I must confess, by the time I was about three days away from my flight back to Mumbai, there was a part of me that was quite looking forward to coming home. I guess it’s the advancing years, but there are things that I find myself missing some things when I’m abroad. Like, for instance, my desk, my books, my bathroom and what Thai expats call “the bum gun”. Also, the news. The bum gun I expect to miss. (I’ve no idea why this contraption isn’t popular outside Asia. It’s effective, better for the environment and generally genius.) I thought I’d be thrilled to be cut off from the news, because a) it’s depressing, and b) to get the news you have to read the newspaper or watch a news channel, which are both entire traumatising. Still, despite my resolute decision to not get drawn into the real world while on holiday, from time to time, I did find myself sitting in different parts of the First World and wondering what was happening back home. This is what happens when you live in interesting times.
As it turned out, only “small, petty” incidents took place. Like a 22-year-old student leader being killed while he was being held by the police in Kolkata. No biggie, according to Ms. Mamata B. The news of Sudipta Gupta didn’t reach me until this week and I’m still not sure if I’ve got all the information, but here’s what I do know. On April 2nd, four Left-leaning student organisations in Kolkata organised a demonstration demanding college union elections. The police arrested a young man named Sudipta Gupta, who is a student and member of SFI — Students’ Federation of India, I think — and who died a few hours later. Custodial killings are usually not considered a trivial matter, but Mamata Banerjee and her government seem to think it’s not worth discussion. There were attempts to brush the matter under the carpet. Understandably, many were not inclined to do so. From what I can tell, Sudipta Gupta’s death has finally given the CPI(M) something that they feel will turn the popular vote against Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC). There are also those who aren’t precisely comfy with the idea of a boy being beaten to death by the police, regardless of political nitty gritty. The official explanation for Gupta’s death is that he hit “a post” and died, thus reducing Gupta’s death to an accident rather than a custodial killing. The police said he fell of a bus while in their custody. The autopsy, however, suggests Gupta died of multiple wounds.
I’m not much of a fan of Times Now’s Arnab Goswami, but I do think he struck gold with this particular interview:
“How does a lamp post become a living object and inflict multiple injuries?” Good question, Arnab. Particularly when accompanied by that hand gesture.
On the subject of murderous lamp posts, artist Suvaprasanna has a simple response: “Nothing new in Calcutta.”
And you thought Delhi was unsafe.
For some reason, Mamata Banerjee seems to have thought that Gupta’s death would be forgotten in no time. Maybe she was hoping Narendra Modi visiting Kolkata would help her cause. It could have happened. There was an inordinate amount of interest in Modi’s visit and he apparently gave an electric speech to BJP workers in the city. If only TMC’s thugs hadn’t gone on a rampage in Presidency University (it hasn’t been a college since 2010), maybe Gupta’s death would have slipped into dismissal. However, for future reference, perhaps Mamata-didi will note that going ballistic against an entire university is not the best way to make people forget the death of a student. Especially if the university in question is Presidency.
Presidency happens to be one of the bastions of Bengali pride. It’s still considered one of the best universities in the country and it’s alumni include some incredible minds. When things got politically fiery in Presidency in the 1970s because of the Naxal movement, a number of Presidency students left mid-term and joined colleges in other parts of the country, like Delhi. Delhi university alumni from those years have told me that every time a student from Presidency joined a class, everyone resigned themselves to slipping down one rank. Because nine times out of ten, the Presidency kid would be a smartass who would rank at number one.
Of course when I saw Presidency as an impressionable teenager, it was an absolute mess. I remember going with my father, a proud Presidency alumnus, and being appalled by the graffiti and chaos everywhere. It was filthy, the classrooms looked primitive. The place seemed like a warzone rather than an educational institution. I couldn’t imagine myself in there and much to my father’s disappointment, didn’t even consider applying when it was time to send in forms for college. “You’re picking academia over a real education,” he rued. I rolled my eyes.
I’m not sure how I would have reacted to 100-odd armed thugs running into my college, yelling abuse at me and damaging property while the police pretend everything is calm and a-OK. The present batch of Presidency students gave back as good as they got, from the sound of things. Someone told me, “TMC’s thugs have no idea what Presidency is. They thought they’re going into a posh college. They’ll have knives and stuff, and Presidency students being polite and bookish will get freaked out. Except for more than half of Presidency, getting a concussion is as regular as giving exams, thanks to college politics. On the day of college elections, there’s always some bawaal (loosely translateable to “madness”) and it’s been that way for more than 30 years. It’s not the losers who do politics in Presidency. Some of the brightest students are in college politics and they aren’t afraid of getting into fights.”
Well, now the TMC know. Because not only did the students fight back physically, scores of them uploaded cameraphone photos and accounts of what happened on Facebook and other internet sites. Net result, when TMC turned around and said they had nothing to do with the violence at Presidency, there were photographs and eye-witness accounts that made it clear that the ruling party was lying through its teeth. The state government’s knee-jerk reaction was to lodge FIRs against two students who have been seen rallying students together and arrest them. This just goes to show how completely clueless these politicians are about the way things work these days. You can’t make people disappear when they’ve been photographed in leading Bengali newspapers and quoted by national media. You can’t pretend you weren’t involved because you made sure there were no press cameras at the ‘event’. The attack took place between 1pm and 3pm. By 5pm, students had returned home, told their folks, connected to the internet and put up photos on Facebook. By 7pm, the news and the evidence was everywhere. Arresting the ‘ringleaders’ won’t take away all those posts. It’ll just lead to more posts and outrage, which is exactly what happened. Even now, if you have Presidency students among your friends, you’ll see them talking about who needs to be warned, what word needs to be spread and what happened where.
Fortunately, the fact that Bengal is run by the equivalent of the Red Queen makes some things more predictable and anticipatory bail was quickly organised for these two. It’s worth noting that none of the people arrested so far are TMC workers, even though there’s photographic evidence of TMC councillors snarling away at Presidency’s gates.
I’m not sure what the TMC was hoping to achieve by attacking Presidency, but this move is going to be an epic fail from the look of things. My father, though, sounds inordinately gleeful suddenly. Not only has his alma mater done what no one in Bengal seemed to be able to do — thumb its nose at Mamata Banerjee — but his daughter who rejected Presidency is cheering for it now. All is well with his world at least.