Because Presidency is an Idea – All You Need to Know About What Happened at Presidency University: Waled Aadnan

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Guest post by WALED AADNAN: On 10th April, 2013, an unprecedented incident happened at Presidency University (erstwhile Presidency College), Kolkata. Now, unprecedented is a strong term when it relates to Presidency College, because it has, over its 196- year- long history,  seen much. It has been broken in by rioting mobs in 1926; in the 1960s and 70s, it was the so-called headquarters of the Naxal movement in Bengal; it has nurtured Indian Nobel Prize and Oscar winners and consistently over its history. It has been one of India’s elite colleges and a hotbed of left-wing politics.

What actually happened: Sometime around 1pm on that Black Wednesday, a mob entered Presidency, cutting through the lock on its gate with a gas cutter, which then proceeded to assault and abuse students, professors, damage large boards with protest posters, including one in memory of Sudipto Gupta, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) activist killed in police custody on 3 April. The mob comprised of Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) activists taking part in a rally in nearby Amherst Street protesting the assault on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Finance Minister Amit Mitra in New Delhi a day ago. Carrying Trinamool and black flags, and armed with an assortment of weapons, the mob made its way to the iconic Baker Laboratories which houses the Physics department. Once there, they proceeded to damage lab equipment, assault a professor and students who were working there, and returned to the Main Gate on College Street, wreaking havoc on its way. A javelin was later recovered from the ruin that was the Physics department.

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Presidency University has two major political parties, the SFI and the Independents’ Consolidation (IC). Over the past few days, the IC has been called the “Integrated Council, a Naxal front” by TMC Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha, Derek O’ Brien, a false allegation and an insult to his quizmaster credentials. The TMC mob was met at the Main Gate by two IC activists, Bibaswan Basu (Surjo) and Deborshi Chakraborty. They refused to reveal as to who among the students around were SFI activists and were instead beaten up by the Trinamool goons. Once the Dean of Students and the Registrar reached the scene, the private security guards managed to lock the gate again.

The Registrar had called up the OC of the local Jorasanko police station earlier in the morning requesting security at the main gate anticipating trouble from the nearby Trinamool gathering. The police came, they saw, they did nothing. On being quizzed by the Registrar as to why they aren’t taking action against the increasingly violent and agitated mob, they smiled and replied “We have no orders to take actions.” The general students then decided to take out a michhil (march) through College Street where they were again heckled up and assaulted by the mob. When they returned, all the students either gathered inside near the Main Gate or were locked up by their professors in their respective departments for safety reasons.

Then the wait began. For close to two hours, this ever-increasing mob that at one point  swelled to nearly 300, led by Trinamool councillor Partha Basu stood outside, trying to climb over the gates, threatening the Dean of Students and female students of rape if they get their hands on them, and throwing stones into the campus at one point, all in the view of television news cameras. After more than two hours of this anarchic scenario during which the police stood lame-duck, the mob left College Street in a number of trucks, which were later found outside Jadavpur University to the south of the city.

Presidency’s Peaceful Response

Left shocked and bewildered, we, the students of Presidency, gathered in the office of the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Malabika Sarkar, outraged and hurting. The VC strongly condemned the incident and the Registrar confirmed on the record that the mob that had entered was carrying Trinamool flags and that the police can no longer be entrusted with Presidency’s protection. In desperation, he declared that protection will require CRPF troops to be posted at our gates, a stinging reproach to an utter failure of state machinery to provide security at the state’s premier university.

The following day, university officials, the teaching staff and the student community called for an active strike. Keeping in mind that Presidency has a small intake of students, 1000 of us including former Naxal leader Ashim Chatterjee alias Kaka turned up to participate in a peaceful protest march to the Governor of West Bengal to submit a deputation to him regarding the entire incident. Alumni, present students, professors walked together to express their deep sense of outrage at the incidents of the previous day. It sent a clear message to the government that no matter how far they went with their concocted theories washing their hands off the incident, the entire Presidency fraternity and the wider Calcutta educational fraternity will not take a threat to the sovereignty of the university lying down.

The Trinamool’s Trajectory: The government’s (also read as the Trinamool Congress’s) reaction to the incident and subsequent outrage among the public and the media was predictable. It was simply trying to perfect an art that the previous CPI(M) government had used extensively during its regime: that of passing the blame. The first reaction from the party was that it was a small incident and that vested interests were trying to deflect attention from the outrage that was the attack on Amit Mitra in Delhi. From theorising that the mob that entered Presidency comprised of CPM and SFI goons carrying TMC flags to tarnish the latter party’s reputation, to the theory that stones/bricks were hurled at the TMC procession that was peacefully passing by which led to the TMC supporters curiously looking in to see who had done that, to calling it a ‘shajano ghotona’ (reminds you of the Park Street rape case?) by the entire Presidency University from the VC down to the durwan, there were theories galore.

The government was, however, lost for words when the photo from video footage revealed Partha Basu, TMC Councillor, Kailash Mishra and Tathagat Saha, Editorial Board Members, TMCP at the Presidency gate while hooligans tried to jump over the gate and enter.

In order to substantiate these theories, however, TMCP leaders filed cases against two Presidencians accusing them of throwing stones/bricks at the TMCP rally. One of them, Deborshi Chakraborty, was ironically among those who had been grievously injured in the original attack and was actually in hospital thereafter. The other was Chhandak Chatterjee, an alumnus of the college, presently studying in Jadavpur University who happened to rush to the campus on learning about the attacks.

The dirty game played by the Trinamool reached a boiling point on 13th April when the police picked up Santosh Singh (fondly known as Pappuda) for interrogation. The previous day, Partha Chatterjee, Minister for Commerce & Industries had stated that Pappuda was a CPI(M) functionary who had let the goons in to begin with and then instigated the TMCP rally by throwing a stone. Now, Santosh Singh belongs to a family that has traditionally guarded the gates of Presidency for four generations now. Indeed, his great-grandfather Ram Iqbal Singh had died protecting the college during the April riots of 1926. Pappuda’s loyalty is beyond doubt among Presidencians who flocked to college on hearing that he might be arrested.

Role of the Police: By fabricating these cases, the TMC and its government are trying to deflect blame for the utter lawlessness of its cadre and the deplorable failure of government machinery on the day. What remains unanswered is the question that even if they weren’t Trinamool goons, who perpetrated the violence, why was the police under strict orders to stand by and let things be. Why wasn’t the police taking action against goons supposedly of the opposition party ransacking a University that was the Chief Minister’s “dream project”? There have been no answers to that. What about the security of the student who had only turned up on time for his laboratory experiments? He had nothing to do with Amit Mitra being heckled, nor any other illogical justification that the government may come up with. The fact of the matter is that the Trinamool came to power with the promise of poriborton (change) but has over the past 2 years, perfected the art of deception and indoctrination that had kept the CPM in power for 34 years.

The Way Forward: The key question this episode has raised is regarding the role that student fronts affiliated to mother parties play in our campuses. For too long, student politics in Bengal and its discourse has been controlled from Alimuddin Street and Kalighat alike. Instead of students determining their politics, we have been reduced to being foot soldiers swaying to the whims and interests of party bosses.

On the other hand, the response of Presidency on 11th April is what our student politics should ideally look like. It is not feasible for students to detach themselves from their institution’s policies and their own futures. What that day’s protest march represented is politics that is determined by the general students who may not be into daily sloganeering and poster making but are otherwise genuinely interested in everything that concerns them.

There has been a lot of talk recently from the state government regarding alternative forms of student politics in our colleges and universities. What the average student finds hypocritical is the continued existence of the TMCP despite this stand by the government run by its mother party. What academia and genuine democracy in West Bengal needs is a detachment from the culture of student politics that makes a student nothing more than an agent of mightier forces, may they be of any colour. As students, we demand a withdrawal of “the political” from our campus so that we can pursue a “politics” that revolves round the student. This is the idea that Presidency has upheld for decades, of a “politics” removed from “the political”.

With this in mind, I would call for the resumption of campus democracy in Presidency University where student union elections haven’t taken place since 2010 and in other colleges and universities where it has been on hold for six months since February. In February, the state government had issued an “advisory” to all government colleges and universities to postpone campus elections by 6 months citing incidences of violence and its inability to provide adequate security in the wake of secondary and higher secondary school examinations. Now that the TMCP itself has been at the heart of one of the most heinous acts of campus violence in recent times, and given that school examinations supposedly happen every year (or so I knew), I wonder what new pretext will be invented by the government to prevent students from exercising their right to campus democracy.

In India today, there is a tremendous effort to depoliticise the youth, as can be seen from this piece in The Telegraph which has been distorted tremendously from what I had originally written, parts of which are reproduced here. However, this incident has proved that it does not need you to “do politics” to be caught up in a political slugfest. Presidency has always been the harbinger of change in Bengal. And this is yet another instance of how Presidency can change the tenor of student politics in Bengal.No matter what violence is perpetrated by state actors in Presidency, this enduring belief will persist. Because ideas are bullet-proof. And Presidency is an idea.

I end with these lines from Martin Niemöller:

In Germany
they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

(Waled Aadnan is a postgraduate student of Economics at Presidency University, watching from close quarters the violence perpetrated by the SFI and TMCP in campuses across Bengal and its repercussions on state politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @AadnanW.)

12 thoughts on “Because Presidency is an Idea – All You Need to Know About What Happened at Presidency University: Waled Aadnan”

  1. While I personally share the author’s sense of outrage at the incident that occurred at Presidency, such things are a genuine blot on a country that claims to be the world’s largest “democracy”. Be that as it may, I am equally surprised at her solutions, this kind of argument that ‘we must do politics but then we must remain away from all political parties’ is a strange logic especially as the author herself seems to subscribe to a system based on party politics. At Jadavpur University we do have such a non-political organization functions. It is called FAS. One must understand that students’ politics has to be linked to larger political agendas. While you may not agree that student’s can speak on behalf of lets us say rights of working class or LGBT community or rights of women. The idea that there can be “politics” without such issues as these is dangerous. Why must not student’s speak when FDI in retail is being imposed on this country, much against the interest of the nation? Why should the student’s be silent when imperial wars are being fought in our neighboring countries? The idea of having a ‘apolitical’ students body can in the end only give more vigor and courage to the violence of ruling classes. Should not students’ body take a stand on Kashmir? I am told that ‘we must focus on what concerns students, why indulge in such matters’. Is this politics? What kind of moral economy is required to support such positions, one must ponder. While in Bengal the left has indulged in violence and the SFI has taken ridiculous positions on issues such as introduction of sex education in the past, the proper forum for resolution of such issue is the public.

    I must state that there is no such thing as non-political positions. This is what Sartre calls bad-faith. An act of self-deception. We live in a world where we face massive problems, from global warming to wars and to what is being touted by the ruling classes as ‘globalization’, which is nothing but colonialism in a new dress. These issues have to be discussed on the streets and surely university campuses must not be excluded from it. Demands such as making the campus ‘free’ from all political discussions is as stated earlier nothing but an attempt to reduce voices of dissent. In today’s turbulent time when women are being raped and killed in Kashmir, in Nagaland, in Jharkhand and elsewhere such calls as making students body politic neutral can in the end serve those who are in power. At a time when voices must be raised collectively, such writings are disheartening. Global problems can only be sorted out with a strong moral and collective voice of the people guided by leftist ideology. It is only left that still offers a chance of progress and hope to us.

  2. @ Imtiaz Akhtar: While you are more rhetorical than pragmatic in your response; I would be interested to to know what exactly do you mean by a “political response”? More often than not in our times, political institutions have posed themselves as politics itself. I believe you subscribe to a similar idea which is extremely problematic. I would also like to know exactly which “left” are you talking of here? because as one the foremost leftist thinker of our times Alain Badiou often says, categories like, ‘left’, ‘democracy’ have been turned emblematic in our times…

  3. Rajdeep- (a) What I have written above is not rhetoric I wonder what do you mean by that. I have tried to show you the serious issues we all are facing collectively today and the collective responses that we ought to make to combat them. Individuals, petty “apolitical” bodies, and NGO’s cannot resolve these issues.
    (b) I would be happy to know what kind of pragmatic politics are you talking about. I am sorry to say but here you sound typical like right-wing American politician like Hiliary Clinton.
    (c) When I say left I do not have any particular leftist body in my mind. I believe that a way forward could be to have a multi-left party based democracy. This would be what we call new-democracy. I stand with left when they make sense. I have in the past supported the Maoists as well for their courageous fight they put up against the police atrocities, against forcible land-acquisitions. I have equally supported the CPIM when I first came to know as a young law student about their successful land reforms way back in the 70’s.

  4. I believe that staying away from party politics is a bit of an escapist attitude..I would insist that there is a need of relative independence of the students’ organisations that participate in Students’ Politics… It is a phenomena too relevant in a state like Bengal… Party decisions are forced down upon the students’ bodies. It is true that these students’ organisations are a part of its parent political party and it is expected that they would work for the upkeep of the ideology its parent party represents.. The problem starts when the party starts interfering in almost each and every matter of its respective students’ body…As for apolitical students’ bodies like the FAS, I’m not against them… FAS has played a tremendous role in stopping the monopolization of the SFI at the JU campus… Even, the AMUSU is an apolitical students’ body and it has played its role meticulously over the years…Coming to party politics, it is a fact that India suffers from a terrible leadership vaccum and the immense corruption of our political class can be attributed to the fact that our thinking young minds has stayed away from party politics, either because of the middle class squeamishness “politics is bad”, or because of its disillusionment… What we are seeing throughout India is an assault on the very idea of campus democracy itself; the closing down of the Students’ Union on the pretext of law and order.. What is essential now is for the students to reclaim these institutions which give us our first experience of the democratic process…

  5. @ Imtiaz Akhtar: While I am not all surprised that you chose to bring in Hillary Clinton, assuming you meant her as I do not know anyone named “Hiliary” Clinton- a typical rhetorical device to attack any criticism on behalf of the institutional left in India. However, apart from name-calling, I am glad that you have tried to clarify on your positions which is what exactly I did not find in your previous response and which I thus had called not “pragmatic”. Neither do I believe that political problems can be solved by individuals or NGO’s and I also agree with you on the point that students should have opinions on everything that is happening around us. What I do not agree, is equaling the left with CPIM or Maoists, especially under present conditions. I wonder why the examples you use on your support for the left have to go backwards in time, even as late as 1970’s land-reforms (which by the way was not as holy an act as CPIM would have us believe)? You talk about Maoists who do not believe in participating in parliamentary democracy, so who exactly do you see included in your multi-left party democracy? Under present circumstances in Bengal, I believe the very basic necessity for student politics is to be able to grow unadulterated by institutional politics, to be able to voice their own opinions, to fight their own fights. Let them decide what they want to chose.

  6. Thanks for your feedback, all of you who have commented. Firstly, Imtiaz Akhtar, you’ve got my gender wrong. Now coming to my stand as expressed in this blog regarding student fronts of political mother parties and their role in student politics in Bengal, let me clarify. At the outset, I must make it clear that my suggestions are applicable to Bengal along, since I haven’t been involved with student politics anywhere else and hence, am not in a position to take a stand. Firstly, I did not talk about removing political parties from campus politics. I mentioned “student fronts of mother parties” and let me tell you why my stand is such. Student politics in Bengal over the past few decades has been hijacked by the major political parties of the state to serve only as recruitment fronts for them. So much so that even in Presidency, the major reason why a lot of otherwise politically inactive students did SFI till a few years ago was because this affiliation came with the promise of a governmental job later, maybe a posting as a lecturer after you’ve cleared NET. Look at the scapegoats who have been arrested for the Presidency violence. The mother of one spoke about how he was persuaded by local TMC leaders to accompany them to Kolkata and thereafter Presidency with the promise that it would get him into the good books of She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. This is the ugly truth of affiliated parties in Bengal campuses.

    Now coming to the role that student politics SHOULD play, I absolutely agree with you all that student politics cannot be just about which water purifier is not working and other intra-college issues. All the major burning issues that one of you before me have raised are absolutely in the domain of student politics to raise as important issues in our campuses and our streets. But how far have the two major student bodies affiliated to major political parties, SFI and TMCP managed to raise these issues? You talk about Kashmir! The re-introduction of discussion on Kashmir in Presidency was initiated by yours truly and other “non-politicals” with the screening of “Jashn-e-Azadi” (read this Kafila piece for details http://goo.gl/CV6j3 ). I agree with you absolutely when you say there is no such thing as a “non-political” stand. Everything is political. But do not limit your definition of political by excluding parties like the FAS in JU and IC in Presidency. In my blog, I mentioned “the political” which refers to, say, CPM and TMC, and is different from a political stand.

    Where the charm of independent student parties lies in, is that they are not constrained by mother-party stands to decide their say on a particular matter. When SFI could never support a movement for Gorkhaland, IC stood up for it. Later during the Bodoland riots, tremendous activity took place in Presidency initiated again by independent politicals. Occupy Kolkata was a movement that was mostly free from the influence of any major political party.

    So the space is there. And this space needs to be widened. I am the last person to stand up for a politics of water purifiers.Sorry to have rambled on for so long. Waiting for your feedback again. Thanks for reading and sparing the time to engage here.

  7. 1. Staying out of party politics is the line advocated by a whole lot of people. Many of them, such as the Ananda Bazar group, are the ones also supporting Narendra Modi on te alleged ground of his efficiency. In other words, reduce ideology to a minimum and run down pluralism and democracy.

    2. We founded the JU DSF back in the 1970s. It was non party but not apolitical. We took stand on all kind of issues from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the refugees at Marichjhampi. AND it fought for local issues concerning students.

    3. Led by DYFI cadres, attacks were mounted on us at least twice. Once it was a huge atack. But students of JU hit back. The leader of the attacks was rewarded by being selected a teacher in Ju and nowadays signs as a “concerned academic”. CPI(M) teachers saved the attackers when students gathered and wanted to beat them up.

    4. I am utterly cynical about the Presidency issue. Not because I believe the attack was any less condemnable. But because all the snooty ex-Presi types (and 99 percent of the ex presi types are that) set the attack on Presidency apart from all other violence. So the attack on education in the rest of West Bengal in the past and now are unimportant. I remember Naxalite students trying to contest elections under the Left Front in mofussil colleges in West Bengal being kidnapped and kept locked up till the date of filing the nomination had gone. I remember violence in numerous colleges. And anyone going through the files of newspapers can find some of that. I remember Prasanto Pal of ABSA becoming a martyr in 1979 when Chhatra Parishad goons threw bombs in front of the dental college. After the event, a bunch of SFIs rushed up, saying Prasanto was theirs. Kind of reserving “their” martyr. People had a tough time, first getting rid of the vultures, then stopping more militant students from trying to use violence on the CP.

    5. I am therefore fully supportive of the struggle of Presidency University students, but hope they will not be swayed by the alumni who are calling for “depoliticisation”, and will instead seek to make their struggle a part of the democratic students’ struggles across West Bengal now.

    1. Thank you Sir. The intention of the present Presidencians is certainly not to take the line of the alumni. We don’t know what exactly they have been saying, but our struggle against this particular incident of violence is simple: bring back campus democracy to Presidency. We have also been campaigning against the line taken by the print media in Kolkata to depoliticise campuses and as such, the youth. The student movement in Calcutta won’t die, nor will we let it be hijacked by affiliated parties and their narrow aims.

  8. waled I am sorry for changing your gender (albeit without you consent). I agree that the trouble with left-led and TMC-led students’ body is that by and large they are compelled to take the party line. Few months ago when the SFI-unit of JNU passed a resolution against CPM’s support for Pranab Mukherjee, they were sadly penalized. They had ever right to take a stand that contradicted the Politburo. The CPM it is sad to see behaves sometimes in a way that does not befit a political organisation whose cherish goals are ‘all power to the people’. As I see, even if you do not like any students’ front with links to its mother party perhaps we have no option. While you are free to indulge in politics without political party, this kind of model is equally capable of getting corrupt. I have spend seven years at AMU. It has a history of not allowing political parties to enter its campus. Believe me, after every election students’ leaders fire ‘katta’ (country made pistol) in air, this is done to mark their celebration and victory. Killing takes place in a rampant manner. In seven years I have seen at least 3-4 deaths of students. And plus they contest elections on ‘local’ issues. You seem to believe that once political parties are kicked out, students’ politics would become neat and clean. Sadly, reality suggests otherwise. What we need is principled politics, a politics that says what must be said. And

  9. I am a Marathi guy. I always had an assumption of Bengal being the land of thoughtful thinking. People are progressive and have a different perspective of life. I also used to think that Mamata Banerjee will take west Bengal to new heights of glory and development it deserves to be.
    However, this recent episodes of violence and censorship by her govt has saddened and angered me as well. How can someone be such dictatorial? You kill students for just protesting you? You let a fraud guy and your MP cheat poor people to rob their hard earned money?
    I really think that you guys should come up with a solution for this. You still have 3 years in hand before the next election. You can’t trust CPI or TMC.. Then is there any other alternative? I don’t trust congress either. What can be done?
    In less or more ways, every student in India feels the same way. We have to understand that we are the leader of future. If someone from us goes on to became a great leader, we can expect at least some changes from leaders from tomorrow.
    My apologies for posting something which might appear amateur and lacking depth.

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