A Reply to Ranabir Samaddar on Jadavpur: Uditi Sen

Guest Post by UDITI SEN

Prof. Ranabir Samaddar of the Calcutta Research Group has recently published a screed (in the DNA Newspaper) against the #Hokkolorob movement  initiated by the students of Jadavpur University which has found resonance with students and young people all over West Bengal and elsewhere in India. Samaddar, who seems to have lost the ability to recognize the many intersections of solidarity between students, young people in metropolitan as well as non-metropolitan contexts, women, young workers, accuses the movement of what he calls ‘elitism’ and a disconnect with realities on the ground.

Uditi Sen responds.

It is settled then. With this latest denunciation (by Ranabir Samaddar, in DNA, see link above) of the student movement at Jadavpur, we finally have a verdict we can trust. Student politics is not what it used to be. The glory days of the 60s are long gone and the protesting young today fail to live up to the authentic radicalism of their elders. Those were the days, indeed. Those were the days when student politics, organised under the banner of the organised left took up real issues, such as those of the peasants and workers and did not distract themselves with inequities closer to home. Such as, why women ‘comrades’ were expected to cook and clean and provide for their men, who led the vanguard. Such as why even the most progressive politics, when speaking of the rights of peasants, meant the rights of male peasants. Those indeed were the days of glory, which we should remember and seek to emulate, when the leaders, usually dadas, had no answers when a peasant woman asked, ‘“Why should my comrade beat me at home?” (See Samita Sen’s Toward a Feminist Politics: The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective)

Oh yes! The comrades fought the good fight and held the line, maintaining unity, maintaining the radical content of class-based, socially informed politics at any cost- especially if that cost was the routinely bound, battered and raped bodies of women. (The full horror of how far all social movements, including radical left ones had failed to serve women was revealed by the report Towards Equality published in 1974 by Committee on the Status of Women. )

And look at the sad contrast offered by the students of Jadavpur University today, especially those who are inspired by left ideologies but seem to have totally left behind the ideals of their elders. They actually believe that a woman should be safe to love, and walk and speak and pee, yes, pee, on the campus of an educational institution. Pee, because she was attacked when she went looking for a place to relieve herself. Now here opens up several possibilities of analysis for the intellectual. Maybe, we could ask, that why should a woman not have easy access to a toilet, at night, in a coeducational university? Could it possibly be a reflection of the same patriarchal mind-set that sees women as not really belonging to public spaces? Deserving to be locked up (for their own safety, of course) at night? Maybe we could ask if there is a logic to why women struggle to find clean and safe toilets in most public institutions in West Bengal? Meanwhile every neighbourhood in Calcutta has long boasted odes to phalluses in the form of open ‘public’ toilets that need not even specify that actually, these are for men alone. The ‘public’ is gendered male, after all. Women are not really part of the public. And to speak of it, is to speak of ‘elite’ issues, devoid of social content.

And it is such a pity that the students of Jadavpur have failed ‘to reach any agreement’ with the administration on the issue of the molestation of the said female student. Because, come on, that is usually how things function, right? The men (and in these days of inclusiveness, men also give the mike to women who have been trained to reproduce the language of patriarchy) reach an agreement on the rights of women, so that the real business, of real democratic politics can keep moving. Instead, these elitist students are pretending as if the hard-won rights of women to be free from sexual harassment at workplace actually matter! They have gone so far as to suggest that the Vice Chancellor of a University should prioritise informing a victim of sexual harassment of due process of investigation and facilitate the process, instead of banning her from campus for fifteen days so that his travels are not disrupted. It seems like they have even educated themselves on the landmark Vishakha Judgement and the guidelines it proposed to combat sexual harassment and are mimicking its language in their demands. Such idle chatter! Could they have not just ‘reached an agreement’, with the authorities, and turned to the real politics of workers and peasants and provide them with enlightened political leadership, or at least solidarity, leaving their college mate to deal with such minor issues as the trauma of surviving institutionalised sexism? (The extent of their elitist chatter, and the fact that they have committed the patently elitist crime of taking issues of gender violence seriously is available to all at this timeline of what unfolded at Jadavpur)

Student politics today is indeed in a sorry state as it has begun to believe that the only students that matter are not men. It is sacrilege that boys cannot be boys at the expense of the safety and dignity of women. And it is terribly elitist of a general body of students to demand that justice be done to a woman who has been molested, even if it means that some students of Jadavpur (male ones) might have to actually answer for their drunken antics.

And now, for the government’s role in this. The same political scientist who has declared the current student protests to be a preserve of the chattering classes, has also declared that the government is best understood to be ‘committing mistakes’ and ‘fumbling’. He is a political scientist of no small erudition, so this characterisation must surely, be true. We must therefore assume that this pattern of ignoring and/or perpetuating violence against women is a ‘mistake’ and not a pattern, with no political antecedents. If the truth of the patriarch has to be accepted, then the rest of us, especially those of us who have wombs and boobs and might even need to pee at night, are left with two options:

1.    Historical Amnesia: We need to promptly forget the violence waged on women’s bodies during partition, followed by the violence waged on them by governments. These are all the ‘chatterings’ of feminist scholars so they are best forgotten anyway. So we need to forget that during and after 1947, all political parties decided that the best way to score points against their rivals was through the bodies and wombs of ‘their’ women. Like property women were abducted, like property and land, defiled. Then the government stepped in to correct this wrong. They returned abducted women, often against their wishes, to the men to whom they rightfully ‘belonged’, like cattle. These men were free to reject them and thousands of women spent their days in acute poverty in the ‘care’ of the government, the supreme patriarch. Old history, this is. But not that old, when the very government that seems to have so well-intentionally ‘fumbled’ protects an elected MP, Tapas Paul, who promises to rape ‘their’ women to prove his prowess. But there is clearly no pattern here. These are unimportant details. The students should learn nothing from them and believe, fervently, that the government is not patriarchal, but well-intentioned and only ‘makes mistakes’.

2.    Redefining Fumbling: This has greater appeal to me as the scale of the amnesia required may not be possible for the feeble minds of women to achieve. So maybe we should redefine ‘fumbling’ as governing. After all, decisions and mistakes made at the expense of women’s bodies and autonomy is nothing unusual: it is governance as usual and really, a non-issue.

If this is the situation in Calcutta, globally, it is worse. Take, for example, Ferguson in Missouri, USA. Students have been at the forefront of protesting the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer, using such unfamiliar slogans such as ‘Hands Up: Don’t Shoot’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’.  Apparently, in USA too, the government ‘fumbles’ a lot. Their police especially make the most ‘mistakes’ when they look at unarmed black teens and decide they are dangerous criminals to be shot down in cold blood. Unable to understand the good intentions of their government, black youth have taken to the streets and called for equality and even organised conferences around that politically suspect category of ‘freedom’!  Indeed, the call for freedom in the face of police brutalisation is hollow, may we even say, ‘neo-liberal’, since it is devoid of intellectually sanctioned and identifiably radical social content.

As a mere woman, and an academic, I am eternally thankful to my esteemed senior colleague for explaining to me the hollowness of current protests. Indeed, from my elite bastion in the USA, where I live a life dotted with the privileges of routine racial profiling and micro-aggressions, institutional sexism and transcontinental criminalisation based on being a sexual minority, I would be lost and in despair if I did not have the glory days of the 60s to be nostalgic about. Thank you!

See also – The Prose of Power and the Poetry of Protest by Uditi Sen, earlier in Kafila.

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.

9 thoughts on “A Reply to Ranabir Samaddar on Jadavpur: Uditi Sen”

  1. thank you for the response. for those of us who could not articulate our thoughts and words, to counter the foolish editorial in DNA, we are grateful :)

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  2. The article seems to be more in the nature of misplaced anger than a reply. In fact, there is hardly an engagement with what Samaddar wrote in the article. The author here imputes intentions in Samaddar’s piece which is not even there.

    At no point in the DNA article Samaddar evokes a nostalgia for the student movements of the 1960s. He is trying to point out the difference. The question is why is it that student movement is unable to form an alliance with other social groups who are equally oppressed by the same violent regime? It is a legitimate question unless we agree that student movement need not from such alliances. But as Samaddar points out a student movement ” shorn of any vision of social equality” can readily be coopted by the state and used to unleash violence on the marginalized and the poor. If there needs a proof one only has to look at ABVP around the country.

    And for a complete understanding of what is happening now in Jadavpur University one has to take into account what preceded. The last big movement, before this, at the university came in 2005 again in the same condition of police repression. What happened between then and now is quite instructive. Did violence go away from the campus? How was politics conducted during this period? What were the changes? To refresh memories here is one incident. There was no widespread response against that violence and most students stayed away from forming any solidarity against this police action. Also, there was a wave of campus violence across West Bengal when the TMCP was capturing several colleges in the face of change in government (precisely those with “poor students in ordinary colleges, schools, and distant towns” which Samaddar is talking about). There were daily reports of killings, kidnappings and brutalities and yet as far as I can recall there was no response from the many groups and individuals of the university. One is then forced to ask the question as Samaddar does about the nature of current student activism and it is absolutely right when he identifies it as “elitist.”

    Finally, what the author of this article has pointed out, in fact, strengthens the argument of Samaddar as he brings the contradiction of the movement of Jadavpur University. Why is it that a movement which is stridently asking for gender equality and freedom would come up with a slogan of “Kalighater moyna”. What accounts for this blatant sexism?

    No movement can be and should be above criticism and no movement should demand it either. A movement which has its battle cry hokkolorob should engage with dissenting voices as well otherwise it will be less of kolorob and more of a choir.

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  3. Superb, Uditi! Ironically, this is the same academic who has written a book on the “emergence of the political subject” – an always-already radical creature in his formulation, one that can be found in the most unlikely of spaces. When exactly such a political subject actually emerges, in front of his eyes, he misses it completely. And Mithilesh, I agree all movements demand sensible critique, but this one doesn’t seem to be it.

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  4. I had originally shared this piece and my response on Facebook. Pasting it here.

    A response to Samaddar’s DNA piece. My problem with this piece is twofold–first, that it misses Samaddar’s larger argument about the culture of (student) protest across the world in neoliberal times being an egregiously problematic one in many respects and second, that it, instead of responding to the main argument, flags the deemed sympathy towards the ruling party that Samaddar apparently has shown by not being critical enough of the ruling party and hence the piece largely devolves into an ‘unpacking conspiracy theory’ in the latter half. The only fitting response has been to Samaddar’s sepia tinted obsession with the good old days of student activism that stares in one’s face from that piece. All that apart, I still fail to understand how being critical of the ‘movement’ in terms of the demography of the participants or the nature of that participation where only one form of resistance to oppression is focused can be conflated with alleging that doing so means either one is a TMC intellectual or deeply, disturbingly patriarchal because one’s heart is not fluttering at the face paints and solidarity marches, or even worse, that one thinks sexual violence is an elitist matter and does not fit the checklist of the perfect movement. Why must a police brutality and the ensuing ‘protest’ at a Kolkata campus only capture a class’s imagination and not other forms of brutality happening as we speak in lesser spaces like madrasas ( a student was set on fire on Saturday in East Medinipore)? Protests about sexual violence in urban spaces are ridiculously laced with class/caste notings – we will remember and protest when a Park Street happens but wouldn’t even know or remember Labhpur Gang Rape case. We will get yummy cupcakes to JU campus for protesters and serve them with a bucket of solidarity, shaken and stirred. Other brutalities on lesser spaces of course can wait.

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  5. These are in the nature of clarifications, necessitated by my choice of sarcasm in my original piece, which limits the analytical content. I am thankful to all my critiques for creating this space and I totally appreciate how responses are bound to range from ‘thank you’ to ‘misplaced’ or ‘motivated’.
    To respond to my critiques:
    1. It is well-spotted that my piece was written with not insignificant feminist rage. So the idea that this anger is ‘misplaced’ goes to prove my point about the complete blind spot around gender. I think it is necessary to believe that somehow women’s autonomy or equality is a lesser issue, or even a non-issue or an ‘elite’ issue in order to be able to read the movement of JU as a movement shorn of any message of ‘social equality’. I stand by my outrage at this implicit suggestion. I would like to ask, if anger at painting a movement launched for gender justice as a case of students being ‘unable to reach an agreement’ with the administration, which by the way, has been shown to be sexist and indulging in victim blaming, is misplaced, where is the place for feminist anger in politics and its analysis? Is there any space for it at all?

    2. Secondly, the idea that I am somehow only insinuating a certain links between Ranabir Samaddar and TMC deliberately ignores the fact that my piece lamblasts every single political formulation: the Congress, the TMC and the organised left for ultimately failing women, with the caveat, that the left alone has even tried to address women’s issues. Calcutta, unlike what the bhadraloks would like to believe, has never been a bastion for women’s liberation. It is a culture of expecting the exceptional of all women, either as Grihalakshmis or as Ranachandis. The bodily integrity of flesh and blood ordinary women has been expendable the moment they speak inconvenient political truths. The Bantala rape case (1990) was an incident ‘that happens’, no big deal, in Jyoti Basu’s West Bengal and all instances of sexual violence seem to be ‘conspiracies’ in Mamata’s Bengal. Given the history of the city and the blatant sexism in its political culture, it is small surprise that even in these protests sexist slogans can come up. What is interesting is that Ranabir Samaddar chooses to cite ONE of many slogans, giving it a status of being, somehow, representative of a heterogenous march (which by the way, is misrepresented as a unitary movement) and ignoring everything else the students have been saying, posting and doing. This is not careful critique, this is determined dismissal based on a VERY selective engagement with the facts on the ground. Such as the convenient refusal to mention that within that same march, there were organisers who protested to that slogan and stopped it. My question is, what is the role of an intellectual in this situation? Why can we not speak to the young who are on the streets, as teachers and guides? Why should we choose to dismiss them, in black and white?

    3. Thirdly, it is fascinating to me that those who critique the current ‘movement’ (again, imposing the status of an existing movement upon an attempt to build one) for not responding to violence and kidnappings in small town, poorer and suburban colleges, conveniently ignore the fact that the students of THESE VERY COLLEGES turned the call for a march by Jadavpur students into a unexpected and unprecedented maha michil. Indeed, this analysis is already present in previous pieces in Kafila. But to validate that, those who accuse the Jadavpur students of being elite would have to give up their own elitist assumption, that the role of JU or broadly, the capital/metropole, is to always lead or initiate connections and never to follow, or even, just be a limited movement. So we have a strange spectacle, of the intellectual silencing what poorer and less articulate students have expressed support for, on their behalf!

    4. As for globally student movements being ‘neo-liberal’- honestly, I did not know how to respond to this because it reduced the world to Hong Kong. Over the last five years, if there is any pattern that has been shown globally it is one of student movements spilling beyond the familiar tropes of left vs right, elite vs subaltern politics. The student movement in Italy against the cuts to education, the massive marches in Canada against fee hike, the riots by anarchist and politically leaderless students, as young as 13/14 in London and their embattled occupation of universities, the radical left politics of Mexican students, where no less than 43 students have ‘disappeared’, the rage of black youth that has spread from Ferguson and re-ignited a more radical vision of equality, all seem to not be part of the globe my critiques inhabit and they all seem to be somehow, equitable to each other as ‘neo-liberal’ and doomed to failure. No, I did not respond to this claim as I did not know how to respond to so massive a generalisation, so willing an abdication of any responsibility towards actually studying and trying to understand why is it that the youth today are globally enraged, out on the streets, but NOT marching behind established political parties. It could be because they are elite, misguided and neo-liberal, or it could be because our established patterns of politics are failing the young.

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  6. I have just one comment on point 3 raised by the author. It is indeed fascinating that the students of “these very colleges” can mobilize around a call given by Jadavpur students but not the other way round. And why is it that separate general body meetings are held for Jadavpur university students and faculty members and another one for everyone else? Why should not there be just one such meeting involving all? Why this divide?

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  7. Food for thought here.

    I did not fully understand the full thing -but dfinitely – the entire movement is in the horns of a moral dilemma. I t wants to get rid of he VC-who is inconvenient apparently to JUTA-using the incident as a pretext but- as has been pointed out-without affecting the “bright careers” of those students who in an earlier era would have been descibed as drunken louts.

    In fact the word “student” no longer conjures images of a seeker. Well not exclsively ,anyway. I am sure some of those well drilleed agitators do not attend classes or care mch for studies. What are their grades? What is their knowledge of the subjects they are “students” of? They are the foot soldiers of politcal partes which have abrogated on themselves the right to interfere without constructing or contributing.

    It started – in that golden age – when “students” wanted hostel accomodation – not to study- but to preach aviolent and undemocratic overthrow of society as it existed.

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