May 25 was declared to be one of the most prestigious days in the history of Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan. For students who had completed their Bachelor’s, Master’s, or PhD between 2013 to 2017, the annual convocation programme was held once again at Santiniketan, after an interval of five years. The historical importance of the convocation programme however does not lie in its late occurrence, but in the presence of heavyweight personalities in politics.
The enthusiasm of the students, both former and present, was extreme because of the names of the dignitaries that were declared: Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, Governor Keshrinath Tripathi, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and, most importantly, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.
The historical convocation stage, which was named after Jawaharlal Nehru as Jawahar Bedi, has witnessed the presence of many eminent personalities, including Mr. Nehru himself, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and others. This time too the stage was prepared to play its vital role of holding history in its making. But, the history that has been created the convocation still haunts some of the students, teachers, university staff, residents of the asrama and the guests who were present on the occasion.
The consequences of inviting high profile politicians were being felt by everyone including the students and permanent residents, for one week before the convocation day. The arrival of almost 10,000 police men, random checking inside the campus and on the road, and sudden interrogations in open air evening conversations by managed to change the picture of our university town. Everybody was alert, trying not to fall under the false suspicion of police men, and being harassed by them. Carrying university identity cards and government-issued photo identity proof was mandatory for us.
The air of festivity could still be felt at Santiniketan with the reunion of former students after a long time. Everyone could imagine the number of people to be present in the programme, including more than 10,000 former students to be awarded, present students, invitees, university staff, and guests of the students etc. However nothing could redeem the enthusiasm and excitement of the students who had been waiting eagerly for a long time to experience the historical moment when the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh would be present together with the Chief Minister and the Governor of West Bengal. But who could have imagined how student-unfriendly this ‘historical’ convocation would turn out to be?
As it was clearly stated in the gate-passes, everyone must enter without carrying water bottles, umbrellas, bags, cameras, and mobile phones—only their photo IDs and passes—by 8.45 AM, strictly. As I had reached near the prescribed gate around 8.30, I found huge number of water bottles thrown outside the entrance. Students were assured to be provided with sufficient drinking water inside the convocation arena. After passing through several layers of security checking, the place where I was lead to confused me. I saw an impenetrable crowd shouting for water, and jostling for places to get good view of the stage which seemed miles away. After staying there for nearly 30 minutes I realised how impossible it was to stay in that confined area without a single fan and drinking water. We were informed that a few thousand pouches of water which had been arranged were insufficient for the huge number of students present on the occasion. The crisis of water increased the chaos which had been created earlier due to the scorching heat and the presence of thousands of attendees. However, no initiative was taken to solve the crisis of water, resulting in a few students collapsing of dehydration. We had to spend almost an hour and a half in that inhuman condition till the dignitaries arrived around 10.45 AM.
To my utter disbelief, the students who had been shouting for water for so long, suddenly seemed to forget all about their suffering and harassment, and started taking the name of our honorable Prime Minister frantically after he had got down from his air-conditioned car. The madness continued even during the chanting of the ved mantra following the tradition of the asrama. This included blowing of whistles, shouting “Bharat mata ki jai” and “Jai Shri Ram”. These may not have even been students, but some members of B.J.P who too had been invited.
In the beginning of his speech, Modi mentioning his capacity as the chancellor of the university, apologised to the students for the inconvenience caused due to insufficient water, however he did not bother to take any necessary step in order to solve the problem immediately. While beginning his flowery speech with his expression of extreme happiness and pleasure to be able to come to Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, he seemed to strategically shift to his typical mode of addressing his followers in his party meetings as “saathiyo”. Honorable Modiji was desperately trying to express his familiarity with “Rabindra-Sahitya” while confidently providing misinformation about Tagore’s writings, with a teleprompter and a frenzied audience in front of him. Students, who seemed to have turned wild as they kept shouting the name of our Prime Minister all through the programme, did not bother to notice the small’ errors in Modiji’s speech like turning Tagore’s son Rathindranath into his son-in-law! Meanwhile I found many of my friends, fellow students falling on the ground just like trees in a storm. I believe Modiji could not feel the heat from the dais where he was surrounded by giant size coolers and fans.
For a few minutes I completely forgot the fact that I was not attending any political meeting, but a convocation programme in my own university. The place where I have spent more than ten years as a student became too unfamiliar all of a sudden to recognise as Santiniketan at all. That was not the first time when important personalities, and Prime Minister of the country attended convocation programme at Santiniketan. But this was probably the first time when students have been treated in such inhuman ways just in order to ensure security of the dignitaries. This was probably the most student-unfriendly convocation which has ever happened in the history, and the saddest day in the history of Santiniketan as well. But unfortunately, the coloured glasses which the ‘Modi-spell’ could successfully manage to put on the eyes of most of the students, did not let the heat, thirst or hunger to overpower. My fellow students reminded me of those people who had stood happily in the queues in front of ATMs for hours last year, suffered a lot but never complained against the demonetisation policy.
I was wondering why nobody has yet pointed out that spending four or five hours in scorching heat without food and drinking water is nothing (especially when the Prime Minister himself is standing in front of you) compared to the soldiers who are sacrificing their lives on border.