How the professors of Jadavpur University kept the peace in Kolkata—at their own personal risk

No easy crowd.
No easy crowd.
Image: AP Photo/Bikas Das
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By 2 pm on Thursday (Feb. 18), a few hundred students, armed with posters and chants, seemed almost ready to charge out of Jadavpur University’s gate no. 4 in Kolkata. The handful of policemen, posted to control them, looked utterly outnumbered.

From further down Raja Subodh Chandra Mullick Road, a major thoroughfare, an equally vocal group of between 50 and 100 Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) supporters furiously marched towards the university.

Their anger at Jadavpur University’s support for the embattled Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was palpable. Chants of “Vande Mataram” rang out from under posters of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore.

For all its gumption, however, the ABVP band never made it to its destination.

First, a thin line of policemen and a row of barriers halted it. After a few minutes of customary shoving and sloganeering, a trickle of protesters jumped the barriers. Half-way to the gate, another small contingent of policemen broke their run. “Don’t make a mistake,” a burly cop shouted in Bengali, resplendent in aviator sunglasses, a green riot helmet, and the all-white Kolkata Police uniform.

Most were stopped. Yet, a couple of protesters—holding an Indian flag and screaming “Bharat mata ki jai”—squeezed past, only to be stopped again, just metres from the university gates. Facing them, the crowd of students clapped and roared, pushing forward, almost threatening to break out. They, too, couldn’t make it much further.

A cordon of a dozen or so disparate, middle-aged men and women held them back. The professors of Jadavpur University had decided not to let anyone—university students or ABVP supporters—pass.

This was no impromptu decision by the academics. It was a deliberate strategy crafted to keep the peace, Samantak Das, a professor at Jadavpur University’s department of comparative literature, told Quartz after the showdown ended.

“This is our university. These students are our students, irrespective of what they’ve said, and we will not allow outsiders to come in and disrupt the functioning of the university,” Das explained. “It is as simple as that.”

“Which is why, so many of us teachers, we were out there, irrespective of our political beliefs and affiliations, holding the perimeter as it were, in order to prevent troublemakers from outside coming in and doing something provocative,” he added. “And also to rein in some of the more enthusiastic elements amongst our students.”

For an hour, the ABVP contingent—with a conspicuously disproportionate number of men who seemed well past their student days—tried everything to get past the multiple police barriers. Some scuffled with the police, some momentarily lay down on the road before quickly rising to begin sloganeering, with a liberal dose of expletives.

But by then, the police had already begun pushing the ABVP supporters back.

Encouraged, the Jadavpur students broke into applause. The Left-backed student contingent was there to “protect the democratic rights of students and resists communal, fundamental aggression” of the Narendra Modi government, as a large, handwritten poster declared. The entire group shuffled a few meters forward, till the ring of professors prodded them back again. There would be no going past this professorial perimeter.

At 2.30 pm, a microphone and speaker made a surprise appearance at the ABVP lines, along with renewed chanting by the group. A few more attempts to go past the police were made. All unsuccessful.

Twenty minutes later, there was another surprise: A few Congress flags appeared.

The Congress supporters, marching on the opposite side of the road from the blockaded ABVP group, simply walked up to the Jadavpur students, who were by now slowly spilling out of the university gate. The police quickly surrounded the newest members of the free-for-all protest. The professors still stood guard.

By 3 pm, it was all over. The small group of Congress latecomers were shooed away. The ABVP supporters were driven back by the police, a little more forcefully than the former. And the Jadavpur students, after a successful defence of their university gate, sauntered back into the campus.

“You cannot have outsiders, from whichever political party, just walk in,” Das said, still standing at gate no. 4. ”It is one thing for our students to declare their allegiance to the student groups of various political parties, but it’s quite another for political leaders to barge in and try and create a ruckus.”

On Feb. 17, for instance, a small band of ABVP activists apparently went around the university damaging posters. And it was over a year ago that the institution was rocked by massive protests after police and alleged political goons assaulted students campaigning against their then vice-chancellor.

This time, though, the Kolkata police were an entirely different entity. “They were extremely polite. They did not shout. They always took our assistance when it came to requesting—and I want to stress the word requesting—our students to come back,” Das admitted. “I think they’ve played a very positive role.”

But, at a time when academics from some of India’s more liberal institutions, including Jadavpur University and JNU, have been accused of fostering “anti-national” students, it was the professors of this university who put their physical safety on the line to keep the peace in Kolkata.

Had the police faltered in holding the ABVP supporters at bay, or if the much larger crowd of Jadavpur students fell for the relentless provocation, it isn’t difficult to imagine blood on Raja Subodh Chandra Mullick Road. Instead, the men of letters and science prevailed over youthful fervour and nationalist passions.