Students protesting the police action last week (photo: PTI)
Last week’s high-handed police action against a peaceful protest by students of Jadavpur University in Kolkata have now taken on a political hue, with the ruling Trinamool Congress under pressure for reportedly cracking down on democratic dissent.
And the pressure is showing. Trinamool Congress Yuva president and chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, attacked the students’ agitation via his Facebook page on Monday.
“The students are agitating as there has been a crackdown against consumption of booze, ganja and charas on the Jadavpur University campus,” alleged Abhishek in a Facebook post in Bengali.
The twenty-seven-year old is a member of parliament from the Diamond Harbour constituency near Kolkata. His comment has been criticized by students and teachers of the university.
“It is showing that the ruling party is under a lot of pressure,” a student told Hindustan Times.
"The culture of the ruling party has deteriorated to such depths that it is impossible for them to appreciate the language of the JU students' protest," said Srutinath Praharaj, leader of West Bengal College and University Teachers' Association, a Left-leaning teacher's organisation.
Mamata has so far been unable to justify the police crackdown on students last Tuesday night. According to Hindustan Times, blows, kicks and lathis rained freely on agitating students who had gheraoed the vice chancellor, Abhijit Chakravarty, demanding a new committee be put in place to examine a sexual assault that had allegedly taken place in August, in which a female student was dragged into a men’s hostel and allegedly molested.
Chakravarty claimed the protesting students would have killed him if the police had not arrived on Tuesday night.
Yet the protest was peaceful according to media reports. In the police action that followed, female students were reportedly not spared. Many alleged molestation by outsiders who sneaked in with the police. 35 students were eventually arrested by police, and five injured students were hospitalized at the nearby KPC Hospital.
The next day the protests grew in volume, with many teachers joining the students to demand the removal of the vice chancellor who had brought the police into the campus.
“This incident is comparable with the lathicharge on Mamata Banerjee and land agitators during her gherao of Singur BDO office on September 25, 2006,” student Tania Sarkar told Hindustan Times. “Now, Mamata’s police is doing the same,” she added.
Thousands of students marched through the city's streets on Saturday and were joined by students from Calcutta University, Presidency University, and other educational institutions in a show of solidarity.
Meanwhile, Mamata has tried to play down the student agitation, describing it as a "small matter" during a ceremony in Kolkata.
"A mountain is being made out of a molehill," claimed the chief minister.
Her nephew’s Facebook comment is believed to be the result of the immense pressure on the ruling party from the media and the public.
Jadavpur University students are boycotting classes and examinations to press their demand for the vice-chancellor’s resignation. This standoff is expected to test the chief minister, as she came to power in 2011 largely on the basis of her protests against police brutality by the previous communist administration in West Bengal.
Despite being a women herself, Mamata’s track record in power has been dismal in the area of women’s safety. Unless a solution can quickly be found to these student protests, they could grow in scale and even threaten Mamata’s own credibility.