In March this year, the CPM had deliberated upon its decline at a state conference held in Kolkata. As political leaders scratched their heads over the party’s uncertain future, its student wing was taking steps to stay afloat.
Kaustab Mukherjee, 20, was busy arranging chairs on a pavement opposite Bowbazar Higher Secondary School as red flags bearing the acronym ‘SFI’ (Student Federation of India) fluttered atop lamp posts. The chairs surrounded a small plastic table with a white sheet carrying the message ‘May I Help You’ taped to it. Kaustab, a student of Vidyasagar College, is part of a small group of young men and women who have set up a ‘camp’ for parents of Madhyamik examinees, offering them water and shade as they nervously wait for their wards to return after the big test.
Meanwhile, inside CPM’s Kolkata North Central Zonal Committee office at Patuatala Lane, 10 Class XII students listened intently as their private tutor Senaul Haque gave a physics lesson. These are special classes organised by SFI, the CPM’s student wing, to help them prepare for their board exams. The two-day camp, held on March 19-20, offered special classes to around 100 students on various subjects.
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Since 2011, when 34 years of Left rule came to an end in Bengal, both membership and vote share in the state have been on decline for the CPM (see box). A defeat in Tripura, where it was in power for two and a half decades, added to the downfall, triggering whispers of its irrelevance in political circles while the BJP steadily rose as the main opposition party in the state. However, the CPM’s student brigade has been busy connecting with the youth by forming ‘manchs’ (platforms) and music bands, holding tutorials and opening theatre groups. Members say their aim is to connect to people over “real issues” like unemployment, hooliganism in politics, rape, absence of students’ union elections and others.
“We wanted to do something constructive for students, so we came up with the idea of organising a tutorial camp. Teachers from Hare School and other prominent institutions offered free classes to help them score high in the higher secondary examinations. The camp witnessed good attendance and the response was positive,” says SFI member Subhankar Das, a student of City College. Having joined the SFI in 2015, he is now a district committee member.
The student brigade is currently busy organising protest marches in districts and working on the “Calcutta University Gherao programme”, which revolves around the issue of student leaders of the ruling party allegedly extorting money for admissions in colleges. “On one hand, we face the might of the Trinamool and the police who are against us. On the other, it is the growing influence of the saffron camp. But we are trying hard, reaching out to the youth, especially students, in different ways, in some cases without banners. We are forming manchs where everyone is invited to fight for student issues. Recently, our prolonged agitation made the government take a U-turn and allow students to sit for exams in Calcutta University. No banners were used in the agitation and many Left-minded parties joined us,” says Srijan Bhattacharya, the 25-year-old state president of SFI.=
Kaustab, a Chemistry Honours student, mans camps outside schools for parents and guardians in North Kolkata. “I joined in 2014, at a time when BJP came to power nationwide. I felt this is the way for me. I do not know whether the Left will ever come to power in Bengal. I do not care. I like the ideology. We have been threatened, sometimes beaten up by ruling party members. Police beat us up in rallies, we spend time behind bars, but we still go on,” he says.
The SFI has formed around 20 cultural groups in different districts where songs, dance, music and theatre are used to reach out to the youth. The groups write and record songs based on their political ideology, and perform during major rallies by the CPM or Left Front, as well as during the party’s national and state meetings. For instance, the theme song for the 50th year of the party’s youth wing — Democratic Youth Federation of India — was written, composed, sung and recorded by once such group in Kolkata.
‘Plays more effective than speeches’
“A street play will send the message to the audience more easily and quickly as compared to a lengthy speech. Right now, it is not possible to enter colleges with our party identity. We are drawing like-minded students through dance, drama and music,” says 25-year-old Ria Dey, who looks after the SFI’s cultural department. On February 15, Ria had participated in a march to Raj Bhawan to submit a memorandum to Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi demanding student unions in colleges and universities instead of student councils as proposed by the state government. She sustained injuries as they clashed with police in the process.
Among the youngest members of the SFI is 21-year-old Rahul Pathak, a student of Asutosh College. “I have been taking part in street plays since I joined SFI in 2014. Through plays, we talk about a lot of issues like communal violence, rape, student violence in colleges and cultural deterioration,” he says.
Like him, 26-year-old Sunetra Samajpati has been organising cultural events. “Students relate to such activities. Many of them join us. Had it been a political initiative with banners, we would have been targeted,” she says.
CPM’s own reforms
The CPM has been attempting to make reforms of its own. A new 80-member state committee was formed in March; 17 new faces were included, while 20 leaders — including those aged above 75 — were removed, with the exception of Biman Bose. As a result, the average age of the state committee was reduced by four years (from 60.5 to 56.5 years), with the youngest member being 33-year-old Madhuja Sen Roy.
“A balance is maintained of experience and youth in our party. The youth are now not turning away from us. In fact, many of them are joining hands with us. Unlike what some sections of media are trying to portray, we have not lost relevance, we have gained instead,” says Madhuja, former state president of SFI. The party has also included younger faces at district, zonal and local levels.
Sources in the party said the organisation is now stressing on outreach programmes and cultural activities that include free tutorials, distribution of sanitary pads on Women’s Day, cultural programmes on World Mother Tongue Day etc. Moreover, hundreds of volunteers have been working on the social media push.
‘Left still draws rebels’
CPM politburo and Lok Sabha member Md Salim says, “Students have always been anti-establishment, anti-tyranny and anti-terror. Seniors have baggage and compulsions. Students have only ideology, enthusiasm and conviction. The Left is still a platform that draws rebels who want to raise their voices against corruption, terror and tyranny. There are young minds who are seeing saffron terror on one hand and Trinamool terror on the other. They want to protest. That is why our student ranks are growing.”
“In many areas, our student organisations have formed platforms without banners. On social media, there are so many youths who are not our members but sympathisers. They are tirelessly working to combat professionals of BJP and Trinamool camps. Forced out of colleges in many areas of the state, our student brigade is going for alternate avenues to reach out,” he adds.
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