Innocence Turning Ugly: Politics around a Student Death in West Bengal

In the first week of April 2013, West Bengal witnessed a tragic death of a college student, Sudipta Gupta, while participating in a ‘law-breaking’ rally led by the CPI (M) student wing – SFI (Student Federation of India) against the decision of the state government to withheld elections to student unions in colleges and universities.

Sudipta’s death was allegedly caused by the brutal beating of the police followed by the casualness of the medical staffs. The very next day entire Bengal, and thanks to community forum ‘face-book’ and some media channels, entire nation saw the innocent and bright face of the student and plunged into sorrow. Such a normal reaction over an innocent death was soon followed up by some ugly demonstration of protest and counter-protest allegedly by the student wings of both CPI (M) and Trinamul Congress (TMC).

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This article after taking note on these events concludes that in tune with the practical (non-ideological)  political milieu of our country, student politics too is getting deviated from its ideological position and becoming similar irrespective of the Leftist and rightist genre. Keywords: Politics, Student, Ideology, Elections, West Bengal *Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Kalyani, West Bengal and can be reached at [email protected] co. in Introduction “I don’t want it to be fought at all!

An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle, except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it. You know very well that it will not be fought on principle” (Shaw: 2007). The violent element in election arena is a matter of great concern of contemporary political analysts as well as psephologists and the situation become even more shocking once it enters in the educational institutions engulfing student politics. The event of untimely student deaths, a situation in vogue in West Bengal for the past few years, perturbs any sensible soul that prays for non-repetition of such incidents.

As prayer cannot be the ‘only’ thing to be done in any circumstance, the series of student violence that characterizes contemporary student politics culminating into fatal injuries and even death, calls for in-depth analysis of the reasons for and solution to such incidents. The section I of the present paper based on some personal experience of student politics in West Bengal over the past decade tries to understand the shifts and changes in the outlook of students towards the political system and that of political parties to their  student wings.

The section II tries to understand in greater detail the particular death of Sudipta Gupta and arguments based on ‘custodial death’ targeting the state government. Section III brings in theoretical understanding of student politics and tries to link it with recent events in West Bengal particularly as a critique of the politics of the Left leaning student groups. Finally a concluding section is presented to show that the overall trend of national politics does influence the politics at the formative ages of a person – at the level of student politics.

I It was in the early years of this millennium that I joined as a student in one of the reputed government colleges in central Kolkata and was introduced to a dialogue between ‘political politics’ and apolitical politics’ taking place between several groups of students in classrooms, in corridors, in canteens and even in the streets leading to the college. Naive as I was to distinguish between the types of politics, I tried to listen carefully to the arguments of both the groups – one led by the leftist student wing (SFI,

Student Federation of India) and the other by rightists’ student wing claiming independence from all political parties. The former accused the latter of diluting the ideological element in politics and promoting ‘emotional bond’ and ‘face politics’, i. e. popularizing certain key faces of students through their presence in canteen and cultural forums of the college and then seek vote in their support. The latter group  accused the former of politicisng educational arenas with political attitudes akin to programme of particular leftist ideology based political parties.

Needless to mention, both the groups appeared to uphold the welfare and development of the college and its students as their topmost priority areas and they reflected their position through more or less similar ways of slogans, posters and campaigns in classrooms before elections. The rightist group used to get funds from outside (it was alleged so) while the state level leaders of SFI were visible in the campus to step up the electoral mood among students, particularly those supporting them.

It was in the late years of the first decade of this millennium that I joined as a teacher (temporary) in a reputed missionary college of Kolkata. I found that everything was happening there – student seminars, cultural programmes of the students, fresher welcome party- as the case with the college where I studied but with a difference – a total absence of any popular and active student wing of any particular political party or any attempt to counter them by some other brand of politics.

Here I found that the student union was present, active, vibrant and participative with regular change of portfolio holders but without any political approach. However in classrooms I found that the students were equally aware, politically and culturally about the happenings around them, just I found it among my peers in my college days. Outside influence of political parties or political student groups were at an arm’s length from the students and student union of  this college.

Quite accustomed with the concepts and ideas of political science as a subject and politics as a process, I stepped in to a heritage college of South Kolkata as a full time teacher and taught there for three years where student behavior, student agitations and student union elections reminded of my college days. It was so similar but again with a difference –which I later realized, a difference structured by different generation.

The students both in the left ideological camp (SFI) and in the right (for the first time I came across Chatra Parishad(CP) and then the TMCP(Trinamul Chatra Parishad), were extremely adamant to their positions and tried to take recourse to any means between themselves, even in the college premises in front of teachers, – threats, street fights, usage of slangs, physical brutal assaults – to see to it that decisions of college authorities come in their favour. Couple of student leaders on both sides were extremely  argumentative and at the same time quite logical with full information about the trend of party politics in the state.

Being located in central place of south Kolkata, the student supporters of both the groups were influence by various street campaigns led by state level leaders of both the student groups just outside the college premises. Presently, as the millennium steps into its second decade, I’m engaged in teaching in a university in rural backdrop where I’m dealing with students mostly from economically and socially backward community students and to their vision ‘politics’ is simply defined as ‘student union’ and ‘student politics’ is just ‘to remain present sometime in the union room’!

An interesting feature here is of a total absence of the opposition in student union. The only presence is of that student group which corresponds to the party in power at the state. A very recent instance would be total change of unit after unit of student union overnight from one party affiliation to another with the change of guards at the state power corridor.

In the above narration of particular experiences over the last one decade some generalizations can be made: (a) student unions are always acting as the face of power of political parties (b) political parties view student unions as recruiting machines for being party members (c) the nature of student politics swings with the changes in state politics (d) the brute powerful influence of politics on student unions is more reflected in rural areas where political reasoning bypasses logical reasoning (e) in urban areas and gradually in rural areas as well, media attraction is a prime mover of violence in student politics (f) however a different model of student union, though not anti-political but innocent, sensible and logical, is available in the state. With this personal experience as a background the next section catches up with a particular incident of student death where politics, student union and party politics intersects – the death of Sudipta Gupta on April 2, 2013. II

Unable to contain violence in college union polls, committed these days mostly by the TMC’s student wing after forcing police into inaction, the government had declared a moratorium on students’ union elections. Demanding its withdrawal, four left students’ organisations gave a call for “law-break” agitation. The programme was undertaken with prior permission from the concerned authority. However, due to high deficit in police arrangement minor scuffles ensued, and the students were lathi-charged. Then hundreds of students were packed in three or four buses, while according to media report, a circular from the police headquarters had instructed to keep at least 20 buses ready to take the lawbreakers to jail.

On way to the Presidency jail, Sudipto Gupta, a state committee member of the Students Federation of India fell on the road with a serious head injury. He was taken to the hospital where, it is alleged by his friends, he lay unattended for  more than an hour. And finally when the doctors intervened there was little to do. A student of 22 years, the only son of an ailing widower-father, succumbed. According to the police, the death was due to an accident, but eyewitness reports give a totally different version of police beatings and callousness causing death. Important in this incident was the way in which the state government and its police forces were put under severe criticism over the issue of custodial death.

The very fact that the students were taken by bus after ‘token’ police arrest having only two policemen as per report in the newspapers, led the critiques to term it as a death in police custody and hence ‘custodial death’ and thereby directly placing the responsibility on the police and the government. One of the comments publicized by the critiques read like this: “We have watched with disgust and horror the brutal police assault on students during a peaceful demonstration organised by four Left students’ organisations on 2 April 2013 in Kolkata and the subsequent death of Sudipta Gupta, a participant in the demonstration, while in police custody. Sudipta was a bright student and a leading activist of the Students Federation of India. We are shocked to see the chief minister of the  state absolve the police of any responsibility for Sudipta’s death even before a proper enquiry had been initiated”(EPW Letters :2013).

Another critic argues: “Now, if under the pressure of the media and the people any administrative inquiry is instituted we can guess what findings it would come up with! The people of West Bengal are fast losing faith in the honesty and civility of the chief minister. The minimum that we as ordinary citizens of the country can demand and the government should be forced to grant is a judicial probe into the death of Sudipto” (Chakroborty: 2013). The problem with these arguments is to shift attention from student politics to state politics – from academics to politics. Moreover ‘Custodial death’ means the death of a person in the custody of a public officer or any person acting on behalf of a public officer. a) The term ‘custody’ includes all occasions where a person is detained by a public officer or any person acting on behalf of a public officer, irrespective of the legality, nature and the place of detention; (b) It includes judicial custody and all other forms of temporary and permanent restraint upon the movement of a person by law, or by force or by other means enforced by a public officer or any person acting on behalf of a public officer; (c) It includes deaths occurring whilst a person is being arrested or taken into detention or being questioned; (d) In all cases where the death of a person is within 72 hours after his release from ‘custody’, or at any other subsequent occasion and where the cause of death can be attributed to acts committed upon the deceased by a public officer or anyone acting on  his behalf while the deceased was in custody; (e) ‘Custodial death’ may have taken place on police, private or medical premises, in a public place or in a police or other vehicle(IPC Act, 2010). This definition in some remote way supports projection of Sudipto’s death as ‘custodial death as there are many brutal instances of custodial death on police torture in jail custody. Those ho are asking for a probe, indeed justifiably, are diluting their own position by branding the incident before the probe itself! The pent up anger against the state administration got reflected at New Delhi when the Chief Minister along with some important cabinet ministers en route to the finance commission office was mobbed and heckled on 9th April 2013, by left leaning student unions in memoriam of the ‘innocent’ death of their student leader, Sudipto. Present in this incident according to media footage was the all India general secretary of SFI. At any stretch of imagination this was an ‘ugly’ demonstration of anger seeking justice through judicial probe of Sudipto’s death.

Such ugly demonstrations become more disturbing when it gets validation by one of the important left ideologue of the country in the following words: “Those who get perturbed by heckling and would like a more civilised and humane discourse, must themselves also engage in such a discourse. One cannot call the death of a young idealistic student, and that too in police custody, a “small and  petty affair”, a remark that is offensive to fundamental humanity; and then complain if angry demonstrators heckle one. To claim the right to make inhumane comments about others, and then to complain when others heckle one, amounts to having one’s cake and eating it too. Of course even when one’s discourse is perfectly humane and “civilised”, in so far as the consequences of one’s decisions are deleterious to some people’s lives, one still has to be prepared to face demonstrations and heckling.

But if one’s discourse too is inhumane then the chances of this happening multiply several-fold” (Patnaik : 2013). This justification again gets political as it is directed against state administration and pats for the extension of student politics to the arena of state politics. The ugliest incident in this follow up of events was still to be seen and finally happened at Presidency College, Kolkata where some hooligans vandalized and destroyed  the heritage Baker Laboratory and to utter dismay this demonstrations carried flag of TMC and media footage showed the presence of the local councilor of TMC outside the gate of the college during the incident.

This act was a protest against the demonstrations that TMC ministers faced at New Delhi. So, politics within academic arena, as showed by these incidents, no longer involves students only but the political party, their image and prestige, state power apparatus, etc. An academic explanation regarding the source of the SFI ‘law-breaking; rally and hence the source of all these follow ups involves the legality of the state government decision to withheld student elections. It reads: “In this milieu of violence even many well meaning people have started to blame student politics as the repository of violence and demanded that student union elections be banned in the state.

This debate started when an on-duty police officer was killed by goons belonging to the ruling TMC during the process of nomination in a Kolkata College. Subsequently, the government announced that student union elections will be withheld for 6 months and with the incident of Sudipto Gupta, the clamour has increased that students should be kept out of politics. ……. Prima facie, the demand to ban student union election is unconstitutional. The Constitution of India gives every person the right to form associations; hence students cannot be  arbitrarily denied this right. Secondly, the Lyngdoh Commission constituted by the Supreme Court to frame guidelines for conducting student union elections is unambiguous when it comes to the question of whether election should be held or not.

It states, “Universities and colleges across the country must ordinarily conduct elections for the appointment of students to student representative bodies. These elections may be conducted in the manner prescribed herein, or in a manner that conforms to the standards prescribed herein. ” (Lyngdoh Commission Report, Page: 40)”(Chowdhury: 2013). However such arguments falls flat in a politicized environment as is seen in contemporary West Bengal where student supporters of particular opinion behave like party members. They are becoming that rigid and closed. Student politics, or for that matter politics, ideally must depend on taking advantages of situation created.

In the events that happened both the SFI and TMC leaders were becoming more similar in their self-destructive positional tactics(both were leading destructive marches) thereby leaving the space of politics of students in an ideological and programmatic vacuum in the days to come. III Given the special significance and weight of students in the politics of many new nations, the questions: (a) whether or not their politics are like national politics and integrated with them; (b) whether student polities are separate from, opposed to, or ahead of, national politics; and (c) what conditions promote one or another of those tendencies; become questions of some interest and importance.

In India, student politics tend towards congruence with national politics. Unlike industrial workers, peasants, or capitalist, students have not aspired to be a ruling class; they lack the ideological identity and mission in the political system. If students have not—and perhaps cannot—become one of the political classes that aspire to power in their own right, they have become on occasion a leading sector in the political system—-expressing in an organised and militant form dissatisfactions or aspirations well before such sentiments have been clearly  articulated and expressed by the established means of political representation and leadership.

While students have often played a role in the regime politics of a number of nations and in the ideological politics of others, in India the orientation of student politics in the aggregate has remained relatively congruent with that of national politics (Rudolph & Rudolph : 1966). Professor T. K. Oomen succinctly describes the situation leading to student unrest in campuses: “The exercise of student power in India is constrained by several structural factors. Student politicians are rarely, if ever, autonomous. They depend on political parties or other outside agencies for ideas, finance and organizational support. It is but natural this involvement by outsiders is based on expectation of political payoffs. Often this takes the form of the student politician becoming their agent or propagandist on the campus.

Naturally he has to abide by the instructions of his patron; the relationship between political parties and student political organization is always a hierarchical one and the latter is usually at the receiving end. (p. 255) The real task of the politically oriented student activist is to transform the latent discontent and vague rebelliousness into a coherent revolutionary vision. Usually the passive, indolent, dull majority  is provoked through the offering of an occasion to be involved in a demonstration. Here what is important is not the cause for which students agitate but the fact of their involvement in agitation…Sometimes the zeal and commitment of the passive many is greater than that of routine activists, once they are involved.

Often physical violence will be deliberatively planned by student leaders by destroying public property or by assaulting some higher official of the university. Once this happens usually the formal agencies of social contract, particularly the police and the press, step in…If the attempt of student leaders to ‘manufacture’ a couple of student martyrs succeeds they are at the height  of their glory. The martyrs are those who get shot, injured, arrested, dismissed or suspended. Student power is often effective only through violent agitations and this is for three reasons:- first, violence is the most effective means of focusing  attention on issues and this invites the sudden intervention of higher authorities.

Second, violence is the medium through which the passivity which envelops the majority is at least temporarily effaced, galvanizing it into action. Third, it is violence which makes the hitherto unwilling university authorities concede demands which they have been continuously refusing. (Oomen: 2010; 255, 263, 264). Over the past three decades, college and university elections in West Bengal in particular and the country at large have become arenas of contest among political parties. One of the reasons behind this is the manner in which much of the student politics in most of these institutions have come to be reduced entirely to winning or losing students’ union elections. Earlier, the elections used to be at an intellectual level but now the environment has entirely changed.

Some years back the injury suffered by a student named Souvick  Dutta(who lost one of his eye forever in a pre college election violence) in a south Kolkata college led to the SFI union leader leading the protest in front of the residence of the then opposition leader and landing up getting a party ticket to contest the assembly polls in 2011 from the adjacent locality only to cash in on the sympathies generated by the incident! Is it a transition from ideological politics to emotional  politics? Well on the extreme right the instance is even horrifying. The well established student leader of Chatra Parishad(CP) who continued to criticize TMC and TMCP positions tooth and nail simply went to join the very ame TMCP in the same designation just after the elections were over! A transition from ideological politics o self-interested politics is reflected thereby in student politics. Now elections are stopped for some period by the state government (for reasons of security). There are arguments to bring back ‘party based elections’ in the name of democratic participation of students in the formation of college unions (keeping in mind the sad stories of violence leading to the recent incidents of Souvick Dutta and Sudipto Kole) criticisms are at a galore. The SFI general secretary comments: “But the protest is very much in the air. There are Left students who are not allowed to enter campuses….

But still they have not given up the  flag of SFI. They are in the barricade of resistance. The wall writing is sharp, bold and clear- ‘If politics determines our education we must determine the politics’. This determination to determine politics is the silver lining in this worst of times”(Bhattacharyay : 2013) Hardly one can find arguments calling upon general students belonging to all ideologies to come together and form ‘party-less union’ for cultural and social development of the students in colleges. IV An innocent death of a student occur, the student is highlighted as a party cadre and brought into the limelight, police officials and home minister, i. e. he chief minister is accused,  activists of the deceased student camp heckles chief minister and cabinet ministers, in that situation the general secretary of the deceased students’ group was seen, the act has to be condemned but not by words but through retaliation, the vandalism in the Baker laboratory of Presidency University was carried out and in the scene was noticed the councilor of the chief minister’s party. This running summary shoes that how an innocent death turns political and utterly ugly within a fortnight leaving a lasting impact on student politics of the state. The central question is to search for alternative model of organizing student politics. Ranabir Samaddar argues, “In West Bengal large student movements have never been organized centering on union elections but rather on bigger issues of society regarding education and solidarity of labourers, sometimes even on international issues particularly anti-imperialism.

At time students and youth would join hands to manage disasters like drought or floods and thereby such days of student politics were marked by ideological and philosophical politics far away from the present institutionlaised election centered student politics. The first effect of such calculative student politics is its politics and career centricity cut off from the real problems of society and thus marked by ‘academic nobility’ and for this vacuum general students are in favour to stay away from such ‘bad politics’ and student politics is under the threat of corrupt practices. Such practices have surfaced in recent years in liberal society of United States. Thus not  United States but the European student politics particularly that are seen in 2010-2011 in Italy, France, Great Britain, Spain must be the model for student politics in the coming days.

Thousands of students protested in the streets of Barcelona, Bolonia, Rome, Paris, London, Berlin demanding the removal of neo-liberal policy restrictions on educational campus, ending oppression to immigrants and ensuring security to common people. Student politics must return to its golden days not for its reiteration but for its renewal. During 1966-77 student protest in Presidency stroked chord among student community at large as in the face of threats of bombing, police activities in the college the elite students were saved by students, teachers from outside the campus. The model is to break free from party affiliations and dictates and to move ahead for student solidarity across party lines” (Samaddar : 2013).

The idea that students can be or should be kept out of politics comes from a narrow understanding of what politics is. Politics is not simply about what political parties say. Politics is basically about a debate, a discourse on what society as a whole should or should not do. For example, the courses studied in our universities, the amount of fees that we pay, the level of salaries of the teachers etc all are decided by politics. Students, who are the most vibrant section within the society, cannot be kept aloof of this debate and discussion or politics. They must be free to listen to every view and form their own opinions about it. …But politics is not merely about debates and discussions.

Politics is also about power (Chowdhury: 2013). So, all debates among student groups have boiled down to powerful and violent rigid explorations of one’s position diluting the age-old open policy of ‘Let the Hundred Flowers Bloom’. The student movements, in  this spirit, ultimately get marred by violence and get robbed off its traditional mission of positive contributions to society, with one exception, organizing blood donations camp has been a matter of competition among competing student groups and at least blood donation is made. The student movements of any particular period reflect the direction of the character of the new vision of the society at its micro level.

Students get into the process of political socialization through their participation in these movements. In the process the role of social and political culture, information and communication channels and technological advancements becomes critical in determining the intensity of student movements. In a globalised world students are the most susceptible section of the society to cultural influences. The various ways by which the students try to popularize their support base among their peers, mainly through facebook and twitter and email and ‘sms’ exchanges,  indicates the new cultural influences on them across the left and right wing student groups.

In this flow, both the left and right wing student unions are in same direction. The way picture of a blood ejecting one eye lost Souvick Dutta, bandaged picture of  Sudipto Kole’s dead body and picture of innocent Sudpta Gupta’s face has been spread over the web world and in the streets, to generate awareness of the degree of violence and to create emotional attachment – a question crops up – has the left student unions, particularly SFI taken recourse to the same ‘face politics’ of the type they hated most in my college days? The article tries to contextualise the events unfolding around the death of Sudipta Gupta in the overall perspective of trends in student politics, particularly in West Bengal.

Though some personalized particular experiences have been the basis of this paper but that does not debar from making generalizations as it is an in depth study of a particular death and politics surrounding it. Is it a ‘political death’ or ‘custodial death’ or ‘death of student politics itself’? In the present context of the state politics, these questions are tricky and complex and their answers are elusive. The present paper sounds at times a critical commentary on SFI politics but that is only because as a heritage student group the onus is more upon them to be calm, positive and constructive in their outlook and concentrate on making their own ideological position contemporary.

There has been a sharp increase in violence in student politics but the present  incident is not a cause of inter-student front collisions but due to lack of humane management of the situation. It is also of deep worry that one can hardly find any difference between the tone and texture of the student politics pursued by the leftist and rightist camps presently in West Bengal. In most instances the campus politics are based on party line divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as reflected in the local, state and national level political space. Gone are the days when student politics of debates and discussions, of academics and society coated student agitations. Now it’s all about politics, in the bad and amoral sense of the term.

To conclude one can reiterate the lines of Rabindranath Tagore:     “Firbey Na Ta Jani, Tobu Tomar Potho Cheye Joluk Pradipkhani.. ”(…The student politics will never be the same, but let us keep our hopes lightened in the anticipation of the return of a more open and civilised approach to society and politics. …. ). Politics in the college premises must be seen in terms of socialization rather than politicization  and academic environment related specific demand based movements must replace popular political politics. It is in college and university that a person is in his/her formative ages and to be groomed to be a ‘good citizen’ and not to be a trained political-party supporter.

It is now a duty to all persons related to academics- teachers, students, non-teaching staffs and even a transformed open ended student groups to work together in that direction. Sudipto Kole and Sudipto Gupta are dead but Souvick is alive with one eye and a violence free academic campus will be the best homage to all of them. Let’s start making the gift. References: 1. Banerjee, Ritabrata(2013): War Against Democracy: Designs to Ban Politics in Bengal Campuses, http://www. cpimwb. org. in/feature_details. php? features_id=14#sthash. i7M8sfIH. dpuf (accessed on 26. 06. 2013). 2. Chakraborty, Satyabrata(2013): Anarchy in West Bengal,                                               Economic and Political Weekly,             Vol. XLVIII No. 17, April 27, 2013 3.

Chowdhury Subhanil(2013): In Defense of Student Politics, http://www. pragoti. in/node/4938 (accessed on 22. 06. 2013). 4. Oomen, T. K(2010): Student Power Mobilization and Protest in Social Movements: Concerns of Equity and Security, Vol. II , T. K. Oomen (ed. ), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010. 5. Patnaik, Prabhat(2013): Heckling As Violence, People’s Democracy, Vol. XXXVII , No. 17, April 28, 2013 6. Rudolph, Lloyd I Susanne Hoeber Rudolph & Karuna Ahmed(1971): Student Politics and National Politics in India, Economic and Political Weekly, Special Number, July 7. Shaw, George Bernard(2007): Back to Methuselah, Iowa, 1st World Library. 8.

Samaddar, Ranabir(2013): Presidency: Nicher Tolar Protyaghat? ABP, Editorial,                  17th April. 9. http://www. alrc. net/PDF/INDIA_Model_Act_Torture_and_Custodial_Death_%28Prohibition%29_Act_2010. pdf  (accessed on 28. 06. 2013). 10. Letters to the Editor, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. .XLVIII No. 16, April 20, 2013 Respected RK Sir My internet is suffering  some problem right now in uploading my paper as attachment file. Hence this clumsy effort. I’ll send it as an attachment file soon. This is just to send you the paper so that you could show it to the Hon’ble Editor. With deep regards Pratip Pratip Chattopadhyay, M. A. , M. Phil

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