Guest Post by Ahona Panda
About eight years ago, while lounging about doing nothing much in the campus of Jadavpur University where I was a student of the English department, I came across some callously etched graffiti:
Jodi prem na dile praane
Tobe Jadavpure pathanor ki mane?
(If you haven’t given this life some love–
What is the point of sending one to Jadavpur?)
Eight years on I cannot imagine the luxury of lounging about doing nothing much. One moves on in life after graduating from Jadavpur University. Meanwhile, in home and the world, the complete freedom (some will persist in calling this anarchy) of the JU campus has made it a legend somewhat like Dirty Harry: either worship and put it in on a pedestal, or condemn it thoroughly. The reputation of JU since the infamous 1970s has been as a hub of constantly bubbling anarchism, where Naxalites are hatching their next program of action, where ignorant armies like SFI and other anti-SFI groups clash by night.
It is therefore with heady anticipation and slight desperation that thousands of your own children, your neighbors’ children, your boss’s children, as well as children from the North East, from Midnapore and Bankura, from Birbhum to Sunderbans, from Bardhaman right up to Bihar, join this university. After all Jadavpur University, that came to be one of the most prominent centers of academic excellence in the 1950s has a history that goes right back into the time of the national movement. Along with the a few other prominent Calcutta colleges, the origins of JU lie in the National Council of Education, established in the year 1906 as a response to the Universities Act (1904) of Lord Curzon, brutal imperialist extraordinaire. Interestingly the history of the anti-colonial National Council of Education also lay in what was primarily a student’s movement and agitation (this was the time of swadeshi, thus the student boycott of Calcutta University, along with thousands assembling to hear nationalist leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, Surendranath Banerjee, Rabindranath Tagore). It’s interesting to see how history repeats itself—JU was always a political university, a university that defined what it meant to be political.
Right now it’s in the news for a student movement and agitation that began as a peaceful protest. A student of the university was assaulted by ten hostel boys, her friend beaten up. The students, irrespective of political affiliation, demanded a fair and impartial investigation. They were not heard. When they demanded justice, they were beaten up brutally by Kolkata Police and possibly by TMCP cadres and the RAF. Three students were critically injured. Numerous others are in hospital. Some were even arrested on that fateful night. For many of these students, it was the first time that they were involved in something “political”.
What does it mean to be political? Is it enough to vote in a change of power from time to time? Does democracy mean having to tolerate assorted clowns that go by the names of sickular and minorities? Will we ever see development, balanced industrialization and wider roads? Who will protect the natural resources and biodiversity of large parts of the country? Shall our children be well settled in New York or Frankfurt? Can they at least have the decency to move to Singapore? Will Congress ever revive itself from the scourge of dynastic politics? Will Chetan Bhagat stop his twitter feed? These are possibly some of the questions that keep all kinds of urban middle-class Indians awake at night in these troubled times.
Within your narratives of upward social and economic mobility, the comforting stories you tell yourself of education giving you a push forward in life (small town to big city, big city to bigger city, degrees following more degrees and so on)—the young students of Jadavpur University have demonstrated what education and the quest for knowledge really comprises.
The matter is fairly simple. In the last five years sexual violence has become the norm in the country. This is no longer a country for women, religious minorities, and vulnerable sections of society. Political parties have embraced the “lumpen” in the lumpen proletariat; mass ideologies have disintegrated into satiating and pleasing the mob. West Bengal has been no different in its steady dissolution into mob politics. When Mamata Banerjee received a huge mandate to usher in poriborton (change) after three decades of vicious and stagnant bourgeois-Communist rule, nobody knew that they had welcomed autocracy with open arms. Moreover, our political cultures are cultures of continuity: idealogy is like a face scrub. You put it on your face, whether it’s neem or sandalwood, but the unprepossessing face remains just the same. Just as the present central government has continued the previous government’s economic and social agenda (with some added flavors like RSS), TMCP has similarly continued the noble tradition of political appointments in the educational sphere, and it is an open secret that the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University has always been a political appointment. Many affiliates of the ruling party do not hold sane views on the issue of sexual violence. The Chief Minister herself has previously described rapes in both urban and rural settings as “shajano ghotona” i.e. conspiracies to discredit her government. Of late, one of her MPs, one time matinee idol Tapas Pal threatened to “rape” opposition, while speaking in his constituency. The party refrained from condemning or disciplining his comments. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University refused to give the afflicted student a fair committee that would investigate her complaint. It is also hardly surprising that many people in the state and in this country are misunderstanding what this agitation is about. They are now apathetic to the grave and major issue of sexual violence and injustice: it has become too commonplace. In light of these reactions, it needs to be clarified that this agitation is not about token anti-establishment behavior, a desire to be counter-cultural and radical. These young undergraduates are not a misplaced and displaced Vietnam generation.
What do the students of Jadavpur University want? They want justice. Some of them were very young when the last spate of political protests happened in Bengal—during the CPI(M)s Nandigram atrocities of 2007. CPI(M)’s long and continuous taking-for-granted of their major voter base (the rural vote) cost them dearly. This time, a sizeable portion of the children and the youth of West Bengal have demanded some basic human rights—safety, justice, an attempt towards dialogue. They are agitating because these rights have been denied by political formations and bodies that have forgotten they were voted in by a democratic process. The students of Jadavpur University are sick of paternalism, patriarchal arrogance, the exclusionary practices of the state. They don’t want the girls in their campus to be feeling unsafe like they are forced to feel outside. They don’t want to stop singing, laughing and writing poetry because it is compassion, respect, tolerance, creativity and beauty that are the bulwarks of democracy. So do not judge them because they laugh and sing: it is not radical to laugh or sing. Not yet.
The students of Jadavpur University are agitating for a better India than you have seen in a while.
(If you haven’t given this life some love–What is the point of sending one to Jadavpur?)
Ahona Panda is a graduate student of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. She is an alumnus of Jadavpur University.