Freedom and the University – Reflections from a Teacher: Rimi.B.Chatterjee

Guest Post by RIMI B.CHATTERJEE. Photographs by RONNY SEN.

Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen
Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

There has been a lot of noise about the recent agitation at Jadavpur University, and a lot of slanted media coverage. Allow me to set the record straight on a number of points.

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Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

The agitation at JU has been wrongly represented as a student agitation, notably by Professor Sugata Marjit in his piece – ‘Gherao A Criminal Act: It Should be Bannned’ – in the Times of India of 24 September 2014. In that piece he has totally ignored the numerous resolutions passed by the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association condemning the actions of the interim Vice Chancellor, and calling for his immediate and unconditional resignation. This is a protest movement involving all branches of the university, and it is so because we all recognise what is being attacked here: our academic freedom. Long before this issue blew up on people’s TV screens, the interim Vice Chancellor has been waging a war of attrition on the academic culture of Jadavpur University. His most recent act was to remove by fiat all the directors of the interdisciplinary schools, which in Jadavpur are the homes of a great deal of high quality research and therefore significant funding. This act has put the futures of these schools in jeopardy. Most of the faculty of JU rightly see this as the latest salvo in a war.

Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen
Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

Over the last few days we have fatigued ourselves telling the press over and over again that Jadavpur is a centre of excellence. Their lack of reaction to this comment suggests to me that they do not understand what it means. To give you one small example: speaking for myself, when I teach my first-year students about the French Revolution, the Peterloo Massacre, the Chartist Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the Tolpuddle Martyrs, I tell them that the blood spilled during these incidents was not a Hollywood special effect. These were real events, and the people involved were the founders of today’s rights and freedoms. If I say these things in class, I cannot tell my students that when their rights and freedoms are attacked, they should quietly go home and study for their examinations. That would be the worst kind of hypocrisy, and I am not the only teacher at Jadavpur University who believes this.

Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen
Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

It is probably because our enemies cannot assail our academic credentials that they have been attacking the students’ lifestyle choices, including their clothes, their behaviour and their language. These are vulnerable subjects for young people who are just transiting from wearing school uniforms and behaving in a playground-appropriate fashion. Of course some of them will get it wrong. But they must have a sandbox in which to try out various choices before they figure it out. That is why universities must be safe spaces where they will not immeidately be attacked for poor taste or rudeness. Instead, we at Jadavpur University have always tried to reason with them, seeing this self-exploring process as an indispensable part of education. This includes socialising boys and girls who have spent most of their teens in a same-sex environment to deal with each other fairly, freely and politely. When mistakes happen or wrongdoing occurs, we try to set things right gently and without further intimidation or aggravation. That process was sadly derailed and then vitiated by our current interim Vice Chancellor.

Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen
Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

In treating our students like provisional adults, we are supported by a very old tradition. This country is no stranger to the idea of a university as a safe space where dangerous ideas can be discussed without fear. The first Buddhist viharas were ayslums for the cultures of the tribal oligarchies that were being swallowed by the toxic empire of Kosala. As the renowned scholar Haraprasad Shastri details in his book Buddhist Bengal, this eastern land became the home of many such viharas in the centuries that followed. Later on, when war destablised the region, the peripatetic Baul communities became the wandering universities of our culture, travelling through the hostile terrain of compartmentalised, patriarchal mainstream culture and spreading their message through music and performance. These groups were also a lifeline for victims of abuse who could leave the power structures that imprisoned them and travel anonymously with them, stopping occasionally at ashrams and dargahs before continuing their search for likeminded thinkers. Once these escapees became part of the fringe community, they were given instruction that illuminated for them the nature of their pain and its causes. Their deliberately dramatic clothes, hairstyles and lifestyle choices were a warning to ‘respectable’ people to keep their hegemonies to themselves.

"I am a small match stick" - Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen
“I am a small match stick” – Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

This was the historical terrain in which I set my novels City of Love and Black Light. Those books inspired many of my students from urban middle class backgrounds to go out into the countryside and meet the Bauls, learn their music and their traditions, archive their work and introduce them to a wider audience in the city. I believe it is this developing connection between the beleaguered remnants of Bengal’s radical fringe and the urban, westernised, educated middle class that is behind the administration’s obsession with ‘drugs and alcohol’ on campus, because such a connection is very bad news for mainstream patriarchy in this state. It is ironic that in the United States, so admired by the current administration, marijuana is moving towards complete legalisation, while in the land where it is a sacrament and a deity it remains banned. But drugs are a soft target, because their abuse is easily paraded in the media, while the differing positions of the intellectual cultures at war here require thought and care to be understood, both qualities in short supply among the rulers at present. As I have been saying constantly to my students in these interesting times, history will judge us.

Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen
Graffiti on Jadavpur University Walls. Photograph by Ronny Sen

Rimi B. Chatterjee is an Associate Professor at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

Thank you, Ronny Sen, once again, for the images.

4 thoughts on “Freedom and the University – Reflections from a Teacher: Rimi.B.Chatterjee”

  1. Very eloquently put. The Vice Chancellors of most universities have become the Chancellors of Vice when in fact they should have been Wise Chancellors…

    Like

  2. Rimidi, a beautiful and eloquent piece. You have helped us be more creative, questioning and upright individuals.

    Like

  3. What makes this article inimitable is the author’s perfect understanding of the thought process of the students

    Like

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