Why I Refused the Medal


Yes, I turned down my university’s Best Graduate of
the Year Medal. It was an ideological decision on my part as an activist of one
of most significant, mature and constructive student movements to have emerged in
India in the recent years. My decision was the product of collective resistance
to authoritarian violence and patriarchy. It was rooted in a conscious
programme adopted by the majority of my fellow students. It began but cannot
end as the struggle for Jadavpur.

 Jadavpur University has been making international headlines
for the last four months. The campus has become synonymous with a historic
students movement directed against growing gender violence, intensified sexual
inequality and brutal authoritarianism of the university authorities and the
state government. These tendencies have been on the rise in West Bengal since
2011. The safety of women and girls in public spaces has been trampled upon by
anti-social forces associated with the ruling party. From Kamduni to
Madhyamgram, from rural colleges to urban university campuses, girl students
are facing grotesque sexual violence. In this climate of emboldened misogyny,
our university campus witnessed an ugly incident on the evening of 28 August
2014. A second-year student complained of being molested by male students
resident within the campus. We approached Prof. Abhijit Chakraborty, Vice
Chancellor for justice. His voice reflected the general tone of the TMC
administration ruling this state. He wanted to suppress the complaint and
refused to discuss this issue, one of urgent concern, with the students and the
victim’s family. After 100 hours of sit-in protest by students, there was no
response from either the VC or the university’s Executive Council, the highest
decision-making body.
As the then General Secretary of Arts Faculty
Students Union, I had to resign from the Internal Complaints Cell (ICC). I was
the sole student representative there. The other members of ICC had been
selected by the VC (rather than being elected through a democratic process).
These were ‘loyal’ faculty members bent on helping the university authorities
to suppress the voice of the complainant.
As the non-violent protest against the VC’s
indifference and attempted suppression of the complaint gained ground, the
authorities handed over the campus to the custody of the local constabulary.
Police pickets began in the campus despite widespread objection by faculty and
students. On the night of 17 September at 2 AM, the VC unleashed the combined
might of the local police and thugs on student protesters. Brutal treatment and
molestation accompanied arrests made by the police. After this incident, we, as
students of Jadavpur University, came under the banner of a united student
movement. Our movement began with the aim of achieving five demands: 1. Removal
of Prof. Abhijit Chakraborty as Vice Chancellor 2. Independent judicial enquiry
into the molestation incident of 28 August 3. Independent judicial enquiry into
brutal police action against peaceful student protesters during the early hours
of 17 September 4. Immediate reconstitution of ICC so that it functions in a
democratic and transparent manner 5. End of campus surveillance by the police.
On 20 September, a huge demonstration made its way
through the streets of the city. We received support from the wider society.
Large segments of common people and students from other institutions joined us;
they have been feeling outraged by official indifference/incitement to sexual
violence and rising police brutality which have now become routine in West
Bengal. Our procession led us to the Governor of West Bengal who also happens
to be the Chancellor of our University. We described our ordeal in detail and requested
him to help us achieve our demands. Continued indifference of the authorities
and the contempt of the state government towards our movement were expressed
through counter-demonstrations organized by the TMC outside our university. The
government even went so far as to reward Prof. Abhijit Chakraborty with the
position of permanent Vice Chancellorship for the next four years. The order,
announced in October, was signed by the Chancellor even though we had urged him
to remove Professor Abhijit Chakraborty from his position as the
On 17 October, a symbolic fast was held by a large
mass of students. Our next step was to hold a students’ referendum on our
5-point charter during 30-31 October in the Arts Faculty followed by similar
referendums in the Engineering and Science Faculties. There was an overwhelming
show of support for the removal of the VC (97%) and other demands. In this
context, I should point out that we had been boycotting classes since the
police action on 17 September night. After a break, we decided to return to class.
We did not wish to disrupt our studies and simultaneously continued with the
movement. We were not responding to roll-calls since we were not willing to
allow the university authorities to claim that ‘normalcy’ had returned to the
campus. As long as the VC remained in
, how could we forget his gross, draconian actions against the student
community? We took the end-semester examinations. Even when writing the
answer-scripts, we remembered to protest in a novel way. We signed a separate
sheet during examination dates; this was a rallying call demanding the VC’s
Meanwhile, the university’s annual Convocation Day
was approaching. On the eve of the Convocation, a General Body meeting was held
by the students and we decided to boycott the event. On the night of 23
December, I learnt that I was to be awarded the Best Graduate Medal next
morning at the Convocation. I decided to decline the medal as a participant of
the united student’s movement. Next day, I went to the Convocation, got on the
stage when my name was called and politely told the Chancellor I could not
accept the award in the presence of the VC who had refused to listen to a student
who had been molested and summoned the police to beat, molest and arrest
peaceful student protestors. The Chancellor asked me to leave the venue. My
sole intention was to publicly reiterate before the higher authorities of the
university that we were firmly committed to achieving our demands. Sadly, my
public gesture was misinterpreted by some and I faced unpleasant criticism. My
political conviction and that of my comrades was also vilified since we are
clearly on the left. Having said this, the action on my part was followed by
similar actions by my fellow students who refused to accept medals, degrees and
certificates at the Convocation. Our peaceful boycott was successful despite the
stray abuse faced by some of us for taking this step-an act of conviction in
our movement born in desperate times. We were able to convey to the general
public that we could not accept awards in the presence of a VC who was
destroying our university.
In a sense, our movement was entering a critical
stage. For the past three months, we had held varied forms of protest yet
remained peaceful. The VC had criminalized us, called us names, called in the
police and accused us of carrying sharp weapons. We were unarmed. Our only
weapon was the united movement composed of ourselves. On 5 January 2015, a General
Body meeting of JU students was held. A solemn decision was reached. Twelve
friends began a fast-unto-death. After five days had passed, the Education
Minister offered to meet them at his office in Bikash Bhavan. Our friends were
carried there in an ambulance as some of them were already showing signs of
physical deterioration. The Minister did not make any firm commitment. Over the
weekend, two friends were hospitalised and others fell sick. Under these
circumstances, on 12 January, the Education Minister came to JU to meet us.
Within half-an-hour of his arrival, Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister, West
Bengal also arrived. After meeting the students, she suddenly made a dramatic
announcement: the VC had agreed to resign.

We were overjoyed. This had been our principal
demand. The determination to remove him had started our movement. We saw the
CM’s announcement as a gesture of retreat. It was an open declaration of
defeat: the government has been forced by the united resistance of students to
capitulate to our first demand. At the same time, the CM’s propensity for drama
was a sober reminder that the Chancellor is the only authority-figure empowered
to formally remove the VC by law. This prompted certain questions: How can the
CM interfere so blatantly in the functioning of a supposedly autonomous
institution? Did her gimmick not give away the fact that Prof. Abhijit
Chakraborty had been installed over us by her government? Have they not taken
him back because we refused to accept him? How long can we put up with the
brutal and anti-democratic interference in the running of schools, colleges and
universities by the TMC hooligan-driven autocratic state government? How can we
accept the new draconian law controlling higher education in West Bengal which
has effectively done away with the internal democratic structure of
institutions, including democratic representation of students in highest
decision-making bodies? Today, the Executive Council of Jadavpur University is
bereft of even elected faculty members. Selection, rather than election, is the
motto. Students and non-teaching staff have no representation, democratic or
otherwise. This is completely unacceptable to us. We must fight the legal
structure that binds us to authoritarianism in every campus. We must prevent
our own campus from being turned into a prison camp, a detention centre of the
Guantanamo Bay variety. The other main demands are still to be met. We must
fight for them and win against the combined forces of patriarchy, autocracy and
rightwing violence. Only future unity of the student movement can help us to
achieve these aims. We are fighting to save our university, an open space that
had made us happy in the past. It is not owned by the state government, the TMC
or the police. The wider dimensions of our struggle, however, are not just
confined to restoring democracy within our university. We want campus democracy
in every educational institution alongside freedoms of ordinary people which
are worth fighting for everywhere.

(Gitosri is a
student in the Bangla Department at Jadavpur University. She is an SFI
activist, General Secretary of the Arts Faculty Students Union. She refused to
accept her gold medal at the Convocation which was also followed by fellow