“Students should not feel threatened”: Faculty opposes violence in Jadavpur University

The Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Babul Supriyo, has been accused of instigating violence at the Jadavpur University campus on 19 September. Samir Jana/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
26 September, 2019

“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.

The JU students took a rather dim view of Supriyo’s decision to enter a university campus with security armed to the teeth. The criticism intensified when in the ensuing fracas, a loaded magazine was found lying outside the memorial hall which was later collected by Supriyo’s security. Students allege that none of the mainstream news channels aired the footage of a loaded magazine lying unclaimed in the middle of a university campus. “Why should a student come across CRPF or a loaded magazine which is an instance of careless handling of an automatic assault rifle which might even result in accidental firing, on a normal working day?” asked Pal. “Does it not threaten the safety of students within the campus?”

Back at the venue, the protesting students shifted their focus from Paul, who was already inside the hall, to Supriyo, and formed a human barricade to prevent him from entering the hall. Supriyo then tried to force his way through the barricade with the help of his armed security which resulted in a clash between the protesting students, Supriyo and the CRPF personnel guarding him. Students who were part of the barricade claim Supriyo heckled and abused the students and JU’s security guards. At this point, some students in the barricade retaliated physically against Supriyo, who responded in kind. Supriyo then slapped Susmita Pramanick, a third-year student at the university’s department of comparative literature, who was at the front of the human barricade. “Somehow, in the middle of the ruckus I came in front of Supriyo and then he hit me, held me by my hair and also hurled abuses at us,” Pramanick said.

Around 3.30 pm, as the exchanges between Supriyo and the students escalated, Suranjan Das, the Vice-Chancellor of JU, stepped in and escorted him to the venue. But not before Supriyo unleashed a tirade of entitlement at Das—including insinuating that Das did not come to receive him because he was “a leftist,” all of which has been captured in several videos doing the rounds of social media. As Supriyo attended the event, JU students called a general-body meeting and unanimously decided to barricade him again and prevent him from leaving the campus until he apologised.

Around 5.30 pm, when Supriyo tried to exit the campus, once again the students formed a barricade around him. Supriyo plonked himself on the bonnet of a car, started singing, passed misogynistic comments about the female students and their attire, tried to question the students about the National Register of Citizens and threatened to charge them with sedition and rescind JU’s funding—he seemed unaware that JU is an autonomous state university. By then, the university was completely locked down and the Kolkata Police present at the campus to provide security for the event were being deployed inside.

As the standoff between students and Supriyo continued, the ABVP cadre started assembling outside JU’s gate number four, facing-off with the police personnel just inside the gate. Some students told me that members of the Durga Vahini, a women’s organisation under the Sangh Parivar, were also a part of the mob. Multiple eyewitness accounts and audio-visual footage corroborated that the ABVP cadre was armed with swords, brickbats, trishuls and bottles and were chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” A number of students I spoke to said that the ABVP cadre seemed to comprise a majority of middle-aged men who were not students of JU.

Around 6 pm, Jagdeep Dhankhar, the governor of West Bengal, who is also the chancellor of JU, entered the campus to escort Supriyo out. As soon as the gates were opened for the governor to enter, the police barricade was breached and the ABVP cadre broke into the university with acid bulbs, petrol bombs and splinters of wood. They ransacked the union room, piled up whatever they could find and lit a huge fire in front of the gate. According to a report in the website Newslaundry, Suman Das, the secretary of the ABVP denied all allegations. “Healthy protest is not a problem but when Mr Supriyo arrived, the Leftists physically blocked him ... and heckled the minister for six hours. What kind of democracy is that? They are circulating a rumour that AVBP started attack but it's not true.”

Kunal Chattopadhyay, a professor at JU, said that the entire incident was orchestrated and that Supriyo “came prepared that irrespective of the form of resistance by the students, they would keep on provoking.” He added, “At different levels, one political party is systematically trying to create ruckus inside the university.” The weapons carried by the cadre seemed to bear out allegations that Supriyo’s actions were deliberate and planned in advance. In addition, a fake deputation letter is being circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp, claiming that it is from the Jadavpur University Teachers Association. The letter, which does not have any letterhead or signatory authority, makes several demands for JU, such as the institution of eminence tag and funds. The letter also has a line which says “Through: Shri Babul Supriyo, Hon’ble Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Govt. of India.”

Following the destruction of the union room, the ABVP mob entered the Under Graduate Arts building, broke the notice board and tried to go inside the classrooms. Parthasarathi Bhaumik, a professor at the university’s department of comparative literature, told me he was in a meeting when he heard hooting, cheering and screaming outside the building. “We locked the collapsible gates and switched off the lights in the classrooms. About seventy to eighty students were hiding in the classrooms holding their breaths in fear of being attacked by the mob,” he said. A female student collapsed in fright but “we had no option to provide her with any medical assistance. We felt helpless,” he added. By this time, Dhankhar had escorted Supriyo out of the campus.

Pal, the post-graduate student, told me that as the incident hit the airwaves, “students started receiving rape and death threats on social media” and the university’s veneer of safety has been severely compromised. “Now we feel unsafe not only outside the university but inside as well.” According to Pal, “The BJP has efficiently created a narrative and designated places for students who question their position.” But there was defiance in his words as well. “The incident has definitely threatened the safety of the students but at the same time is also a reminder to authorities that oppression will be resisted,” he said.

Samantak Das, the professor at the frontline of the human chain on Monday, however, holds the JU students also responsible and believes that the situation would not have escalated to this level if the students had shown restraint. “I believe, as a higher-education institute, we should follow certain rules even while protesting. Undoubtedly, there were provocations from Babul Supriyo and I strongly condemn the way he behaved with our VC. But, the way our students dissented was not the correct way to respond,” he said.

Das considers the JU students and the ABVP cadre equally at fault. “In the general perception and the coverage of the event in the media, our students have distinctly come out looking bad.” According to Das, Supriyo and the governor disgraced “the dignity of their offices” but that “does not mean the students can also behave in a way which is undignified and uncivilised.” However, he was unequivocal in his desire to maintain JU’s stature. “Many of us teachers did not support the way the students reacted that day but that does not mean we will not be there to protect the university.” He told me that not all professors who created the human chain on Monday “are anti-BJP but we were all united in our desire to protect the university from mayhem.”

The Jadavpur University Teachers Association held a meeting on Friday to discuss the situation and the further line of action. The teachers were supportive of the students’ democratic right to protest inside the campus and decided that the university administration should be more proactive and alert to prevent any such incidents in the future which can put the students’ lives in jeopardy. “I do not know who instigated whom, who is at fault but I need to know that my students should not feel this threatened inside the campus again,” Bhaumik told me.