Guest Post by UDITI SEN
It’s been more than a week since tens of thousands of students marched in a rain drenched Saturday in Kolkata, in solidarity with Jadavpur University students and their fight for justice. Much has happened since to delegitimise this mammoth, genuinely popular and student-led march. A counter-march, the co-optation of the victim’s father by the ruling party, adverse propaganda in the press and fatigue and confusion amongst the protestors have been some of the dampening developments that followed the unexpected show of student power. True to their clarion call, hok kolorob (let there be clamour), the marchers made a lot of noise. A week later, as the numbers of protestors on the streets have dissipated as fast as they had congregated, it is perhaps time to step back from the euphoria of the gathering and the intimidation and murky co-optation of protest that followed, to reflect on the political meanings and potential of this uprising.
The march was not organised by any single political party, though many with experience or background in student politics of one ilk or the other, marched. The vast majority, however, were students who had never marched before and had no experience of politics. The question therefore arises, what, if anything is the unifying ideology of this body of protestors? What goals motivate them? Above all, the question that is doing the rounds the most, on social media, on mainstream news and on the streets is what are the politics of the protestors? The question of politics is seldom posed directly. Its ubiquitous presence, however, can be clearly read in the answers provided regarding the nature of the march, the motivations of the protestors and the identity of the marchers. Unsurprisingly, diametrically opposite sets of answers emerge from members of the ruling party, inside and outside Jadavpur University; and the people who took to the streets on Saturday. From the Vice Chancellor, the Education Minister and officially ordained leaders of the ‘youth’, such as Abhishek Banerjee and Shankudeb Panda, characterisations emerge that focus on indiscipline on campus, presence of Maoist and other outsiders and deep conspiracies. From students of Jadavpur University and their sympathisers, assertions emerge that this protest is about justice and not about politics. Both characterisations fail to capture what is at stake.
What we are witnessing, in the kolorob that has spilled over from Jadavpur University onto the streets of Calcutta, is a clear opposition between the prose of those in power and the poetry of protest. But this opposition is not between politically motivated speech and an ‘apolitical’ quest for justice, notwithstanding characterisations by mainstream media and the disavowals of spirited protestors. What is at stake is a disagreement over the limits of political power, the manner in which elected governments and executive authorities can rule and the expectations that people, ordinary people, can have of those who rule in their name. While these may not be issues debated or taken up with any seriousness by existing political parties in West Bengal that does not make them any less political, in the broadest sense of the word. A closer look at the poetry of protest reveals not just wit and catchy phrases, but a profound critique of the established patterns of party-politics, what I call politics as usual. Defending the status quo of politics as usual is the prose of power, a concerted and by now, predictable pattern of allegations and misinformation designed to delegitimise popular protest. A closer look at the slogans thrown up in Kolkata suggests that the poetry of protest is not just critical of the prose of power, but also carries embedded within it aspirations of a different, more just society, thus speaking, in hushed tones, of a politics of democratic possibilities.
Dismantling the Prose of Power: The Proud Outsider
The response of the authorities to the protest has followed what has become, by now, a familiar pattern. Every protest, every report of violence against women in Mamata’s Bengal is dismissed as choto ghotona (insignificant incident), shajano ghotona (a made-up incident) or chokranto (conspiracy). Such attempts to reframe and discredit genuine popular protest as either insignificant or a deep conspiracy by outsiders (bohiragoto) is eerily familiar in West Bengal. The allegation of being an ‘outsider’ was most famously and consistently mobilised by the Left Front government in Singur and Nandigram, as was the spectre of Maoism. Thus, despite a change in the identity of the ruling party, little has changed in the way those in authority relate to popular protest. It is clear, that neither the CPI(M), nor the TMC, once in power, have any space for popular movements that cannot readily be transformed into electoral gains. Despite whatever ideology might separate these two parties, they (and I suspect any political party that comes to power without actively seeking to dismantle the structures of domination that characterise West Bengal’s society and economy) share a common prose of power. The goal of this prose is to delegitimise popular protest. Its most obvious tool is language itself, backed by an entire machinery of propaganda and where necessary, some old-fashioned intimidation.
My attempt to map out this prose of power is heavily indebted to Ranajit Guha’s ‘Prose of Counter Insurgency’ that taught us to read self-avowedly neutral reports of peasant insurgency produced by colonial officials as texts entirely complicit in upholding existing structures of domination. Following Guha’s work, which taught us to read ‘revolt against zamindari’ whenever colonial reports spoke of ‘defying the authority of the state’ and replace allegations of ‘intention to attack’ with ‘intention to punish oppressors’; may we not also learn to read the present prose of power for signs of complicity? The process has already started, on the streets, with student protestors countering allegations of being outsiders or ‘bohiragoto’ with declarations of ‘ami gorbito, ami bohiragoto – pashe achi Jadavpur’, which translates as ‘I am proud, I am an outsider, # Standing with Jadavpur’.
Thus, the poetry of protest takes the allegation of being from outside, being an illegitimate presence, and turns it into a proud presence of solidarity, an act of standing by friends/lovers/fellow students/fellow citizens. Surely, in future, it will be easier to read ‘proud presence in solidarity’ every time the authorities report ‘illegitimate presence of outsiders’ in a movement of protest. Neither the allegation of bohiragoto, nor its poetic refutation is new.
Shankha Ghosh’s brilliant poem by the same name begins by declaring ‘You don’t want to talk about me ? Then surely, I am an outsider’. But it is with the current kolorob that protestors on the streets have radically inverted the meaning of being a bohiragoto. They have made it into a fine thing to be, instead of a terrible and indefensible thing to be.
The authorities have made several other allegations of terrible acts/ways of being against students. Not all of the allegations have (as yet) met their match on the streets, in the poetry of protest. But all can be subjected to a similar inversion of meaning- a peeling away of the prose of power to reveal an idiom of protest- a fine way to be. Such an exercise has its uses for two reasons. Firstly, the prose of power is far from toothless. Its tactics and propaganda are designed to demoralise and its campaign in Kolkata has just begun. This piece is my humble contribution to the work of rendering its language toothless. Secondly, whatever action the authorities mark as terrible is what evokes the most terror in those who cling to the trappings of power at any cost; that which is demonised as indefensible is often also the very act against which the status quo has little or no defence. Thus a productive, might I even say, revolutionary, response against the allegations of those in power is not to plead or demonstrate innocence, but to embrace what one is accused of, but by its true name.
[ Partial Translation: ‘Today it’s them, what guarantee is there it won’t be us tomorrow? To protest one does not need to be an insider or outsider. I had joined the march to fight against this tendency to divide. I will march again. In solidarity- Shubhrangshu Sarkar, Rupkala Kendra.]
The proud embrace of the label of bohiragoto, as an ally, as one who stands in solidarity with the oppressed, demonstrates this move perfectly. Besides slogans, t-shirts and banners, the protests in Kolkata have also led to a facebook page, the ‘Bohiragoto-r Diary’ or ‘Outsider’s Diary’, which has testimonies from protestors who are not students of Jadavpur, but who marched anyway and who stand in solidarity with their struggle. Through these testimonies, the true names of the much-demeaned outsider emerge – ally, compatriot, human, student, sympathiser.
This act of re-naming the bohiragoto is of vital political importance as it points towards what the proponents of a politics-as-usual fear the most – alliances, solidarity and unity across campuses and between disparate sections of society. For such a politics of solidarity to come into being, the presence of ‘outsiders’ is a must. The presence of the bohiragoto can even be read a sign of when a local, isolated act of protest starts becoming something larger- a movement with dreams of justice. And a movement is neither as easily ignored, nor as easily suppressed as an isolated act of protest.
Following this logic, beginning to list all that the prose of power denounces as terrible can create a check list of all that terrifies the authorities the most, and therefore, all the actions that must be embraced in their true name. Below, I have attempted an analysis of the most common allegation against the students – indiscipline, phrased variously as ‘nairajyo/arajokota (which roughly translate as lawlessness) and gundami (thuggishness). The attempt is to translate what the prose of power says into what it actually means, and also, to speculate what the true name of indiscipline might be in an idiom of protest.
Indiscipline Vs Autonomous Learning
Accusations of indiscipline have been the most common refrain used to delegitimise the protestors. Rather than go into the specifics of these allegations, I would like to get to the core of the authoritarian, top-down vision of education that enables this allegation to stick. Our education minister and state-ordained political leaders define education in the narrowest possible terms. The students are repeatedly told to ‘return to books’ and to ‘exams’ and thus restore ‘normalcy’ to campus.
[ Trailer of Film Adaptation by Q of ‘Tasher Desh’ Rabindranath Tagore’s Visionary Anarchist Opera ]
The vision of disciplined education and campus life the authorities are evoking perhaps has its best expression in Rabindranath Tagore’s Tasher Desh (Country of Cards). The rules of that land evoked niyom or law/discipline above all else. ‘Cholo niyom mote, cholo niyom mote. Dure takiyo nako. Ghar Bankiyo nako…’ (Live by the rules, Don’t look Far, Don’t look askew).
In this vision of education, we have students as automatons, who stick to their prescribed roles: learn only what is offered for learning in classes and prescribed text books, and regurgitate that in the exams to win the necessary piece of paper that will be currency in the job market. Learning that cannot be converted to such currency has no value, if the authorities are to be believed. In fact, the prose of power would have values such as justice and all the skills that students can learn through organising excluded from the sphere of education.
2nd From Left: We want education in educational institutes, not lawlessness. Hiding behind guitars is a deep conspiracy.
5th from left: Alcohol and Marijuana are becoming scarce, the real reason behind songs of protest.
Source: Shankudeb Panda’s Facebook profile. Shankudeb Panda is the leader of the Trinamool Congress Student Organization
Organising outside classrooms, conversing with the administration, requires students to educate themselves in the structures of administration, the ins and outs of how to effectively communicate and make demands within a certain system, how to hold it accountable. These are the nuts and bolts of practicing democratic citizenship. Yet, these are devalued as they are not the students ‘job’- they have deviated from memorising and regurgitating texts into learning about how to practice democracy and stand up for justice. This is, indeed, a terrible thing. They are also learning through doing the skills of communication, public speaking, the challenges of working with and across differences, the risk that egos pose to any kind of organising and the resolve and creativity needed to preserve unity. These are also, clearly, terrible skills for students to pick up. Indeed, what can be more terrifying to un-democratic power structures than an informed and active student body that does not just learn from texts, but also from the world they live in? A student body that applies their skills with words and their intelligence in the pursuit of dreams of democratic administration and justice, and not just in the pursuit of a pay-check, is surely a fine development for any democratic polity.
The true name of indiscipline seems to me, to be autonomy – of thought and action. Far from not being a student’s job/role, autonomous thinking and learning that is aided by but not confined to books, is the very essence of education and what distinguishes it from ‘training’. Any educator worth his/her salt will tell you that our job is not to help students memorise relevant facts for an examination, but to teach them to think for themselves, in an informed and autonomous way. It is thus unsurprising that of the many cultural tropes used by students to describe themselves, one is of the students of Satyajit Ray’s Hirok Rajar Deshe, who were at the forefront of the crowd pulling down the king’s statue, a symbol of autocratic power. By evoking this trope, the movement that has spilled out from Jadavpur onto the streets, has inadvertently called out the authorities’ vision of education by its true name: mogojdholai, or brain-washing, which is designed to control and not to educate.
The prose of power is rich with allegations that lend themselves to this work of translation. This piece is inspired by and written in solidarity with the idealism of the students on the streets, and against an all-too-easy recourse to cynicism. So the list below is an open invitation to all to defang the prose of power through translations and re-namings.
|Mod/Ganja (drinking and smoking marijuana) on Jadavpur Campus||Moral Policing of Behaviour/Character Assassination||A rejection of puritanical codes of behaviour/Aspirations for Freedom (see image of graffiti below)|
|Girls in shorts/girls wearing tank tops||Gender policing through slut-shaming and victim-blaming||Aspirations of safety of expression for women and de-sexualisation of the female body|
|Disrespect of elders/professors/ administrators||Authoritarian administration of student affairs||Democratic governance that includes student representation|
|#hokprotibad (let there be protest)Claims of protesting against student indiscipline||A command performance of protest, filling the streets with TMC constituents. Intended to capture the political capital of being a dissenter (protibadi)||#hokkyalano (let there be beatings) Hopes of beating into submissionautonomous student movements (I am indebted to TMC’s ‘youth’ and student leaders for providing this translation of their own actions)|
This list is neither exhaustive, nor thought through. But it reflects my hope that in the kolorob in Kolkata, a new generation of students have begun to dream of a new kind of politics, rich with possibilities of democratisation, participation, equal opportunity and gender justice. These dreams and aspirations are not new, nor are they easy in a society riven with deep inequities of caste, class and gender. Moreover, these aspirations are expressed within a democratic structure where political parties have learnt to thrive on social inequities, rather than challenge the social status quo. This context of politics-as-usual, which relies of bullying, intimidation, hierarchy and propaganda, and is actually hostile to popular and autonomous aspirations of democratisation, brings me to my final and perhaps most vital act of translation.
‘Apolitical’ Protest Vs A Politics of Possibilities
In their desperation to protect their dreams of justice and democratic participation from becoming fodder for politics-as-usual, many students have claimed an ‘apolitical’ stance. In the immediate aftermath of the mahamichil (grand march) on Saturday, The Telegraph reported the presence of anti-government sentiments, but absence of ‘politics’. (JU-bagh at heart of city, 20 Sept). Many students, especially many who have sought to proudly embrace the tag of bohiragoto have also hastened to embrace the label ‘apolitical’. (See example below.)
Yet, how can the demand for justice, the demand to be heard, the refusal to accept imperious or irresponsible behaviour from figures of authority, be anything but a political demand? These demands carry within them aspirations of a different, better society and a reworking of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, where those in power cannot rule with impunity. This, at its core, is a deeply democratic and therefore political aspiration. It seems that an act of translation is necessary to make sense of this paradox: an idiom of democratic protest that has donned the garb of the ‘apolitical’.
SUCH A LOT IS WON WHEN A SINGLE MAN SAYS A NO
Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht, quoted by Riddhi Sen in ‘We The Young, We the Fighters’, an article in The Telegraph, Kolkata
Riddhi Sen is a student of class XI in the National Institute of Open Schooling, he is also an actor on stage and in films.
Ridhdhi Sen’s article in the Telegraph begins to get closer to articulating what this assertion of being ‘apolitical’ means for today’s youth. He identifies as a fighter, evokes Brecht, the power of saying NO to injustice, the potential of independence of thoughts and actions amongst the young and yet, distances himself from politics through the claim ‘we don’t need any political party to protest’. (We the young, we the fighters, 22 Sept). The disavowal of politics is clearly not a turning away from active participation in the fight for social justice. It is a distancing from existing political parties.
It seems a correct reading of the claim to be ‘apolitical’ would be a critique of ‘politics-as-usual’ and not an absence of political aspirations, such as justice and democracy. The poetry of protest thrown up in Calcutta expresses a deep dissatisfaction with so-called alternatives or options offered to an electorate by opposing political parties. Through poetry and art, the students were quick to point out that wildly varied official ideologies and pre-electoral posturing give way to but identical autocratic tendencies once in power. A slogan heard at the mahamichil last Saturday was ‘Alimuddin shukiye kaath, shotru ekhon Kalighat’. The Telegraph aptly translated this as ‘Alimuddin is a shrivelled stick, the new enemy is Kalighat (where Mamata lives)’, and yet failed to grasp its political significance. This is a new generation of protestors, for whom the rewards of politics as usual are insufficient. They are willing to call the bluff of the ‘establishment’ left and the right with equal passion. Though calling themselves ‘apolitical’ they are unwilling to be pushed out of the sphere of public protest or intimidated into giving up on their dreams of a different, more just society.
The concensus that emerges out of the Kolorob in Kolkata is thus one of deep disaffection with politics as usual. An ability to see through the competitive posturing of rival political parties to the self-serving rot within political parties that destroys democratic possibilities is neither new in West Bengal, nor unique to those who walked for justice in Kolkata last Saturday. What is new is a willingness to re-occupy the public sphere. What is new, is the willingness to share experiences, organisational skills and dreams of a better tomorrow across campuses, unmediated by the elders of established political parties. And in this space of sharing and organising, the seeds of a new kind of politics have been sown. This is a politics pregnant with new possibilities – of democratisation and of justice and of holding the elected accountable to the electorate. I hope that as the seeds of this new kind of politics takes root in West Bengal, those who identify as ‘apolitical’ today might eventually come to call themselves by their true name- idealists, fighters and dreamers of a politics of new possibilities.
Uditi Sen lives in a small town in Massachusetts, USA and teaches South Asian History at Hampshire College. She was active in student politics, with and without banners, at Presidency University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.