A Letter to the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University, Kolkata: Ahona Panda

Guest Post by AHONA PANDA

[Ek Je Cchilo VC / Once There Was a VC – Thanks to Utsavdan, and to Manik-da of Bishop Lefroy Road]


The Vice Chancellor,
Jadavpur University,

and the Education System of West Bengal.

Respected Sir,

I would like to return to this university a gold medal that it awarded me, then a girl of 21, in the year 2009. I’ve never worn that medal since my convocation, and it lies in the box it was awarded in. I was a student of the English department in this university, and went on to study at Oxford and University of Chicago. It took a long and difficult time before I could figure out my own intellectual journey. I am now a student of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, where I am writing a dissertation that pertains to the cultural history of Bengal in the early 20th century.

Given that I read the works of people like Rabindranath Tagore, Mohammad Shahidullah, Dinesh Chandra Sen, I find it important to tell you that the Bengal(s) these minds have envisaged or were striving to achieve is not the Bengal that you have been able to deliver. What happened on the fateful night when more than a hundred students were set upon by brutal and armed police force was unprecedented in its horrifying brutality. The same university which taught me to value freedom—of expression, of thought, of aspiration, of love—has now dissolved into a degraded existence in which the very administration that is entrusted with enabling the dissemination of such values has failed the greatest vital force this country now has: its youth.

But Vice Chancellor, this is also not the reason why this medal is choking me. This medal is now a noose because I see generations of young people who think life is either about academic excellence or some bizarre notion of radicalism/counter-culturalism symbolized by free love, marijuana and other excesses that you would know better about, since you believe this entire movement comprises the latter. Our world is a world that consists of believing that first class first is better than first class second is better than second class. This is, I believe, a wrong way of approaching any intellectual activity.

However, this is again also not the reason why this medal is now a noose to me. 

National and international media abounds with the problem of sexual violence in this country.  In the winter of 2006, as a first year in this university, I was assaulted by a random hooligan who beat me up to a pulp between Gate number 4 and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Polytechnic. My friends and I were shaken but we believed that had it not been a deserted Sunday evening without students around—had this been inside the campus—this would never have happened. Jadavpur University for many women was a safe and beautiful oasis where we could wear what we wanted, laugh, sing and smoke the occasional cigarette without being judged or violated. It was a space where we were driven towards academic and personal excellence not only by our teachers but by our peers. It made our youth unbearably romantic, quixotic, passionate and exciting. We taught ourselves how to struggle.  Together, and individually.

You disrespected that struggle, dear Vice Chancellor. This establishment and what you have made it is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our society. The world we live in is unethical and unfair. Yet, you have tainted an institution that stands not only for “rebellion”, but also for gender equity. As a woman, as a scholar, as a human being I can make do without a gold medal. What I cannot do without is a country that knows how to treat and respect its women with respect, with honour, with empathy. Therefore, I am sorry to inform you that unless you ensure that girl a fair and just investigation, unless you give her molesters due retribution for their crime, and unless you acknowledge that young people who are like your children—since you believe in a patriarchal social order—should not be brutalized, then nothing can induce me to take this gold medal back.
I do not believe in excellence. I believe in democracy.
This gold medal symbolizes three years of learning, hard work, aspiration, and tremendous ambition along with what my friends taught me—struggle, love, compassion, empathy, a desire to see a happier world. A world in which beauty, not violence, is the reality.
Therefore I sacrifice those best years of my life by giving this medal not just to protest against your actions but to stand by the people who, at 21, have experienced and learned some of life’s hardest lessons because of you.

This is not a selfless act by any means, I have given back this university a vital part of myself.

Thanking you,

Yours sincerely,

Ahona Panda

Alumna. Jadavpur University, Kolkata

See also – earlier on Kafila – Notes from Jadavpur by Ahona Panda

Ahona Panda is a graduate student of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. She is an alumna of Jadavpur University.

14 thoughts on “A Letter to the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University, Kolkata: Ahona Panda”

  1. Really touched by your admirable gesture thank you for standing up I am a former Calcutta University student

  2. If you want to return a medal, please, go ahead and return it. Why do you have to make such a song and dance about it?

      1. Thanks, Jhankar Malakar.

        Just assuming for the sake of argument that Ahona Panda was indeed “making a song and dance” about returning the medal, how does it adversely affect anyone else?

      2. Originality is entrancing. Perhaps you can give a slightly more delightful assessment? This is incredibly tiresome. I replied to you because I think I made it clear that this entire spectacle–the rigmarole of the enacted protest–was a matter of the heart. Appeal for my brains another day, when I’m less moved by historical events.

          1. I’m so sorry Mr. Malakar. My head was kind of imploding with the injustice I’ve been seeing around me. My juniors in ICU! Is this a situation worth bearing? How can there be any academic excellence–or even effort–where human rights, human dignity is a joke? Apologies for the misunderstanding. Thanks for reading.

  3. Dear Ahona,my salute!!! I was a student of Calcutta University many years back in the seventies, and this was what we learned and imbibed, -that not to accept things which are wrong, to always stand up for justice and fair play, and keep your spine straight come what may.
    Today, while it makes me sad with the apparently irreversible downslide in Bengal led by the ruling fraternity, it is act like yours and the student community in Bengal and elsewhere which tells me that not everything is lost after all, and there is tomorrow when the sun will again shine.

  4. Dear Sanjoy. Protest needs to be a performance so that people can sit up and take some notice. I am sure I would not go and say hi to our Education Minister and tell him my reasons why I disliked the educational and political system, which led to this decision. I knew naysayers and sceptics would come and accuse me of drama. Good for you and I totally understand your point–it was a question I asked myself too. Do I really want to reach out to so many people?

    If you knew the competitive educational system in which I grew up in–the value given to marks, to success, to professional and material success, you would not say this perhaps. If you knew how difficult it is to survive as a woman in this society, and have ambitions, aspirations, a sense of humour, a desire to not be groped and violated on every Indian street, you would not say this.

    If you knew how much I respect the students who were protesting for a girl molested in campus, who are my young friends–beaten up, with broken bones but unbroken spirits, you would not perhaps have made this comment.

    Most of all, I wanted to convey my desire for an egalitarian, nay equal, educational system where medals are not given. But where respect is given to students. For their hopes, for their ambitions, for their gender and sexual preferences, irrespective of caste, class, ethnicity. This was all I wanted to convey. This is the only public statement that I have given in entirety so far. Because I believe in democracy, I do not wonder at your comment. Both of us need to exist in this world, in this country, in this society. Thank you for pointing out that hope will not shine bright without cynicism.

    1. Ahona, I quite appreciate your taking time off to post a detailed reply. I understand that it is an impassioned one, and in fact I agree with the most part of it. I graduated from the same university as you have, so yes, I understand the pressures of a competitive education system and the knife edge to which it brings us all (or those of us who can afford a semblance of an education anyway, for we all know that billions more remain outside the purview even of this heartless system).

      When you speak of the difficulties of growing up a woman, I cannot but nod in agreement. For while not a woman myself, I can only understand full well the travails of being one. When you speak of the students of my (our) university being beaten up, believe me, I know. Being an alumnus I have my contacts and I am in daily touch with the protest movement that is gathering steam.

      The only thing is that I never much cared for medals. I am not a believer in a system that recognizes the merits of a few while exploiting many. I do not for a moment doubt or belittle your hard work, your perseverance and your sincerity that earned that medal for you. The medal itself, however, is an object of deification to me. I do not believe in receiving a medal from a symbol of state injustice, nor do I believe in making a song and dance while returning it.

      I hope I have made myself amply clear. Once again, thank you for your time.

      1. Fair enough. Many agree with your view. I do myself.
        The point is, this was addressed to the Vice Chancellor, not to you. Thank you for your time.

        1. But of course this was not addressed to me! The question of who this is addressed to is in fact moot – because to me there is no legitimacy of a medal in the first place. I would just as carelessly receive a medal as return it back to the VC or whoever it is. As I have already pointed out, the state tries to differentiate between a few haves and a billion have nots by such acts as proffering of medals. It throws a few trinkets in the form of a medal here and a merit award there and thereby tries to inculcate a false sense of superiority in the recipients of its favors. Therefore, to return a medal while making a public announcement of it only serves to strengthen that false aura around state power. Returning it back without a care, or without a song and dance as I earlier put it, would be a better form of protest.

      2. Precisely who is making a song and dance here? If “Sanjoy” does not believe in medals that’s fine. Why thrust his disdain down other people’s throats? What locus standi does he have to judge Ahona Panda’s gesture?
        She was making a political point. And a political point needs to be made in public. She did that. If “Sanjoy” feels jealous about this that’s his problem. Not hers or anyone else’s.
        And such a long song and dance about not accepting medals. Who cares?
        Was the Gurudev too making a “song and dance” in the last century?

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