About 100,000 people marched in Kolkata on September 20 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 in response to a huge police crackdown on a peaceful student protest on Jadavpur University campus, one of the 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 into a case of sexual assault on campus. Their rallying cry was hok kolorob, or “let there be uproar”.
The people of Kolkata, 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 takeover 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 “change”.
With a new government that has just been voted into power, why did so many people, in pouring rain, suddenly take to the streets?
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 attack.
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 enquiry 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 office, refusing to let him leave until he agreed to negotiate. Several students gathered there through the day and into the night of September 16.
The students, who the authorities later claimed were carrying weapons, were in fact “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 to forcibly remove the protesters. The police brought along the Rapid Action Force (RAF), India’s version of the riot police.
They turned off all the lights in the building and 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 hospitalised.
In the days that followed, the hashtag #hokkolorob went viral on social media. It became the organising 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.
Such social movements can seem so new that their singular beginning seems to be their only birthday. But 100,000 people do not suddenly amass on city streets, drenched in rain, one morning to stand up to the powerful. This march, too, has many histories and many origins.
The people who walked the streets learned a few lessons in the recent past that undoubtedly contributed to what social movement theorists have called the sedimentation of protest.
Firstly, neoliberalism does not change simply through votes.
The past two decades in West Bengal, during which most of the students leading the march came of age, have been marked by the erstwhile CPI-M government’s love affair with neoliberal capital.
While education and health care 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 labour laws.
The crowning moment was the government’s decision to turn over vast tracts of peasant land in Singur and Nandigram to multinational corporations in 2007-08. When peasants began to resist dispossession, the state forces unleashed a reign of mass killing, rape and torture in Nandigram that left more than 14 people dead and hundreds injured.
Mass protests erupted over the shootings. People who had thought the three-decade-old regime unshakable suddenly realised the power of protest.
Then too, the students of Jadavpur played an inspiring role when they refused to let the then-Chief Minister Budhdhev Bhattacharya speak on 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 Banerjee and her right-wing populist party the Trinamool Congress capitalised on the anti-government wave, and won the next round of elections in 2011, promising 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 tried to evict peasants from their land, are being wooed by the new government.
The peasants are yet to get their land back. Indeed, more mass evictions have taken place at places like Nonadanga in the name of neoliberal “development”.
The new regime has tried to break strikes by workers and the number of starvation deaths of tea-garden workers due to plantation closures is rising. Arrests of dissidents are now commonplace, 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 huge Ponzi scheme that has swindled ordinary people out of large sums of money.
A second lesson is that gender justice is at the heart of social justice.
The ruling government and its supporters have claimed the student protesters were addicts and sexually promiscuous. To prove the point, Trinamool supporters have circulated images of young women in shorts and skirts on social media.
But the students who marched on September 20 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 they have undoubtedly been following the struggles of their brothers and sisters in the global North, at places like Occidental and Columbia in US or campuses in Britain.
This is not a generation who can be easily “slut-shamed” back into submission.
The third lesson is that the Hindu right helps shape global capital and Islamophobia. The protests came in the wake of intense fear and apprehension that have marked civic life since a Hindu right-wing government came to power in Delhi.
This is a generation of students who grew up in the shadow of anti-Muslim violence by Hindu fascists. India remains one of Israel’s most important arms buyers and the Modi government in Delhi, just like the state government in Kolkata deploy the rhetoric of “development” to tame labour and woo capital.
The street marches of today are perhaps seeking to erase the fears and defeats that came repeatedly from the ballot box.
Since September 20, 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 their ID checked by police.
One faculty member, refusing to give into this securitisation 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”.
[This article is abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian history at Purdue University. She writes widely on Palestine, gender violence and neoliberalism.]