  • February 2013: A a sub-inspector was killed in a violent clash between Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) and Congress's Chhatra Parishad over filing of nomination papers for Harimohan Ghosh College elections. It emerged that the clash was an attempt to gain control of Garden Reach, an area close to the Kolkata docks.

  • April 2, 2013: Student Federation of India activist Sudipto Gupta died after being allegedly thrashed by the police. Gupta was participating in a law violation programme for resuming college elections.

  • April 18, 2013: Presidency University was witness to vandalism as TMCP leaders and a TMC councillor attacked Baker Laboratory. The police were allegedly mute spectators.

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First Published: Sat, October 11 2014. 20:34 IST