As approximately 2,000 students of Kolkata's Jadavpur University and their supporters marched on Saturday to protest against political violence on their campus the previous evening, many expressed a common fear: that the Bharatiya Janata Party's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was attempting to replicate the stategy of polarisation it has already tried to impose on other educational instutitions.
“Jadavpur University is being repeatedly targeted by the Hindutva forces in the wake of protests and repression at Hyderabad University and JNU,” said Suchetana Chattopadhyay, a faculty member of Jadavpur University.
Like many other marchers, she connected the fracas over a film screening on Friday to the tumult at Hyderabad University, where a Dalit scholar committed suicide in January, and Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, where students were charged with sedition in February.
The ABVP played a role in precipitating both crises. Said Chattopadhyay, “This goes to show that they are feeling deeply threatened by progressive education and are intent in erasing democratic counter currents.”
Friday night chaos
Saturday's march was a response to the chaos at Jadavpur University on Friday evening as an unauthorised screening on the campus of a movie by BJP-leaning filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri led to violence.
Buddha in a Traffic Jam, which Mumbai-based Agnihotri describes as an exploration of the “NGO-Naxal-academia nexus”, was to have been screened on Friday in a hall controlled by the Jadavpur University Alumni Association. However, the association revoked the permission, citing the model code of conduct in place for the Assembly elections. Despite this, Agnihotri decided to go ahead with the plan, showing the film university playground.
The trouble started early on Friday evening as Agnihotri tried to enter the campus without authorisation. The filmmaker tweeted out this message to describe the reception he received.
However, videos of the events as well as eyewitness accounts clarify that Agnihotri was exaggerating: Jadavpur University students waved black flags and shouted slogans but there was no attack on his vehicle. Agnihotri’s car entered the campus and he even made a speech.
Though the filmmaker blamed the university administration for cancelling the screening, Vice Chancellor Suranjan Das denied this. “The permission for the event was given by alumni association and that has nothing to do with university administration,” he told Scroll.
Das went on to blame Agnihotri for going ahead with the screening despite the lack of authorisation. “They are not from Jadavpur University, they are an outside organisation so they have to take permission," he said. "Additionally, they did this after office hours when I wasn’t even present and nor was the university registrar.”
Successful film screening
After this eventful entry and a short speech, Agnihotri managed with the help of some ABVP activists and BJP workers to show the film on a makeshift screen. Since the ABVP has almost no presence at Jadavpur University, most of Agnihotri’s supporters were people bought in from outside.
In response, a group of Jadavpur students decided to screen the documentary film Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai centered around the anti-Muslim violence in western Uttar Pradesh in 2013.
Shounak Mukhopadhyay, a master’s student at Jadavpur pointed out that allegations that Agnihotri’s right to freedom of speech had been stifled were completely misplaced. “In spite of the fact that he didn’t have permission, he was allowed to enter campus and screen his film," Mukheree said. “How can anyone say this is a violation of freedom of expression, then?”
Assault on students
The real trouble however started after the screening finished. Students allege that after Agnihotri left, his supporters, mostly middle-aged BJP workers, started to heckle them. Titir Chakraborty, a student and associate general secretary of the Arts Faculty Student’s Union, described how the situation then turned very ugly.
“Already there had been communal slogans like “Jai Shri Ram” from Agnihotri’s supporters," said Chakraborty. “Now those people, middle-aged men from outside the campus, began to question why women were here, why the women were talking so much. They then started to become violent."
She alleged: "Male students were shoved around while women were sexually assaulted. They grabbed our breasts, pushed us, shoved us, manhandled us.”
At the end of the scuffle, the Jadavpur students managed to catch four of the alleged assailants and confine them to the guard room even as attempts were made to hand them over to the police. Hearing about the outsiders on campus and the violence, the vice chancellor rushed to the university in a taxi.
Enter the BJP
Even as this happened, the Roopa Ganguly, a BJP candidate in the Assembly elections, rushed to the university and, with around a hundred supporters, demanded the release of the four BJP party workers detained for alleged sexually assault. As matters got heated, the BJP supporters attempted to force their way in through the university gate, which students had closed. A potentially explosive situation was defused as the Kolkata Police arrived and took custody of the four party workers.
After Friday night’s events, Chakraborty and nine other women lodged a first information report with the Kolkata Police against four “RSS and ABVP goons”. On his part, Vivek Agnihotri insinuated that the complainants were lying about the sexual assault.
This BJP animus against Jadavpur has a history. In February, the party’s state chief Dilip Ghosh had warned students that if they supported Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU student leader arrested for sedition, the BJP would wait for them to step out of campus and then “thrash them so hard that they’ll forget their ancestors’ names”.
In response to the events on Friday, the BJP has called Jadavpur University a “hub of anti-nationals”.