The Hokkolorob Movement and the Shantiniketan Sexual Assault Case: Convergences, Fragmentation, and the Aversion to Politics

December 10, 2014

hokkol

By Chepal Sherpa

Abstract: The author examines the Hokkolorob movement in Kolkata in the light of silence on the other “case” of sexual violence at Shantiniketan. While conjoined in the way institutional structures challenged the complainants’ quest for justice, why did the two incidents have such different denouements? What is the space within which the Hokkolorob movement remained transcribed, and what lessons does this fragmentation from wider and more structural questions teach us about future struggles? What lessons can be learnt from the divorce of politics (by and large) from the movement?

Among the numerous cases of sexual harassment, the Jadavpur University (JU) and Visva Bharati University (Shantiniketan) cases were two concrete instances which came to the fore last September (2014). Both, however, failed in their quest for justice, despite a history of resistance at the institutions, particularly JU’s history of student movements and Shantiniketan’s cosmopolitanism. Since the raped female student in Shantiniketan was from the North-East, hailing from Sikkim, that particular case has a race angle to it as well. The responsibility thus lies in the collective imagination of how we should perceive and understand these problems in the social world. What are the failures and responsibilities? What can be the radical imagination negotiable to the peculiar problem of segregation and ‘fragments’ of struggles? These are some of the pertinent questions and paradoxes which have emerged before the radical intelligentsia after these episodes.

“Tagore’s hallowed campus” is the preferred phrase of expression in media reportage about the state of affairs in Shantiniketan, when describing the “detention”, “interrogation” and “humiliation” of the sexually harassed girl and her father by the Visva Bharati University authorities. This harassment was meted out to them when they had approached the V.C. (Sushanta Dutta Gupta), complaining against the gross sexual harassment committed by her seniors at the university [1]. Perhaps one should call it Tagore’s ‘hollowed’ campus, since it has long ceased to be a “hallowed” one. On the other hand – “Lathir Mukhe Gaaner Sur, Dekhiye Dilo Jadavpur” (In the face of batons, Jadavpur showed itself with the melody of songs) was the anthem slogan of the students in Jadavpur University calling for “Hokkolorob” – ‘to raise the voice’ against Kolkata police’s attack on students at JU who were demanding the resignation of V.C and justice in the case of sexual harassment of a female student inside the campus.

As ‘Hokkolorobis’ raised their voices, the metropolitan locale of Kolkata gave us some rays of hope. At the same time, however, we are faced with the paradoxical silence on the similar issue of sexual harassment of the female student at the prestigious Visva Bharati University famously known as Shantiniketan, founded on the ideals of Rabindranath Tagore. It is interesting to see how new forms of movements like ‘Hokkolorob’ shape themselves in the face of chained contradictions of society (patriarchy, caste, race, class etc.). We live in this era of paradox where voices and silences against injustice co-exist in their selective coordinates, and the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement represented this attitude. There was no trace of any political collective assertion in the case of Shantiniketan – neither the university community, nor the larger politico-intellectual community within West Bengal or outside raised the issue, except in one or two places. Why do we witness such selective and sometimes indifferent ways of addressing issues by contemporary movements, their spontaneity and radical potential notwithstanding?

We know the facts, but still…

Unlike the 16th December 2012 anti-rape (read anti-patriarchy) movement in Delhi, the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement started as a reaction to police repression and violence inflicted on peacefully protesting students. The students were demanding administrative action over the issue of sexual violence at Jadavpur University. On the night of 16th September 2014, the police and local Trinamool Congress goons stormed the protest site (Ashutosh Bhavan), violently beat the students and injured many, mostly female students. 34 students were arrested. This led to an outburst on the part of the students, condemning police atrocity inside the university premises and the V.C’s role in it. Kolkata’s streets were again back to the zone of confrontation with at least eighty-thousand to one-lakh students braving the heavy monsoon rains, walking from Nandan via Esplanade to Rajbhavan. The move was spontaneous on the part of these students. The administration and Trinamool Congress (TMC) government led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee (‘Didi’, a colloquial style of reference) were left with no other option but to rely on conspiracy theories. They portrayed the students as illegitimate protesters backed by “outsiders”, equipped with arms on campus, therefore necessitating the lathi-charge and police action. ‘Bhadralok’ (cultured Bengali middle class) intellectuals and students erupted into the streets; a gesture of the legacy of radicalism and sentimental outburst against the state of affairs.

On the other hand, we were witness to the gruesome violation of whatever was left of the complainant’s courage in Visvabharati University; she was compelled finally to quit her struggle for justice at the proclaimed institution. Humiliated and baffled by the response of the authorities, mainly the V.C. Sushanta Datta Gupta’s infamous offer of money to the complainant’s father to buy some clothes for his traumatized daughter, the complainant withdrew. Institutional mechanisms operate this way, when approached positively with faith and hope for justice. The fight became a total non-struggle despite the efforts of the complainant and her parents – it was never transformed and taken into a collective initiative like ‘Hokkolorob’ or similar forms of struggle. The issue remained at the level of the individual versus the collective power of the Institution – as is true in the majority of cases of sexual assault, where the survivors are left with nothing but individual capacity against the powers-that-be, until they are exhausted completely and finally forced to withdraw in vain. This individual struggle also shows the faith in existing institutions for justice in the Shantiniketan case, unlike the political action carried out in the form of protests and mobilization against the structures of power like we saw in ‘Hokkolorob’ for Jadavpur.

Before elaborating on the differences between Jadavpur and Shantiniketan instances of sexual harassments, one thing that must be recognised is that the fight for justice against sexual violence existed at both institutions, although at the formal level between the complainant and the university administration. The individual complainants’ and her family’s fight should be recognized as a political struggle, not delinked and separated from forms of political struggle of mass mobilization or spontaneous outbursts. Shantiniketan and Jadavpur could have come together in a common struggle against sexual violence with a single agenda of struggle against patriarchy, because if one recalls, the attitudes of both the VCs (university administration) were no different. One was too impatient and called the police to beat up the peaceful students who demanded justice, the other was too confident and tried to buy the complainant’s appeal with the offer of money.

But the differences between them remained. The ‘Hokkolorob’ movement never did take the Shantiniketan issue into its fold. Had it, it could have doubled its momentum and also reinforced the fight for justice in Shantiniketan. On the other hand, the melancholia of Shantiniketan did not shape into an optimistic wave germinating into something like ‘Hokkolorob’. The first difference between the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement and Visva Bharati’s individual mainly lies in the nature of segregated parallels between their collective and individual approaches respectively. They could not come to form a unit struggle, where the interest of both instances could be conjoined together and fought.

Zone of Convergence

Here is the zone of convergence. The JU and Shantiniketan cases converge in the way both the institutions inflicted repression over the challenge and claim of justice – be it lathi-charge over the peaceful protesters or an offer of money when faced by demands for justice. In this context, the determinant patriarchal social organization played its role. Therefore the determinant factor is not symptomatically limited to any particular political party or VC or any individual wielding power – for example the Didi style of vulgar exercise of power – but is in its essence a combination of both the general schema of organised power of institutions (Universities, Corporations, police etc.) and determinant social organisation of relations of domination and subordination (patriarchal social relations for example).

What therefore converges Jadavpur and Shantiniketan are – i) the general operation of patriarchal power in day to day social relations – for instance, the atmosphere of normalized gender (racial) violence – which is the materiality of intangibly organised social relations, manifested only during times of real infliction of violence, like rapes or sexual assault etc., and, ii) the institutional capacities which maintain this intangible character of power – concretely organised in bureaucratic forms of power – political parties and state institutions. For example, the VCs of both JU and Visva Bharati can be perceived as the concrete institutional locations of power which maintain this intangible power (of patriarchy and class relations), and also defend it through the exercise of collective institutional capacities of state apparatus and political parties in tandem, when exposed to resistance and challenge. In that sense both these instances of sexual assault are linked and not segregated. What makes these apparently fractured and segregated forms of violence a unit of totality is the nature of backlash and repression it perpetuates when faced by the challenge of organised groups or individuals, in the cases of JU and Shantiniketan, respectively.

An Autonomous “Hokkolorob”

The ‘Hokkolorob’ movement underwent three stages: first, specifically against sexual harassment till 16th September 2014; second, it assumed a radical spontaneity with a large number of students condemning the police atrocity post-16th September; third, formation of General Bodies for decision-making on the future course of struggle and slow de-centering of issues. The development of each stage shows the change in the direction of the movement as a whole. The movement went into a general direction with the primary focus of justice against sexual harassment shifted to other demands like the resignation of the VC, constitution of a committee for investigating the case of sexual harassment, and so on, particularly after the 16th September police brutality. The question of sexual harassment was slowly eclipsed by other larger issues by the second half of the second stage. Slowly the discourse in the third stage remained to criticizing the police brutality and securing university space.

Shantiniketan remained quiet and no larger political mobilization was initiated either inside of the campus or outside, while ‘Hokkolorob’ was gaining its momentum. The whole ‘Hokkolorob’ movement took a turn to a campus centric approach, losing its initial focus from challenging institutional patriarchy. It localized patriarchy to Jadavpur and the incident of police brutality of 16th September, as if patriarchal onslaught is a reality only on the Jadavpur campus. Therefore what also happened is that the possibility of forming a single unit of opposition of Jadavpur and Shantiniketan against patriarchal onslaught remained a dream. The ‘Hokkolorob’ movement took an autonomous position vis-à-vis the issue of sexual violence and patriarchal institution.

‘Hokkolorob’ thus completely missed the central issue of fighting patriarchy and its institutionalised nature in society. Chronologically, the Shantiniketan and JU sexual harassment cases were in the scene simultaneously (the Visva Bharati incident happened much earlier than JU and was visible in media since then). However, JU did not to take into its fold the case of sexual violence inflicted on a student in the similar university space of Visva Bharati.

Certainly, one can argue that the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement was founded on the basis of immediate problems – resisting the use of state machinery (16th September police’s lathicharge over the protesters, which is true!) in university spaces and enlarging the democratic space in university campus. One doubts, however, if these claims can be sustained if limited within and localised to particular institutional locations. The lack of a grounding question and clarity about the agenda – like combating patriarchy and the question of women’s space in a public institution like the university – did not assume centrality even though those issues had been in the imagination of the intelligentsia. They could not figure in as the central problems, and this resulted in the decreasing momentum of the movement.

The movement could have enlarged the field of struggle, for example – taking cases of patriarchal assault as the structural problem of our existing social order and so on. The Shantiniketan incident would then have definitely figured on the horizon. We thus see a simultaneous tendency to avoid difficult questions related to confronting structured power relations like gendered violence and also at the same time particularizing the issue of gender and patriarchal violence within the four walls of the JU campus. Therefore the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement assumed an autonomous position in relation to the wider social condition, autonomous to patriarchy and social contradictions necessarily by localizing patriarchy to Jadavpur campus.

Aversion to ‘Politics’, for ‘Apolitical’ Adventurism

Spontaneous solidarity with the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement was registered in different metropolises of India, through protest songs and slogans, and in the form of protest rallies. But the running theme in ‘Hokkolorob’ and all the protests was the effort to keep ‘politics’ out of it and remain ‘apolitical’. I myself was part of different solidarity protests here in the capital city – New Delhi. What was common was a puritanical approach of remaining ‘apolitical’ and refraining from any political insertions in the form of organized politics – i.e. remaining apolitically correct; if “political correctness” was to be an aberration for the movement. Whether the whole of the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement was a blueprint of this approach, or this approach was a blueprint for the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement, remains unanswered.

‘Hokkolorob’ reflected the aversion to ‘politics’, especially to organised left politics. Here, the difference between political rhetoric of left – sloganeering etc. and the organizational structuring of a movement should be kept in mind. Political authority and concentration of power in terms of organisational and structural disciplining of the movement is at the core of organized left political movements with ‘vanguard’ organization – ‘party’, ‘trade union’ etc. as the “advanced” section which leads the movement towards a definite goal. The history of popular-spontaneous movements has a disdain to organizational ‘disciplining’; this has been the trend in popular movements of May 1968 students’ movement in Paris and thereafter. The phenomenon goes even further back to the pre-Marxist days of Proudhonian anarchist assimilation of structural problems in their utopian theories of socialism.

What became central in anarcho-anti-capitalism of Bakunin and others in the 19th century was the deep scepticism and critique of any form of political authority – even workers’ councils in the form of organised state power. From the Paris Commune of 1871 to Russian Anarchists all the way to the recent ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, there is a similar thread which joins them all. Hokkolorob shared this kind of disdain to any kind of shift to political structuring and organizing (‘disciplining’) itself because it lacked the proper organizational structure and politics which could have become a blueprint for sustaining itself.

The Hokkolorob movement had a visible dimension – popular-left rhetoric, sloganeering, and symbolic manifestations of left mobilizations – obscuring the actual lack of organizational structuring. In a broad sense, many popular forms of protests – for example, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and even the ‘Kiss of Love’ protests – cover the lack the actual processes of organization and structure of the movement under the blanket of radical overtones. This leads us to argue that the unorganized (anarchist mode of protest) and obscure political nature of the movement admits the lurking danger of being co-opted by dominant groups in society or state institutions.

For if the movement is checked from within by its organizational structuring, these tendencies can be avoided and countered head on, but the lack of organizational structure leaves these problems unchecked. Furthermore, the radical spontaneity and momentum of the movement cannot sustain without any organizational structuring and leads to its eventual demise; ‘Hokkolorob’ met this fate.

This leaves us with the following question to think about – can a movement have a ‘left popular’ character without a ‘left structure’, as we saw in the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement? With spontaneous popular movements like ‘Hokkolorob’ and others, we have witnessed the eventual fizzling out of these movements after a point of time. Can we then argue that while political rhetoric (of left) can aesthetically reimburse the lack of organizational structure of popular movements, they cannot be sustained without concrete left organizational structuring? Without the structuring of movements, we will be witness only to different multitudes at different spatial configurations and junctures one after the other, but ultimately unable to create significant dents on the structures of domination.

The aversion to ‘politics’ in ‘Hokkolorob’ movement was also vivid when the TMC government and Kolkata police along with the same media which was eulogizing the movement, singled out the names of seven prominent political activists (one being a lecturer of a college and associated with a women’s group) of different left political organizations (a few of them, I happen to know personally) after the lathi-charge of 16th September. The local Bengali newspapers seconding the Kolkata police’s version came up with the names and pictures of these activists, along with their details, claiming them to be the “instigators” “who possessed arms” at the protest site of Ashutosh Bhavan. This political cornering was not taken into account by the ‘Hokkolorobis’ and the movement went on comfortably, with no apparent unease with this paraphernalia of ‘political’ conspiracies hatched by the state and media, through singling out these political activists associated with organised left. The State was clever enough to pick politically rotten potatoes out of the apolitical potatoes from the sack of ‘Hokkolorob’.

The political distrust and disdain with organized left politics reflected in ‘Hokkolorob’ is also due to 35 years of misrule of the Left Front in West Bengal, especially the CPM’s policies of misrule and organizational authoritarianism. The new generation of Bengali ‘bhadralok’ are fully aware of the consequences of holding on to something like ‘organized politics’ – the CPM episode failed miserably, therefore a recoiling back to non-confrontational and non-political hibernation. It has led to the making of a new generation of dissident intellectuals who are not really serious about admitting larger “political” questions (of the Left) into their radar, especially when it comes to “organized politics”. This time (in Hokkolorob) the new generation of urban middle-class seemed happy in exhibiting their disdain and disgust over excesses of state violence and lumpen-party-state intrusion over educational spaces, especially Jadavpur, which had an episode of Left Front government’s similar use of police atrocities on students in 2005. They seemed to say – Do your lumpen politics (of organised left or that of Didi) in your zone – factories, party offices, streets etc. but do not import it into educational campuses and contemplative zones, leave us alone in our zone of peace, do not intrude!

This apolitical adventurism reflects a disdain for ‘politics’, because politics is rigorous and compels us to ask questions which do not have easy answers. The ‘Hokkolorob’ movement was trying to find out solutions and even presenting some solutions without asking questions. If the erstwhile CPM type of left political formations were asking radical political questions and presenting reactionary political answers, sometimes with the use of force and power, ‘Hokkolorobis’ were trying to give answers without questioning the fundamental contradictions which give rise to such questions and authoritarian reactions.

Because for ‘Hokkolorobis’ the answer was already there in the past, sometimes ‘the glorious past’; that is why invoking the history of victorious past in slogans like – ‘dekhiye dilo Jadavpur’ (Jadavpur showed it again) became the soul of this movement. That is the nature of solution the movement was offering to us (history ‘minus’ politics = ‘apolitical’ resistance).

An Overview of Patriarchy and Different Responses

Sexual violence and assault have assumed a common-sensical nature in the social world of India. We are kept under various illusions to avoid this realization. Specifically, the business of claiming “our glorious past” has had the effect of making us ignore serious social contradictions. This is the problem with “reputed” institutions today, be it JNU, Presidency, Visva Bharti, Jadavpur University etc., given the peculiar condition of increasing rapes and violence. This attitude was very manifest in the recent protests.

The neo-Tagores and Bhadraloks of Kolkata, who have started setting apartments in peaceful Shantiniketan locales surrounded by hunger, seem to be lost in their heritage. Last year in July (2013), there was a massive protest march in Kolkata, from Nandan to Esplanade against increasing rape and violence against women. This was only in the aftermath of many cases of gross incidents of violence and rape that were taking place in the outskirts of Kolkata and not specifically in educational campuses.

The Vishva Bharti intellectuals were not prepared to tackle the rape incident. Certainly the next step was to appeal to the authorities of legality and police to “protect” women students from rapes and violence. This was similar to the way the intellectuals and activists here in Delhi were asking for “Anti-Racism Law” post-Nido Tania murder. Even left students’ organizations and others were asking for laws. The rule of law is not going to make the social body “anti-racist” (or say non-racist), or in the case of sexual harassment, gender sensitive. Because law itself is ruled and its functioning determined by the dominant logic of social power. Therefore the need to fight social organization of these problems becomes necessary. The popular struggles against structured violence seem to limit themselves by locating and ending the problem within legality and law. The argument that law is going to instil fear among people and act as a deterrent to abuses and violence will contain sexual assault and rapes against women and other minority social groups and classes is not necessarily correct. If that were the case, the “Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958”, and “Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967”, etc. which perpetuate similar violence in the form of state terrorism are part of that same legality. They reinforce and are based on the same patriarchal social contradiction.

Laws are meant to preserve order in society, the order of status quo, of “peace”, similar to the peace of Shantiniketan! Therefore, relying on the law for necessary social changes is an easy way out and a short-cut to avoiding real questions of social power structured in terms of politics at every social level, which we cannot fight only at the level of segregated institutions of universities. Proclaiming our “glorious past”, be it the 1970s radical students’ movement in Jadavpur- Presidency (Kolkata), cosmopolitanism of Tagore’s Shantiniketan or JNU’s history of radical-left politics etc., becomes futile, since the task is much more fundamental. Power which rules us is very much within us, realized through us, operated through us, because we desire power as subjects of this social order, ingrained deep into the established social contradictions – of patriarchy, caste, class inequalities – and violence. To understand this enigmatic and mysterious social power which is ingrained within us, let me invoke Michel Foucault’s description of this social power, wonderfully stated in his “Preface” to Anti-Oedipus [2]:

“And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini—which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively—but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Conclusion

Imagine women cadres of PLGA from the jungles of Bastar, Maruti Suzuki workers of Manesar, or for that matter, Dalit women from rural Bihar expressing their solidarity with the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement and the complainant in Shantiniketan in their fight against patriarchy alongside their own specific struggles. This would assume an explosive situation where you would not need “a communistic revolution” which “the ruling classes [would] tremble at”. Because this condition for-it-self would assume an explosive character.

But we are also witness to segregated and parallelized social worlds with segregated parallels of melancholia of passivity, docility, and, action with optimism and resistance – similar to the ‘melancholia’ of Shantiniketan, and ‘action’ of ‘Hokkolorob’ in Jadavpur. The mysterious segregated parallel and its effect of alienating the social world into ‘melancholia’ and ‘action’ have a further complexity – the action in melancholy and melancholy in action – which is unseen and hidden in the thicket of ‘desire’ for power. This political method of decoding and reading this segregated parallel of social power can be the route to emancipation.

The philosophizing of ‘melancholia’ and ‘action’ consists in our revolutionary task of seeing latent political ‘action’ in – ‘melancholia’, suffering, pain, pessimism; and, finding ‘melancholia’ outside of ‘action’. Which means to form something new out of this dialectic between ‘melancholia’ – the melancholy of sadness, helplessness, gloom in Shantiniketan episode, and, the ‘action’ of ‘Hokkolorob’ movement. The revolutionary task is to break this segregated parallel of ‘melancholia’ and ‘action’. Here the connectivity between melancholy and action can be created only by forging the unity of oppressed; creating political subjects by weaving ourselves into the ‘history of the oppressed’, as Walter Benjamin would have it. To not to talk like ‘victors of history’ similar to the Hokkolorobis, as if we have won the battle against patriarchy, giving answers without asking questions, but to situate ourselves as subjects of this ‘fragmented history’, where the struggle will go on. And also refrain from being too melancholic like the hollowed campus of Tagore.

If Marx’s call in The Communist Manifesto was – “Let the ruling classes tremble at the communistic revolution”, today, the need, in that line, is to say – ‘let the ruling order (of segregated parallel) crumble at the formation of melancholic action’, so that we do not have fetters of “Tagore’s hallowed campus” or “Dekhiye Dilo Jadavpur”, but coming together of both these to do away with our existing extremities of melancholic hollowness of Tagore’s campus and masquerading action of Jadavpur. Therefore to form something different where the political subjectivity of melancholia is realised into action and masquerading action realizes its melancholia and fits into a common coordinate of struggle against social power which thrives on this segregation and ‘fragmentation’ (to borrow Benjamin’s metaphor again) of ‘melancholia’ and ‘action’.

Endnotes:

[1] Times of India  report titled 3 Students of Visva Bharati expelled for Stripping, Molesting a Junior Student.

[2] See Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (University of Minnesota Press, 1983). P. xii

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