Sumallya Mukhopadhyay is a former student of Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. Other than reading and writing, Sumallya is an Oral Historian in 1947 Partition Archive. He can be reached at email@example.com
“Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once”
- Futility, Wilfred Owen
When one is in class IX, one cannot distinguish one day from the other. For it is a routine life which is centred on your classes, cycle rides to school, playing football after school gets over and you return home, dressed in familiarity that carries itself forward the next day. I was no exception in this regard. My days were ordinary, subsumed in simplicity that was reflected, as soon as I was back home from school, in the smiles and questions of Ma and Didi whose lasting impression defined family for me! And all these usually happened in the dining room. It has always been the most comfortable place in our house. Retracing our steps from various paths of individual lives, it is in this dining room that Baba, Ma, Didi and I bonded over simple conversations which otherwise would have remained unspoken and forgotten in some unexplored realms of our mind.
14th March, 2007- That day was unassumingly different. As I stepped into the room, I found there an ambience of distress and agony. Turning my attention to the television, which my family was intently watching, I understood the gravity of the situation. Police opened fire on agitators at Nandigram. There flashed an image of a woman who passively sat hunched over the body of a boy. Within seconds few darting disoriented feet dragged the boy before the camera highlighting the helplessness that was presiding over the entire situation. The woman receded into the background yet carefully held the boy’s hand. Her eyes spoke to us and Ma held my hand as I decided not to eat anymore.
Later in the day, Biman Basu empathically stated, “This is a dawning of a new day at Nandigram! The sun has risen there.” The day’s dawning would not inject life in that boy. The woman’s fixated eyes, cascading the clamour around, clarified how none can claim with certainty the number of people injured and killed. It was left to popular imagination. But one class IX student understood that Statist propaganda is devoid of any empathy for fellow human beings. Statist politics ruthlessly defies the bond of humanity which connects unknown faces in everyday buses and autos and trains where little stories are created and shared which otherwise will never be recorded as literature. All night long, the headlines of innumerable news channels dramatically declared that the Haldi river that flows by Nandigram, has turned red. My family decided not to concentrate on the details. It disrupted the normalcy of the family ambience. So I turned down the volume of the television. But I refused to switch it off.
Did the Haldi river really turn red? How did the river react to it? Why did Nature not intervene? What prompted one to shoot at unarmed villagers? What were the incentives of the shooters? Were they simply performing their duty? Are they paid to kill others at random? I kept questioning myself and realized all great Neptune’s ocean seems insufficient, and the image of Haldi river remains irrevocably incarnadine in my mind’s eyes with those gory, haunting images of howling men and women.
On ordinary days the evenings were spent with friends, who were mostly my seniors, chatting on the banks of the river Ganga. I joined the regular gathering a little late. Chayan Da was closest to me among others. He was a reticent and reserved fellow who abided by what he said. He was a local Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) leader who pursued a career in mathematics. He was conspicuous by his absence that evening. Those days, mobile phones were not a commonplace object and so I did not have the luxury to call him. I met him two days later. He seemed quite taciturn and morose. When I questioned him regarding the 14th March incident at Nandigram, he simply replied, “I don’t know what I’ll do next!”
An idealist that he was, Chayan Da never talked of politics again. He was not to be seen in the protest rally that was organized at Chuchura in compliance with the Maha Michil in Kolkata. Unlike him, I did take to the streets at Chuchura. Though the participation was limited, the spirits were high, especially when bystanders were receptive of the rally and appreciated the effort. Many approached us and asked us to organize another rally. Given the political pressure, and the little we could do to oppose it, the idea of a second rally was nipped in the bud. Instead we took to distributing leaflets and collecting clothes as well as accumulating other necessary items to help those affected at Nandigram. The collection was send to the relief camps. The little that my friends and I could do generated a collective consciousness among us and this influenced us to talk about politics in our every evening gathering. Often we were joined by those who have left the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPIM) after the Nandigram debacle. The leftist ideology and its misappropriation by West Bengal unit of CPIM dominated the discussion. Our political stance directed us against the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPIM). Electoral politics in Bengal situated itself in a binary comprising the CPIM and their main opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC). To oppose one invariably meant that your support reached out to the other. Yet none of us were Trinamool Congress supporters or followers of Mamata Banerjee. We were searching for an alternative which presented itself when I joined Presidency College.
“Underneath the bearded barley,
The reaper, reaping late and early,
Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
Like an angel, singing clearly…”
- The Lady of Shallot, Lord Alfred Tennyson
On entering the gates of Presidency I found myself welcomed by posters and banners. Flanked by the Hare School and the administrative block of the Main Building, one could sit at the Portico and listen to one’s steps mingling with steps of generation of former students who were a part of this institution. The recorded memories of the Main Building staircase greeted a newcomer with warmth and passion. It was the first page of my life’s script that would cover five years till I decide to give my pen a rest. On the first day I was introduced to my department in the enchanting Room number 23- a room where the hallowed walls resonated the lectures of Taraknath Sen and Sukanta Chowdhury, mapping them in columns of verses, as it were, for a new comer to read. Incidentally, on my first day, I was also introduced to the concept of Independents’ Consolidation or IC as it is popularly known. A simple walk-in at Promad da’s canteen turned into long conversations with few seniors who were excited to know about my involvement at Chuchura during Nandigram movement. Though they were not actively involved with Independents’ Consolidation, they suggested I attend one of the General Body meetings and share my experiences with others. But no one waited for the meeting. I met new students every day. Every day was a different experience. Every student’s worldview was interestingly different from the other and before anyone realized Independents’ Consolidation had my support in Presidency’s campus politics.
In the backdrop of the Nandigram and Singur movements, which escalated to unprecedented heights, students in West Bengal in general and Kolkata in particular were acutely aware of the social struggle that raged on the streets of West Bengal. This was made possible because of the regular study circles and discussions that were held almost at every traffic crossing. Left Front government’s denial to deliver justice to those murdered pushed Bengal towards a change. Later, this change was termed Poriborton which in English means ‘Change’. I cannot authorize the claim for Poriborton within the walls of Presidency College, but the fact that the majority of the newcomers reserved an aversion towards Students’ Federation of India (SFI)-the student body of Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPIM)-was unmistakably clear to all. While the departments in the faculty of Arts had an equal share in support for both Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and Independents’ Consolidation (IC), the departments in Faculty of Science were predominantly inclined towards Students’ Federation of India (SFI). Perfectly consonant with the cry of Poriborton, the departments which were once populated by Students’ Federation of India (SFI) leaders now welcomed the presence of Independents’ Consolidation. But one cannot simply ascribe this change of politics to the winds of change blowing outside the premises of Presidency. For the activists of Independents’ Consolidation led various student movements which in the long run benefited Presidency. Backed by the successes of movements and the eventual fall of the Left Front in 2011 Bengal Assembly Election, Independents’ Consolidation (IC) emerged as a formidable force, consolidating its support every day. Moreover, Independents’ Consolidation’s strength was in its fluidity in structure. It was not an organization that adheres to one political ideology. It was a pluralistic platform that allowed a rightist to converse with an anarchist and a centrist to convene a meeting with believer of radical left politics. Everyone held to one’s political belief but also embraced criticism with ease. Consensus was achieved in the General Body Meetings keeping in mind the agendas that we had to discuss. For instance, during the Anti-Fees Hike Movement in 2011, a handful of supporters of Independents’ Consolidation were of the opinion that the sudden increment of Admission Fees as well as the Course Fee is justifiable. It took three General Body Meetings and hours of rigorous debates to come to the conclusion that Independents’ Consolidation would oppose this increment in fee structure. The movement eventually tasted success after ten odd days of relay hunger-strike. In fine, the general body meetings of Independents ’Consolidation’s were mostly about opening new avenues before us which would help us refine our day to day politics.
At the same time, one needs to understand that Independents’ Consolidation success came at cost that was dear to all. Few sacrificed their academic career while others had little connection with their family. Day to day involvement in college along with facing an opposition as strong as Students’ Federation of India (SFI) meant that the political journey was not a T20 cricket match. One had to bat out sessions on unforeseeable grounds, judging each delivery as it was bowled and one had to time one’s shots in order to prove one’s worth. Whichever be the ruling party in Bengal, it always eyes Presidency with political interest. With Left front ousted from power, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) wanted its student-wing to establish its organization in Presidency. While in other colleges, the student-wing of Trinamool- Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad (TMCP)-emerged as easily as mushrooms in wet lands, Presidency’s soil relegated their existence to the fringes. In other colleges, Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad (TMCP) bribed itself to power. Rumours had it that Students’ Federation of India (SFI) leaders of various colleges joined Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad (TMCP) to sustain their dominance in student union affairs. Presidency’s politics was firmly rooted in its ideological battles. It is the main reason why an ideologically-deprived party like Trinamool still lacks student support in 86/1 College Street.
Perhaps this led to the 10th April incident! Perhaps not! But the attacks of the Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad miscreants on our institution were unwarranted and uncalled for. Without any provocation, Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad goons ransacked Presidency in the afternoon of 10th April, 2013. The ugly nature of partisan politics denuded itself before us. A few of our teachers and students were beaten up. Female students were verbally abused, later physically manhandled. It was mayhem. At the same time, it was controlled chaos, incited and engineered with an ulterior plan.
It took less than 24 hours for Presidency to fight back.
“I have a name without a title
Patient in a country;
Where people are enraged
Were entrenched before the birth of time.”
- Identity Card, Mahmoud Darwish
The first two papers of my final year examination at Calcutta University were scheduled on 9th and 11th April respectively. Hence I was not physically present in the campus on 10th April. Examination norms in Calcutta University direct students to different colleges in Kolkata where we were supposed to take our exams. I refrain from naming the college, but when on 11th April we entered to take our examination, Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad (TMCP) members of that college greeted us with hostility that hovered for four hours till we left the college after taking our examination.
A rally was being held from Presidency to the Raj Bhavan where delegates were to meet the Chancellor of our university. It was a silent rally where former students and teachers joined hands with present teachers and students and took to the streets of Kolkata. The weather was not favourable for such a long walk, but none bothered to stay back. Third year students joined the rally after their examinations were over. Countless faces of varying age group created a kind of euphony. And the song, depicting Presidency’s resilience before power, went a long way to justify our attachment to the institution. Surprisingly, as I started conversing with those unfamiliar faces, I realized that many in this rally were not even remotely related to Presidency. Abuse of power prompted them to take to the streets along with the students of Presidency. After all, while power necessarily entails responsibility, irresponsible and reckless use of power demands resistance. Presidency’s remarkable resistance generated broader social interest nationwide. In our bid to safeguard our campus democracy, we initiated a political battle with the present government.
A party’s smooth functioning is dependent on its organizational structure. A decision taken by the party leaders trickles down to every member of the organization who abides by it. The structure demands uncompromising obedience from all its cadres. We targeted the organizational structure which is integral for the functioning of a party. For the strict structure of the party offers little space to question the decision taken by the party leadership. For instance, Left Front’s decision to form an alliance with Congress in 2016 Assembly Elections in West Bengal should have been challenged by those who adhere to the Leftist ideology. For electoral benefit Left Front sacrificed their ideology. As a result of which they emerged as the third best party in Bengal after Congress and Trinamool. Congress flourished at their expense. Moreover, back in 2013 and 2014 the newspapers were replete with reports of clashes between political parties and their student wings in various colleges and universities. All these coalesced to the initiation of non-partisan independent politics- a political ideology that nullifies the structural base of the party; instead offers space to express dissent and discuss ways and means to resist those in power.
When the students’ union election was declared in Presidency, after a hiatus of four years, Independents’ Consolidation challenged the partisan politics of Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad (TMCP). “Say no to partisan politics. Let the students decide their own politics, sans any partisan infiltration,” was the single agenda on which the election was contested.
Years of uncompromising struggle against Students’ Federation of India coupled with Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad’s barbaric attack on Presidency inspired non-partisan politics in 86/1 College Street. When general elections were held, Independents’ Consolidation (IC), triggered by the non-partisan political stand, overwhelmingly won all the posts. A common adage is that victory or defeat is a concomitant of any election, but what mattered most was the electoral turnout which bore testimony to the celebration of democracy that the Presidency students revelled in. At a time when students’ union elections were being called off in various colleges and universities in Bengal, due to frequent clashes between political parties in the campus on the Election Day, Presidency University conducted an election that was violence free. The administration proudly called it “the Presidency model of election.” Though Students’ Federation of India (SFI) was convincingly defeated, they were welcomed in every general body meeting. From there on, Presidency cultivated the culture of Union General Body Meeting (UGBM). Students’ Federation of India (SFI) played the role of a discerning opposition, and the first ever union of Presidency University stood the challenge of upholding its non-partisan politics, especially by voting against the mentor group Chairperson, Professor Sugato Bose who agreed to be a Rajya Sabha member of Trinamool Congress. The point to reckon with is that Presidency University was still in its infancy, and the administration garnered our confidence by time and again by meeting the office-bearers and initiated discussion on various policies relevant to the student community. The Cell Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) was installed and scholarship programs were chalked out with care after proper consultation with the union members. The union collected views of the students and on submitting them before the administration, policies were formulated. In fact, the union functioned as an important body that effected well ordered communication between the students and the administration.
But such undisturbed functioning became bête noire to those in the government. They wanted to have greater authority over the functioning of Presidency. For that it was imperative to dislodge a few individuals in the chessboard of Presidency politics and introduce new cast of characters. Before its inception as a university, Presidency College was under the jurisdiction of the government of West Bengal. Being a government college, all its employees were government employees. Administrators and teachers who played deciding roles in framing the constitution of Presidency University were transferred overnight. With repeated transfers of important individuals, things changed in a space of few months.
Just when the union, encouraged by its political acceptance in Presidency, wanted to disseminate its philosophy to student bodies in various institutions in Kolkata, it was forced to start a tussle with the new administration. From booking one of the auditoriums for a union organized seminar to organizing meetings, everything was hawked down by the administration. Without a proper credit system, as directed by the University Grants Commission (UGC), attendance criteria was enforced, failing which students could not take their examination. This eventually catapulted the situation beyond any measure. The tussles developed into battles which ensued after every two months on various issues. The Vice-Chancellor, being close to the present political dispensation, was seen present in various government presided programs. This enraged the students all the more because the transfers carried out in Presidency had the government’s approval. From gheraoing the administrating to demanding their resignation the students had faltered and indeed they had suffered severe academic causalities. Few had to face ‘year-lag’s. The battle now has taken the form of guerrilla war–metaphorically, but the war is, nonetheless, still on! Though the support for the students is dwindling each day, the war is still being fought on several fronts and on various issues.
“Freedom, I’ve been standing still so long,
Freedom, I almost forgot you had a song.
Freedom, shine your light and let us begin,
Just take me in my arms and I wanna be free again.”
- Freedom, Jefferson Airplane
16th September, 2014. No sooner had I come back from college to my hostel room than Amardip called me. “Go online and check the posts related to Jadavpur University.” I saw the recurring Facebook posts of innumerable students of Jadavpur. Trinamool Congress goons and police had surrounded Jadavpur University campus. The agitating students had gheraoed the Vice-Chancellor demanding strict action on an issue of gender violence. As soon as the police and goons cordoned off Jadavpur, the students gave a clarion call to the civil society to join and strengthen their movement.
After a brief discussion with Amardip, we both decided to go to Jadavpur. Though we expected a tense atmosphere in the campus, on entering the administrative block, commonly known as the Gandhi Bhavan, we were greeted with singsong sloganeering attuned with saxophone and rhythmic beats. The students were fearless, they were poetic! The symphony and song was reminiscent of Coleridge’s Mount Abora where the damsel played the dulcimer. Like the Albatross, the spirit of the students cut the ice and pierced those who were detained inside.
In their bid to protect and preserve their campus democracy, the students of Jadavpur University conjured up innovative ways to protest. If the administration at Presidency was trying to curb the union’s involvement with the student community, the authority at Jadavpur University was trying to throttle the students’ right to express dissent. Hence, late at night the police was ordered to intervene. And it happened all of a sudden. It was a flash flood which swept past everything that came before it. Students were pushed to the ground. They were slapped, punched and kicked. Lights were turned off. After few minutes no one realized who fought for whom. With confused alarms of struggle and flight, students like ignorant fighters in dark, struggled to avert the sudden onslaught; they parried to the best of their ability. Female students suffered the most. There were no women police. All men, some dressed in civilian clothes, pushed their way inside and relieved the Vice Chancellor of his duty. Officially he resigned few months later, but that night his resignation was socially accepted. In the following days, protest rallies were organized. From six thousand to ten thousand, from ten thousand to twenty the numbers kept on increasing. On 20th September-the day of Maha Michil – drenched in the support that rained all day long, we understood that the movement will be written in the history of Bengal Student movement.
The movement was named Hokkolorob. The rise of the students of Jadavpur in protest inspired waves and waves of student voices to join the Kolorob, speaking truth to those who tried to cripple the idea of campus democracy. In unison, the chorus of agitation was sung by over seventy thousand students. Universities and colleges all over India, and later from various parts of the world, expressed their solidarity to the movement. Hokkolorob emerged as an ideology whose overwhelming reach and subsequent acceptance was enriching. This ideology was rooted in the adage Power to the People. It stressed more on mass mobility than on individual faces or leaders. For parallel to the domain of partisan politics there existed throughout India various socio-political movements which were initiated and carried forward by ordinary citizens without any party banner. Keeping abreast with the People’s Movement- the likes of Chipko Movement, Jungle Bachao Andolan, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Anti-POSCO People’s Movement, Nirbhaya Movement- Hokkolorob disseminated the support of the students to these struggles.
At the same time, the personal experiences were excruciatingly painful and tormenting. For example, while you are reading a newspaper, you see yourself labelled as a Maoist. You do not know the journalist. The journalist obviously has no idea of who you are. Still the reports appear before you and reach various households all over India. You are too helpless to even justify yourself. After all, your public statements do not share the same readership as those of the newspapers. One evening, you walk in to the hostel and few juniors ask you to rush to the television room. You are surprised to see yourself on the television. A reputed regional channel has marked your face in red and claims that you carried guns that night at Jadavpur University. You suddenly remember how in this same fashion, television networks singled out Ajmal Kasab during his involvement in Mumbai terror attack. Your family panics. Your relatives fail to grasp the situation. Your vigilant friends stay up all night, carefully tracing police movement near the hostel.
Nonetheless, Hokkolorob as a movement was unique, not because the Vice Chancellor eventually resigned, but for the unwavering spirit that instilled belief in the student community.
Arguably, the celebration of the Vice Chancellor’s resignation grabbed the headlines of all the newspapers and electronic channels. For those closely involved with the movement, the success largely rested on the involvement of the civil society. Without the unflinching support of the society at large, it would have been extremely difficult to negotiate the different challenges that Hokkolorob as a movement forced us to confront. Interestingly, the students, inspired by their movement and success within the premises of their institution, took to the streets to extend solidarity to various universities which faced statist oppression in months to come. For instance, when results were not properly declared in Burdwan University for which students faced problems in their academic career or the Central government’s highhandedness in FTII, JNU and Hyderabad Central University triggered the students in Kolkata to react and take to the streets to extend their support. It was possible because Hokkolorob as a movement, shattered many conventions and helped build a common thread, harping on which student politics in Bengal took few strides forward. With online forums like Facebook and Twitter at their disposal, it was effortless to build communities where students of other educational institutions exchanged views with those once involved with Hokkolorob. It was easier to pass messages of gatherings through Facebook events. Study circles were conducted on Whatsapp and Facebook chat-boxes. Often one status from one particular student reached over thousand audiences. The problem of one particular institution and the administration’s inefficient attitude was blatantly revealed before all. In a way, through social media we could challenge other forms of conventional media. After all, there are media-houses and newspapers, who in their bid to stay in the good books of the government, doctor incidents in a fashion that it becomes impossible to judge who exactly is at fault. Rohit Vemula’s incident is a case in point. While few media-houses claimed that he murdered himself due to reasons unknown, it is through the social media that the term ‘institutional murder’ was brought to the forefront along with the reasons why Rohit committed suicide.
Even today, the continuation of this daily interaction helps nurture politics in ways that seemed impossible few years back. At the same time, it is important to note that every institution has its unique problems. Hence to emulate the spirit displayed in Jadavpur can be detrimental when different issues are being addressed in different educational institutions. If Jadavpur tasted success, the same cannot be said of Presidency. Personally speaking, in my final year at Presidency, I was involved in movements that had very few positives to look at. Instead, our spirits were dampened, our expressions mercilessly suppressed. The civil society refused to sympathize with our demands as well. With lesser number of students studying in Presidency, it is unlikely that Presidency can bring together more than a thousand students in any movement. Notably the one thing that Presidency or Jadavpur has excelled in is that the students, no matter how less in number, have never failed to register their protest. And as long as students can deliberate, discuss, dissent and decide, the administration and the government need to be careful. For our Right to Dissent can never be snatched from us. No matter how much they try to chain us down!
Personally I feel that universities like Jadavpur and Presidency offer student the political space to carry forward his/her politics bereft of any political organization or platform. Even organizations which do not share decent support among students are provided the space to carry forward their politics. In other colleges and universities of Bengal, those in opposition are harassed and mercilessly beaten up time and again. Few months back, Rituparna Roy, a second year student of Geology in Asutosh College, Kolkata, was physically abused and beaten up because she did not want quit her membership of Students’ Federation of India and join Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parisad. To cement one’s organizational hold over the union, violence is employed to repress the opposition. Interestingly, in any form of democracy the role of an opposition is crucial to sustain the democratic system and its structure. Politics is hardly treated as a subject. And student politics is more about the government’s student-wings winning election and less about preserving the academic ambience and campus democracy of an institution.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
- Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Life can often be compared to one good long sentence, and a good sentence demands a pause. For the pause strengthens the structure. It helps you realize the points you need to emphasize.
While framing this piece, often I lost myself in reveries of my college days. Those five years were my pause. It shaped my mind and framed my constitution. But does that mean I want to go back to Presidency?
Perhaps I do. I am not sure of myself. But times change and with changing times life at Presidency has changed as well. I doubt if Presidency will welcome me as it did five years ago. Those days we measured out life less in classrooms and more in Promad da’s coffee spoons. In one of the classes related to the Romantics, my teacher told me that to empathize with the romantic tradition in English literature, one needs to time travel to 18thcentury England and try to feel the consternation and incertitude governing the poetry. To understand the Presidency whose narrative I have recorded here, one needs to find the poetry that was embedded in slogans written on the walls. The writings were clumsy, at times ineligible, but it stretched all along the walls of Quadrangle. Some of those writings could be dated back to the years of 1980s. It was as if those writings connected the present students with the former batches. And this continuation will be carried forward by the politics employed by the students in days to come. One recalls ‘Burnt Norton’ of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
Nowadays, Presidency is being dressed in new clothes with tiles substituting wall graffiti done by students. And to me, as observed Milan Kundera, human ugliness will always be the ugliness of clothes.
As a matter of fact, these are demanding times with BJP-RSS authority in Centre. Their monolithic and nuanced definition of Hindutva nationalism demands social resistance. With Dalits protesting in Prime Minister Modi’s home town, one can be certain that Power will meet Resistance. And power of resistance is best displayed on the streets. I believe so because my journey started on the streets with Nandigram echoing in every step I took. And the spirit of that movement still reverberates and inspires me whenever I take to the streets.
Images: Sanhati, Pramod Gupta