Ripples in Jadavpur

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Jadavpur University students march against Kanhaiya Kumar's arrest, on February 16. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

The tremors of the controversy at JNU in Delhi were felt in the academic and political circles of Kolkata. On February 16, two days after the arrest of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, a group of students of Jadavpur University brought out a rally on the campus to protest against the arrest and voice their solidarity with the students of JNU. However, when some of the students began to raise slogans in favour of Afzal Guru, Ishrat Jahan, Kashmir and Manipur, the stage was set for a potentially violent confrontation with the right-wing forces in the State.

“Afzal bole Azadi; Geelani bole Azadi; chheen ke lenge azadi; jo Ishrat ne maanga azadi; jo Manipur ne maanga azadi” (Afzal cried freedom; Geelani cried freedom; we will snatch freedom; what Ishrat had wanted—freedom; what Manipur has wanted—freedom) were some of the slogans that were raised. Interestingly, the rally was not held under the banner of any particular students’ union or political party. Refuting allegations that the rally was “anti-national”, Dibyakamal Mitra, a student leader of the university who was at the forefront of the protest, told Frontline: “Apart from protesting against the police action at JNU and the RSS’ attempt at saffronising every aspect of the country, our rally was also for the right of students to discuss what they want without facing such violent reactions from the state as seen on the JNU campus.”

Vice-Chancellor Suranjan Das, while maintaining that the university did not support the pro-Afzal slogans raised by what he called “fringe elements”, said: “We have a legacy where we maintain the university as a space for dissent, discussion and debate.” Das also made it clear that there would be no first information report against the sloganeering students. “Jadavpur University does not have a tradition of lodging police complaints against its students and we will abide by this tradition,” he said.

On February 17, a group carrying the national tricolour and banners proclaiming “We are from JU and we are not anti-nationals” staged a violent rally within the campus during which they tore down posters in different corners of the university. These students, too, apparently had nothing to do with any political party or students’ union.

These two incidents may have been proxy political moves by left-wing and right-wing forces. But the near violent confrontation that took place on February 18 was certainly a planned political manoeuvre by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Rahul Sinha, former president of the BJP’s West Bengal unit and a national secretary of the party, said “first a thrashing and then judgment”. This was followed by a march to the JU campus by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) led by State BJP leaders Rupa Ganguly and Locket Chatterjee. They were confronted by a huge mass of students standing together and carrying their respective union colours. Teachers, too, came out in support of the students and formed a protective cordon around them. Vastly outnumbered, the ABVP members beat a prudent retreat.

“Our main concern was to avoid violence. Given the political situation in the country, we feared for the safety of our students,” said Madhuja Mukherjee, associate professor of Film Studies, who was among the teachers who had formed the human cordon. Madhuja Mukherjee did not think that the slogans on the first day of the protests were “anti-national” in spirit. “In my understanding, it was not as if the students were demanding an independent Kashmir, but they wanted the Kashmir issue to be brought into a public debate. We all know slogans are rhetorical and are supposed to evoke debate and emotions,” she told Frontline.

The ruling Trinamool Congress party was conspicuous by its silence on both the JNU and the JU controversies. Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee has hardly lost an opportunity to attack the Narendra Modi government in the recent past. But this time, with the Assembly elections in the State just round the corner, she appears a little wary of taking on the Centre. Moreover, she herself has a history of intolerance against any kind of dissent. “The most intolerant person in West Bengal today is the Chief Minister herself. Moreover, the Trinamool’s silence has made it clear that an arrangement has been made between her government and the Modi government before the Assembly elections,” Surjya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, told Frontline.

On February 21, the CPI(M) and other Left parties organised a rally in Kolkata in protest against the developments at JNU.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay