On September 20, 100,000 people marched in Kolkata, India against police violence and for gender justice.
I have known the city all my life and have not known of a demonstration of that size since the 1960s.
The march was against a massive police crack down on a peaceful student protest on Jadavpur University campus, one of leading universities in the state. The students were sitting-in at their Vice Chancellor’s office, refusing to let him go, until he promised an independent enquiry commission into a case of sexual assault on campus. Their rallying cry was “hok kolorob” or let there be uproar.
The sheer size of the march, 100,000 people, ought to force us to remember that the people of Calcutta, the capital city of the state of West Bengal, had just voted in a shiny new government after 34 years of entrenched Stalinist rule steeped in corruption and violence.
People had swelled the streets in huge numbers against the old government in the last few years of its rule. The protests and demonstrations were particularly sharp when the ‘Communist’ Government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a Faustian pact with neoliberalism, had fired on and killed unarmed peasants protesting the take over of their land by a multinational company.
The old Stalinists were finally thrashed at the ballot box in 2011. The new government was headed by a woman, Mamata Banerjee, whose central electoral promise had been ‘paribartan’—or change.
Does it not then seem churlish of the people to protest this brand new government that has just been voted into power? Why did so many people, in pouring rain, suddenly take to the streets last weekend?
The immediate events leading up to the march were as follows:
On August 28, a young female student was sexually assaulted in one of the men’s halls on Jadavpur campus. The university administration, headed by a Vice Chancellor closely linked to the new Government, formed an enquiry committee to look into the incident.
Two faculty members of this commission went to the survivor’s home as part of the investigation. There the young woman was allegedly asked what she was wearing and whether she was intoxicated during the violent event. The investigators were clearly from the sexual assault-is-a-sartorial-issue school of thought.
Once news of this unique ‘investigation’ broke, students gathered at the Vice Chancellor’s office demanding an inquiry commission independent of political ties to the government and one which included gender justice activists.
The administration flatly refused.
Students then began a sit-in demonstration at the Vice Chancellor’s offices, refusing to let him leave till he agreed to negotiate. Several students gathered there through the day and into the night of 16-17 September.
The students, who the authorities later claimed were carrying weapons, were ‘armed’ with guitars and harmonicas as they sang protest songs and chanted slogans through the night.
The Vice chancellor decided to call in armed police (was he alarmed by his students’ musical taste?) to forcibly remove the protestors. The police did not come alone. They brought with them the Rapid Action Force (RAF), India’s version of the riot police.
They turned off all the lights in the building and in the darkness proceeded to violently assault the unarmed students. Female students were brutally molested and at least two students were critically injured. As the Vice Chancellor was safely escorted into his car by his armed rescuers, nearly 40 students were arrested and several hospitalized.
In the days that followed the hashtag #hokkolorob went viral on social media becoming the organizing cry of a rapidly growing student movement that spread well beyond Jadavpur. Thousands responded, finally culminating in the historic 100,000 strong march on September 20.
Of Roots and Historical Context
When social movements like this blossom out of the torpor of everyday political passivity, they seem so new that their singular beginning seems to be their only birthday.
But 100,000 people do not amass on city streets, drenched in rain, suddenly one morning to stand up to the powerful. As sui generis as it may appear, this march too has many histories and many origins.
The people who walked the streets last weekend learnt a few lessons in the recent past that undoubtedly contributed to what social movement theorists have called the sedimentation of protest.
Lesson 1. Neoliberalism does not change through Votes
The last two decades in West Bengal, during which most of the students leading Saturday’s march came of age, have been marked by the erstwhile CPI (M) government’s love affair with neoliberal capital.
While education and healthcare decayed in the state, the government saw speculation in real estate as one of the key engines of economic growth. Enormous tracts of fertile land were turned into Special Economic Zones by the ruling ‘communists’ where multinational capital was allowed to play at will, untrammeled by labor laws.
The crowning moment was the government’s decision to turn over vast tracts of peasant land in Singur (997 acres) and Nandigram (19,000 acres) to multinational corporations in 2007-08. When peasants began to resist dispossession and build barricades against police and ruling party cadres, in Nandigram the state forces unleashed a reign of mass killing, rape and torture which left over 14 people dead and hundreds injured.
Mass protests erupted over the shootings. People who had thought the three-decade-old regime, steeped in corruption and nepotism, unshakable, suddenly realized the power of protest and took to the streets.
Then too, the students of Jadavpur played an inspiring role when they refused to let the then Chief Minister Budhdhev Bhattacharya speak on their campus. The previous regime too, was unhesitant about calling in the police to brutally attack the protesting students.
But if mass protests ultimately shaped the destiny of the state, they did not fully benefit from it. The current Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee and her rightwing populist party the Trinamool Congress, capitalized on the anti-government wave and won the next round of elections in 2011, promising ‘poriborton’ or change.
Since the new regime has been in power, the only thing that has changed has been personnel. The very multinationals at whose behest the previous government had tried to evict peasants from their land, are being wooed by the new government, and the peasants are yet to get their land back. Indeed, more mass evictions have taken place at places like Nonadanga to feed the new gods of neoliberal ‘Development’.
The new regime has attempted to break every strike by workers since 2011 and the number of starvation deaths of tea-garden workers due to plantation closures is frighteningly on the rise. Political arrests are now commonplace for dissenters, and laws are being amended to increase the ambit of who can be considered a ‘terrorist’.
Even the ‘clean’ image the new brooms projected has been stained by the government’s alleged connections to a massive Ponzi scheme that have swindled ordinary people out of large sums of money.
Lesson 2. Gender justice is at the heart of social justice
The ruling government and its cadre have claimed that the students who protested at the Vice Chancellor’s office were addicts and sexually promiscuous. Trinamool supporters, to prove the licentious nature of the protests, have circulated images of young women in shorts and skirts on social media.
But the students that marched last Saturday are the new generation of young women and men that have, since the Slut Walks, been part of the rising global movement against sexual violence. These are the same people who took to the streets all over India following the brutal rape and murder of the 23 year old woman in Delhi in 2012. And undoubtedly they have been following the struggles of their brothers and sisters in the Global North, at places like Occidental and Columbia in US or campuses in the UK.
This is not a generation who can be easily slutshamed back into submission.
Lesson 3. The Hindu Right Helps shape Global Capital and Islamophobia
It should also be noted that the Kolkata protests come in the wake of intense fear and apprehension that have marked civic life since a Hindu rightwing government came to power in Delhi.
After all, this is a generation of students who grew up in the shadow of the demolition of the Babri mosque by the Hindu fascists in 1992 and the subsequent pogroms against Muslims that stalked the land. They have been steeled by the attempted ethnic cleansing in Gujarat in 2002 and by the recent faces of murdered children in Gaza. India remains one of Israel’s most important arms buyer and the Modi government in Delhi, just like the state government in Calcutta deploy the rhetoric of ‘Development’ to tame labor and woo capital.
The street marches of today are perhaps seeking to erase the fears and defeats that came repeatedly from the ballot box. When nothing changes through voting, the students are claiming: ‘hok kolorob’—let there be uproar.
Their public statements have been remarkable in their tone and political sophistication:
…Many of our friends over here have shown solidarity and many of them are thinking this movement to be non-political… Well it is political, but it is entirely independent of the clutches of the political parties… [Our movement is independent of] age old governmental, power-centric political organizations of different colors but of similar vested interests…It depends only on the decisions taken by the students…This movement is… [an] Independent Students’ struggle against … authority…[against] the state and … anti-gender sensitization. …We draw our power from us…#Hokkolorob”
The depth of support for the students, despite government slander against them has been unprecedented. There are reports in social media of taxi drivers and ordinary working class people of Kolkata defending the rights of the students to protest police violence and sexual assault.
Indranil Roychowdhury, an award winning film maker, also a Jadavpur alum, tells me:
The energy and truth [of the march] on that rainy afternoon of September 20… took my breath away. You can’t but be gripped by its intensity because it was organic, it was one of surest sign of life that I have seen in this city for a long time.
Since last Saturday, the protests have spread to several cities in India, and students and ordinary people in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, among others, have held similar demonstrations in solidarity with Kolkata.
The state has responded with increased surveillance and parked armed police at all entrances of the University “to divert any untoward incident.” Anyone entering campus will now have to be I.D.ed by the police.
One faculty member, refusing to give into this securitization of his campus, has asked his students to avoid the campus altogether and come to his lecture at a street corner outside the University. Abhijit Gupta, an Associate Professor of English, told me, he will be teaching “Seamus Heaney on the pavement”. He urged his students to “Bring a mat/newspaper if you don’t want to get your clothes dirty.”
Let there be uproar
Hok kolorob, Let there be uproar. What an insistent demand the phrase makes upon political quietude.
Dear students of my old alma mater, may your uproar spread to even broader layers of the country and help combine the clamor from the Narmada valley to the closed factories in Gurgaon.
And may the uproar of a hundred Occupiers, a thousand Arab Springs and a million Palestinians shape your dreams.
Tithi Bhattacharya is a Professor of South Asian History at Purdue University. She writes widely on Palestine, gender violence and neoliberalism.
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