A concerted attack on institutional autonomy

Students at Jadavpur University have already built their rainbow scaffolding, and they are not backing out
Arshia Dhar Kolkata 

It was on the evening of September 16, 2014 that a group of students at Jadavpur University (JU) in Kolkata  gathered at the steps of its administrative section, at the 150th hour of their peaceful demonstrations, singing and sloganeering to demand a fair probe into a case of alleged sexual harassment on-campus. Their only demand was to have a constructive dialogue with the vice chancellor who did not assure a concrete solution vis-a-vis the pending sexual harassment complaint. It was on the same evening that the lights on the campus suddenly went out, and the dark played host to a horrific chain of events. Students were beaten up by men and women in civilian clothing — people who were identified as not belonging to the campus.  

The police not only stood watching but also joined these unknown persons in assaulting the students and crushing the instruments of those who made music out of the oncoming mutiny, and all this at the behest of the vice chancellor who claimed to have felt “threatened” by a group of students who had been singing and sloganeering for nearly a week. Some of these students were dragged into police vans at random and taken to the notorious Lal Bazaar police station only to be released after hours — hours of effort from a community of students, professors and sympathisers who stood for an autonomous, free-spirited seat of learning and expression. And overnight was born the war cry — ‘Hokolorob’ (‘Let there be noise’), a shout out to societies across the country and the world to fight for one’s right to dissent, to question, to love and to breathe free.  

A year-and-a-half down the line, another bastion of independent thinking in the capital of India saw a similar governmental and police crackdown on a group of students who had gathered to discuss an issue that has, over the years, been debated time and again. Indeed, the noise that resonated from the grounds of Jadavpur in 2014 are still ringing through the corridors of spaces that celebrate these diverse voices that force society to introspect. From FTII and TISS, to Hyderabad Central University and Delhi University, to IIT Madras — the noise has not died out. If anything, it’s only just begun.  

Overnight was born the war cry — ‘Hokolorob’ (‘Let there be noise’), a shout out to societies across the country and the world to fight for one’s right to dissent, to question, to love and to breathe free

“…One must understand that universities are essentially based on debate and questions, be it in science, literature, or the very concept of nationalism, which is why we support JNU. Students have the right to speak. We have seen how horrible the situation becomes when political parties place their stooges in academic institutions. Which is what the central universities are facing right now,” says Neera Majumdar, student of MA in English at JU.  

Three current students of JU called for a march in solidarity with JNU on February 16 from the campus premises to Gol Park in South Kolkata. The march had a turnout of 600-800; some of the so-called ‘national media’ quickly branded it ‘anti-national’. On the following evening, a rally was taken out within the JU grounds, allegedly by a group of students from the engineering faculty, carrying the tricolour, marching to vandalise posters and university property. Slogans of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ could be heard as the mob of roughly 80-100 was seen thumping down the campus to ransack posters and artwork. (This incident has been documented in a video that is on YouTube, ‘Nationalists Vandalising in Jadavpur University Campus)’.  

The mob did not seem to be affiliated to any religious or political organisation. The students were not a part of the Faculty of Engineering and Technology Students’ Union of JU (FETSU). When asked to react on the incident, a former student of the engineering department said there is an immediate requirement for sensitisation so that students appreciate “different points of view”. However, the alumnus remained sceptical regarding the success of such an endeavour. “I really doubt as to what extent they will be able to practise what is preached to them. Professional pressures tend to get the better of them more often than not.” 

As the situation in Jadavpur gathered momentum with students holding general body meetings about the onslaught on democratic rights across the country, the BJP at the state level geared up to launch an attack that only strengthened the resolve of its already strong opposition. A day after the national secretary of the BJP, Rahul Sinha, had said that JU students should be “beaten up” for being involved in “anti-national” activities (and consequently accused the current vice chancellor, Suranjan Das, for failing to instil ‘nationalism’ in his students as he refused to lodge an FIR against them), the ABVP, led by actors-turned-BJP politicians like Roopa Ganguly and Locket Chatterjee, organised a march from Gol Park to Gate No. 4 of JU, the entrance to the Arts Faculty. However, the rally seemed to have met an unexpected wall of resilience right at the gate of the varsity. A human chain of professors and students kept the protesters from entering the campus. “The teachers and student were the first line of defence,” said an M Phil scholar at the Faculty of Arts. A strong gathering of 1,500 students at Gate No. 4 peacefully outnumbered the 150-odd ABVP ‘storm troopers’ at their doorstep.  

This means that autonomy itself is a farce; we are constantly being viewed by a government that will try and organise opinion that is beneficial towards itself, and will not be tolerant of criticism

A section of social and political critics has commented on how the current government’s aggressive reaction to agitations and disagreements has only managed to strengthen the fragmented Left that has been on the decline in Bengal. The unlikeliest of coalitions of the Left and the Congress, is taking shape to oust ‘Right-wing forces’ that have faced the fire of the intellectual community. Said an M Phil scholar, “The current government in its handling of the campus situation at either HCU, FTII, or JNU has shown that it does not consider other opinions, apart from those driven by its own vested interests. 

There is a hubris about this government which considers itself almost untouchable due to its power. It is ultimately an elected government which derived its votes from the very students they are trying to crush. Politically perhaps parties have a lot to gain from this behaviour, but, I feel, the situation on campuses could have been resolved by proper dialogue. Students did not even get a chance to initiate a dialogue with the administrators of their universities before the government intervened. This means that autonomy itself is a farce; we are constantly being viewed by a government that will try and organise opinion that is beneficial towards itself, and will not be tolerant of criticism.”  The scholar concluded, “Intellectual voices are not being heard. They are being drowned by nonsense and shouting. As Macbeth said, ‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.” 

Interestingly, the ABVP’s abysmal performance in West Bengal may have to do with the insignificant presence of the BJP in the state. It has not been able to make a mark on the campuses in Kolkata or West Bengal. Syamantakshobhan Basu, a final-year MA student in the JU English Department remains apprehensive: “If the saffronisation of education and fascist mobilisation continues, it is possible. Maybe not to a great extent due to the relative diversity of population,  but it is already stirring.  The February 18 ABVP rally is a sign of this.”

The recurring pattern of using brute force and diverting attention from real concerns is a major allegation against the BJP regime in Delhi. Arguments of ‘intolerance’ and ‘anti-nationalism’ need to be inspected through the lens of history — the RSS has been outlawed three times after Indian independence. And, before one dismisses the spiral of students’ movements for being too ‘elitist’, for lacking resolve, or fizzling out, one must remember the evening of January 12, 2015—when AbhijitChakrabarty, the former vice chancellor of JU, was compelled to publicly announce his resignation. A decision taken after students went on a fast unto death — not through lathicharge, blows and punches, but through a fearless, silent declaration of a fight for what was their right.

This is the symphony of resistance that still reverberates  — through the speeches and slogans of all the Umar Khalids and all our KanhaiyaKumars, shared and heard by tens and thousands across time and space. This is the new age of rebellion. This is Hokolorob, once again.   

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2016