It has been over a week since the fracas at Jadavpur University, and curtains had been raised for a dramatic representation of anarchy on the stage that India’s mainstream media readily offers. Barring a few media houses which have come to be tagged as ‘alternate’ or ‘independent’, or conveniently ‘anti-national’ as it transgresses the hegemonic ideals of the Hindutva state, none seem to have bothered to investigate the matter beyond the selected images of Union Minister Babul Supriyo being “heckled” by students. One must be thankful for social media, for allowing truth to find its way into the popular narrative.
Jadavpur University, with its legacy of voicing resistance by students, scholars and professors alike, boasts of hok kolorob in 2014, a scream against organised police brutality on students facilitated by the Vice-chancellor and the Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government. The hok kolorob cataclysm garnered the support of civil society, something that most united students’ resistance usually fails to amass. After the movement had sustained for a year, it led the then Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakraborti, who had supposed links to the Trinamool Congress-led state government, to quit. This was a phenomenal victory in 2015 which remains etched in the memories of student-led struggles and is still used as a locus for future endeavours of student politics.
Five years later, roughly around the same time that hok kolorob began, the imbroglio at Jadavpur University unfolded on September 19, 2019. The events are not unknown to anyone who regularly consumes news. The popular representation of Babul Supriyo being “heckled” has also been negotiated with to discover a truth that contradicts most prime-time sensationalised headlines on saffronised television screens.
The image of a student with a bloody wound on his forehead after being hit by Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad’s cadres, the rummaged Arts Faculty Union Room, the shattered glass inside the UG Arts building near Gate no.4 are visuals that went viral on the internet. Only then did people wake up from their slumbers, shake off their apathy and started believing that the students had enough reasons to be irked. While tyres were being burnt, the students and the Vice-Chancellor were being threatened, students being beaten up, the entire population of the city kept reiterating the vehement action of smudging the glorious halo around the Union Minister.
The narrative is not very different from that of the 2014 incident. The role of social media in fuelling the interests of the students is also strikingly similar. The nostalgia is almost unnerving for most who have witnessed the pinnacle of both these students’ movements. Being a part of the former group, my manifold observations on the myths, opinions and narratives that encircle the students’ movement in Kolkata are plenty. I would like to elucidate a few.
Most adults who are comfortable with their nine to five daily jobs, forming the bulk of the emergent middle-class in India, have nurtured the notion that politics should be kept outside the realms of education and institutions. Upholding the sacrosanct repute of an educational institution, the majority engages in banters to curse students who are actively indulgent in politics—a phenomenon which is true for all student movements.
The generic idea stems as a result of crony capitalism which provides a unidimensional purpose of education. The idea is not only highly utilitarian but also dangerous and violates the tenets of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The purpose of education is primarily to offer a critique of the existing status quo and to build an egalitarian society as envisioned by pioneers such as B.R Ambedkar. As Rosa Luxemburg, the less known Marxist said, “Freedom is the freedom of dissenters.”
The students at Jadavpur University were voicing their dissent against a culture of lynching, Islamophobia and imposition of a Hindu Rashtra that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is propagating. While the chaotic violence by students is inexplicable, it does not take away their rights to resist the entry of a Union Minister who subscribes to the ruling ideology. If the resistance at the university on September 19 is viewed as organised detention of Babul Supriyo, with the purpose of seeking answers for the nation-wide atrocities, it holds its legitimacy as a protest, and achieves the function of education as a tool for social and political change.
The exorbitant display of the Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, a supposed sympathiser of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to rescue the Union Minister has been reduced to being a ‘gimmick’ if protests are to be taken seriously in our political structure.
While I got text messages and phone calls from fellow students who were panicked and unable to return home, the middle-class audience had already begun forming opinions against these students, propelled by the drama on their television screens.
The incidents of violent lynching of Tabrez Ansari, Mohammad Akhlaq, and Pehlu Khan; the systemic murders of Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi; the widespread arrests and raids of activists and scholars; the rampant use of tags like ‘anti-national’ and ‘urban Naxals’; the beefed-up sedition laws; the imposition of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and more have failed to stir the conscience of most, yet, the students have fortunately managed to retain their conscience to oppose it.
While the ‘manufactured apathy’ among the middle-class masses in India prevents them from viewing resistance as an essential tool for progress, the students have not been afraid to voice their dissent. Despite being publicly labelled as ‘Naxals’ and ‘Maoists’, for merely adhering to left ideologies, repeatedly by various political parties, the students have strived to uphold freedom of expression.
To all who ask, why engage in politics in a university? The answer is quite simple—India’s independence from the colonial masters would have been an impossibility had students not united against them. Education had pumped a sense of justice which is reverberated in all student struggles since Independence of India, including the events of September 19 at Jadavpur University.
Such events disrupt the slumber of the masses, forcing them to introspect and take notice of the normalised violence perpetrated by the ruling party.
While it becomes imperative for students to stand up against unjust practices and cultures, a movement falls flat if it fails to be backed by members of civil society. Owing to the growing aversion towards student politics in India, a student’s movement cannot be sustained by the mere participation of the students who are the majority of its stakeholders. The peripheral elements such as educators, scholars and members of the civil society have an equally significant role to play. Bearing similarities to the mass support of the hok kolorob movement by members of faculty and alumni alike, the aftermath of the rampant vandalism at Jadavpur University had been condemned by faculty members, alumni, singers, poets and other revered intellectuals in the city.
After the initial cloud of misinformation had cleared, the city saw a wondrous image of a sea of people who led a protest march on September 20. Slogans and songs of protest were plenty, and dissent echoed in the heart of the city. Singers, artists and writers took to their weapons—music, paint-brushes and pens respectively—to provide the base on which the movement proliferated.
Subsequently, the president of the state unit of BJP, Dilip Ghosh threatened a “surgical strike” in the eminent university, infuriating the masses further. On September 23, thousands had gathered to resist the retaliation rally organised by ABVP. However, what was remarkable was the educators who took the front-stage in combating such a heinous attack on education and justice.
By then, the events had already started gaining momentum in the national political milieu, with the BJP attempting to make in-roads in West Bengal by focusing on the breakdown of law in the state and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s attempt to ensure peace to combat the anti-campaign against her.
That the state government’s police force would definitely stop the ABVP rally on September 23, was no surprise at all, given Banerjee’s incessant opposition to the BJP-led centre. But what transpired was an exemplary moment which established the presence of resistance in a society which has internalised the fascist regime.
As Milan Kundera has rightly pointed, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
It has been almost two weeks since September 19. The wrecked union room is yet to be restored, the gates have not been repaired, panic still lurks, students and their families are still being threatened. But, the upheaval in social media has begun to subside. A fewer number of people are talking about it, the information being circulated is lesser still, and the national media has ended its frenzy of reportage.
The abundance of content, the excess of information, the superfluous display of the self on social media has gained precedence over the memory of September 19 and its aftermath.
The memory is fading—the memory of hok kolorob, the memory of September 19, and most importantly, the memory of the unique resistance on September 23. It is no longer trending on Facebook and it seems to have eluded the collective consciousness, especially with the festive season ushering.
Much has been talked about the collective amnesia in the age of digital information but less is talked about the attempts at triggering remembrance.
Hok kolorob in 2014 had battled the culture of forgetting and managed to sustain its velocity until 2015, despite major roadblocks. What seemed to be a dead movement had been resurrected by the sheer resilience of the student activists who had challenged the fading memory with a hunger strike.
If forgetting becomes a luxury, the memory of the phenomenal display of resistance would be lost to these trying times. The times have changed since 2015—the BJP’s monstrous claim to power has increased exponentially with its 2019 Lok Sabha win. Yet, one must hope for the memory to sustain.
In conclusion, I urge the masses to keep the memory of resistance alive, to battle the incessant need for forgetting and talk about it in various forums to inculcate a culture of spirited remembrance. Only then will the idea of critique, dissent, freedom and resistance survive. Only then will fascist tendencies be obliterated.