Written by: SANTANU CHOWDHURY & ATRI MITRA
The September 19 scuffle involving Union minister Babul Supriyo reflected the importance to the BJP’s Bengal plans of Jadavpur University — a Left bastion that has held off even Trinamool might.
With the violent scuffle involving Union minister Babul Supriyo and students on the Jadavpur University campus on September 19, the BJP has announced its ambitions for one of the state’s most prestigious universities and one of its last remaining Left bastions.
For a party that sees the Left as its ideological rival and which is eyeing West Bengal for expansion, the Kolkata university is a natural battleground — representing to the East what the BJP believes Jawaharlal Nehru University represents to the rest of the country. In the past few years, Jadavpur University has seen protests in support of both JNU students charged with sedition as well as against the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula, prompting the ABVP to call for quelling “anti-national” sentiments on its campus.
On September 19, Supriyo, who had come to address an event organised by the ABVP, was assaulted by a section of students. He refused to stand down, even after Vice-Chancellor Suranjan Das intervened. Eventually, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar intervened, escalating the situation to the level of the Centre — a development that suited the BJP just fine.
Says BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha, “It is unacceptable to witness a Union minister being assaulted inside a university. In such places, there must be a democratic space for everyone. Those who speak of intolerance must be tolerant towards voices from people believing in ideologies different from theirs.”
However, to others like Anandadev Mukherjee, JU’s Emeritus Professor, who has been associated with the university for more than 50 years, the RSS brand of politics is a complete anti-thesis to what it represents. Set up in 1955, JU has had a “revolutionary character” from the start, says the 82-year-old, who was part of the university’s first Geology Department batch to graduate. “CPI founder Manabendranath Roy, former CPM state secretary Pramode Dasgupta, CPI MPs Nurul Huda, Ganesh Ghosh, and former Union minister for education and first JU
V-C Triguna Sen were all students of JU or its predecessor,” Mukherjee says.
Former leader of SFI (CPM student body Students’ Federation of India) Abdul Kafi, who studied at JU and is now a professor in its Bengali Department, says, “Here, we learnt to question the establishment and to accommodate each other. That is the basic theory of the Left movement.”
Over the years, Left student fronts gave space to ultra-Left ideology at JU. But, even then, the differences never crossed into violence, students and teachers say. Says Professor Manas Ghosh of the Film Studies Department, “Jadavpur never followed any leader, rather it followed ethics. That is the university’s beauty.”
JU also gained strength from the area where it was located, with Jadavpur continuing to remain a Left vote-bank. Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was a five-time MLA from the Jadavpur Assembly constituency. In the 2016 Assembly elections too, when the Trinamool retained power in West Bengal, CPM leader Sujan Chakraborty won from here.
So even as the Trinamool has been pushing the Left out from the rest of Bengal, including more than 90 per cent of its colleges, its Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) has struggled to gain ground at JU. Most of the posts in JU’s three student’s unions — Faculty of Engineering and Technology Students’ Union (FETSU), Science Faculty of Students’ Union (SFSU) and Arts Faculty of Students’ Union (AFSU) — are held by pro-Left bodies.
Says JU professor Nandini Mukherjee, who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on a CPM ticket from Kolkata Dakshin seat but lost, “The university has always been a place for open discussions and a platform to raise questions. And teachers support the students for their openness.” However, gradually, since 2017, both the TMCP and ABVP have made ground. After the Pulwama attack in February 2019, JU saw a Tiranga rally expressing solidarity with the Army. Says Subir Haldar, ABVP state vice-president, “We started a unit here in 2014. We now have a 100-member committee in JU and enjoy the support of some teachers too. In 2016, we took out our first rally on campus against Left students’ organisations for their objections to the screening of a film (Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha in a Traffic Jam).”
SFI member and JU student Joydeep Das says “the right-wing forces have a long way to go”. “Left organisations have been here for decades and it is difficult to shift the support base all of a sudden. It is the Jadavpur mentality which helps one succeed here. All do not possess the same temperament.”
Officially ‘Lakhan da’s Tea Stall’, the kiosk near JU’s Gate No. 4, which bore witness to the violence following the September 19 scuffle, is more popularly referred to as ‘Nasir da’s dukaan’. When he was young, Lakhan da looked like Nasiruddin Shah; hence the name. Running the stall now for 37 years, Lakhan da aka Nasir da says, “I have seen police entering the campus, confrontation between political groups, but never this type of hooliganism.”
ABVP students attacked Gate No. 4 that day, ransacked a stationery shop, and set fire to tea stalls, and vehicles, including his, he adds. “I ran away to save my life. Many of them stole my provisions, even cash.”
Tarit da, the owner of a stationery shop, says, “I managed to close the main door, but they broke my window and ransacked everything. I was a student at this university, for last 26 years I have been associated with it. But I have never seen this. The authorities and students helped me rebuild the shop.”
JU alumni started a Facebook group and collected approximately Rs 9,000 to help shop owners like Tarit and Lakhan.
After the September 19 incident, it is this tradition of rallying together that JU old-timers are hanging on to. They talk about 2010, when one of the students’ unions showed black flags to then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and boycotted an exam the next day when students were lathicharged. They talk about 2014 when JU saw one of its biggest student protests, which lasted four months, against an incident of molestation on the campus. The protests lasted till CM Banerjee came to the campus and ensured the then V-C’s resignation.
But, citing one such student protest, in July 2018, against a decision to scrap entrance tests for admission to the Arts faculty, ABVP state vice-president Subir Haldar says such agitations have only served vested interests. “The TMC government had tried to rein in the practice of Left-minded students being inducted into JU Arts department, but they had to back off following protests. Why should students not be admitted based on merit, as in Engineering and Science Departments? Why is the Arts faculty given the freedom to conduct entrance tests? This is mainly to keep up the flow of Left-minded students into campus so that the tradition of the Left is continued. This is done with the support of a section of pro-Left teachers at JU.”
Some among the Left admit a dilution in the ideology of JU politics over the years, but stress that its basic character has not changed. Chairperson of AFSU and SFI leader Somasree Chowdhury says they are determined to ensure this. “I can’t deny that JU’s political character is changing. But we will fight that unitedly.”
CPM Politburo member Mohammad Salim says the Left would retain its hold on JU, like it continues to do at other campuses, as it fights for the causes that matter. “Everywhere students are fighting against privatisation of the education sector and communal onslaught. Be it JU, JNU or Hyderabad Central University, students here have always stood up against government high-handedness.”
West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh is as clear that it’s time to end “anti-national sentiments” on campus. “We have been saying that JU has become a hub of anti-national elements. Attempts must be made to drive these students in the right direction.”