Jadavpur University #hokkolorob : Catcher[s] in the rye

The student protests against statist violence and faulty administration has transcended the campus of Jadavpur University and has seen people from all walks of life participate in it. Soumabrata Chatterjee presents his understanding of the movement in general, its key demands and its internal politics …

In J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, we encounter Holden Caulfield who is probably one of the most powerful metaphors of the spirit of teenage rebellion. If we muddle the age-factor to a certain extent, then we can dream that the student protesters of Jadavpur University are a group of ‘catchers in the rye’, attempting to give voice to their anger, frustrations and demands of impartiality against an insipid administration. But that’s too romantic, isn’t it? On the other hand, when you see so many students come together to fight the injustice carried out through police brutality, you feel for these young revolutionaries. You imagine them singing songs at the top of their voices, holding guitars (often misrepresented as ‘dreadful weapons’) which remind us of Woody Guthrie’s guitar and the quote, “This machine kills fascists”. You want them to succeed, and you want justice to prevail. There is a storm coming and the Times they are a-Changing.

That the movement itself is just and quite spontaneous is a well-established fact. However, as Salinger’s novel had a distinct class character which promoted a certain world-view, similarly our own positions within the movement or at the edges of it might inform our understanding of it. To persuade the Vice-Chancellor (of Jadavpur University) regarding the formation of an unbiased committee which would look deeper into the matter of an alleged molestation, the students first resorted to petitions and finally to gheraos. It should be mentioned here that the students have claimed that it was not a gherao. While the modality of the protest was unconstitutional and unacceptable to many, the police atrocity on the night of 16th September on hapless students was an unthinkable act of cruelty on the part of the Vice-Chancellor. What followed was a series of protest marches which not only transcended the borders of the originary university but also included people from all walks of life.

Everything seems hunky-dory. However, there are certain issues that need to be addressed.  A student of Jadavpur who wished to remain anonymous asserted that the movement itself in its use of language has become masculinist and violent. One such step saw somebody put up an advertisement trying to mock-sell the Vice-Chancellor and others have often resorted to abusive language in social media. However, it must be mentioned here that the anti-movement campaigners have also started a page known as #hokkyalano (let there be flogging) and the students there have attacked JU’s sense of morality, culture (here it means upbringing) in inane and abusive terms. Having said all that, the slogans might be rhetorical but it holds symbolic power in such contexts. While #hokkolorob essentially means generating noise, it has to avoid personal attacks in its slogans because it is not fighting a particular Vice-Chancellor or a particular political party. It may have started as such but the large numbers that participated in its protest marches (in other universities too) have moulded this movement to possess a national character.

The student further elucidated that the movement should not remain confined to this particular event (that of police brutality) and instead generate a larger discussion into the nature of gender violence on campus. Here, the notion of ‘desire’ needs to be looked at. There should be a larger inclusive dialogue which would propagate sexual awareness and interaction along class-caste-regional lines. The notion of ‘class’ will not only include its absolute economic connotation but also include the factors of cultural difference and gender inequality. It is imperative to understand that there is a nuanced divisiveness in play when it comes to hostel guys and non-hostel people. Not considering both of them as reified categories and thus having their own distinct set of characteristics and behavioural patterns, let us term them as ‘epistemes’. As Foucault explained it, an ‘episteme’ is not a singular body of knowledge and thus “can’t be explained simply in terms of scientific knowledge or a ‘spirit’ of the age.” Periods of history are organised around certain world-views which dominate the production of certain ‘truism’. There can a certain continuity or resemblance between their contents or how they value certain ‘truths’ but there is no linear growth or progress. In view of that, I am not suggesting a polarity between hostel – nonhostel people. The fact that the alleged molestation was a result of moral policing (the hostelers claimed that they saw the girl making out with her friend and thus protested!)  this needs an interactive dialogue between variant cultural locales. It is because there seems to be certain discrepancies between the certain ‘truisms’ or world-views. As I earlier mentioned, I do not believe that the hostel guys are a homogeneous bunch who act in a certain manner (that of moral policing) and the non-hostel guys are ‘liberal’. What a student of JU told me is that the dialogue should not rely on punishment alone. It should not be only concerned with who to blame and which group has to bite the bullet. It should explore the divergent ways in which class-gender-caste intermingle.

It seems imperative to ask this question whether such a movement would have such an impact if it occurred in any other university. Sumit Chakrabarti, an ex-student of Jadavpur University and currently a professor in the English Department of Presidency University is of the opinion that the media is often metropolitan-centric and thus it undermines most of the harrowing incidents which occur in other rural colleges. He asserts that his heart goes out to the students who participated in the protest marches. It was “spontaneous” and the Vice-Chancellor has lost all moral right to continue his service because he has failed to negotiate with the students. Having said all that, he does not support ‘gheraoes’ (if it was a ‘gherao’) and feels that it should have been more constitutional. Speaking along similar lines, a professor of Jadavpur University has updated her status on Facebook, pointing out the aggressive nature of the slogans which smacks of patriarchal violence. I quote : “I condemn all the slogans and campaigning that call for barricades, fists, public flayings, waves of red, struggle and pain, to give just a few examples of the kind of language you have been using on your marches.” She is further wary of the external forces (read political players) which would manipulate the students and lead them on a path which is fraught with unconstitutional means of protest. However, it must be said that in her later updates she has given full-throated support to the protestors even though she has advised them on some accounts. Sumit Chakrabarti also feels that there are some disrupting forces present at the fringes of the movement who try to assign a political colour to the generally apolitical (as in non-partisan, independent of party-politics) campaigns. He also points out the vanishing of this missionary zeal for change when these students go to work for MNCs or study in foreign universities. What I understand from his statement is that this revolutionary element should not be confined to the ‘student-self’ and should make its foray into other public selves as well. There is a certain “ritualisation” or romanticisation of the trait of ‘revolution’ in student life which is often invisible or unacceptable in the ‘office-going’ person (Sorry for stereotyping!) We need to break these barriers … probably retain that voice of dissent when we go out of the university campus.

The movement itself has made its presence felt in almost every sphere of public engagement. Not only Jadavpur students, but non-JU students, and ex-JU students have been vocal about their support for the movement. I was doubtful about the complete participation of engineering department but Srishti Dutta Chowdhury corrected me. She informed me that FETSU (engineering department) and SFSU (science department) has joined in the protests as well. Also there has been an official list of participant colleges which goes up to 129 (last I checked). But individual students do not guarantee a transformation or discussion regarding sexual violence in the said universities. Maybe it is the beginning … maybe. Even though the movement has a general consensus regarding its central demands, it is heterogeneous in its basic character. It has invoked a discussion regarding the politics of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’. While there are students from Presidency and other universities being termed as ‘outsiders’ there is also an increased tendency on the part of mass media, social media and the ruling government to determine the nature of this movement. There has been an attempt to gauge the boundaries of this movement, to give it a name, to give it a face or even an intention. Such politics of inclusion and exclusion always has to be aware of the presence of the outsider. It is here, as Homi K Bhabha showed us, that the position of the outsider becomes particularly interesting because it is at once a position of marginality but also a position of deconstructive potential. It is these outsiders that disrupt any attempt to homogenise such a movement which relies on ‘difference.’

However, we need to look at this idea of ‘exclusion’. While this is a students’ movement and all the markers of institutional heritage, and class identities are removed, the word ‘student’ becomes a floating signifier. It certainly tends to homogenise the movement as being ‘of, for, by’ the students yet it retains that link to the intellectual heritage that Jadavpur boasts of. It is of course not their fault that they read in one of the best institutions of the country. Nor is it something which they propagate. Yet it takes shape in such a form that it excludes the others. The politico-cultural climate of West Bengal and the immense trending popularity of #hokolorob have given rise to the notion that this is a moment of history. True, it is. Such huge numbers have never spontaneously participated in a movement that took off from an incident of campus violence, preceded by sexual harassment. But it also makes it absolutely necessary that one should participate. The ‘student’ becomes a powerful identity which can of course disrupt the statist hegemony but also it sort of undermines those who cannot /do not want to participate in the movement. This movement is too big to be caught in a polarity. A person who has some reservations about it should not be termed as an ‘outsider’ who does not have the authority to generate a counter-discourse regarding some of its key issues. This movement cannot be against a ruling party. It has to be political in the sense that it has to discard the definition of politics as a rarefied realm and re-define it as a moment of discursivity, and an event of interaction. The ethico-morality of the movement cannot be separated from its politics. The personal and political should not be considered as disparate realms. Both mingle in multifarious ways. The student who does not want to participate can think, the professor who does not want to participate can write and those who always sit on the fences and pass judgement (like myself) will also participate in a non-participatory manner. I am not suggesting something utopian. Rather what I am suggesting is that there should be a critical dialogue which would inhabit every voice, thus celebrating heterogeneity. Also, there has to be a constant discussion regarding the original event of alleged molestation. It is often that the moment of crisis is undermined and the events following are curiously investigated. The issue of campus violence, how gender correlates with desire, how women are often portrayed as objects “to be looked at”, the rural-urban divide, the question of sexual freedom, the issue of PDA, the manner in which students should behave according to moral policing — these are questions which need to addressed and interrogated on the micro- and macro-levels.

On being asked whether the movement is democratic, Sourav Roy (a student of Jadavpur) emphatically states that it is. He also dispels rumours that the students were mistreated at the police headquarters and warns against gossipmongers who would jump on the revolutionary bandwagon even without caring for it. The students were provided with drinking water, food and anti-bacterial scrub. However, it is quite ambiguous according to a student of JU whether the students were ‘arrested’ or ‘detained’. The person also informs me that a female student was “manhandled” owing to the absence of a female police officer in the van.

It is quite curious that the students were treated as criminals in their own university but they were comparatively well-treated in the police headquarters. That moment when police forced their way on the students, they became ‘outlaws’. They were students, and the ethicality of beating them seems incongruous yet they were somehow “outside” the system of law. They were the ‘accursed’ and the ‘sacred’. ‘Sacred’ because the position of a student holds a certain sense of benevolence in our society. Yet ‘accursed’ they were … Petty criminals. Being a student myself, I cannot take away my subjectivity from the equation. I stand in support of the genuine outrage against the police brutality and an inefficient administration. But this movement is part of a history-making process, and thus it has to distance itself from patriarchal terminologies and assert its clearer motive in the present moment. It also has to engage in a long-term process of change and hopefully a better society of individuals might rise from that.

Let this movement not remain confined to a celebratory moment of myth-making. Let it percolate into the larger ‘civil society’ as well and bring about a change which is constructive in the distant future. Let it be an educative gesture pertaining to the nature and form of gender violence and lax administration in our country and how we are not afraid to stand against them. Let this movement be a lot more than Jadavpur University and facilitate a wide-spread culture of communication across class-gender-caste lines. Let this movement be a lesson to everyone that language is how we produce meaning and representation. Even if it is rhetorical, it continues to have that symbolic potential which is often detrimental. Let this movement never forget its own set of ‘others’ like other movements have. Let this movement embrace them in their oppositional entirety and promote a heterogeneous politics which would be history-making in its own right. Let the disgruntled student, the critical professors, the befuddled journalist/student, even the indifferent Chief Minister … all be a part of this movement. Let this movement show that the marginal (even if it has numbers) can generate a counter-discourse which will shake the roots of the majoritarian. Let this movement show that it can be auto-critical. Let this movement be a lot more than it is … Let this be a revolution which will revolutionise the art of dialogue and noise across spaces, cultures and theorems.

They are all “rebels with a cause” but they should also join hands with the rebels ‘outside’ the cause.

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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