How Protests Over Kolkata Students Taunting a Teacher with Casteist Slurs Snowballed

The Rabindra Bharati University professors who had quit have withdrawn their resignations after a meeting with Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee.

New Delhi: A gherao over low marks in a Kolkata university has rapidly escalated to the point where the state government has had to take notice. While such protests by students are not new in the city, what is new is the complaint that the protesting students – all belonging to Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress party’s students’ wing – had used casteist taunts to harass a geography assistant professor in the course of the nearly four-hour captivity that they allegedly subjected her to.

Three days after the May 20 gherao incident at Rabindra Bharati University, the professor – who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe and whose name is being withheld to protect her identity – lodged a complaint with the authorities. A fact-finding committee set up by university vice-chancellor Sabyasachi Basu Raychaudhuri only sat for its first meeting on June 17, reported The Telegraph.

In the meantime, professors under the aegis of the university’s Arts Teachers Council led rallies along the Barrackpore Trunk Road on which the university is located and held protest sit-ins in at the foot of the statue of Rabindranath Tagore on campus.

Also read: The Closed Doors of Caste in India

On Monday, protesting against authorities’ inaction, five heads of the university’s departments and schools resigned. Basu Raychaudhuri, however, did not accept the resignations of the professors, who Indian Express identified as head of the Sanskrit department Amal Kumar Mondol, head of the political science department Bankim Mondol, head of the economics department Bindi Shaw, head of the education department Bharati Banerjee and director of the Ambedkar Study Centre Ashish Kumar Das.

The Bengali newspaper Ei Samay mentioned a sixth school head who had resigned but did not identify her or him. Anandabazar Patrika noted that two additional heads of schools had expressed the desire to submit resignations too.

The resignations garnered media attention and made it to most local newspapers, who were quick to note the singularity of casteist remarks being made against a teacher in what could be considered one of the more cosmopolitan campuses of the city. On Tuesday, the state’s education minister Partha Chatterjee personally visited the campus and sat in a meeting with VC Basu Raychaudhuri and a few of the agitating professors.

Assuring that the probe into the matter will be ‘completed at the earliest’, Chatterjee told reporters that anyone who is found guilty would be ‘severely punished’. “What happened is a matter of serious concern and chief minister Mamata Banerjee is herself looking into the matter. We could not make contact with the victim professor. I will try and contact her and make her speak with the chief minister,” he said.

Following the meeting, the professors who had resigned have withdrawn their resignations and have resolved to find an amicable solution to the matter.

Partha Chatterjee. Credit: PTI

File image of West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee. Photo: PTI

Trinamool students’ wing denies allegations

The Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad, whose students are at the centre of the blame, meanwhile, has denied all allegations. Karan Chauhan, the joint state secretary of the Chhatra Parishad, told The Wire that the geography professor in question was in fact guilty of not teaching her lessons properly and not instilling in students the inspiration to attend classes.

“Not just that, I know for a fact that this professor, among others in the campus, has been openly pejorative towards Trinamool Chhatra Parishad students in class. Say, a student has been involved in a cultural programme — we have many of these in RBU — and could not attend classes, he or she would be taunted by teachers. The teacher in question was being asked by students as to why she had given them such low marks without discussing the issue with them first or conducting proper classes on the subject. Not only did the students not make casteist taunts, I believe it is the teacher who is trying to hide behind such allegations the fact that she taught poorly,” said Chauhan.

The Geography professor, Express reported, has moved out of her assigned quarters over concerns of her safety.

He added that the Bharatiya Janata Party was to blame for the mobilisation of the teachers to this extent. He blamed the CPI(M) too, and called it the BJP’s stooge when it came to organising campus movements.

A recurring problem, says Teachers Council head

Sushnato Das, who heads the history department and is president of the Arts Teachers Council told The Wire that the students had called the geography professor a “shaonthal“, the Bengali word for Santhal, and referred to the tribe in a derogatory manner. Das noted that the agitation over marks, especially one led by students who are “rarely seen in class”, is not a new one.

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“They have only stopped short of hitting us teachers. What the ruling party’s students’ wing does is make examples of anyone with any political mentality other than the one held by the ruling party, like say Leftists,” he said. The Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad, according to Das, comprises students who are in their forties.

“On the day, around 30 of them had gheraoed the Geography professor for nearly four hours. They held her in a room and did not let her use the washroom either. When she asked for water, they threw a bottle at her. Then there were the casteist taunts,” he said, adding that the Arts Teachers Council had decided that enough was enough and had gone to express their anger over authorities doing nothing over the issue to the VC on June 12.

“He did not meet us. On June 13, we took out the rally and protested. On June 14, the Chhatra Parishad students came to us teachers and blamed us for sloganeering the previous day, so we went to meet the VC again. Even after that meeting, nothing happened. So the resignations took place on June 17,” said Das.

When asked if the teachers’ movement had any political affiliation or colour, Das vehemently denied it. “The Council is a body sanctioned by the university’s constitution. Members are elected but not from parties. One of the spearheads of this movement has been English professor Joyeeta Roy, who I’ll have you know is a Trinamool member,” he added.

Roy, it has been reported, is one of the professors been subject to routine casteist harassment from students. Others are education professors Rajesh Kumar Saha and Jhontu Chik Baraik and Sanskrit professor Pradip Chandra Das. The professors’ resignations were also in protest against the alleged injustice done to these four.