Recently i came across a news item in Anandabazar Patrika (20 Feb 2020 edition) with photos of jubilant winners that DSF won uninterruptedly for the consecutive 44th term in the Engineering faculty students’ Union election. Of course, it became a news item in the widely circulated Bengali daily as this was the first time ABVP put up candidates under their own banner against DSF and SFI. They failed miserably, on aggregate probably received some 1500 votes, nowhere in comparison to the votes the DSF candidates gathered but they came second — leaving the SFI candidates a poor third.
My first reaction on reading the news item was: Gosh! My goodness! In these days of uninterrupted political commentaries on anti-incumbencies when regular seating governments of ace political leaders face so much uncertainty in coming back for the next term, nobody talks of unpopularity of these guys for an uninterrupted 44 years! In these more than four decades long existence nobody possibly can blame DSF for rigging victory in the elections which by no means is possibly one of fairest students’ Union election held in Indian campuses under the supervision of the University administration. The students in the Engineering faculty associate unequivocally with DSF as their representative, i do not remember any term when violence broke out in the campus during the voting of the students – as if as they enter the University campus once admitted, the engineering students are to be DSF supporters sine qua non!
Situation is not the same in the other two faculties, Arts and Science where periodically faces and representation change. During the Left Front regime, SFI had a long stint in the students’ Unions in both the faculties and this was not without intimidation and strong arm measures. Here also, direct violence never broke out. After the downfall of the Left Front the students’ wing of TMC tried hard to gain foothold, but unfortunately for them, they are still in the rejection box among the students in both the faculties.
How do we explain this unique phenomenon? Engineering students, particularly the male variety are generally understood to be roguish, and JU Engineering male students are not far behind in their roguish reputation. Yet, when it comes to their protests and demonstration related to campus issues against the University administration they are unflinching in their mass mobilizations of both male and female variety, often continuing gheraos of Vice Chancellors for hours together, facing brute police actions not once or twice, but repeatedly over these four decades. The history of such violent police actions against unarmed protesting students in the past decades conjures up new bravery of the posterior generations of recalcitrant students in the Engineering faculty.
This i find amazing and needs deeper introspection. Students outside the campus of JU, in general not at all follow the tradition of the JU students, rather they in general follow the ruling political shades – whether during Left Front regime or under current TMC rule for near a decade. This is quite understandable as the student community like other social communities need state protection to garner the very limited avenues available for future livelihood. Chances of secure livelihood in various wings of state administration are better if the students follow the protection of the ruling regime. Students of JU are looked upon as elites among the student community although it is a fact that the overwhelming majority among them come from pretty commoner socio-economic background. In spite of massive hikes in the cost of higher education, the cost of engineering education in JU is ridiculously low compared to the national averages. This low cost of education genuinely helps generations of such students with pretty average and poor socio-economic background to enter into better opportunities of living once they finish their engineering education in a premier institute compared to their counterparts even within the Arts and Science graduates within the JU campus, leave aside the scores of students in so many other private engineering colleges or other institutes of higher education where cost of education is much higher.
Then what makes DSF to exist uninterruptedly for more than four decades in JU as an island of protests within the student community at large that is otherwise morbid and mediocre in their value systems, in their meagre achievements as students and in their limited objectives for living and life? Being part of a premier elitist education system (if at all it carries any purposeful meaning!) in JU the students are not supposed to be recalcitrant, to be against the hierarchy of administration in the University. Moreover, the students in JU being undergraduates during their admission follow a regime of meritocracy as understood in the annual holding of JEE examination and also through the departmental admission examinations in the other faculties. In social parlance, they are reared as “good students” and are sent from their families to be reared up as “good members” of the society, University education for them is to be the tools to earn “good living”. It is also true most of the members of the student community follow these traditional hearsays while being part of the campus in JU. However, the major point of attention here is while being traditional in social outgoes they also believe to be unconventional in their anti-establishment bearings at least for the four-five years they are in the campus, at least they love to be part of such anti-establishment leanings. The peculiarity of existence of DSF in JU is this strain of anti-establishment being a continued, living embodiment of protests among the so-called “good” members of society, as if they register the anti-thesis of the society, as if they kind of show off a refusal to accept the going norms of the society among the brightest members of the society in their youthful period of germination of ideas, convictions and value systems. My understanding is herein stays the peculiarity of the DSF movement among the JU students’ community, the uniqueness that needs to be cherished and preserved.
The DSF movement came into existence in JU as part of the broader civil liberties movement in the urban society of West Bengal, during the days of end of Emergency in the mid-seventies. Older generations who spent the mid-seventies and early eighties in the campus will recall how the cinematography of Utpalendu Chowdhury and Goutam Ghose in the form of Mukti Chai and Hungry Autumn were repeatedly projected in the packed hall of Gandhi Bhavan amid vociferous slogan-shouting, how the first anti-Emergency rally broke out as a huge mass gathering among the students in JU in January 1977 as the news of Emergency being revoked spread among the students. The movement was part of the SA-DSA movement in other institutions in and around Kolkata that mushroomed with lifting of Emergency and civil liberty becoming an important social issue in the public life of West Bengal, the demand for release of the political prisoners from Jails gaining loud approval among general public. It is to be noted this demand was part of the agenda of the Left Front that came into power in state-administration with massive approval of mandate and expectation. Yet in the first five years of their rule the Left Front Government and their students’ organisations could not tame the recalcitrant students in the SA-DSA movement. In many institutions, particularly in the professional institutions, the students veered and fantasized with the revival of radical call for revolution. In the beginning, there was a strong current of belief to maintain the continuity of Naxalbari movement as the students in SA-DSA movement pledged for a so-called “revolutionary” path of social development in contrast to the “reformist” path pursued by the Left Front and their associated students’ organisations. Right from the inception, the SA-DSA movement alongwith DSF in JU were sympathetic and strong believer of the “revolutionary” transformation of society and therefore anti-establishment was part of the credo for such students so as to distinguish their identity among the student community otherwise largely under the influence of the Left Front .
Gradually in West Bengal as also in rest parts of the country the steam for such “revolutionary” transformation tamed off as the political groups under whose tutelage the SA-DSA movement drew their political convictions themselves got submerged in the so-called “reformist” agenda of the society and the political institutions, such as in their efforts to elect their members in Panchayat, Municipality, Assemblies and even in Parliamentary seats. In fact, these political groups lost their identity in the constitutional, Parliamentary mechanisms of the society apart from flaunting a distant lineage from a “revolutionary” past. Apart from these features, the gradual transformation of the Chinese society, the demise of Soviet Union, the fall of Berlin Wall, and the mass revolts of the workers in Poland against the status quo peeled off many of the traditional beliefs around the meaning of “revolution” – to such vital questions regarding the conviction towards “revolution”, sadly and unfortunately these political groupings vouching for “revolution” failed miserably and pathetically. They simply have no answer to the intellectual quest of the broader young student community regarding these fundamental queries around “revolution” that they carried in the mid-seventies as a legacy of their sacrifice and staunch adherence to armed peasant revolution as the roadmap for liberation and “revolution”.
Naturally, the SA-DSA movement lost its steam after the second Assembly election in 1982 that returned the Left Front with thumping majority brimming in confidence with the success of Operation Barga and the first Panchayat election that ushered the rural poor of West Bengal to the first taste of grass-root democracy. This was a huge victory of the “reformist” agenda in the society of West Bengal at large, to which there was actually no answer from the so-called “revolutionary” camp. They rather got themselves engaged in petty quarrels over recruiting cadres from the participants of the SA-DSA movement, while of course vouching for the big agenda of “revolution” without actually having no idea of the crestfallen defeat of the “revolution” in the international sphere long before they could ideate and dream about “revolution”. The end result was bickering, “politicking”, sectarian groupings among the student activists of the SA-DSA movement and DSF in JU was no less a part of such small-minded pursuit after immediate interests of the political groups that mentored the radical student organisation in JU in this decade-long period.
Yet the amazing phenomenon is while the SA-DSA movement declined in the other educational institutes, DSF continued to have its overwhelming presence among the engineering students of JU. This peculiarity needs to be addressed in the social context of the eco-system of JU. This is a unitary University with no affiliated colleges, it a state government-run University, it is recognised among the so-called “best” University in the country, and above all, most of the faculty are home-bred, that is the faculty themselves grew up and led a legacy journey within the campus that willy-nilly accepts and patronizes the belligerent behaviour of the students. Moreover, although the recent generations of students may not keep in mind, the genesis of JU is amid the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, it is born out of National Council of Education (NCE) with Shri Aurobindo being the first Principal and all the leading luminaries of early twentieth century Bengal being associated with the NCE. Someway or other, this fire of refusal to accept British prescribed pedagogy, a rebellious kind of patriotism continued to be present in the campus, the peak came during the Naxalbari movement when several students active in the movement sacrificed their tender life with the dream of liberation of the “motherland” on their lips. Whatever may be the transformation in the character of ideology, political programs and practices of DSF in JU, it retained a deep soft corner for these sacrifices in early ‘70s so much so that in these four decades of existence of DSF, the student activists never participated to commemorate the memory of late Gopal Chandra Sen, the beloved Vice Chancellor and ideal teacher in the ‘70s who got assassinated in the hands of his own students within the campus. Thus, possibly both the patronizing, liberal overlooking environment of the faculty and the administration, a way out to express independent collectivism and the legacy of sacrifices of the past generations continue to keep the embers glowing, however feeble yet discernible over more than four decades of existence among the students in the JU campus.
The paradox is this activism and pursuit of ideals soon evaporates, particularly among those students in the Engineering faculty who swear by DSF as soon as they enter the real life, the life revolving around societal production relations. The cherished pursuit of freedom, of collectivism bears no significance as soon as the students become members of civil society, of broader society as they rear families and shoulder social responsibilities. One particular reason is they find no resonance in the broader society with the ideals they pursue in their youthful activism as the movement for genuine transformation of the society is really very weak in West Bengal. Moreover, the more significant point is over the four decades of existence the DSF remained essentially a vehicle of typical student “politics”, of vying and competing among other student organisation that in the long run have no significant ideological, programmatic distinction apart from the ABVP that of course takes the pitch of “nationalism” towards a direct frontal call for communal appeal. Therefore, the activist of DSF remained over the four decades a tool for student agitation during the tenure of studentship, his or her realisations about society at large and social changes remain only skin-deep. This is unlike another recalcitrant campus in the country, the JNU where the minimum entry point for students is for post-graduate education and where traditionally the students debate and discuss far wider questions of the society in much greater depth. Take for example the recent issue of “sedition” that really became a question before the civil society in the country due to the student agitators in JNU. The social person within the student activist of DSF finds little hesitation in conforming to the social norms and regulations that as activist he or she strongly feels towards repudiation. It is therefore no strange reflection that many of the student activists turn out to be protagonists of the dominant ideas in the society, even relegating themselves to vouch for more retrogressive ideas, justifying them as they suit their current pursuits, lifestyles and ambitions of achieving social goals. “Revolution” therefore lives as a reminiscence of a brief, idealistic past having little relevance to practical reality of social life. Yet the paradox is such surrendering of beliefs and conviction of the senior generations do not deter or prevent the younger generations to take up the calls of change, for protests against established ideas and establishment – the most striking examples are the Hok Kalarab movement of the JU students in 2014 that proved to be a spontaneous inspiration for a huge mass of students in West Bengal or the recent inspiring demonstrations of the JU students against the CAA provisions. Even speaking for individual acts of defiance, the event of tearing off the CAA papers by a post-graduate girl student from the platform of University convocation in recent days or the refusal of another girl student to receive the degree certificate from the then Governor will remain instilled among several generation of JU students who vouch to continue the legacy of registering protest against the establishment.
All these reflections point to the existence in the society a yearning for belligerence, a discomfort in conforming to the civil society as it exists among the urban population at large who someway or other have the privilege of receiving University education. The spirit of DSF therefore lives in the society, however weak at present but becomes prominent when the JU students march on the streets of Kolkata, decades and decades after – among the aged participants in the rallies who conjure up their youthful days by participating in these rallies of present day students. I guess the master-blasters from the Engineering faculty of the past are small in number and are reticent in these participations as they too well know the risks involved towards their social being and surroundings in such participation. The idea for writing these lines is to see how to break these shackles of inhibitions, how to rekindle the days of past activism in the light of the needs of a civil society movement that is remarkably absent in Kolkata and West Bengal. The past legacy of civil society movement during the late ‘70s have lost relevance in confronting more challenging and complex questions that the civil society faces today in the form of the State taking a Leviathan proportion under the garb of “Nationalism” and communalisation of the society is encouraged under direct patronage of the State. It is really ominous for the civil society today that any individual not conforming to the diktats of the State runs the risk of being labelled “seditious” not only in the trolls in the social media, but in the courts of law in the country. I feel the past activists of the DSF movement in JU have a social responsibility to invigorate a new fresh civil society movement in the light of the spirit of rebellion, defiance that continues to exist in the JU campus. That itself will be a small tribute from the past generations to the spirit of rebellion of the present generations of students.
Chinmoy Bhattacharya has served as Joint Convenor, JUDSF (1982-84) & Vice Chairman, FETSU (1981-83)