Recent Movements in Kolkata – Some Personal Reflections – Part 1

By Kisholoy 

Unlike some other parts of the country, Kolkata has not seen any major movement for a long time. The last time a significant opposition to the powers that be was initiated was during the Nonadanga slum eviction. In fact, ever since the “paribartan” government came to power, Hokkolorob movement emanating from Jadavpur University was the only major unrest in the city that caught both the headlines and the imagination of the people of this city and indeed beyond. Of course, if we consider the entire state, several movements have been constantly taking place. The Kamduni post rape unrest which took a sharp anti government turn, the ongoing protests at Lumtex Jute Mill and several other jute mills like Victoria, Bhadreswar; the Viswa Bharati students’ movement against removal of internal quota, protest by Durgapur BCET teachers, TET scam protests, Saradha chit fund protests, SSC candidates’ protests against corruption to name a few. In a series of essays, I will be focusing on three of these protests – Hokkolorob, Durgapur BCET and SSC movements. The emphasis will be on those aspects which have generally escaped mainstream attention.

Much has been said and written about the Hokkolorob movement. As if the glamour of JU wasn’t there in generous doses already, this movement catapulted the university to the zenith of popularity. Indeed people started equating the spirit of andolon with Hokkolorob. Whether in the SSC or BCET movements, the protesters gleefully welcomed anyone who introduced themselves as a student of JU. One may be inclined to ask: what was it that really created such a massive fanfollowing? Firstly, the movement was not led by any of the established mainstream parties like CPM or even CPIML Liberation, even though sympathizers or members of various organizers were present but nobody used [or were allowed to use] the banners of any such party. This gave the impression that this was a truly “people’s” movement. Secondly, the movement seemed to give a sense of victory with the removal of the VC as announced by the Chief Minister and which had ended up being almost the single point agenda of the movement. However, there are more reasons for the mass appeal of Hokkolorob. First of all, even before victory was snatched, there was tremendous media coverage of the movement. Channels like ABP Ananda, who have their own agenda of opposing the TMC government at any cost to help propel the BJP to power in the state, gave a generous coverage of the movement. This is not to suggest that the movement did not deserve media attention – of course it is expected that both the media and the general public will sympathize with a bunch of students and sympathizers protesting against the inaction of a VC regarding a case of sexual harassment inside the campus. The video footage of police pouncing on the students by switching off the lights must have stoked the conscience of democracy loving people. However, campus democracy has been under attack in numerous other colleges. Opposition candidates have been forced to file their candidature nominations, teachers have been roughed up and basically every type of basic right has been systematically snatched away since the time of the previous government, of which the present “paribartan” Sarkar is only an able successor. It was clear that JU has a certain elite appeal to it, which the media was willing to capitalize on; hence the selective outrage from media. On the other hand, the people have been tired of listening to and watching the fist fights and mudslinging games of the mainstream political parties. Perhaps after a long time, they were happy to see students without the banner of such parties making what they perceived as a just demand. The huge rally on 20th September certainly attracted a large number of “bohiragotos” or non JU people, particularly students. It may not be too off the mark to think that these students had related to the JU movement because of the frustrations they themselves were harboring with respect to job scenario and education system, although the reasons may have varied considerably. It is also interesting to note that people Shankudeb Panda and others from the ruling party constantly gave calls of rallies and demonstrations against the movement. Abysmally low numbers turned up in these.

So where was the problem then? Firstly, even though many “bohiragotos” participated in the 20th September rally [which even had some star attraction for the cameras to hanker after] the slogans that were predominantly used even in rallies far removed from JU but in support of the movement valorized the university. An example would be “Jadavpur dekhie dilo” [Jadavpur has showed the way]. Another one would be “Jadavpur shikhsha dei aghat Jodi nemei ashe palta aghat firie dao” [Jadavpur teaches us to fight back when under attack]. Although it is true that some movements had emanated from JU in the past too, apart from a solidarity from some students during the Singur Nandigram episode or the one involving showing black flags to Budhhadeb Bhattacharya, none of these were social movements in the larger context but mostly limited to demands concerning the University alone. For instance, the movements against installation of CCTV cameras, against reducing the reservation of seats of post graduation for graduate students of the university etc. Thus the attempt to make people rally behind Jadavpur, to paint a picture as if the university is the intellectual leader of the masses, by clearly utilizing the existing elitism surrounding the university, was ill conceived and not at all based on material facts. It is not as if people had to wait for the JU students to protest in 2014 to learn the art of protest and fighting back! Also, this was pointed out repeatedly, both during rallies as well as during some solidarity meetings in the city. It was not just about the slogans or the constant valorization and perpetuation of the elite image of the university but the general outlook of the core participants of the movement that seemed to contain elements to alienate “bohiragotos”.

Secondly, the lofty claims that “Jadavpur is showing the way” [and indeed the name of Presidency was also added during those hysterical outbursts], fell flat in the face of reality. When it came to other social movements, or even standing by those [Non JU people] who had faced backlashes [as Francis Mandal did] for showing support to the movement, the performance of “JU” was pretty disappointing. So basically JU students were expecting society to support their movement, accept their elitism and patronizing outlook without themselves doing so much as to become part of agitations elsewhere. The last point was best seen during the recent movements by Durgapur BCET teachers and SSC wannabes. Only those activists from JU who are regularly active in student politics were seen in these movements but the general mass that was involved during the JU movement were totally absent. And yet when this was pointed out, defensive reactions came from the Hokkolorobis – they said, where were the bohiragotos when we were doing the movement, that they are students and have to attend classes too etc. One wonders if the 20th September rally was only comprised of JU students!

Thirdly, the political forces involved did not always have a smooth sail. There was continuous friction between a student’s front of a non-CPM communist party and the combined unit of two of the major student bodies within the JU. This was reflected even in the General Body meetings held within the campuses. Also, there seemed to be varying opinions on what role the “bohiragotos” were supposed to play during the GBs. While some claimed that they too were welcome to share their views, others even went to the extent of saying that they were not even supposed to be present during the GBs. Nonetheless, through first hand or second hand experience, I came to know about a few things about the GBs and the general discourse surrounding the movement that would hopefully throw some light on the delicate and complex balance of forces within the university.

  1. What has indeed escaped due attention although it demanded much more of it, was the general regressive attitude of several students of the university towards the incident. In fact, during a GB in the early days of the movement, the perpetrators had proudly declared that what had happened was absolutely right and that if one finds a girl in a compromising position with her boyfriend near their home, they would also do the same. In other words, they basically justified their patriarchal actions. Now had this been openly condemned, it would have been a very different matter altogether. However, most of the organizations involved there seemed to have a difficult time doing the same, since they did not want the support of the hostel students to tilt away from them. Inside the hostel, there was apparently a section of students who were more bothered about the future of the perpetrators than the movement itself. Two pieces of information from JU sources may be pointed out here – that in the past too, some JU hostel students had engaged in some notorious activities – they used to come out in drunken state at night and tease girls right outside the hostel. From another source, it was brought to our attention that hostel students had even approached FETSU for providing support to the students who were found guilty. A parallel of this may be found in the utterly disgusting defense and shielding of the perpetrators of the brutal murder of Korpan Shah from the hostel students of NRS.
  2. It was perhaps because of this complexity that the core demands of the movement – that of punishing the guilty, putting in place a gender crime related institutional body etc. – were pushed to the sidelines. Needless to say, the VC was being a total arsehole by calling the police and their pet goons to brutally beat up students. That said, it was not without reason, as must be understandable by now given the material compulsions, that the movement almost became entirely fixated on removing the VC. The other demands based on the incidents of the night that saw a girl and her boyfriend getting badly harassed by JU hostel students went from being pushed to obscurity to being completely ignored.
  1. A Maoist leaning students’ body operating in the form of a few individuals only within the university campus initially kept claiming that there was no incident of sexual harassment within the campus on that night, even though some manhandling may have occurred. There was a consistent tension between this organization and the forces leading the movement, with allegations of not following the agreements reached in the GB and acting unilaterally being hurled at each other. A major accusation [made by a Maoist leaning student of that University] that surfaced though was regarding a statement that was made in the evening of 20th September from the campaign matador – that seemed to sound like “success” and to which there was a defeaning thunderclap by those assembled. Later though, it turned out that there was some “miscommunication” but the accuser said that the very claim was a cooked up story to start with. As we will later see, there is actually reason to take this accusation seriously, because from my own personal experience, there is indeed a tendency to paint outcomes of certain “negotiations” with representatives of powers that be as some sort of “success” while there may actually be very little to be jubilant about in reality.

Read Part 2 here

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