By Joyeeta Dey and Anushka Sen
The movement protesting gender insensitivity and police violence against students in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is right now in its most vulnerable position. The marching has calmed, a high court order aimed at restoring “normalcy” to the campus has been implemented, the issue is beginning to fade from television and the public imagination, while, in all this time, not a single demand of the protestors has been met. At this point all available arguments to discredit the movement are simultaneously and furiously being leveraged by opposing parties. In the barrage of accusations that have been hurled at the protestors, one makes us most uncomfortable – that the Hokkolorob Movement is essentially elitist. This allegation has come from TMCP (Trinamool Chatra Parishad) cadre looking to discredit the protestors on the one hand, some students from other colleges who have previously felt the real and perceived arrogance of the students of Jadavpur University (and are thus not inclined to provide solidarity now) on the other, and some critical-minded people. To begin with, any university-led movement is an easy target for this charge. Yet, the accusation ought not to be casually dismissed and it might be more effective to examine its potential truth and treat the taint of elitism as a pitfall to be wary of, rather than use it to undermine the movement.
Was its form elite?
The art (music, dramatic performances and graffiti) that this movement has generated has been richly documented in photographs and shared through social media. This, along with the high visibility of the English literature department’s students and professors in the protests has invited a caricature of this being a self-indulgent, over-aestheticized rebellion. It needs to be mentioned here that all major decisions regarding its direction were arrived at in General Body meetings, which are open to the entire student community. Secondly, a multi-pronged approach was adopted with sit-ins, marches and boycott, deputations being sent for dialogue and negotiation, and collective letter drafting. While these may not indicate great radicalism and grit, it would be unfair to forget these simply because they happened to not be as camera-friendly. Also, without in any way ceding that art is a necessarily elite activity, it is important to realize that the focus on art in this movement was also a political strategy (in part a response to a newspaper having earlier falsely accused the protestors of physical assault) drawing from the general agreement that as long as a positive response was required of the administration, a display of aggression against it would be inappropriate and counterproductive.
It would also help to look into the specific form of the art to see if the claims of elitism hold – the new slogans and cartoons have not been English dominated, and they have embraced a cheerful yet stinging irreverence, and at times a downright silliness in sensibility which works very well to deflate the masculinist tone employed by TMC cadres and their supporters. This inventive humour has helped rejuvenate protest culture in Bengal which has faced long standing complaints about its staleness.
If Facebook activism is the reason for some people’s ire, then we also need to remind ourselves that crucial footage exposing police atrocities has been circulated on Facebook, that the party members too have taken recourse to Facebook and that Facebook is only one aspect of the movement. If they’re a way of keeping up spirits and fostering a sense of community, would one really wish that away? Additionally, social media has been (yes, a convenient) means for the Jadavpur students to express solidarity with other similar occurrences across the country (such as the instance of police violence against students in Shimla) even while being too caught up in their own struggle to actively participate in them.
Were the protestors privileged and safe from extreme consequences?
On the infamous night of the 16th/17th, the students were unwilling to let the Vice Chancellor (VC) leave until he had made a public statement. They refused to budge, despite the intimidating presence of the police and an obvious lack of faith in the VC’s ethics. Following the police violence, members of the movement have allegedly been followed home and threatened, and given the political climate of Bengal, the dangers are all too real. Elitists may fancy themselves as martyrs, but the blows of a lathi (police baton) and police custody have a way of overwhelming the glamour of martyrdom. That this movement has not hastily packed its bags after the police excess, speaks of a courage that has outlasted hypothetical heroism.
If it is argued that such brutality is commonplace and much worse is seen to regularly happen in other less prominent campuses without receiving any comparable amount of attention, it could be pointed out that instead of participating in Oppression Olympics one can be thankful when that one instance manages to arouse public indignation in spite of the extreme normalization of police brutality. It must be admitted though that the middle class (with exceptions) backgrounds of the students have been an important factor in drawing the urban elite into a street movement, the latter being able to identify with the former.
Is its demographic suspiciously apolitical otherwise?
The gravity of the survivor’s allegations, the administration’s apathy and police inaction has made a wide body of students feel vulnerable on a personal level as well as outraged about the overall climate of gender insensitivity. This is why it is not spearheaded by political unions, but not shirked by union members either. Clearly, it has drawn left-minded people and even leftist union-members, making some people suspicious. At the same time, it is equally obvious that the movement is not backed by any one body, and that its demands appear to spring from a basic sense of humans rights violations, as well as campus security concerns. The escalation of this into a city wide protest could in part be attributed to the presentation of this issue in the media. For the first time the audience wasn’t paralysed by doubt about the actual turn of events and caught between opposing versions. The video footage of that night helped clearly delineate the victims and the aggressors. If for these reasons, it has drawn people who are usually politically inexperienced and/or elite, that is not sufficient reason for condemning the movement.
The large turnout of what is appraisingly or sneeringly called the ‘bhodrolok’ community, on the 20th, needs to be seen not simply as the presence of an elite section of society, but the involvement of a section that is usually the most wary of Jadavpur’s purported ethos. This perceived ethos is comprised not only of politics (usually non-elite), but drinking, smoking, liberal intellectualizing etc.—activities which the university’s most elite students often actively indulge in. Given this context, the fact that many advocates of prudence and tradition are now expressing solidarity with this movement, is striking and encouraging. Government and university authorities have tried to put down the protesters by describing them alternately as lumpen and softened through debauchery. However, the return of medals by members of the alumnus indicates that the movement has support from students valued by the university. This assessment is not grounded in an uncritical acceptance of rank and honour, nor is it an attempt to redeem the movement by pointing out its intellectual components. In fact, the return of medals is largely a means of responding to the authorities in the authorities’ own achievement-centric jargon.And finally we need to be grateful to this movement for bringing together certain unlikely competitive and parochial factions like Jadavpur and Presidency University, North and South India, Kolkata and Delhi.
Joyeeta Dey is currently working with a non-profit organization. She has a Masters degree in Sociology of Education from the Institute of Education, University of London and Bachelors in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Joyeeta most enjoys contemporary poetry and modern art.
Anushka Sen has completed both her B.A. and M.A. in Jadavpur University, Department of English. She is currently working as a Project Fellow under the School of Media, Communication, and Culture. She has, however, currently forgotten about her work.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India” (Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) & “Debating the Disability Law in India” (Edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata & Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad).