One of the slogans churned out of the womb of turbulent Paris in the Maydays of 1968 was ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’. The student uprising of May ‘68 with its audacity and exaggeration might have failed. Yet the mahamichhil (grand rally) called by students which took command over the heart and pulse of Kolkata on 20th September was a literal, vivid, living embodiment of this slogan. As I stood with a video camera on a spot on the Jawaharlal Nehru Road, with hope to capture the moments and 50,000 faces that made history with each footstep, all I could see was an ocean of people most of who had perhaps not even reached their twenty fifth year, and many of who were walking their very first rally. Those slightly older, those weathered yet young at heart paced alongside them in solidarity. ‘Such a student gathering - so huge, determined and disciplined - I have not seen in my life’, wrote poet Sankha Ghosh, ‘This really moved me. It’s very early to say if this will mark the beginning of a new era but I will reiterate this is one of the biggest student rallies I have seen in my life’.
The rally was replete with slogans reflecting basic demands of the movement, but there was a unifying chant, rather a call to action, that instantly bonded with and caught the fancy of the first timers that hit the street – Hok, Hok, Hok Kolorob (‘let there be clamour’). A call, ripped off from a popular song by Bangladeshi singer Arnab and used as hashtag on social media to mobilize - that was surreal, refreshing, imaginative enough to break the stupor and suffocation strangling students aspiring for democracy and freedom of expression and association across school, college and university campuses of Bengal. As a comrade observed, ‘the zeitgeist and slogan of the contemporary present is #hokkolorob’!’ (‘Kolorob/ kalrav’, roughly translated here as ‘clamour’, conveys the sense of a symphony of birdsong in many Indian languages.)
There were many things that made this rally unique and unprecedented. First and foremost was the political, yet non-sectarian nature of it. Some in the media portrayed this as apolitical, but a closer look would have revealed that the principle of ‘no-organizational-banners’ was not synonymous with ‘apolitical’. For instance, the beloved Left cries of ‘Inquilaab Zindabaad’ (Long Live Revolution), and ‘Paaye paaye comrade, gorey tolo barricade’ (March together comrade, to overturn the barricade) were among the handful of favourite slogans, along with the spirited ‘Lathir mukhe ganer sur/dekhiye dilo Jadavpur’ (Sing in the face of baton blows/this is what Jadavpur shows). The rally was anti-authoritarian, anti-state terror and for gender justice and campus democracy, and it stood united by consciously putting aside organizational banners. This effectively attracted students in such huge numbers. The collective conscious of student identity as an undivided whole stood out.
An emphatic assertion of student solidarity cutting across organizations came as a direct response to the administration’s attempts at dividing up the students into separate campuses. The tag of ‘bohiraagoto’ (outsider) carries a sense of deja vu and brings back memories of 2006-07 in West Bengal politics when the same phrase was used to discredit peasant movements against corporate land grab. This time, when the Jadavpur University (JU) students were subjected to police brutality under instructions from the Vice-Chancellor – an appointee of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) - many students from other colleges instantly responded to SOS calls and flocked to the JU campus at midnight to stand with their friends. Many of them braved batons and boots together with JU students. The VC and the police tried to tag them as ‘outsiders creating trouble’ and used it as a lame afterthought-justification of police violence.
The resounding reply to such divisive designs came on 20th September with a large number of students flaunting ‘bohiraagoto‘ bands on their wrists and heads. One popular slogan said ‘thaakbo paashe maarbe joto/amra sobaai bohiraagoto‘ (The more you beat us the more we’ll stand in solidarity/ we are all outsiders). Saswata, a rally participant said, ‘You hit one and it hurt us all. We’re in it together. If you hurt us you got to apologize’. Tanumay, a JU student who broke a rib said, ‘this rally is a big statement. That you got to listen to us students. Baton raaj will simply not work’. The rally reverberated with slogans against police atrocities. The old 70s slogan ‘police tumi jotoi maro/maine tomar eksho baro’ (Hey police, no matter how much you beat us/ your salary still stands at one hundred and twelve rupees) was profusely used alongside its modernized version ‘police tumi marle eto/maine tomar barlo koto?’ (Police, you beat us so much/ But how much did your salary go up?) and ‘police joto marbe/michhil toto barbe’ (more the police beatings/bigger the rally).
What precipitated this historic rally of 20th September? Analysis of all factors that led to such an unprecedented resonance will take time, but the immediate spark was a series of events that unfolded on the JU campus through the past fortnight.
On 28th August, a woman student of JU was harassed and molested by a group of hostel boarders. On the concluding night of the college fest, she and her boyfriend were subjected to what was a shameful case of moral policing, followed by a scuffle, her phone being snatched, her friend taken away and beaten. She was dragged to a room in the men’s hostel where she alleged that the drunk students touched her inappropriately, pushed her around and twisted her fingers. On complaining to the VC on 29th, she was told to come back later. She filed an FIR with the Jadavpur PS under sections 354 (criminal assault on a woman to outrage her modesty) and 379 (theft) of the IPC. She identified some of the accused, but no arrests have been made so far! She also filed a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of JU, under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act. For days the VC kept dilly-dallying. He said he would require at least 15 days to set up an investigation committee and advised her not to come to college for as long!
On September 3, her fellow students held a general body meeting, and drew up a charter of demands for an immediate, impartial investigation committee in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines. More inaction followed and the students marched to the VC’s office and the police station two days later. Meanwhile two members of the ICC turned up at the victim’s house and in a classic case of victim-blaming, interrogated her on her dress and state of sobriety when she was attacked! Infuriated students marched to the VC’s office again. On September 8, a 11-member delegation from AIPWA along with protesting students met with the pro-VC and the OC of Jadavpur PS with a memorandum listing demands, but neither were able to give answers or assurances.
From September 10, the students sat on an indefinite sit-in protest in front of the VC’s office with their demand of fair and thorough investigation into the incidents of 28th. Several comrades from AISA and other students’ organizations joined with general students to form one united voice under a common banner. The peaceful sit-in continued uninterruptedly for 150-odd hours, replete with slogans, music concerts, posters, film-screenings and constant attempts at dialogue. The nonchalant VC entered and left the university every day but did not address the sit-in or yield to the students’ demands. ‘It is beneath my dignity to talk to agitating students’, he said.
On the night of 16th, state terror descended on the students’ protest. After the Executive Council meeting ended, the students demanded that the VC give a public statement on the university’s handling of the case. They put up a peaceful body barricade saying the VC would have to step on their bodies if he were to leave without an answer. A massive police contingent was called in, accompanied by police personnel in civil dress, the Rapid Action Force, bouncers and miscreants associated with the ruling Trinamool Congress. At around 2:30 am in the night, phone calls and SMSes started coming in about a brutal attack on the students. The police and bouncers lashed out at the protesters to create a safe passage out for the VC. They beat up the students severely. Forty students had to be taken to the hospital. One student, Shibam of the engineering faculty, had to be hooked up to a ventilator. Some, like comrade Prosenjit of AISA sustained critical injuries with days of hospitalization. Tens, (including AISA activists Maitreyo, Ipsita, Abhishek) had broken/damaged knees, arms, fingers, legs, ribs. Several (including comrade Saikat) got bruises on the back, shoulder and body.
Lights in the building were turned off from inside (to prevent the press from recording) as fifteen women students (including AISA activists Arumita, Ipsita, Sudhanya) were manhandled, groped, molested, dragged, kicked on their stomach, stomped by boots, punched, walked over by male police even as the female police personnel stood watching. Phones, laptops, glasses were broken and stolen. Rape threats and abuses were hurled at women in the dark. 36 students (including AISA state secretary Ranajoy, Abhishek and one female student - AISA activist Sudhanya) were arrested. Sudhanya was dragged by her hair while her dress was lifted and she was thrown into the police van by four male police/bouncers in civil dress while being abused and threatened. No woman constable was present during her arrest. A media cameraperson was beaten up for recording the atrocities and his camera broken.
The shocking police brutality blasted all floodgates of patience. As the horrific visuals flashed on television all through the morning of 17th, rage grew on the streets and there was condemnation from all quarters. Except two. The VC’s office and the education ministry! The VC and the Commissioner of Police added fuel to fire with their remorseless lies of ‘peaceful police and violent armed students’. Their lies were rejected by the public and within a few hours, a huge turnout of 5,000 at a protest rally called by students took over the stretch from Jadavpur to Golpark for several hours. The front banner read ‘We demand the VC’s resignation’ till which an indefinite academic boycott was called. In addition to the original demand for gender justice, demand for punishment of the police and goons responsible for the atrocities on students including a fresh round of gender violence on women protesters was made. The upsurge had begun.
The next day saw another spontaneous protest rally from Jadavpur to Anwar Shah Road crossing and back. This time numbers doubled to 10,000. Students poured in solidarity from colleges and schools across the city to form one river of youth flooding the streets. Student protest rallies in solidarity sparked off locally in all corners of Bengal. Girl students in a district high school decided to boycott classes in solidarity, defying TMC terror threats.
Finally on 20th September, the numbers swelled a further five-fold in what was the grandest united show of strength by the youth. Students marched in pouring rain from Nandan to Rajbhavan as an estimated fifty colleges across Kolkata and neighbouring districts took part. A memorandum of demands was submitted to the Governor, who is also the Chancellor of the University.
For five hours, the heart of Kolkata was occupied by students till their delegation returned with certain assurances from the Governor. ‘A resounding NO to police brutality on campus and zero tolerance to gender violence in and outside campus’ said Arumita. Priyasmita, an activist with PDSF marked this ‘as one of those historic moments when lots of accumulated anger and rage finds an outburst’. Apurba, an USDF activist saw the march as one ‘that proved that students could not be divided up into campuses’ while AISA’s Saikat saw it as ‘a cry for democracy from campus to the streets, from the streets to all campuses’. A beaming Manidipa who had braved police brutality quipped, ‘Look at the response. I feel I am ready to get beaten up five times all over again. Look how Kolkata has put a healing balm on our wounds’.
Malay, who was an AISA activist during the 2005 police crackdown on JU students, compared the past and the present and brought out their striking parallels and differences. Ex-JU student Sudip recounted a quote from Nabarunda’s novel ‘Herbert’ to sum up the mood ‘The state machinery is yet to figure out how, where, when and by who the explosion shall be ignited’.
A concerted show of solidarity flew in - from Siliguri, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay, Kharagpur, Bihar, Delhi, New York. Simultaneous protest rallies were held. The JU alumni and concerned citizens called en masse to the Lalbazar police headquarters to condemn and enquire about steps taken to punish the police personnel who took to violence. The series of lies and slanders floated around by the VC or the CP (that the police were gentle, that it was the students who really beat up the police, that the students broke the lights, that this was a agitation with Maoist links or by a handful students demanding access to drugs and liquor!) cut no ice with anyone and neither were they effective in breaking the morale of the movement. A statist counter rally brought out by TMC student leader Shankudeb Panda on the 23rd saw a confused medley of people and youngsters, some of whom ironically told the press that they had turned up to protest police brutality on students!
As this report goes to press, the West Bengal government seems to have finally sat up and heard the warning bell after a few sleepless nights following the quake of 20th. The current strategy of the government includes familiar dirty tricks (like those that had been employed in Kamduni) like trying to put pressure on the victim’s father and putting pro-government statements in his mouth. Coupled with this, the VC for the first time has written a pompous and bizarre ‘confessional’ piece in the Times of India (!) blaming the ‘extremely unfortunate’ night on his ‘destiny’ and ‘extending an olive branch’ to discuss with the protesting students! The students are in no mood to yield though with anything short of his resignation and their other demands. They have organized a citizens’ convention and a march to Lalbazar later this week. The impressive use of social media and clarity of articulation has been a hallmark of this movement, that helped the students swing public opinion in their support and counter endless statist propaganda, obfuscation, diversions and slanders. Much like in the anti-FYUP movement in DU, here too the teachers’ association JUTA stood by the protesting students, demanding among other things ‘relinquishing office by the VC Abhijit Chakraborty’, ‘an impartial investigation into the police violence including molestation of agitating girl students, switching off of lights and the brutal assault on students’, and ‘a complete ban on police presence on campus’. They have resolved to wear black badges in protest until the demands are met and to ‘completely boycott the VC in all administrative matters’.
“This is not a question just about students or women alone. This is about the way in which people in power view those who they think they wield power over. This is the same smug arrogance that is routine in factories and offices where managements treat workers and employees with contempt. It is the same arrogance that makes patriarchs and politicians insult the autonomous choices made by young people by invoking the poison of ‘love Jihad’. It is the insults that the powerful throw at dalits, and especially young dalit women and men who are trying to carve lives of dignity with education, by wearing what they want to, by simply being ‘present’ in public space. It is the racist slur that the Delhi landlord throws at his young north-eastern tenant. Each of these instances is an offensive in war that has been unleashed on the young. On students, on young women, on young workers. It is a war on love, on pleasure, on friendship, on solidarity and on the right to lead one’s life with dignity and with freedom. And now the young are beginning to fight back.” wrote Shuddhabrata Sengupta on Kafila about the growing, spreading ‘kolorob’ for rights, in Jadavpur and everywhere.
Only the days ahead will tell us the about the outcome of the movement at JU, though victory seems to be in sight for the students - both in their moral and legal battles for justice. Undoubtedly such a victory would be historic if achieved. However, this movement has now grown much bigger than JU. The students of Durgapur Engineering College are facing repression from their authorities. Francis Mondal, a student of Scottish Church College was beaten up by Trinamool Chhatra Parishad TMCP-affiliated goons and his leg run over by a motorbike as punishment for him joining the JU protests. Students from many colleges like the Netaji Subhash Engineering College face routine police brutalities and attacks by ruling party miscreants. Almost none of the colleges have a functional gender cell. Those that have a gender cell lack student representation. Students are banned by the ruling party from forming associations in most colleges where elections are controlled totally by musclemen. Exorbitant fees, ‘unofficial fees’ payable to ruling party thugs, corruption in the admission process, lack of hostel facilities for women students, and the overall state of education is in shambles except for a few privileged campuses.
Students who have come together in the ongoing movement have, alongside standing beside JU, articulated their own issues and demands, and urged for a united student movement for spreading the struggle for campus democracy. The movement has unleashed tremendous amounts of energy, huge potential, possibilities and desire for building a sustained student solidarity movement all across Bengal. A movement that will reclaim the campuses for students, that will demand students’ voices to have utmost importance in the running of institutions, that will fight for students’ issues and rights. A ‘Kolorob’ that will spread to campuses which are not easily moved into the spotlight like JU or Presidency. A ‘Kolorob’ that will take the spark of spontaneity that has been ignited, and make the flame burn brighter with organized, sustained effort. A ‘Kolorob’ that will reverberate across Bengal and build bridges of solidarity with the oppressed and fighting people in the battle for democracy.