Hok Kolorob. Let there be noise.
It was perhaps these two words of protest that eventually led to the arrest of two engineering students for allegedly molesting a fellow student at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University last month.
Conjured up in a moment of desperation, the defining slogan of the protests in West Bengal’s capital city—and beyond—shook the state government, galvanized disparate student groups and convinced thousands to march down the heart of Kolkata demanding justice.
Hok Kolorob on the streets—and #Hokkolorob on the Internet—effectively held together a student movement that began on a college campus, unravelled online and then returned offline as the crowds swelled on Kolkata streets.
It all began at some point in the 150-odd hours that students of Jadavpur University sat protesting, starting 10 September, singing songs and chanting slogans deriding the administration of one of eastern India’s elite higher education institutions. The university authorities, the protestors contended, hadn’t responded adequately to a complaint of molestation by a woman student.
In a letter that was presented to the governor of West Bengal, who also serves as the university’s chancellor, the students explained:
The highest decision-making body of the university, the Executive Council, had a scheduled meeting on 16 September 2014. Unfortunately, this grave issue was given no special attention in the meeting and the students were given absolutely no assurance whatsoever on an impartial probe into the matter by setting up of an independent investigative committee constituting external members such as a retired judge, a psychiatrist, a gender rights activist, a Women’s Commission member and a Human Rights Commission member, amongst others.
The protestors also alleged that two representatives of the university visited the victim on 5 September and questioned her “clothing and sobriety” on the night of 28 August, when the molestation purportedly occurred.
A combination of apathy and presumed intimidation formed the bedrock of the protest.
“We were 50-100 people protesting at first,” said Aritry Das, 22, a graduate student at Jadavpur’s department of comparative literature. “And in our protests, we always perform.”
Amid music and poetry of the initial protest, Das explained, Hok Kolorob—a term co-opted from an eponymous song by Bangladeshi musician Shayan Chowdhury Arnob—unwittingly emerged as a slogan. “We refrained from using any violent slogans,” she added. “We wanted to make some noise, let the people know.”
But violence arrived in Jadavpur in the early hours of 17 September, as police (and goons, allegedly) entered the university campus, where protesters had locked in vice chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty and some other members of the administration. Students were beaten and dragged, women groped and molested and a handful arrested as the police assaulted the guitar and violin wielding protestors.
Then, #HokKolorob, which had till then primarily been used to tag posts by the small group of protestors, went viral.
On September 20, Avishek De Biswas wrote this on his Facebook wall.
As I write this status I have goosebumps.
When I wrote the first status using #hokkolorob I was helpless not knowing how to get justice because knocking at all doors went into deaf ears and today I felt an estimated 100000 souls strong all shouting #hokhokhokkolrob.
I want to embrace every single soul that made mine and this girl’s fight of 28.08.2014 their own and the very roads of Kolkata trembled today.
When students stomp their feet for justice, NO ONE will stand in their way.
The fight will continue… till then #hokkolorob
Hours before his post, Biswas, 24, a graduate of the department of comparative literature, had walked across central Kolkata in pouring rain to call for the vice chancellor’s resignation for the police assault three days ago and the ineptness with which the molestation probe had been handled.
With him were some 30,000 others—protestors from other colleges, school students, alumni from Jadavpur and elsewhere, movie stars, musicians, IT professionals. They had all marched with the students of Jadavpur in solidarity, and demanding action. Kolkata had rarely seen such outpouring of support in recent years for what was essentially a non-political protest.
“I was creating awareness and inviting people to use that hashtag (#hokkolorob),” Biswas told Quartz, so that all the views and suggestions of Jadavpur’s student body and beyond could be collated. “Eventually, it became the emblem of the movement.”
On Twitter, #Hokkolorob emerged abruptly sometime between 17 and 18 September, reaching its peak around 21 September, the day after the massive protest march. On Facebook, too, the hashtag began appearing en masse after the night of police brutality on 17 September.
And the online conversation was often punctuated with powerful visuals—both videos and photographs—that Jadavpur students and alumni curated, thereby inadvertently widening the appeal of the movement to a wider student body on social media. “Revolution happens through meme,” said Arka Alam, a former Jadavpur student who attended and chronicled the protests.
“Social media can’t replace revolution, but it can mobilise people,” said Das, arguing that by allowing space for individual stories to reach more people, it also lends movements a certain authenticity. “Social media did have a huge role in this.”
To the Mamata Banerjee government, the police and parts of the university’s administration, the protest movement was fueled by outsiders.
“We also had information that outsiders mingled with students and some outsiders were hovering in and around campus and they were also armed with certain weapons,” Kolkata’s police commissioner said, in justification of the police’s decision to enter the university. Governor K.N. Tripathi also maintained the same line, blaming “outsiders” for “creating trouble.”
Chief minister Banerjee, in the past, has accused the university of harboring ultra-Left Maoists. “I know a section of Jadavpur University teachers and students actively supports the Maoists. The government has a list of such offenders. I have heard that they have put up posters in the university, criticising me,” Banerjee said in 2011.
And although decidedly not Maoist, Left parties—led by the CPM, which ruled uninterrupted for over 30 years before Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress came to power—have made their presence felt at the Jadavpur University protests.
But it is outsiders—college students from other institutions—who have staunchly backed, particularly online, what began principally as Jadavpur-focused protest. Hokkolorob, a Facebook page setup on 19 September that has over 50,000 ‘likes’, for instance, is run by engineering students from another university.
“When we heard about the JU (Jadavpur University) case how could we stop and sit back at home? So we thought of creating this page and obviously we were conscious in building this movement,” the founders of the page, who insisted on remaining anonymous, said in an interview. #HokKolorob remained their identifier.
“We did not even thought (sic) that we would be able to reach 42K+ citizens within four days. Social media and networking sites did the job for us.”
The bigger irony in the argument about outsiders is perhaps the personal story of Biswas, the Jadavpur alumni who claims to have made the first #HokKolorob-tagged post and then pushed the protest movement forward. Affiliated with the Trinamool Congress for a few years now, he was once central to expanding the party’s student wing in Jadavpur University.
As his own party pushed back against the student movement that he was deeply connected with, Biswas made his choice. “This is plain humanity,” he said of the Hok Kolorob protests. “I can’t sell my humanity.”
Earlier this week, vice-chancellor Chakraborty, who had been serving on a temporary appointment, was retained by the government as the full-time head of Jadavpur University. Expectedly, that hasn’t gone down well with sections of the university’s student body.
Once classes resume on 13 October, perhaps there will be noise again.