Contextualizing the Ongoing Presidency Agitation

There are three aspects that are getting attention in the ongoing Presidency College agitation:

  1. The political proximity of the VC with the ruling govt/party and her obvious submissiveness towards the Chief Minister, epitomized by her bending before the latter waist downwards!
  2. The fact that the VC had greeted the Chief Minister within the premises of the University, the same CM under whom TMC goons attacked the university premises a couple of years back.
  3. The fact that some students were manhandled by the police when they tried to approach the CM.

Now one can question if demanding the resignation of the VC in this case was indeed necessary. After all, this VC wasn’t in office when the TMC goons had vandalized the campus. However, students are reportedly complaining that the administration is terrible under her. I am not sure specifically what kind of administrative problems are being referred to here but I think the major anger is because of the political affinity of the VC towards the govt/CM/TMC. Also, some departmental heads may have been removed during her tenure and this may have angered some students, but it seems that factor has not been at the forefront of the agitation. Nor has been the fact that it was under this VC that the 75% attendance criterion was stringently enforced. But perhaps while formulating a populist agenda, it was difficult to incorporate that issue, as we saw during the actual agitation over the attendance issue, the participation was low and indeed popular opinion wasn’t entirely in favor of the agitators.

There is little doubt that there is an effort to replicate the “hokkolorob” formula [and by that I mean the combination of anti authority and anti government rhetoric combined with more dubious and ambiguous rhetoric like “independent students” leading the movement]. While it may be questioned if the hokkolorob formula can indeed be replicated in Presidency or elsewhere and that too in this specific instance, the very formula must also be subjected to more rigorous analysis. As noted above, there was a significant lack of conceptual clarity on matters that had a direct bearing on whether a person would be seen as an associate or an adversary of the movement, thereby raising questions about the democratic credentials of the movement. Furthermore, the very idea that the removal of a VC is politically significant needs to be questioned. While there is no doubt that it has a symbolic value, reality is not entirely created by symbolism. The underlying political structures that curbs democracy and perpetuates other sorts of inequalities and exploitations would hardly be affected by the removal of a VC. It is not that a socialist revolution is being expected, but lack of a genuinely political engagement with the status quo instead of merely reducing it to one person or office seems problematic.

Also, questions may indeed be asked as to what extent the VC can be held responsible for the police manhandling of the students. There is a clear difference with that of the Jadavpur movement, where the police pounced upon protesters without any provocation [usually most police aggressions cannot be justified anyway]. In this case, there was a tussle between the students and the security personnel whose barricade the students had tried to break to approach the CM and probably block her way. Now it is standard security protocol when it comes to cordoning off the CM from potential hostilities that was being applied. Can the VC be blamed for some students getting injured in the process?

It is not that I am not condemning the manhandling of the students. I am. But we have to ask some more fundamental questions here – why should a people’s representative have such a security cover that she cannot be approached by citizens at all? The security is required because the person in that position will not feel safe? Why will she not feel safe? One can say that this is a matter of mere procedure – there will always be some people who will feel that injustice has been done to them and hence it is necessary to offer protection to people who hold office from any possible aggression from dissenters. But this is a liberal position to take – because it does not address the major issue here – why should some people feel exploited in the first place? Why take that for granted? The answer to that may be varied: while some may claim that perfect contentment in society is a utopian notion, others may say that while such a goal is desirable, it is also important to provide security to people who run the system, or else nobody with good intentions will look to take up the task of benevolent administration, without which the lofty goals of social change cannot come about anyway.

One may object that so far it has been an abstract approach to the problem rather than one that grapples with the ground realities – that the CM in this case is to be held responsible for running a system that has been exploitative and therefore the pent up anger is justified. It may be argued that the hardcore brazenness of reality demands that such formalities about behavior be rejected. But then it is not really possible to ignore the abstract altogether. After all, isn’t “campus democracy” an abstract notion? What does it mean exactly? It is precisely from ground realities of the movements of the recent past that one would have gathered that such catch phrases are “empty signifiers” – they can practically mean anything, depending on the circumstances. The same organizations who had protested the police lathi charge resorted to a kind of moral policing by checking the bags of students at the gates of Jadavpur University. The justification was that it was the students who were doing this rather than any administrative or security personnel. Clearly, it is difficult to agree with this logic. It is not just who is committing the act that matters, but the very act itself as well as the power relations within the act.

Let us take up another example. Only recently, there was an incident at Medical College of doctors being roughed up by the family members of a patient who had expired at the said hospital. While reading the status update of a student mobilizer-cum-doctor at the MC, I found that demands were being raised about strict police protection of doctors from such “unruly” behavior. While a doctor cannot be compared to a CM as far as exploitation is concerned [in this system, a CM is probably going to be a far more exploitative position than that of a doctor], gross negligence on part of doctors and other hospital staff is also a reality. Indeed, the matter is more complicated and certainly hospital infrastructure and overall healthcare infrastructure and delivery systems have to be targeted as well. But so can be said of the CM and in particular the VC – is that person alone responsible for mismanagement? Isn’t lack of “campus democracy” a systemic problem? In case of the students, we are asked to excuse their anger when they attempted to get close to the CM, the person herself. While I do acknowledge that doctors can often be unfairly held responsible or the overall picture may be missed when a patient dies, and that they too need security of some kind, what was ignored was that grieving family members of a patient who just expired too need to be shown some sympathy. Doctors or students of medicine too can be inhuman – as was seen in the case of Korpan Shah, a ‘mentally challenged’ person, who was lynched by doctors at MC on the pretext that he was a thief. And doctors are already considered “god” and they have to be treated with extra respect to even get the slightest attention [there may be exceptions]. So there is already an existing societal power relation between doctors and non-doctors or consumers of their service. By demanding strict police coverage of the MC campus, what was being demanded was a stricter reinforcement of this power relation. Strangely, this too will be considered part of the “campus democracy” movement. Totally contradictory notions get clubbed together under vague phrases – this has become the latest characteristic of the third stream student movements in Kolkata at least.

On Facebook, one could find some dissident views from Presidency students. While some views stressed on the copy-cat nature of the movement, others expressed disapproval of connecting the roughing up of students by police and the TMC hooliganism a couple of years back. Still others seemed angry that the “quality” or “excellence” of the university was being affected in the process. One particular post referred to some foreign exchange program that could possibly get hampered because some foreign students were disturbed by the unrest. The discourse over academic “excellence” of the university being tarnished is perhaps as old as the history of movements itself. One could see mainstream newspapers also claiming that “Presidency has been shamed” [Times of India]. The politically correct retort to such accusations should have been that the very notion of “academic excellence” is elitist and based on an idea of education that promotes rote learning and blind competitiveness and discourages critical thinking, not to mention one which overlooks the differential backgrounds and subjectivities of students, their needs and their capabilities. Unfortunately, the usual retort is not even remotely close to this. The general response is that the protesters are only upholding a legacy of the university [whether Presidency or Jadavpur, as the case may be] whereby both academic excellence and social awareness and activism have been pursued with equal vigor. Assurance of the legacy of excellence being protected is offered in a myriad of ways – sometimes by proudly announcing the number of students who have secured top ranks in GATE, sometimes by repeating ad nauseum a totally fabricated history of revolutionary activism by the same “bright students” whereby all the undemocratic, elitist and sectarian tendencies are conveniently overlooked. It might not be too off the mark to end with a question – why isn’t there a movement against the astronomically disproportionate attention and spending towards Presidency [the CM once again reiterated her dream of making Presidency the number one university in the world and announced a special package of 160 crores for the improvement of the university]? It makes no sense to say that the overall education budget should be increased so that other colleges and universities also get their share. The more realistic stance will be – to simultaneously demand a raise in overall education spending while also denouncing the VVIP treatment meted out to a handful of colleges while the rest suffer gross neglect. But far from there being a movement of this sort, the general attitude of the Presidencians or Jadavpurians is that these are indeed centers of excellence and hence they deserve the special treatment.

P.S:

Anandabazar Patrika shows its gender-reactionary nature by focusing on a protester wearing underwear in Presidency. Of course it is political-economic compulsion that takes priority – in a different circumstance, the same paper for furthering its narrow interest may have overlooked or even condoned such an act. Perhaps what was even more shocking was that it was cross dressing. He had a beard and was wearing a bra? It must have felt like an apocalypse to conservatives. Instead of objective reporting, the paper resorted in this instance to denigrating the movement at any cost, even at the cost of gender sensitivity. In fact, the paper deliberately tried to appeal to conservative mindsets to divert attention from the main substance of the agitation.

Also, it is disheartening to see women’s movement activist Saswati Ghosh taking such a conservative stance – she reportedly expressed her disapproval of such manner of clothing and even said that the person should have been thrown out of the premises if he was a “bohiragoto” [outsider]. Her views are problematic on so many levels.

By Kisholoy

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