Victory for Jadavpur Students’ Hokkolorob Struggle

(The Hokkolorob movement is a remarkable landmark in students’ and people’s movements in India. It is significant for its emphasis on gender justice; its ability to forge and maintain unity across political organizations and democratic functioning, without sectarian divisions; its political clarity and refusal to do ‘business’ with the ruling government; and its sustained, patient, mature character.

A section of the media in West Bengal, along with the TMC party, openly launched sexist offensives at Jadavpur student activists and teachers. AISA activist Arunima was one of those singled out by channels and print media for obnoxious sexualised jeers. But this kind of offensive only strengthened the determination of students and teachers to keep sexism in their sights and struggle for gender justice.

In West Bengal, the Sangh Parivar and BJP is making strenuous efforts to gain a strangleholdat the expense of the thoroughly discredited TMC Government. In this climate, the Hokkolorob movement, with its fiercely principled, secular and democratic opposition that spared neither the TMC regime nor the BJP-appointed Governor, holds the seeds of hope. This movement was unsparing towards the TMC – yet it is one that makes the BJP too uneasy, because the BJP always feels threatened by a spirited youth upsurge that is fuelled by the determination to achieve and defend democracy rather than by sectarian hatred. Tanima Chatterjee, a Jadavpur student and an AISA activist, reports on the latest phase of the movement.)

Four months of “hokkolorob”, of incessant struggle, resistance, campaign and anticipation finally emerged victorious on the 12th of January 2015, with the resignation of the authoritarian Vice Chancellor.

The movement was started by a handful of students inside the campus, seeking justice for their friend who was molested by a group of boys during the Jadavpur University fest Sanskriti on 28th August, 2014, all of them present or ex-students of JU. They demanded an answer from the Vice-Chancellor, they demanded fair and transparent probe into the matter, most importantly they were demanding a gender-sensitised campus. However, as is now known to all, their demands fell on deaf ears of the VC and of the patriarchal ICC (Internal Complaints Committee). The authority in bid to disperse the peaceful demonstrators called in the police, who beat up the demonstrators, groped and molested the female activists present on that night and even arrested one of them, Sudhanya Pal, an AISA activist.

The student community, civil society as a whole was shocked at this naked show of state terror and the very next day a historic rally with one lakh people marched the streets of Kolkata. This spontaneous show of solidarity showed us how the larger society was frustrated with the undemocratic policies of the present TMC government, and they found in “hokkolorob” a platform to channelize these frustrations. Students from across Bengal, joined the rally and shouted “hok hok hokkolorob”, for democratised campuses in their colleges, for gender-justice. Yet the VC who had declined to apologize for the police-crackdown, was aided by the Governor, and managed to get a promotion from his post as interim VC to the permanent VC of Jadavpur University for the next 4 years!

The new Governor of West Bengal is a close BJP associate, and owing to the BJP’s new political strategy in Bengal, JU became a prime target of its overall fascist, undemocratic design. Governor Tripathi, instead of responding to the legitimate demands of the student community, engaged in admonishing them for their activism and continuous movement.

The atmosphere in Jadavpur was tense. Responding to the Chancellor’s decision to make Abhijit Chakroborty, the permanent VC, AISA had placed a proposal of a referendum based on five demands, which was adopted by the students’ General Body Meeting. In the referendum held, Jadavpur students voted on the following five questions:

1. Do you want the VC’s resignation?

2. Do you want the re-construction of the ICC with elected student representatives?

3. Do you want a judicial probe of the incident of molestation on 28th August 2014?

4. Do you want a judicial probe of the police atrocities on the night of 16th September 2014?

5. Do you want removal of police picketing from campus gate and all forms of campus surveillance?

The response from the students was unprecedented. 97% students demanded the VC’s resignation and 96% wanted a re-construction of the ICC. In the meanwhile, the teacher association of Jadavpur University, JUTA came out with an extensive report on Abhijit Chakroborty, where he was charged with plagiarism in his PhD thesis. The teachers also demanded the VC’s resignation. Even when the majority of the stakeholders of the university rejected the VC and demanded his resignation, he still continued his position and even embarked on a counter-campaign against the students-teachers maligning them, blaming them for disruption in normal campus functioning.

The TMC government launched a malicious campaign against the protestors, using party-funded newspapers, channels and social media. Three months had elapsed and yet there was no sign of the demands of the Referendum been fulfilled. The three months time limit given to the ICC to bring out a report after investigation into the molestation case had also passed. The ICC published an “inconclusive report” and wanted more time. In the name of investigation, the ICC had actually engaged in victim-blaming, and under the disguise of investigation, the victim was harassed by the ICC members. The prime-accused was not questioned, although he was already arrested by the police. This only further strengthened the demand for a proper ICC, which should not engage in victim-blaming or moral policing, should follow proper investigation procedure as laid down by the UGC’s SAKSHAM guidelines, and that the members of the ICC must themselves be gender-sensitised and elected student representatives be included in the ICC for more accountability and transparency.

The students decided that the next phase in the movement to pressurize the government was to boycott the Annual Convocation ceremony held every year on 24th of December. The Convocation was successfully boycotted in various forms by the majority of degree recipients. After the Convocation, the students gave out an ultimatum to the VC and the state government, that unless the five demands of the referendum are fulfilled, the movement will be further intensified.

12 students, in keeping with the decision of the general body, began a Fast-unto-death from 5th January night, for the five demands of the referendum, but most importantly for the VC’s resignation. After 170 hours of hunger-strike, the VC did not meet the fasting students even once. The hunger-strike generated a huge uproar in the society, hundreds of parents, ex-students, teachers, students from other colleges, medical personnel’s, civil society activists stood beside the fasting students, and decided to join our struggle for gender-justice and campus democracy and unequivocally demanded the VC’s resignation.

After 7 days of hunger-strike, with three fasting students hospitalised under critical condition, the Higher Education Minister came to Jadavpur University to negotiate with the students. The fasting students were indomitable and declined his negotiation ‘deal’, and announced that they would continue with their hunger-strike unless their demands are met. The impasse finally forced the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to come to Jadavpur University campus and talk with the resolute fasting students. Succumbing to the huge pressure from the students and civil society, the CM negotiated with the VC, who finally decided to resign.

Finally the VC was removed, but the rest of our four demands still remain to be fulfilled. The movement is not over yet. But yes, this movement has shown us a path, it has restored faith on student’s movement across India. This movement was a historic for its role in uniting the student community for gender justice and for democratic campus, against state atrocities. This movement has broken the walls of our campus and united the students with the larger problems of the society.

Box matter

Resistance to Moral Policing

When some of the student activists at the forefront of the Hokkolorob movement participated in the Kiss of Love protest in Kolkata, they had to face public reprimands from some, including a prominent editor of a paper known to be sympathetic to the CPIM.

Arumita Mitra, an AISA activist from Jadavpur, is one of those who has been constantly at the receiving end of sexist vilification by the pro-TMC media, which has commented on her clothes and supposed immorality.

After Arumita joined a Kiss of Love protest in Kolkata, Ashok Dasgupta, editor of the Aajkaal newspaper, wrote a front page editorial addressing the ‘Arumitas’ (he did so, saying that Arumita was a ‘face’ of Hokkolorob). He expressed solidarity with the Hokkolorob movement, and concern that the Kiss of Love protests would ‘disturb the focus’ of the movement and alienate public support. He said that the lovers’ kiss was private and sacred, and that is was not for public display.

Arumita’s reply to this editorial was published by Aajkaal, and subsequently, well-known writer Nabaneeta Deb Sen wrote a piece in the Sunday supplement of Pratidin Patrika, expressing gratitude to Arumita for helping to clarify her thoughts and change her earlier antagonistic stance towards the Kiss of Love protests, and also quoting extensive excerpts from Arumita’s reply.

In her reply, Arumitra said that it was hardly surprising that the mainstream media chose to see the Kiss of Love protests as a spectacle of kissing. But, she asked, why did Left intellectuals fail to see the banners and posters expressing the purpose of the protests? Those banners and posters had been against state repression, against moral policing, against communal campaigns, and seeking women’s and citizens’ freedom from all these and from patriarchal control, be it by khaps or parents.

She reminded Ashok Dasgupta that the Hokkolorob movement started with an act of sexual violence against a woman student – an act that was being justified by blaming the victim for her supposed immoral conduct. She also reminded of the many instances of family-custodial violence to which Kolkata was witness: including one where a brother ran on the streets displaying his sister’s head on a sword, which he had chopped off for the ‘crime’ of an extra-marital affair; the death of Rizwanur Rehman for the ‘crime’ of marrying a Hindu industrialist’s daughter; and a prominent restaurant turning away rape survivor Suzette.

She said that what the Kiss of Love protestors were doing was to reject the control of the forces of communalism, casteism, class and patriarchy on the relationships between men and women; men and men; and women and women – relationships that Ashok Dasgupta had described as ‘private’ and ‘sacred’ but which were being attacked by the above-mentioned forces. This, she said, was what Ashok Dasgupta saw, yet refused to see.

She pointed out that historic protests like those of the women of Manipur against AFSPA were remembered mainly for their content, not dismissed on the basis of their form. She reminded that the Sangh Parivar outfits were launching an offensive against ‘live-in relationships’; ‘jeans’ ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘kissing’ etc – all of which were nothing but code words for women’s freedom, which was the real target of the Sangh Parivar. Young people from Kochi to Delhi had opted to kiss in defiance of this moral-policing, and the students of Jadavpur had simply shown solidarity with them.

Setting at rest Mr Dasgupta’s concerns about the Kiss of Love protests ‘disturbing the focus’ of the Hokkolorob protests, she assured him that even after the Kiss of Love protest, the vast majority of Jadavpur’s students had voted overwhelmingly in a referendum, seeking the resignation of the VC and students’ elected representation in the ICC.

She said that while the Kiss of Love protest was not directly a part of the Hokkolorob movement, it was certainly not at odds with the fundamental aims and principles of the latter, rather it was complementary.

She welcomed difference of opinion and debate over the form of the Kiss of Love protests and whether these might be the best way to draw society into movements against moral policing. But, she added, it must be remembered that society’s sense of morality is not static, it changes with social and economic changes.

In the Hokkolorob movement, police boots were resisted with guitar music; likewise, she said, right-wing goons were being resisted with barricades of love - what can possibly be obscene about this?

She also pointed out that the Hokkolorob movement had no one ‘face’ or spokesperson – rather, each and every student who participated, represented the movement equally. She said, with respect, that she hoped Ashok Dasgupta, as a friend and well-wisher of the movement, would make an effort to better understand the language of the young protestors. And she ended by saying that there is nothing to be ashamed of in a kiss.

Nabaneeta Deb Sen appreciated the simple, straightforward way in which Arumita’s reply addressed and set at rest her concerns.

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