By Aritry Das:
On 6th May, Jadavpur University experienced a direct confrontation with the ‘Saffron league’, and since then the storm that has been brewing for a while has taken shape. This was not the first time that without having an organizational unit in the university, ABVP has tried to infiltrate the campus and upset its democratic atmosphere. Just two months back, when the fight started in JNU against continuous onslaught by the leading political party at the centre, mainstream media, and different branches of the Right wing, JU students took out a solidarity march where the infamous ‘azaadi‘ slogan was raised. Instantly the students were marked as ‘anti-national’(s) – the new staple phrase used by the communal, ultra-national forces to criminalize any dissenting voice and silence it; some students were picked up by the media to put on a trial on the television.
The very next day a group of students who identified themselves ‘deshbhakts‘ as opposed to the ‘anti-nationals’, took out a violent march which left the campus ransacked; threats and insults came out from that violent rally in order to provoke the rest of the students standing hand in hand to protect each other, and still the ‘deshbhakts‘ beat up few students. The storming rally was overtly masculine a force where not a single woman could be spotted and we were stunted by the violence it emanated – this was unprecedented in JU.
That very evening, the united leftist and democratic student groups, as well as general students appalled by the incident, marched across campus and outside on the streets in protest. Following it, ABVP gave a call to all its cadres and ‘deshbhakts’ from all over West Bengal to march to JU and take over the campus in order to teach the leftist ‘anti-nationals’ a lesson. They had taken up the sacred responsibility to save JU from its students. This rally was blocked by the police at a close distance from campus. Students, teachers, alumni, people from the university authority, all stood in a human barricade at one of the main gates of the university (Gate. 4) to resist this attack. That day the confrontation did not take place.
The next onslaught was very much planned. ABVP, along with a handful of students from JU, arranged the screening of Vivek Agnihotri’s film ‘Buddha In A Traffic Jam’ in JU on 6th of May – the last working day of the semester before study break. Jadavpur Alumni Association had already declined their application to hold the event at Triguna Sen Auditorium. The students or the university authority had no part to play in it. Nonetheless, they decided to screen the film at the JU playground. The students decided not to stop the screening in any way, and to screen another film ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ in protest. But they protested in a democratic way on the arrival of Agnihotri on campus by showing black flags and sloganeering “Go back” as well as remembering Rohith and his murderers. And they protested very aptly so. On arriving, Agnihotri told the media that he did not consider Rohith’s death as a murder, echoing the line of argument BJP and RSS have been putting up.
Prior to this, the potential audience of ABVP’s film screening came to Gate no. 4 with ABVP banners, shouting slogans that demeaned the VC, and expressing a vengeful attitude towards the students of JU. Along with ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, they called for a wiping out of the leftist students, boxing them as ‘naxals’ and ‘anti-nationals’. One of the protesters was asked by a student named Hindol Majumdar on camera regarding why he has come to this protest. The man said that ‘deshdrohis‘ are inside this campus and they have raised slogans praising Afzal Guru and Pakistan. This man apparently belongs to the ‘lower strata’ of the society – the so-called mass. ABVP and BJP, with their far-right ideology and false propaganda, have washed his brain quite thoroughly to create the same frenzy reflected by all those people in the rally. The saffron league has taken advantage of the fact that access to knowledge and emancipation of critical thinking have been locked up systematically by manipulative corporate media, by exclusion of news regarding people’s suffering in Kashmir, Manipur and Bastar, by disabling mass access to education, by molding educational system to fit the purpose of the government and so on. JU students have never praised Afzal Guru; the ‘azaadi’ slogan mentioning Guru was meant to question the existence of death penalty as well as the dubious nature of his trial at court. Such questions fall under the democratic right to free speech, and persecuting the students based on that is a clear ban on critical and free thinking as well as free speech. On the other hand, no slogan praising Pakistan was ever chanted.
Then this rally went inside the campus through Gate 3 without anyone really stopping them. By this time Agnihotri had arrived and sparked a fire by denying Rohith’s institutional murder, and his car was blocked for a while by protesting students inside campus who showed him black flags. A clash took place among ABVP cadres and the protesting students who were then outnumbered and hence, got heckled. Avik Bhaduri, a current PhD scholar, states that he saw an ABVP cadre pushing a female journalist by her chest amid this conflict. On the other hand, Agnihotri claimed on social media and news media that students heckled him, tore his shirt during this conflict. Yet he was able to go to the film screening area after the conflict where he gave a long speech, implying the protesting students are Maoists, and explicitly saying that the left has no space in this country. ‘Buddha In A Traffic Jam’s Facebook page shared a video of the speech where Agnihotri is quite fine and in high spirit, showing no sign of torn shirt, and any physical or otherwise discomfort. During Agnihotri’s speech, where he equates Buddha and Ashoka with PM Modi, he insults the students of JU in various ways, the protesting students kept chanting slogans comprising Rohith’s name. When the screenings started, they dispersed to their own protest screening of ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ in front of the Central Library.
Meanwhile, the screening of ‘Buddha In A Traffic Jam‘ was stopped by the university authority as it was happing without any permission, organized and attended mostly by outsiders. Around 8:30 pm, the film screening at Central Library was almost over when suddenly ABVP activists attacked the students present there. The protesting students were soon outnumbered, beaten up, some female students were groped, given rape threats. The students tried to resist as much as they could and soon more students came to help as word got out. Now the ABVP activists were outnumbered and counter-attack was building up when they tried to escape from the campus. Amid this chaos, four of the molesters were caught by the students, brought to Aurobindo Bhavan and restrained there. The university authority was contacted and Vice Chancellor Suranjan Das came in soon. He asserted that an FIR would be lodged against the four outsiders who were alleged molesters and that the police would not be called to intervene inside the campus.
By then, the ABVP people had left campus and gathered at 8b bus stand just outside the campus. Soon more right-wing cadres came with their leader Rupa Ganguly. They agitated outside Gate no. 1. Rupa Ganguly threatened to break the gate if it was not opened for them within ten minutes. The VC came forward to talk, with hundreds of students backing him. The four molesters were let go, but FIR was filed later on. Soon the crowd of right-wing activists moved to the nearby police station to lodge a complaint against the students and the university. The students and the university also lodged a complaint against them as the students marched to Jadavpur Police Station. The night ended before long. But it left a bitter aftertaste with Rupa Ganguly’s comment on how the ‘shameless’ girls from JU cannot be molested as their molestation does not qualify as one, along with the allegation on JU teachers of manufacturing ‘intellectual terrorists’.
Next day the students and alumni, along with some of the teachers, took out a rally against this planned attack by the BJP and ABVP. They had finally realised that in showing solidarity to the injustice in FTII, JNU, and HCU, they have also become an enemy of the central government and its seemingly fascist agendas. Dissenting voices are clearly not allowed in this country and freedom of speech is a farfetched dream. But this very point of freedom of speech is now being used by the BJP and RSS to propagate that it was JU students who were ‘intolerant’, it was these ‘leftists’ students who have infringed ABVP’s and Agnihotri’s freedom of speech by protesting and trying stop the screening of their film. According to them, the students use freedom of speech as their trump card to say ‘anti-national’ things. All these arguments really need some clarification.
Firstly, all the students of JU are not ‘leftists’ or ‘naxalites’. The majority of them are progressive, liberal people with democratic ideals. But JU does give its students the space for critical and active engagement with different radical ideologies, political arguments, and an organic solidarity persists among students regardless of which political faction they belong to, unless it is the shoot-off from some right-wing or fundamentalist party. That way JU is indeed left-wing as it stands against the right-wing forces in power. That is the very reason why it was important for ABVP to screen this film in JU in order to get an entry inside, openly threat students to show off power, announce a launch of their unit in the campus, and mark territories. It was only justified that the students resisted, and that too in the most moderate way possible amid such a frenzied moment of attack.
Secondly, the protest against Agnihotri and his film was inevitable as the content of the film seems problematic to me. It assumes some kind of nexus among Maoists, academics, and NGOs – all the people the BJP appears to be targeting recently. It looks like a propaganda film that does not care about facts and tries to play on narrow nationalist sentiments of the people. But protesting the screening of this film is not necessarily banning it (nor can we ban it anyway) and neither is it a violation of freedom of speech. This is a corporate-funded mainstream film with a lot of political powers backing it up; it appears to misrepresent and appropriate voices of the margins e.g. the suffering people of Bastar, the Maoist movement constituted mainly by people from the lowest strata of the society who have experienced a lot of exploitation and violence before turning to rebellion.
I do not think the film has any right to do that ethically as appropriation of their voices is equal to violently silencing them in a world where neither the media nor the government talk about their problems, their suffering; in a country where the adivasi’s right to life has been taken away by politicians and corporate in power, it is ironic for the powerful to cry about freedom of speech. Moreover, these very people have been tagging dissenting voices as ‘anti-national’ and ‘naxal’ and legally persecuting them under the draconian sedition law, censoring films that talk against the government in any way be it ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ or ‘En Dino Muzaffarnagar’; but films like ‘Buddha In A Traffic Jam’ face no censorship issue – you can guess why.
The debate around freedom of speech with the BJP or RSS becomes redundant as they will always use it to suit their purpose. When the State and mainstream media gang up against progressive communities of students and intellectuals along with marginal voices from Bastar, Kashmir or Manipur, the other side is rendered oppressed anyway. “Free speech cannot be thought of as a universal value outside of context, we have to see who is in power,” says Trina Nileena Banerjee, a JU alumnus and currently Asst. Professor at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. The state has waged a war against its people, now the people can resume being asleep and oppressed or they can rise up. JU has of course chosen the latter, and as of now, the fight is still on against the anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim, anti-women, and anti-freedom of speech politics of the far-right league.
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