Presidency Unrest: Between The Real And The Unreal

The students’ unrest at Presidency University, Kolkata, calling for the resignation of the institution’s Vice-Chancellor (VC), has thrown up a few questions. As an alumnus of the institution who used to walk its hallowed corridors in its days as a college student, here’s my two cents about it.

It is being said that the students’ protest against the chief minister’s visit was sudden and lacked any context. So is apparently the demand for ouster of the VC. Ironically, news outlets have also started playing this tune, in utter disregard for the happenings of April 10, 2013, when a bunch of hoodlums led by a Kolkata Municipal Corporation Councillor cut the institution’s main gate’s lock with the aid of gas cutters and ransacked the Baker Laboratory in the building, damaging equipment including those used by names such as Satyen Bose, Meghnad Saha and PC Mahalanobis. The hoodlums carried the ruling Trinamool Congress’ flags, chanted slogans as incongruous as Vande Mataram and assaulted students and faculty members alike. An ultrasonic interferometer, a device used to determine ultrasonic velocity through liquids with a high degree of accuracy, was totally destroyed in the violence that, the then registrar said, lasted for a quarter of an hour. Female students were threatened with rape, according to this report by The Telegraph.

Shomok Roy Choudhury, head of the physics department, told Hindustan Times , “The students who were attacked had nothing to do with politics. They were studying and working in the lab. I’m stunned! Is this the same university which the state government wants to project as one of the best in the country?”

The then state education minister, himself an alumnus, promised an enquiry. So did the state chief minister. However, till date, not a single perpetrator or the ring leaders have been prosecuted in spite of overwhelming photographic and video footage showing the faces in the unruly mob trying to scale the gates and cut through its locks. The VC and Registrar also said how the police stood still as the mob ransacked the country’s oldest institution of higher learning.

But I guess, still, Presidencians were expected to turn the other cheek and extend a red carpet welcome to the chief minister and her entourage. That they chose not to grovel at her feet humbled by the enormity of her magnanimous purse is of course their shortcoming.

It is also being said that majority of the students who took part in the agitation on the day the chief minister came to visit are directionless drug addicts. Well, this is where the pin got stuck last year at JU as well. If the authorities could do away with Presidency, Jadavpur University and BESU, cultivation of cannabis in the state of West Bengal will die a natural death. How banal of the newspapers, the administration and its lackeys to state the obvious!

The students have been voicing concerns about quality faculty members leaving the university. Prompt transfer orders are being snailmailed to the post boxes bearing the names of the dissenting voices. Academics and scholars, majority of them ex-students of the college, who had left lucrative teaching and research careers in the west, should have realised right at the beginning that when in Rome, you got to play like the Romans. But they have learnt it finally. So like the Romans fled while Rome burnt and Nero played his lyre, these individuals are also scouting for the next big jet liner leaving the tarmac. And for music, there may not be the lyre but Rabindrasangeet certainly plays at the crossroads. But again, who the hell are those students to raise these points? If the state government is bankrolling the institution, the students got to understand the former’s intrinsic right of interference.

We have all seen the pictures of the girl, one hand thoroughly bruised, being dragged across the floor by male policemen in uniforms and plainclothes cops. Her clothes get rolled up in the process, baring her back to prying eyes and cameras. But obviously, the VC, the sensitive soul that she is, is well within her rights to ask her to describe who all touched her, where and how. It is so unfortunate that the worthless students, obviously blinded by the hallucinogens they have been popping, are asking such a fairytale godmother to leave their campus.

Very interestingly though, this bareback picture has not found print space in the dailies because a bearded guy in women’s lingerie decided to spoil the party and the Bengali elite ‘bhodrolok’ moral compass has not looked north thereafter. While nudity and cross-dressing as media of protest have a history of more than a century, the Bengali ‘bhodrolok’ and its mouthpieces which reach their doorsteps every morning have decidedly chosen a sanitised distance of disgust. We are very clever that way. We will happily publish post-edits on the impact of nude protests on the May 1968 movement in de Gaulle’s France and on the slutwalk parades across the world. We will discuss over an evening cuppa the brilliance of the ‘Breasts not Bombs’ campaign or talk about the spellbinding effect of Francisco de Goya’s ‘The Nude Maja’ and would still find it sacrilegious for a guy to wear brassiere and hot pants and show up at a protest at an institution made famous by a certain Derozio whose students would go and lob chunks of beef over the high walls of caste Hindu homes of the city. But it is okay. To put it in Bengali: “We are like this only.”

We have also come across captions accompanying newspaper pictures, stating students are sitting and standing on the VC’s table but the picture does not show any table. Next time, please show us the table. There are also assertions in certain news reports that students were smoking inside the VC’s room. Again, pictures please and not shot in the canteen or the portico. We understand that media products coming out of the ABP or The Times of India stable would not stand by the students with a year to go before the elections but please do not make it this obvious. We understand you have burnt your hands by highlighting the students’ unrest in Jadavpur University last year.

Last but not the least, there are certain news reports and ruling party supporters claiming that a bunch of the students, brainwashed by Marx and Mao’s ghosts, had gathered on the top of the building housing Indian Coffee House to attack the chief minister’s motorcade and that a maverick Trinamool student led a ‘military’ operation to neutralise them. Now, this is where the banal ends and the realm of the unreal begins. If the students are smoking pot, those particular news editors and supporters must be on acid.


Tathagata Bhattacharya has been a journalist since 1998 and has worked with leading media organisations in India and abroad including The Times of India, India Today, The Week, Network 18, Financial Times, Liberation, etc. He is an alumnus of Presidency College and JNU. He is the Editor-in-chief of the Bengali literary quarterly Bhashabandhan and is the Group Editorial Director of WCRC.
Edited by Manisha 

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