India: Eyewitness account, images of Kolkata’s huge movement for gender justice

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Story by Kasturi, photos by Ronny Sen (more photos HERE and HERE)

September 24, 2014 --, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- One of the slogans churned out of the womb of turbulent Paris in the May days of 1968 was "Don’t trust anyone over 30". The student uprising of May ‘68 with its audacity and exaggeration might have failed. But the mahamichhil (grand rally) called by students which took command over the heart and pulse of Kolkata on September 20 was a literal, vivid, living embodiment of this slogan.

As I stood with a video camera on a spot on the Jawaharlal Nehru Road, with hope to capture the moments and more than  50,000 faces that made history with each footstep, all I could see was an ocean of people most of who had perhaps not even reached their 25th year, and many of who were walking their very first rally. Those slightly older, those weathered yet young at heart paced alongside them in solidarity. "Such a student gathering – so huge, determined and disciplined – I have not seen in my life", wrote poet Sankha Ghosh, "This really moved me. It’s very early to say if this will mark the beginning of a new era but I will reiterate this is one of the biggest student rallies I have seen in my life."

The rally was replete with slogans reflecting basic demands of the movement, but there was a unifying chant, rather a call to action, that instantly bonded with and caught the fancy of the first timers that hit the street – Hok, Hok, Hok Kolorob ("Let there be clamour"). A call, ripped off from a popular song by Bangladeshi singer Ornob and used as hashtag on social media to mobilise – was surreal, refreshing, imaginative enough to break the deafening silence, stupor and suffocation strangling students’ aspirations for democracy, freedom of expression and association across education campuses of Bengal.

The other interesting aspect of this call was that unlike regular slogans where someone leads and the rest follow, here there was no single lead but many voices all chanting the four words in unison, accompanied by clapping of hands. As a comrade observed, "the zeitgeist and slogan of the contemporary present is #hokkolorob!" ("Kolorob"/"kalrav", roughly translated here as "clamour", conveys the sense of a symphony of birdsong in many Indian languages.)

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There were many things that made this rally unique and unprecedented. First and foremost was the political, yet non-sectarian nature of it. Some in the media portrayed this as an apolitical movement, but a closer look would have revealed that the principle of "no organisational banners" was not synonymous with "apolitical". For instance, the beloved left cries of Inquilaab Zindabaad (long live revolution), and Paaye paaye comrade, gorey tolo barricade (March together comrade, build up the barricade) were among the handful of favourite slogans, along with the spirited Lathir mukhe ganer sur/dekhiye dilo Jadavpur (Sing in the face of baton blows/this is what Jadavpur shows).

The rally was anti-authoritarian, anti-state terror and for gender justice and campus democracy, and it stood united by consciously putting aside organisational banners. This effectively attracted students in such huge numbers. The collective conscious of student identity as an undivided whole stood out.

An emphatic assertion of student solidarity cutting across organisations and campuses came as a direct response to the administration’s attempts at dividing up the students. The tag of "bohiraagoto" (outsider) carries a sense of deja vu and brings back memories of 2006-07 in West Bengal politics when the same phrase was used to discredit peasant movements against corporate land grab.

This time, when the Jadavpur University (JU) students were subjected to police brutality under instructions from the vice-chancellor – an appointee of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) – many students from other colleges instantly responded to SOS calls and flocked to the JU campus at midnight to stand with their friends. Many of them braved batons and boots together with JU students. The VC and the police tried to tag them as "outsiders creating trouble" and used it as a lame afterthought-justification of police violence.

The resounding reply to such divisive designs came on September 20 with a large number of students proudly flaunting "bohiraagoto" bands on their wrists and heads. One popular slogan said "thaakbo paashe maarbe joto/amra sobaai bohiraagoto" (The more you beat us the more we’ll stand in solidarity/ we are all outsiders). Saswata, a rally participant said, "You hit one and it hurt us all. We’re in it together. If you hurt us you got to apologise." Tanumay, a JU student who broke a rib said, "this rally is a big statement. That you got to listen to us students. Baton raaj will simply not work".

The rally reverberated with slogans against police atrocities. The old 1970s slogan "police tumi jotoi maro/maine tomar eksho baro" (Hey police, no matter how much you beat us/your salary still stands at 112 rupees) was profusely used alongside its modernised version "police tumi marle eto/maine tomar barlo koto?" (Police, you beat us so much/But how much did your salary go up?) and "police joto marbe/michhil toto barbe" (more the police beatings/bigger the rally).

What precipitated this historic rally of September 20? Analysis of all factors that led to such an unprecedented resonance will take time, but the immediate spark was a series of events that unfolded on the JU campus through the past fortnight.

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On August 28, a woman student of JU was harassed and molested by a group of hostel boarders. On the concluding night of the college fest, she and her boyfriend were subjected to what was a shameful case of moral policing, followed by a scuffle, her phone being snatched, her friend taken away and beaten. She was dragged to a room in the men’s hostel where she alleged that drunk students touched her inappropriately, pushed her around and twisted her fingers. On complaining to the VC on August 29, she was told to come back later. She filed an FIR [complaint with police] with the Jadavpur Police under sections 354 (criminal assault on a woman to outrage her modesty) and 379 (theft). She identified some of the accused, but no arrests have been made so far!

She also filed a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of JU, under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act. For days the VC kept dilly-dallying. He said he would require at least 15 days to set up an investigation committee and advised her not to come to college for as long!

On September 3, her fellow students held a general body meeting, and drew up a charter of demands for an immediate, impartial investigation committee in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines. More inaction followed from the college authorities and the students marched to the VC’s office and the police station two days later. Meanwhile two members of the ICC turned up at the victim’s house and in a classic case of victim-blaming, interrogated her on her dress and state of sobriety when she was attacked!

Infuriated students marched to the VC’s office again. On September 8, a 11-member delegation from the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) along with protesting students met with the pro-VC (in absence of the VC) and the OC of Jadavpur Police Station with a memorandum listing demands, but neither were able to give answers or assurances.

From September 10, the students sat on an indefinite sit-in protest in front of the VC’s office with their demand of fair and thorough investigation into the incidents of August 28, including a fair reconstitution of the ICC. Several left students’ organisations along with the general students formed one united voice under a common banner. The peaceful sit-in continued for 150-odd hours, replete with slogans, music, posters, films and constant attempts at dialogue. The nonchalant VC, showing smugness and arrogance, entered and left the university every day but did not address the sit-in or yield to the students’ demands, sent through occasional delegations. "It is beneath my dignity to talk to agitating students, and neither am I paid for this", he said.

On the night of September 16, state terror descended on the students’ protest. After the Executive Council meeting ended, the students demanded that the VC give a public statement on the university’s handling of the case. They put up a peaceful human barricade saying the VC would have to cross or step on their bodies if he were to leave without an answer. A massive police contingent was called in, accompanied by police personnel in civil dress, the Rapid Action Force, bouncers and miscreants associated with the ruling Trinamool Congress.

That day I left the campus around 11:30 pm with the thought that the police would not dare to physically attack the students in the presence of television media. But around 2:30 am in the night, phone calls and SMSes started arriving about a brutal attack on the students. The police and bouncers had lashed out at the protesters to create a safe passage out for the VC. They beat up the students severely. Forty students had to be taken to the hospital. One student, Shibam of the engineering faculty, had to be hooked up to a ventilator. Some, like comrade Prosenjit sustained critical injuries with days of hospitalization. Tens had broken/damaged knees, arms, fingers, legs, ribs. Several got bruises on the back, shoulder and body.

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Lights in the building were turned off from inside (to prevent the press from recording) as 15 women students were manhandled, groped, molested, dragged, kicked on their stomach, stomped by boots, punched, walked over by male police, even as the female police personnel stood watching. Phones, laptops, glasses were broken and stolen. Rape threats and abuse were hurled at women in the dark. Thirty-six students (including one female student Sudhanya Pal) were arrested. Sudhanya was dragged by her hair while her dress was lifted and she was thrown into the police van by four male police/bouncers in civil dress, while being abused and threatened. No woman constable was present during her arrest. A media cameraperson was beaten up for recording the atrocities and his camera was broken.

The shocking police brutality blasted all floodgates of patience. As the horrific visuals flashed on television all through the morning of September 17, rage grew on the streets and there was condemnation from all quarters. Except two. The VC’s office and the education ministry!

The chief minister remained mute, except for indirectly alluding to the incident as "a trivial thing". The VC and the commissioner of police added fuel to fire with their remorseless lies of "peaceful police and violent armed students". Their lies were rejected by the public and within a few hours, a huge and spontaneous turnout of 5000 at a protest rally called by students took over the stretch from Jadavpur to Golpark for several hours. The front banner read "We demand the VC’s resignation", until which an indefinite academic boycott was called for. In addition to the original demand for gender justice, demand for punishment of the police and goons responsible for the attacks on students including a fresh round of gender violence on women protesters was made.

The upsurge had begun.

The next day saw another spontaneous protest rally from Jadavpur to Anwar Shah Road crossing and back. This time numbers doubled to 10,000. Students poured in from colleges and schools across the city to form one flowing river of youth flooding the streets. Student protest rallies in solidarity sparked off locally in all corners of Bengal. Girl students in a district high school decided to boycott classes in solidarity, defying TMC terror threats.

Finally on September 20, the numbers on the rally swelled a further five-fold in what was the grandest united show of strength by the youth. Students marched in inclement weather and pouring rain from Nandan to Rajbhavan as an estimated fifty colleges across Kolkata and neighbouring districts took part. A memorandum of demands was submitted to the governor, who is also the chancellor of the University.

For five hours, the heart of Kolkata was occupied by students till their delegation returned with certain assurances from the governor. "A resounding NO to police brutality on campus and zero tolerance to gender violence in and outside campus", said Arumita, an All India Students' Associaltion (AISA) activist who faced brutality. Priyasmita, an activist with the Progressive Democratic Students' Federation (PDSF) marked this "as one of those historic moments when lots of accumulated anger and rage finds an outburst".

Apurba, an United Students' Democratic Front (USDF), activist saw the march as one "that proved that students could not be divided up into campuses", while AISA’s Saikat saw it as "a cry for democracy from campus to the streets, from the streets to all campuses". A beaming Manidipa, who had braved police brutality quipped, "Look at the response. I feel I am ready to get beaten up five times all over again. Look how Kolkata has put a healing balm on our wounds."

Many young women compared this rally with Delhi’s December 16 uprising against gender violence and state apathy. Nabottama, another movement activist wrote on Facebook, "I realised that the noise we had started making has resonated across not only this country, but in fact the world. Come what may, we are clearly winning this one."

Malay, who was a student activist and braved batons during the 2005 police crackdown on JU students, compared the past and the present and brought out their striking parallels (the response of the respective governments) and differences (the volume of ensuing "Kolorob" generated).

Ex-JU student Sudip recounted a quote from Nabarunda’s novel Herbert to sum up the mood: "The state machinery is yet to figure out how, where, when and by who the explosion shall be ignited."

A concerted show of solidarity flew in – from Siliguri, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay, Kharagpur, Bihar, Delhi, New York – and so many other cities. Simultaneous protest rallies were held. The JU alumni and concerned citizens called en masse to the Lalbazar police headquarters to condemn and enquire about steps taken to punish the police personnel who took to violence.

The series of lies and slanders floated around by the VC (that the police were gentle, that it was the students who really beat up the police, that the students broke the lights, that this was a agitation with Maoist links or by a handful students demanding access to drugs and liquor!) cut no ice with anyone and neither were they effective in breaking the morale of the movement. A statist counter rally brought out by TMC student leader Shankudeb Panda boomeranged with a confused medley of people and youngsters, some of whom ironically told the press that they had turned up to protest police brutality on students!

As I write this, the West Bengal government seems to have finally sat up and heard the warning bell after a few sleepless nights following the quake of September 20. The current strategy of the government includes familiar dirty tricks like trying to put pressure on the victim’s father to reverse his earlier statements and putting pro-government statements in his mouth.

Coupled with this, the VC for the first time has written a pompous and bizarre "confessional" piece in the Times of India (!) blaming the "extremely unfortunate" night on his "destiny" and "extending an olive branch" to discuss with the protesting students!

The students are in no mood to yield though with anything short of his resignation and their other demands. They organised a people’s convention on September 24 and a march to Lalbazar along with a global solidarity day later that week.

The impressive use of social media, alternative media and clarity of articulation has been a hallmark of this movement, that helped the students swing public opinion in their support and counter endless state propaganda, obfuscation, diversions and slanders. Another hallmark has been the strong cultural flavour that marked the protests. New songs, poems and parodies were written. Students sang, danced and arranged cultural programs like music concerts, skits, film screenings, street theatre, painted graffiti and posters and created music videos with its own artistic genre.

The teachers’ association JUTA stood by the protesting students, demanding among other things "relinquishing office by the VC Abhijit Chakraborty", "an impartial investigation into the police violence including molestation of agitating girl students, switching off of lights and the brutal assault on students" and "a complete ban on police presence on campus". They have resolved to wear black badges in protest until the demands are met and to "completely boycott the VC in all administrative matters".

“This is not a question just about students or women alone. This is about the way in which people in power view those who they think they wield power over. This is the same smug arrogance that is routine in factories and offices where managements treat workers and employees with contempt. It is the same arrogance that makes patriarchs and politicians insult the autonomous choices made by young people by invoking the poison of ‘love Jihad’. It is the insults that the powerful throw at dalits, and especially young dalit women and men who are trying to carve lives of dignity with education, by wearing what they want to, by simply being ‘present’ in public space. It is the racist slur that the Delhi landlord throws at his young north-eastern tenant. Each of these instances is an offensive in war that has been unleashed on the young. On students, on young women, on young workers. It is a war on love, on pleasure, on friendship, on solidarity and on the right to lead one’s life with dignity and with freedom. And now the young are beginning to fight back”, wrote Shuddhabrata Sengupta about the growing, spreading kolorob for rights, in Jadavpur and everywhere.

Only the days ahead will tell us the about the outcome of the movement at JU, though victory seems to be in sight for the students – both in their moral and legal battles for justice and democracy. Undoubtedly such a victory would be historic if achieved.

However, this movement has now grown much bigger and spread much wider than JU. The students of Durgapur Engineering College are facing repression from their authorities. Francis Mondal, a student of Scottish Church College was beaten up by Trinamool Chhatra Parishad TMCP-affiliated goons and his leg run over by a motorbike as punishment for him joining the JU protests. Students from many colleges like the Netaji Subhash Engineering College face routine police brutalities and attacks by ruling party miscreants. Almost none of the colleges have a functional gender cell. Those that have a gender cell lack student representation. The Executive Councils and governing bodies in most places do not accommodate student representations.

Students are banned by the ruling party from forming associations in most colleges where elections are controlled totally by musclemen. Exorbitant fees, "unofficial fees" payable to ruling party thugs, corruption in the admission process, lack of hostel facilities for women students, and the overall state of education is in a shambles except for a handful few privileged campuses.

Students who have come together in the ongoing movement have, standing beside JU, articulated their own issues and demands, and urged for a united student movement for spreading the struggle for campus democracy. The movement has unleashed tremendous amounts of energy, huge potential, possibilities and desire for building a sustained student solidarity movement all across Bengal.

A movement that will reclaim the campuses for students, that will demand students’ voices to have utmost importance in the running of institutions, that will fight for students’ issues and rights. A Kolorob that will challenge batons with songs more powerful. A Kolorob that will spread to campuses which are not easily moved into the spotlight like JU or presidency. A Kolorob that will take the spark of spontaneity that has been ignited, and make the flame burn brighter with networked, organized, sustained effort. A Kolorob that will reverberate across Bengal and build bridges of solidarity with the oppressed and fighting people in the battle for democracy.

[Kasturi is a cultural and women's movement activist in Kolkata associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. Besides being a researcher in theoretical physics, she has been in active solidarity with the student's movement at Jadavpur since its start.]

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