Contrary to popular (read media) belief, the march by activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad to Kolkata’s Jadavpur University on Tuesday to teach the institution’s allegedly anti-national students a lesson was not merely a response to the fracas over the screening of Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha in a Traffic Jam on the university campus last week.

Here, briefly, is what transpired on May 6: the initial permission granted for the screening Agnihotri’s film by the Jadavpur University Alumni Association was followed by a withdrawal of said permission. Despite this, the ABVP – which is the Bharatiya Janata Party's student wing – decided to screen the film on a makeshift screen next to the university’s main playing field. As a riposte to Buddha, students decided to screen Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, which explores the riots in western Uttar Pradesh in 2013. In the heated exchanges and scuffles that followed, several female students were allegedly manhandled and molested by the ABVP activists. The university’s vice chancellor intervened to prevent things from going totally out of hand. Four ABVP activists were handed over the police. Both sides filed FIRs against each other. The next day, Jadavpur University students held a protest march.

There are still several issues that need to be sorted out. For example, who in the Alumni Association granted the screening permission in the first place and what led to its subsequent withdrawal. Did the ABVP seek permission before the open-air screening? Why were both these films allowed to be screened instead of being stopped by the university authorities?

But one thing now seems clear. After the University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jadavpur University is squarely in the crosshairs of the BJP and its cohorts.

Déjà vu

The repeated attempts to provoke, harass and intimidate the students of Jadavpur University follows a tried-and-tested Sangh Parivar formula: accuse students of a nationally- or internationally-recognised institution of higher education of anti-national activities; let loose ABVP activists on such students; get an MP or MLA to protest such anti-national activities; influence the university authorities to take “appropriate action” against the accused students; have a few talking heads on TV give patronising advice to students (“Your duty is to study and build a career, not do politics and waste taxpayers’ money”); and, in general, push the BJP’s neo-conservative economic and political line among the youth – or else.

All three universities recently targeted by the BJP – the University of Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University – have received national and international acclaim, with the National Assessment and Accreditation Council giving them among the highest scores of all universities and colleges in the last two years. What makes the case of Jadavpur University slightly different is that, unlike in Delhi or Telengana, the BJP has virtually no presence in Kolkata or West Bengal. Thus, Jadavpur University’s vice-chancellor is not likely to succumb to fatwas from the BJP.

It is also a matter of some pride for someone like me, educated and now teaching at Jadavpur University, that our vice chancellor, Professor Suranjan Das, has consistently upheld the need for a university to retain its autonomy and open a dialogue with agitating students, instead of filing FIRs against them or meting out punishment for “unacceptable” activities, in marked contrast to his fellow VCs in Hyderabad and JNU.

Yet it needs to be noted that West Bengal’s BJP-appointed governor has consistently demanded precisely such measures – asking Jadavpur University to file FIRs against students who raised slogans of “azadi!” in February during a march to protest the arrest of JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and now saying, “The university, which was once known as a centre for excellence, is fast turning into a centre for disturbance. The authorities should take stern action.”

The background

The ABVP’s actions need to be seen in the context of the growing presence of the BJP in West Bengal politics. In the last Assembly elections of 2011, the BJP’s vote share was a measly 4.06% and it did not win a single seat in the entire state. In the 2014 Parliamentary elections, it saw a four-fold jump to 16.8% (considerably higher than its previous-highest vote share of 11.66% in 1991) and won two Lok Sabha seats. There is a significant section of West Bengal’s voters that has grown disenchanted with the ruling Trinamool Congress, not least because of its failure to deliver on its promises of 2011, the corruption scandals and rise of the syndicate under its watch, yet which still has memories of the Left Front’s interference in all aspects of public life (which included institutions of higher learning) during its 34-year rule. Many of these voters are in still in their twenties, and likely to respond to appeals to their patriotism and calls for nation-building. It is precisely this section of the population that the BJP wants to win over, and what better way than to choose a soft-target like Jadavpur University to unleash its politics of intimidation and violence.

This was apparent from the events of February 10, when a group of students, along with their friends, took out a procession, with a large banner proclaiming “We are JU students and we are not anti-nationalist” [sic], shouted slogans of “Bharat Mata ki jai!” and “Vande Mataram!” and tore down posters protesting Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest, Afzal Guru’s hanging and demands for “azadi!” put up by other student bodies – an incident of violent vandalism unheard of in the university’s history. This was followed by a march to Jadavpur by ABVP and BJP activists on February 18, which was fortunately stopped by the police, with some help from the university’s teachers and staff. (There's a detailed account of the events of February 18 here.)

There was an eerie similarity between the events of February 18 and 9 May. There we were, a bunch of middle-aged men and women, standing outside gate no. 4 of our university, waiting for the Sangh Parivar’s foot soldiers and hoping things wouldn’t take a turn for the worse. On both occasions, the much-maligned police acted with commendable restraint and helped diffuse a potentially volatile situation with no show of overt force. But this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is – alas – just the beginning of what one fears will be a long-drawn siege of one of India’s finest institutions of higher education.

Samantak Das teaches literature at Jadavpur University.