Guest Post by AHONA PANDA
The Vice Chancellor,
and the Education System of West Bengal.
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.
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.