by Barnamala Roy and Soumabrata Chatterjee, reproduced from issue 3 of the journal
Soumabrata Chatterjee is currently a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University and worked as a Sub-Editor at Kindle magazine. Barnamala Roy is currently working as Sub-Editor at Kindle.
The category of the aesthetic is extremely difficult to explain and even more ambiguous to define in clear terms. When we start to talk about student movements in India, and this is keeping in mind that there is no one single India that we can hypothesise, the aesthetic element becomes doubly important and yet remains elusive. For this reason, we have to resort to a method which studies not just the object itself but also the modality in which we think about it. Our method in excavating an inherent sense of aesthetic becomes an aesthetic itself, and it is through this self-introspection that we can put forward a plausible theory connecting the dots which signify disparate student protests. Whether it is their sensationalism, their sloganeering, their use of graffiti, or a sense of the historical understanding of past student movements – we will consider all of them as part of a tool we can term as the aesthetic innovation of student movements. But since we cannot postulate that there is one unified movement, we have to stress the diversity of representation, categories of experience and ultimately their variant modes of expression. The individual is also important here, because even though it is a collective movement working for a certain vision of social justice, there are people who stand out. That can happen because they become representatively titular heads or because the government finds it easy to identify certain deviant subjects through which they control the chaos and spontaneity that informs most student movements. Politically, culturally and aesthetically they are random expressions of a student ‘public’, but they find resonances in other parts of the country. This article is thus about both spaces of protest and how they talk to each other through dialogue and action.
On and off-campus protests
Dr Sudeshna Chatterjee, a student mobiliser at Jadavpur University in the late 1970s and early 1980s (and currently an Associate Professor at Sarojini Naidu College, Kolkata) has emphasised the importance of student movements in the wake of Bharatiya Janata Party’s grand attempt to achieve a regressive return to the 18th century even as they technologically urbanise India. With the vestigial remnants of Leftist resistances existing and expressing themselves through movements organised by students’ organisations, briefly tracing the trajectory of students’ protests over the last few decades helps to locate their (changing) structure and nature. Back in the 1980s, within an overarching demand for decentralisation and democratisation of education, the student organisations appealed for a) securing 10% of the Central Budget for education b) a stress on primary education c) free education for all and d) ensuring the right to elementary education for everyone, says Chatterjee. Soumo Mondal, a current student leader who belongs to a non-partisan organisation, the United Students’ Democratic Front (USDF), is of the opinion that movements until very recently (2010 onwards) had been globalised in that they veered around the Vietnam war, Cuba’s foreign policy or, the Naxalbari uprising (which was an armed agrarian revolution conducted by communist guerrilla groups in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal).
Mandal attributes his organisation’s political ethics to the Naxalbari ideology in that they serve the revolutionary struggle of workers and peasants in states like West Bengal, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. He recounts the USDF’s role in the context of the forced land acquisition of the peasants in Singur and Nandigram (West Bengal) by the ruling Communist Party of India (CPIM) to effect industrialisation by the Tata corporation. While the population of the state suffered severe disillusionment with the Left Front government, which had turned into an oppressive machinery in the course of its 34-year rule, school and college students working for USDF travelled to Singur for campaigns, fact finding and to engage in propaganda and agitation in support of the peasant revolutions. Apart from conducting open debates in villages, schools and colleges on rising globalisation, peasant uprisings and capitalism / imperialism, they questioned the effectiveness of the development policy adopted by the government in providing employment. ‘A job with dignity after education’ was one of USDF’s chief demands, by which they stressed that the exploitation of employees into working 12-14 hour days with wages so meagre as to be tantamount to unpaid labour. Both Chatterjee and Mondal locate the reason behind the restriction of current students’ movements in universities across different Indian states to demands raised within the campus that often fail to resonate with the masses. He attributes this inadequacy to the influx of capital into the education sectors, thoroughly corporatising them. However, the ‘Hokkolorob’ (let there be clamour) movement in Jadavpur, the Jawaharlal Nehru University protests or the resistance in University of Hyderabad (UoH) with their questions of gender, caste and religious fundamentalism, could potentially percolate into various social strata.
With newer forms of media interactions on Whatsapp and Facebook, the discussions between different student factions have gained momentum, facilitating the emergence of a new student ‘public’ which understands the potency of journalistic recognition, the idea of a spectacle and visual documentation. This new kind of student politics is adept at making certain social issues, which were unexplored in the mainstream public imagination, newly visible. Cultural dissonances are no longer glossed over and the student community is increasingly becoming conscious of its class and caste privileges. While this boosted camaraderie between student organisations across campuses in various Indian states on the basis of the solidarities easily achievable during political activism, the rampant discussions and informed visibility is often used to malign their original intent. Campus activism has become the media’s fishing bait for TRPs (Television Ratings Points). Soumo Mondal mentions in this context the rising trend in the mainstream media to oppose most student movements against the authorities and the targeting of mainly on-campus agitation in relatively elite urban institutions. The non-parliamentary Left factions, like the USDF, have to invest in leaflets and little magazines to cover their debates and performances (aimed at fostering awareness of the evils of finance capital among villagers) not only because the mainstream media is not affordable but also because of its bias and allegiance to the ruling party.
Jadavpur University (JU)
The only movement that the mainstream media channels did not oppose was Hokkolorob in Jadavpur University in 2014, which started off with demands about campus democracy, surveillance and gender justice, solidifying into an insistence on the Vice Chancellor’s removal. Having met with non-cooperation from the university administration with regards to the effective investigation of an on-campus case of sexual harassment, students engaged in sit-in demonstrations outside the Vice Chancellor’s office for a week where police assault and molestation was meted out to them allegedly with the VC’s permission on the night of 16 September 2014. The gross violation of students’ safety on campus garnered mass solidarity across national and international frontiers with 100,000 protesters joining a grand march on 21 September. Calling the mythological status bestowed upon the march an exaggeration, both Souma Mandal and Dibyokamal Mitra (student activist in Jadavpur) regret the lack of sustainable politics in the demand for the VC’s removal that diffused attention from gender justice.
‘Tactically you cannot end a movement with a defeat’, says Mitra, as he underlines the detrimental mentality of electoral politics, which has to bank upon a concrete victory (like the VC’s dismissal) to get votes because it has no long-term revolutionary value. Mitra locates the failure of the Left in its propensity to stage grand spectacles. The goal of any Leftist organisation should not be to agitate for the better functioning of an always-already oppressive system (in this case effected by a new VC’s appointment who would still be serving the state) but to facilitate a change into socialism. Whether in the case of the JNU protests or Hokolorob, the marches and gatherings to listen to philosophers and political leaders deliver speeches and slogans are infusing a sense of rejuvenation among the public who are never thinking of the ‘morning-after’, very much in the vein of ‘Occupy Wall Street’, Mitra feels. To retain the system, the ruling party would rather pander to the ‘carnivalesque’ demonstrations in the name of protests so that citizens go back to their educational institutions and offices the day after having enjoyed the orgasm of partaking in these events. Underlining how media coverage during Hokkolorob propagated the notion that only bannerless student protests, spontaneous in nature, engage mass sympathy. Mandal calls this a ploy of the ruling party to curb the strengthening of any Leftist opposition through mobilisation of the youth. He also attributes the post-ideological and post-organisational strain in student movements to the rise of postmodernism.
Mitra argues that in spite of the movement’s failure in effecting a long-term political change for the society at large, Hokkolorob’s repercussions can be found in the social and political life of the Jadavpur University (JU) campus. Asked if the campus is gender-sensitised, he retains his qualms, but mentions how an individual’s political relevance on campus is marked by his or her gender sensitivity. Daily conversations are gradually getting stripped of sexist jokes. Women’s leadership in the political life on campus has also drastically changed, especially in general body meetings (GBM), where previously there would be men yelling at each other with women remaining mostly mute and demure. The GBM called on 1 September 2014 following the molestation on the JU campus on 28 August witnessed the participation of around 80 women not directly involved in any student organisation. Mitra applauds the increasingly assertive presence of ‘angry young women’ on campus who are challenging and dismissing decisions ratified by men in GBMs. The stringency adopted in the selection of at least one woman candidate in any political organisation on campus was needed even if the stringency is termed as tokenism, according to Mitra. The confidence to resist instances of moral policing on campus is one the greatest outcomes of Hokkolorob; before that, back in 2013, there had been an instance when senior male students of the university discovered a couple of women smoking in the parking zone after hours, forcefully searched their bags to find a condom and threatened to inform the police. To demonstrate the evolving space within the campus in terms of feminist assertion, Mondal and Mitra cite how a radical feminist group managed to stop a fashion show hosted by Lakme in a seminar hall originally reserved for academic purposes.
The anarchism enacted by the student movements is largely carnivalesque and remains divorced from different social strata. In order to truly challenge the moral orthodoxy of several sections of the population they must offer more than spectacles. That is one of the reasons why the ‘Kiss of Love’ protests (resisting the moral policing of public displays of affection), ‘Slut Walks’ or Sanitary Napkin campaigns (infiltrating campuses with social messages written on sanitary pads) adopt the agitprop model, suggest Mitra and Mandal. The irritation created by striking at the moral prejudices of the educated middle class is necessary not only to pinpoint how natural gestures and biological processes (that are normal in Europe and America) remain social taboos here, but also to approach the question of constitutional orthodoxy. Especially when the ‘Kiss of Love’ protests ensured that they went beyond heterosexual kissing, since the re-imposition of Article 377 in the Indian constitution had recently criminalised same-sex bonds (labelling them as ‘unnatural’). Stressing how true radicalisation in movements across history hinges on trauma, Mitra says that the agitprop model revealed stances (whether for or against) and dissipated neutrality, the greatest bane to a movement.
Had they alternatively organised a seminar on Kate Millet and sexual politics in line with the norm of academic feminisms, the lack of participation would have only served the general disinterest and neutrality towards gender injustices. The reference to the constitution also brings up charges of breaching it through the tactics of their protestations which were rampant during several movements in recent times. Mitra responds to the charge of adopting the labourers’ strategies of ‘dharna’ or ‘hunger strikes’ saying that they are effective and parliamentary political parties in India have themselves been exemplary in executing them. Dispelling the biblical nature of the constitution by citing the imposition of 377, Mondal reasons that, had the administrative bodies abided by it themselves, the educational institutions would not have transformed into islands of autocracy where negotiation and dialogue with the students is often a far cry. Dr. Sudeshna Chatterjee mentions that a visit to her alma-mater, Jadavpur University, on 1 September 2016 had revealed that a boycott of classes was in effect there to protest the curbing of ‘freedom of speech’ (cited as a fundamental right in the Indian constitution) entailed in an unconstitutional decree issued by the administration that opposing the government would lead to a dismissal from employment.
The narrative of the ‘constitutional protests’ has also been an outcome of the neoliberal economy implemented since the 1990s which believes in the identity of polite protesters and propagates the ‘beautiful soul’ theory especially when it comes to protesting students. This sentiment that also espouses ‘apolitical’ movements ensures the perpetuation of the system by inclining participants to dissociate from a particular movement once it becomes identified with a recognised political colour. The infringement of Hokkolorob by erstwhile political leaders (belonging to the parliamentary Left who now form the Opposition) had led certain people who had joined the grand rally convinced of the spontaneity and romanticism of the student movement. Mondal cites one positive aspect of this dissociation: the wider public and youth have become dissatisfied with the political structure of the Indian society. The negative aspect is the blurring of the cause the movements are fighting for, due to the staunch refusal to participate in a movement the moment the left-liberals or liberals can spot partisan politics in it. The Hokkolorob march on 21 September was not only attended by opposition party leaders but even by the molesters against whom the protestors had first united. Members of the Kolkata police had also joined in a gesture of solidarity against the police assault and molestation of the students on the night of 16 September. Mitra and Mandal think that the student movements should not regulate participation. If a certain section of liberal participants get disillusioned by the presence of erstwhile political opponents and choose to leave the movement, that’s their call. The triumph lies in the movement’s ability to draw in a wide range of people, and this should be prioritised over retaining a section of liberals who personally choose to dissociate.
Currently non-parliamentary Left (student) organisations like USDF have been trying to draw out the link between peasants’ and students’ movements on the grounds that without uplifting the livelihood of peasants who form a majority of our state’s population, the state would not be able to provide adequate employment for its (urban) youth. Within the workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary struggle, the Marxist models adopted originally by the parliamentary left (and non-parliamentary Leftist organisations) need to incorporate neo-democratic causes like gender and caste justice. The sweeping homogenisation produced by globalisation (and its accompanying evils: capitalism, privatisation, corporatisation), which has created the easy narrative of students getting enrolled in universities only to achieve a degree and get jobs in multinational corporations, needs to be problematised by the student organisations if an alternate society is to be effected. Both Mitra and Mandal cite a crucial problem in how students and teachers have been responding to charges that elite institutions like Jadavpur have become the hub of anti-social activity, drug addicts and promiscuous anarchists. They have been citing a record of the postgraduate placements in corporate jobs and the university’s NAAC score and world ranking. These dissociate the campus from less privileged campuses in terms of the state’s financial aid.
The Leftist identity and revolutionary fervour associated with student movements are limited to their student lives as often as not. Mitra cites instances of student activists making use of the placement cell (a department set up by the university authorities for the benefit of the students whom recruiters speak to in order to employ them once they graduate. Student representatives can discuss with the staff members of the cell requesting the kind of recruiters they want) to advertise for manager posts in Duncan tea gardens infamous for death rate amongst their workers. However, in a fervour comparable to the Naxalbari protests, the Nandigram-Singur massacre (from 2009-2011) witnessed students from institutes across West Bengal leave their jobs and education to mobilise the peasants against the forceful land acquisition by the CPI(M) government. Ultimately, the Trinamool Congress Party defeated the CPI(M) in the 2011 elections by a huge margin. So, the mobilising power of student movements can still retain faith in the system’s overhaul, believe Mitra and Mondal. They further cite the exemplary politics of lawyer and activist, Jignesh Mevani, working against Dalit oppression in Gujrat. He is trying to bring together the class and caste questions by beginning his speeches with ‘Jai Bhim’ (signifying the Dalits, the lowest caste in India’s hierarchical caste system) and ending them with ‘Lal Salam’ (Red Salute). There has been a Brahminical lineage among representatives in the Indian Parliament and the term ‘Red Savarna’ (Savarna indicating the low castes in the Hundu caste system) recently adopted by Dalit activists criticises this dominance. Souma Mandal locates a possibility of a Leftist revival in the county’s political structure if the non-parliamentary left factions working among the Dalits and Adivasis take this phrase seriously.
University of Hyderabad (UoH)
Commenting on the absence of the caste or class issue in the Jadavpur protests, the JU protesters mention the significant potential in the Rohith Vemula protests in University of Hyderabad to incorporate the question of casteism within the Marxist class struggle. Like Mevani’s activism, following the trajectory of Rohith Vemula’s political consciousness reveals his crucial role in shedding light on many Communist organisations’ indifference to caste. He had joined the Students’ Federation of India / SFI (the country’s largest Leftist student organisation) in his early days as a postgraduate student at UoH but then shifted in his political agenda, as well as his research interest. Switching from life sciences to social sciences in his PhD thesis, Rohith formed the Ambekdar Students’ Association (ASA) when the SFI refused to emphasise caste as a distinct factor, saying that it was already implicit in the dream of a classless society. Pathik Bhowmik attributes Rohith’s political turn to the awareness of the long history of casteism on the UoH campus such as how different times were allotted for meals to upper caste and lower caste students lodging on the campus and how, in 2008, a Dalit student had committed suicide after he was denied a PhD supervisor for a long period owing to his caste.
Bhowmik feels the Rohith Vemula activism received attention instead of the numerous suicides by Bahujan and Dalit students on campus because of the direct opposition between the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) (BJP’s rightist student wing) and the progressive student organisations on campus like ASA. Jaee Sherlekar, another student activist from UoH, reveals the bias implicit in the false framing of students in the physical assault of ABVP leader, Susheel Kumar: ’One should also note that the five students who were cornered were Dalits while the rest of the students involved in the “scuffle” were never mentioned in any of the reports’, she says. A joint national committee for justice had been formed and student organisations (except the ABVP) had joined in protests following the Executive Council’s order which had suspended students involved in the physical assault, banning them from their hostel rooms, administrative buildings and other common areas. While negotiation with the administration was repeatedly failing, Rohith had committed suicide, reports Bhowmik, after which the movement had gained momentum with solidarity from the common public of Hyderabad and national and international student communities. On the flip side, Sherlekar mentions how the right-wing factions were misappropriating the movement by claiming to represent the Dalits’ interests, while systematically practising caste-based politics to fracture student unity. The lack of adequate political consciousness noticed in the JU protests seems to be reiterated in the case of UoH: Sherlekar goes on to say that in spite of supporting the cause, in a university which has 2,000 students, only 400 students were physically present at the protest’s site. Even among those present, the count of students not part of any student organisations on campus was very low.
Not only has the ongoing activism caused UoH campus to become wary of casteism (like the sensitivity to women’s representation in the case of Hokkolorob), because of Rohith’s entry into an elite university from an underprivileged background, it has also resonated with the masses. This set up a dialogue with other activists against caste oppression across the country: Rohith’s mother even addressed a gathering after the Dalit Pride March at Una (Gujrat), as Bhowmik points out. The pride march had been occasioned to protest the public flogging of seven Dalits (for skinning a dead cow) by a local cow vigilante group. Incidentally, JNU students’ leader, Kanhaiya Kumar had joined the rally. This highlights the intersection possible between multiple student movements and between student and mass movements when they are directed against the exploitation of a fundamentalist Hindu central government which valorises the cow as a mother while dehumanising lower caste citizens.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)
Trouble started brewing at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) when a certain section of students held an event which highlighted the lack of a fair trial for Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013 after his conviction for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. This event, which was held on February 9 2016, sparked off a series of controversies regarding some of the slogans which were used during its occurrence. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu right-wing ideologist party was at the helm of power in the state of affairs and ever since the 90s, after the Babri Masjid demolition (1992), and the Gujarat riots (2002), it has orchestrated a more exclusionary form of nationalism in terms of theory and practice. While in its working ideology it is quite close to the idea of fascist narcissism, India has always seen such cultural insularity reformulated in terms of patriotism and undying devotion for the motherland. The JNU incident was not really a disparate problem at all. In fact, for the ruling government it has always been a thorn in its side, especially because it has never seemed to be in control of the student elections happening in this university. While after this fiasco, numbers have increased in support of ABVP, there isn’t as much student mobilisation happening as in the different left factions and this is the reason why they lost the 2016 student elections.
There is also the conceptual problem which broke the nation into two warring factions when the ruling government labelled the students at JNU and elsewhere to be ‘anti-nationals’. This debate killed off most of the momentum that the students had created regarding securing justice for Rohith Vemula, or for Kashmir or even for proving to the government that it cannot interfere in the democratic spaces of the university in such a high-handed macho fashion. Students were beaten up when they marched for their rights, be it for securing fellowships or for initiating a discussion into the socio-political repercussions of casteism. What is interesting to mention in this regard is that the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had appeared on a popular TV show Aaapki Adalat (The Public’s Court) just before he was elected as the Prime Minister. In that show he kept on insisting that there cannot be a benchmark for deciding who is a bigger patriot. He identifies himself as a true patriot and he will not allow anybody else question that. Neither will he, or his party ever question the nationalism of another person. This actually became a proven farce when his party came into power as it was precisely the question of nationalism which became the crux of the argument against dissent. Umar Khalid, a PhD student in the university and one of the people who were arrested on charges of being ‘anti-national’ says:
What better way to legitimise the funding cuts in higher education than branding public universities like JNU, which a large section of student coming from deprived backgrounds can afford, as the hub of anti-nationals. This is a way, to quote Noam Chomsky, to ‘manufacture consent’ so that the next time the government reduces the budget for higher education, the larger public accept that thinking that there is no point spending on universities since they do nothing for the nation. This is why you see the entire corporate media took it up as their personal responsibility to vilify and defame JNU as anti-national.
The problem with definitions though is that they are always arbitrary. The then JNU student president Kanhaiya Kumar (leader of AISF), Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested. Kumar even had to bear the brunt of pseudo-fascist forces and face a physical beating at the hands of advocates in front of the High Court. While they were all acquitted at the end of it, charges and fines were levied on them which are still undergoing legal procedural treatment. Legality, as a constitutional paradigm, failed to protect Kumar when he was branded anti-national and even likened to a terrorist by some news editors. The situation reached such extremes that speeches about nationalism had to be organised in the Administrative block where professors like Nivedita Menon instructed the students on the corrective role of a citizen in a democracy. A blind form of fascist nationalism, which premised itself on the basis of hatred and exclusion, was met with another definition of nationalism which was discussion-driven, culturally hybrid and inclusionary. What is interesting though is that the aftermath of this movement saw the political coalition of two of the biggest Leftist parties on campus – SFI and the All India Students Association (AISA). However, there were other smaller Leftist parties who were left out of the loop simply because their ideologies on certain matters didn’t sit well with the aforementioned parties. In the student elections of 2016, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA) made its mark through its Presidential candidate Rahul Sonpimple who has pointed out the incoherencies of the Leftist-Marxist ideology which refuses to accommodate questions of caste and religion. It is pointed out that the Leftist regime has a sort of hegemonic grip when it comes to talking about the oppressed minorities. The Dalits, the Muslim minorities and others do have a voice and platform of their own and they do not need either the fascist Right or the liberal Left to help them secure their rightful place in history.
A slight misnomer though is that none of these parties actually talked about gender queerness as one of their agendas while talking about minorities. It is important to note that each of these parties, albeit with an honest and eager mind, wish to unravel the knots of divisive politics which seem to malign our nation. But in doing so, and compartmentalising themselves, often Leftist parties and Rightist factions or even parties like BAPSA keep on talking about their own minority groups that they have researched and wish to help. The Leftist parties talk about class, gender (but not really queer politics); the Right talks about Kashmiri Pandits and the loss of a nostalgic idea of pure nation and the BAPSA talks about caste and religious minorities. Identity politics becomes the weapon and the site on which such battles are fought and lost and won simultaneously. On being asked about the state of identity politics, and especially the question of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslim in the context of world-wide Islamophobia and also a culture of terrorism which is associated with Islam, Umar Khalid says:
Within the overall jingoism that is being propagated today, at the heart of it lies a very strong anti-Muslim sentiment. Muslims in the RSS scheme of things are the original anti-nationals. The list has extended now to include communists and other sections as well. So even if you are a non-believer like me, you can be branded all those things just on the mere basis of your identity. Because just having that identity is enough to create suspicions around you. And a Muslim can only be nationalistic if he or she openly renounces the fact that Muslims in India face discrimination on the basis of religious identity, and align themselves with the overtly militaristic, patriarchal and Brahmanical project of the RSS/BJP. This is where the distinction comes in: Kalam being the good Muslim, whereas someone like me being the bad Muslim. This is an example that not just Tharoor, but even police officers during my police interrogation, kept giving me.
The three universities that we have spoken about have served as locales of protest and resistance and have seen the rise of counter narratives, be it that the Dadri lynching was caste-motivated, the legitimising of same-sex bonds, the idea of Kashmir’s right to self-determination or even more recently, the Honda workers’ strike. They have secured for themselves, and other universities, in this digital age, a form of network of solidarity which cuts across regional and caste identities. However, things are more complicated than they seem right now. While it truly looks like student movements are the last resort of democratisation it is also important to note that it sometimes fails to generate discussions which go beyond the academia. Recently a PhD scholar in Australia claimed in a Facebook post that we need to rethink the sentiment and aesthetic of nationalism beyond the terms ‘nationalism’ or ‘patriotism’ (which are exclusionary) and that it has to happen beyond the academic boundaries. Finally, there is a huge gap between what we can term as liberal arts universities and engineering and MBA institutes. This difference of opinion is not just ideologically driven but it also reflects the kind of democracy that we will see in India in years to come.