A dictionary meaning of the word ‘movement’ describes it as a series of organised activities working toward an objective or an organised effort to promote or attain an end. This certainly sums up the movement by a large section of students of the Jadavpur University in Calcutta, who have grouped together to fight for the removal of the interim Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University, Abhijit Chakraborty.
The trigger for the upheaval was a complaint by a female student of the University, who alleged molestation at the Boys’ Hostel on 28 August. The hostel superintendent was present and witnessed the girl being dragged by a group of boys into a room filled with young men who were drunk, and the door being locked from inside.
But why did he remain a mute spectator of the incident? “The Hostel Super did not interfere because the boys would have beaten him up severely,” said the VC later, when questioned. Why, then, does the hostel need a superintendent in the first place?
Worse still, the victim had no information about the existence of a sexual harassment cell or any institutionalised body that would ensure justice for her and take punitive action against the accused.
The following day, the student informed the college authorities and registered a complaint with the police. The police began an investigation under sections 354 (criminal assault on a woman to outrage her modesty) and 379 (theft) of the IPC against the accused. According to the father of the victim, when he approached Chakraborty, he was told to return after a few days.
Following a complaint lodged by the girl’s father to the VC, an internal complaint committee (ICC) was formed but not one governed by the Visakha Guidelines, as mandated by the Supreme Court of India.
On 9 September, the Bengali daily Ei Shomoy published a report stating that a member of the ICC had claimed that she was physically assaulted by students, who were unhappy with the way in which the investigation was being made. A General Body meeting was organised by students on the same day, where an open letter was written, addressed to the said member, questioning the authenticity of the accusation and demanding evidence in the form of CCTV footage of the same.
On the afternoon of 16 September, the VC had a meeting with Executive Council (EC) members, where the protesting students were promised that the VC would put forth their demands (as a zero hour item) about setting up an independent investigative committee with members external to the university such as a retired judge, a Women’s Rights Commissioner, a psychologist and so on.
EC meetings, however, do not include any student representative which means that decisions taken by the committee would not be known to the students immediately unless the EC members or the VC chose to speak publicly of the changes decided upon. The students submitted a deputation, asserting that unless the VC or Council members issued a public statement, protesters would lie down in front of the gates, leaving the members no option but to walk over the students if they wanted to leave the campus after the meeting.
By this time, the RAF, the state police and Kolkata police personnel in civil dress (vests/white shirts and dhoti) had reportedly begun pouring into the campus. Around 15 to 20 police vans and buses were said to be parked in front of different entrance points. The protestors were informed that unidentified goons linked to a political party were entering the campus in large numbers.
Around 2 am, the gathered students were singing songs when suddenly, outsiders rushed in. What followed was absolute mayhem and flagrant violation of law by the very people responsible for upholding it.
“Students were thrown around like flying disks, thrashed against one another, slammed on the floor and bashed up. There was lathi charge and repeated kickings -- all in the dark as lights had been switched off from inside the building, and many were assaulted and punched. The female students were not spared either. They were groped, shoved by their breasts, dragged by their hair, molested, their clothes torn off their bodies and so on. The attackers broke flower pots over the heads of the students who were floored and some were beaten with chappals,” says Shristi Dutta Chowdhury, a leading member of the student protestors who has maintained a daily diary of events.
Students who did not retaliate even in the face of this brutal assault were dragged into police vans and detained or arrested. Around 37 students were taken to Lalbazar and a similar number of students needed immediate hospitalisation. The following day, the police commissioner denied allegations and was quoted as saying, “the police was sensitive while dealing with the matter.”
The Vice-Chancellor admitted that he had indeed called upon the police to intervene as he 'feared for his life' that night, when he was held hostage. There was no further explanation of how or why a group of unarmed students, who merely blocked his exit from the campus and were raising slogans and singing songs in protest, were perceived to pose a threat to the life of the VC.
“There has been a lot of controversy over the events of the night of September 16. The question everybody is asking is whether the students who were protesting were in effect gheraoing the Vice Chancellor, i.e. whether they intended to prevent his leaving the administrative block indefinitely. The students say they were not,” writes Rimi B. Chatterjee who teaches at Jadavpur and voices her solidarity with and support for the students, perhaps even at a risk to her job.
She holds that it was morally wrong and irresponsible on the part of the Vice Chancellor to call the police and precipitate a violent attack on peaceful protesters. “As the head of the university he is their protector, but he treated them like enemies, “ she adds.
What has created waves and caught the attention of many in a city used to protests and student politics is the vibrant quality of this movement. True to the students’ claims, it has been an apolitical, peaceful and culturally enriching one, and their single slogan hok kolorob – let the noise go on – accompanied by songs and banners has struck a chord among many and won public sympathy for the mobilisation.
A snowballing issue
The student’s movement, however, suffered a serious setback on 22 September when the victim’s father joined the TCCP (Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad) in the counter-protest rally and said he did not seek the resignation of the VC anymore. He even sat with the students and talked to the media about the injustice done to his daughter, undergoing psychological counselling as she is in trauma.
According to a media report dated 28 September, the cyber cell of the detective department lodged an FIR against Hokkolorob, the Facebook page for the movement. The police report was based, ironically, on a complaint filed by the molestation survivor herself who has reportedly alleged "a deliberate attempt" to malign her image on the social networking site.
But has this subdued the students’ protest? Not really, because it is now more of a movement against injustice, maladministration and brutal misuse of power by the police and the administration in collusion. Things have only worsened following the apathy and even direct affront to students from the ruling party.
At the height of the movement, Abhishek Banerjee, Trinamool Congress MP and president of Trinamool Yuva, as well as the nephew of CM Mamata Banerjee, wrote a Facebook post voicing doubts over whether the students were protesting because the use of alcohol, marijuana and other narcotic substances had been banned on campus!
On 25 September, Siddhartha Datta, pro-Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University put in his papers. Though he did not give any official reason for quitting, sources close to him said that he was unhappy about the university’s strategies. Datta reportedly is also not in agreement with the VC’s insistence that he had asked the police to come in only after having taken Datta and other close members into confidence.
Also significant in its contribution towards the escalating face-off was the order of the High Court requiring police pickets to be set up outside the main gate, following which the university registrar Pradip Ghosh announced several measures to regulate entry into the campus. Addressing a press conference, he stipulated strict norms for entry and exit, which included a mandatory gate pass for visitors.
Ghosh also said that entry to the campus would be subject to “the sole discretion of the competent authority of the University” without specifying who that ‘competent authority’ would be. Naturally, given such distrust and acrimony, Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi’s plea to media to stall further debate on the issue that would politicise the University, and to students to go back to their classes, fell on deaf ears.
As Rimi Chatterjee writes, “I have seen the worst of student violence and I know that protests are often manipulated by political activists for their own selfish reasons, thus putting students at risk. But not this time. The students have won me over by their commitment to doing what is right and their willingness to show patience under provocation. They have not forgotten the original reason why they protested – justice for the girl.”
Indeed, the students have not given up. As the Facebook page Hokkolorob divulges, peaceful protests have persisted even as the city was swept by tumultuous celebrations marking its biggest annual festival, Durga Puja.
“The movement isn't losing fire. The biggest proof of it being the demonstrations/the peace protests going on in Jodhpur Park, Madox Square and Salt Lake even on Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami respectively, gathering such a big crowd. #hokkolorob is there within us and we will fight till the end no matter what festivities are there. It’s a shame that our students got arrested even on Nabami and were interrogated for an hour or two,” says one post on the page.
A larger issue?
But despite such assertions, questions have been raised in certain quarters over whether the original incident of alleged molestation that led to this turmoil has been overshadowed by the collective protest against university authorities and the political establishment.
“Let the fact of concerted attack on students on 16/17 September, however ominous, not occlude the actual reason behind the protests in the first place – the sexual assault on the girl student in the campus. However, the VC’s dilly-dallying with the students’ demand of forming a proper committee with unbiased members. who could investigate the matter, identify the criminals and take appropriate action, left the students with little option other than an indefinite sit-in,” says Manas Ray, an observer of the non-violent and apolitical sit-in demanding the removal of the VC and the installation of a right investigating committee.
In summation, one fact that has been most notably reinforced in this entire episode is that the molestation of women and girls in public places, establishments and educational institutions is perhaps one of the most prevalent crimes in urban India, but one which is not taken seriously enough either by the law and order agencies or by the administration.
Women are groped in buses, felt-up in crowded spots like railway platforms, followed on lonely streets, held captive in public toilets, locked inside hostel rooms and so on. The manifestations and spaces are many. According to the National Crime Records Bureau 2013 Report, West Bengal ranks third highest in the country in incidence of crimes against women. But the complete and consistent silence of the leader of the ruling party, a woman, in cases ranging from the now famous “Park Street rape” to the very recent heinous sexual assault, physical and mental torture and blackmailing of a first year student from Sikkim at Visva Bharati University, has stunned many.
As Rinchu Doma Dukpa from the North East says in an open letter to Mamata Banerjee in Newslaundry, “The brazenness with which the ruling party’s MPs, MLAs and district leaders justify rape is, I believe, a direct outcome of your apathy towards rape victims.” She alludes to the instance where a leader of the party has made a public statement saying ‘rapes have happened in the past, are happening and will continue to happen in the future.’
There have indeed been numerous reported incidents, where the response from the state has been indicative of the strong and systematic malice and apathy towards the suffering of women in the state. What has happened on the Jadavpur University campus continues to underscore the trend.