West Bengal

Student unrest

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Students of Jadavpur University and other colleges in Kolkata at a rally in the city on September 20 in protest against police brutality and demanding the resignation of interim Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University Abhijit Chakrabarti.

THE brutal police crackdown on a peaceful student demonstration in Jadavpur University (J.U.) in the dead of night once again betrayed a streak of intolerance in the Trinamool Congress government. Thirty-three students were injured, two very badly, and 35 students were arrested. The September 17 incident precipitated one of the biggest student protests in the State’s recent history.

The students, who were staging a peaceful gherao outside interim Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti’s office, were taken by surprise when, at around 2 a.m., the lights went out at the site of the protest and the police, along with a number of people in plainclothes (many of whom are believed to be Trinamool Congress activists), fell upon them with undue ferocity and attacked them with sticks, fists and boots. The entire incident was caught on video by students using their cell phones. The students were agitating against the callous manner in which the university authorities were probing a complaint of sexual molestation of a student.

“It was a premeditated attack. We were singing songs and when the police came we stood up arm in arm. The lights were then turned off from inside. It was horrific—the way they beat us up and molested and groped the girls. Alongside the police there were a lot of unsavoury characters who were a part of the attack,” Shounak Mukhopadhyay, a student who was severely beaten up and arrested that night, told Frontline.

What made matters worse were the discrepancies in the subsequent statements of the interim Vice-Chancellor. He alleged that his life had been in danger and that the police had come and rescued him from the students. He claimed that it was the students who had attacked the police even though all evidence, including video footage, pointed to the contrary. Chakrabarti found support in Education Minister Partha Chatterjee, who said: “The way the agitation was going on should be condemned.”

However, Chakrabarti and the State government faced widespread condemnation not only for the assault on the students but also for their lack of sensitivity. Students from J.U. were joined by those from other colleges and by people from different walks of life as they took to the streets demanding Chakrabarti’s resignation.

“Most of the teachers feel that what happened was wrong, and their sympathies lie with the students. We do not support gheraos, but that does not mean that such brutal methods be applied to deal with a students’ protests,” Shubhajit Chatterjee, Assistant Professor, Department of Film Studies, J.U., told Frontline. Another professor from the university said: “The V.C., who is known to be close to the ruling party, has made false claims and exposed himself as one who has no sympathy for his own students. He needs to step down immediately.”

Both the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association (JUTA) and its rival, the All Bengal University Teachers’ Association (ABUTA), condemned the police action. While the JUTA demanded Chakrabarti’s resignation, the ABUTA called for a judicial enquiry into the police atrocities.

The intransigence of Chakrabarti and the apparent indifference of the State government towards the students’ demands served only to fuel the simmering discontent. What had begun as just a students’ movement soon assumed the proportions of a mass movement, with people from different sections of society joining in. The cry of protest over an incident in an institution quickly turned into a tidal wave of exasperation against the government. On September 20, more than 35,000 people, braving heavy rain, took to the streets to walk alongside the students. The same day the students met the Governor. The movement also found its echo among students in Delhi and Bangalore.

As pressure mounted for Chakrabarti’s resignation, the ruling party started showing signs of discomfort, and irresponsible comments by its leaders served only to draw more criticism from civil society. Trinamool MP and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee claimed on a social media website that the protest was because the consumption of alcohol, ganja and charas was banned on the university campus.

As of September 24, the impasse at the university continued and all academic activities had come to a halt. “The movement will not end until our two basic demands are met—one, the interim V.C. must step down and, two, an independent inquiry must be set up to look into the sexual molestation complaint,” said a protesting student. The students indicated that they had no faith in the probe committee set up by the State government.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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