“Matha nowate shikhini kokhono shashok tomar kachhe/ Jadavpurer dewale dewale bidroho lekha achhe”—We have not been taught to bend to the will of authority/ Rebellion is written on every wall of Jadavpur. On 20 September, the campus of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University reverberated to the sound of thousands of students rallying around this defining slogan of students’ protests at the university. Cries of “Inquilab Zindabad”—Long live the revolution—and “Hok Kolorob”—Let there be noise—rose above the clamour in the heart of south Kolkata, as JU students came together to protest against violence, vandalism and arson perpetrated by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, inside and outside the campus the previous day. The rally was dotted with banners sporting slogans such as, “Protest rally against fascist conspiracies and terror,” and the journalist Ravish Kumar’s acceptance speech at the Ramon Magsaysay Award ceremony. I saw students from the youth wings of various political parties and met a sizeable number who said they did not belong to any political outfit.
Three days later, the university was the site of another standoff as ABVP activists tried to storm the campus for the second time in five days. In the afternoon, the Kolkata Police erected a series of barricades leading to JU’s gate number four while the faculty formed a human chain in front of the gate as a peaceful act of resistance against the ABVP’s efforts to attack the varsity gates. “The value of the barricade is more symbolic, moral than a physical one. Our presence asserted to the students that we are there to defend the students, the university,” Samantak Das, a professor from the department of comparative literature and among those in the frontline of the human chain, told me. “We were there to protect the idea of Jadavpur University; a space where there is no place for violence,” he added.
Samantak was referring to the clashes that erupted on the JU campus on 19 September which subsequently triggered the protests on 20 and 23 September. That day, Babul Supriyo, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s union minister of state for environment, forest and climate change, and Agnimitra Paul, the fashion designer-turned-BJP leader, were scheduled to address a programme for freshers at JU, organised by the university’s ABVP chapter. The ABVP, which does not have significant representation in JU, has been trying to make inroads in the varsity for some years now, without much success.
According to Niladri Pal, a post-graduate student at the university’s department of film studies, the ABVP’s right-wing ideology does not have many takers at JU. He told me that the university’s students viewed the ABVP event for what it was—a political meet masquerading as an event for freshers. As news of the ABVP meet spread, students decided to organise against the ABVP event. “We identified the potential threats from the presence of such an organisation within the campus and that is why the protest,” Pal said. JU is known to have a history of student activism which guards the university’s tradition of democratic freedom, irrespective of the government in power. The last time protests of this scale erupted at JU was in 2014, during what is known as the Hok Kolorob movement, when students opposed the alleged high-handedness of the Mamata Banerjee administration.
According to witnesses present in the campus on Thursday, at around 1.30 pm, students had assembled for a peaceful protest outside the venue of the ABVP event, the KP Basu Memorial Hall. Around 2 pm, Paul reached the venue and was immediately surrounded by students asking her to go back. As she was being escorted to the entrance of the hall, one of the male bodyguards accompanying her slapped a student. There is no consensus on what happened next. Some students insisted that she was allowed to enter the venue without any problems despite her security’s behaviour, while Paul herself claims that she was harassed and molested in that interim. According to reports, within minutes of Paul’s arrival, Supriyo also reached the campus and parked his car at the university’s gate number three. At least four armed personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force accompanied him and he was surrounded by several ABVP activists as soon as he got out of his car.