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.
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:
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.)