Union, Religion and Assault: A Glance Into Life at Calcutta University

Hidden in the confines of the Hardinge Building at Calcutta University is a small square uthon (courtyard). There, on hot summer days and cold winter afternoons, friendships are forged over a game of football. Or badminton. Or dodge ball. Something to throw around, form teams over – to sweat, yell and feel alive.

In October, that uthon was lost to the students forever. At the centre of it now stands a religious pedestal, blinding in its white marble finish – almost like Medusa’s gaze at secular education.

One must remember that at a 163-year old university with a rich history of protest, this move came at a vulnerable moment when no student was there to object, obstruct or guard the premises against such a construction. The pandemic has, among other things, struck College Street’s infamous culture of protest at its roots. As the bedi (pedestal) rests, the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP), acting under the garb of an illegitimate students’ union, have have been its guardian angels.

Two weeks ago, the Anandabazar Patrika reported a mass micheel (rally) at College Street headed by Democratic Students’ Organisation (DSO), which is affiliated with SUCI, and the Calcutta University Employees’ Union.

Their demand was simple: replace the religious pedestal with statues of humanist leaders; and to let the university and the education it imparts to remain democratic and secular – like it is meant to be.

On November 25, Dr Mrinmoy Pramanick, Head of Department and Professor of Comparative Indian Languages and Literature, was in his office doing paperwork. A stuck remuneration here, a backlog mark sheet there – Pramanick was accompanied by Sounak Sengupta, who is currently in the third semester of his Master’s degree. As they sat in the office, working on a departmental newsletter, a band of rowdy students stormed in without permission.

“I was shocked at the audacity of these men,” Pramanick told me.

The group demanded to speak with Pramanick in private. When he refused, they allegedly pulled Sengupta to the ground, kicked him, slapped him repeatedly, and even spat on him. The group claimed to be from the non-existent students’ union. I say non-existent because they are not democratically elected as student representatives should be, but derive their positions from illicit political influence.

“Too many people have been writing to the Vice Chancellor against the mandir,” they told Pramanick. “The VC is tired of fielding phone calls from the media and angry letters from students. Why is anybody raising red flags over the mandir?”

The security personnel watched from a distance as the harassment continued. It took them a while to intervene, perhaps out of fear for their own safety and the longevity of their jobs.

The group was soon joined by Monisankar Mondal, a teacher at the Department of Bengali, The Sanskrit University and College, who also happens to be the TMCP vice president. The very TMCP that regularly draws students out of classrooms, tears at them, pushes them down the stairs, and inflicts many other colourful forms of abuse – something I’ve witnessed first hand time and again.

Also read: ‘Cancel Ninth Semester Exams’: CU’s Final-Year Law Students Stuck in Limbo

Mondal allegedly raised his hand in a gesture as if to strike Pramanick, when the latter asked, “Eto raag keno? (why such anger?)”

According to Pramanick, Mondal responded with a threat, “Stop spoon-feeding politics to your students. VC ma’am is very perturbed about the protests. I’m warning you once and for all – if you or your students come up against the union again, then you will have to face dire consequences.”

To simplify, the act of “spoon-feeding” that Mondal alleged was a reference to the CILL department’s progressive syllabus. It encompasses subaltern voices, and encourages students to read and research texts by marginalised communities. In fact, Pramanick is responsible for the only Bengali translation of the Dalit Sahitya stalwart, Sharankumar Limbale’s work (Dalit Nandantattwa). At a time when the first people who go to jail are academicians and activists, it is only befitting that harmless discussions on Leftist, Dalit, or feminist literature are being threatened.

Up until the moment of this article’s publication, Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association, Rabindra Bharati University of Teachers’ Association, West Bengal College and University Professors’ Association, and Calcutta University Teachers’ Association, have all issued statements of solidarity, questioning the state government as well as university authorities. Ei Samay has also reported earlier instances of assault on Prof. Bhaskar Das, and Dibyendu Pal in the university campus.

Attempts to get a direct statement from the TMCP got no response, but a member of the students’ union put up a Facebook post about the incident:

Union members have repeatedly pointed at Pramanick’s personal life and habits to subdue his voice of reason. Like debate sessions when you’re in school, where opponents resort to grammatical corrections when they run out of arguments – the union resorts to sabotaging an individual’s self-image when they know they have lost the constitutional battle.

The repeated use of Vice-Chancellor Sonali Chakravarti Banerjee’s name by the union to legitimise their violence should be a mammoth cause of concern for the university. Repeated phone calls and emails to the offices of the VC, Pro-VC, Registrar, and Deputy Registrar, were either diverted or went unanswered.

“Having witnessed the way they treated my professor, I don’t think CU is safe enough anymore,” says Sengupta. “I am scared of stepping foot in campus right now.”

Sounak isn’t the first student to have felt this way, and sadly, he won’t be the last. Many at CU have developed manifold anxiety, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Professors, with their gag orders, and students with relentless mob bullying – isn’t this the emerging face of New India?

Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.

All images have been provided by the author.