A Shrill Media Trial Against Jadavpur University's Students Can't Drown Out the Real Issue

A gruesome death has become a pawn to settle political scores in the state. In a pattern familiar with institutions like JNU, politically active students have become likely villains.

Jadavpur University student Swapnadeep Kundu died before he could turn 18, at a time when his life should have been teeming with hope and possibilities. The reports on what he had to endure in the last few hours of his life are capable of making anyone ill. My own child, at 14 and a half, is close to his age. 

Swapnadeep’s death is suspected to have been caused by the persisting and criminal culture of ragging, have shaken many of our own faith in the safety of educational institutions. 

His death has left me and many like me, enraged, horrified, and frightened. Jadavpur University is a beacon of education in Bengal. It holds the top rank in the state and is consistently ranked among the country’s top institutions as well. But suddenly, now, this is not a place where you would want your child to be. Times of India reported that at least two students who took admission in the university have decided to leave in the aftermath of the death.

In a disturbing parallel to the phrases used against Jawaharlal Nehru University students in Delhi, Jadavpur University is now being portrayed by sections of politicians and media as a hub of the ‘tukde tukde gang,’ politics, ‘drunkards,’ and anarchy.

Last week, the leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly, Trinamool Congress leader-turned-BJP heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari visited Jadavpur University with the party’s Yuva Morcha activists and said:  “We have already taught a lesson to the tukdetukde gang in JNU…we will clean Jadavpur of them as well.”

At around the same time, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had called Jadavpur ‘atankapur’ – a land of terror – and blamed ‘Marxists’ for Swapnadeep’s death. A Hindutva mouthpiece nodded in approval.

It is clear that the portrayal of the university thus seeks to serve both the BJP and the TMC’s political agendas.

The attention now centres on campus students and their politics despite the fact that all nine apprehended individuals connected to Swapnadeep’s death were supposedly affiliated with an ‘apolitical’ student group.

Also read: JU First Year Student’s ‘Ragging’ Death Draws Attention to Systemic Flaws and Discrimination

Another death

As Swapandeep’s parents await justice, another mother is fighting a lone battle for her son Faizan’s murder at the IIT Kharagpur campus. The decomposed body of Faizan Ahmed, a third year mechanical engineering student, was found on campus last year. His death was initially classified as a suicide, which was overturned by the Calcutta high court which declared it to be a case of homicide. Faizan’s mother had written to both CM Mamata Banerjee and the West Bengal Minority Commission but has not been given a response yet.

Faizan’s death did not make it to newsroom discussions or political debate. His ‘homicidal’ death in one of the most reputable institutes in the country did not at once render all the students in IIT Kharagpur villains. The reasons behind this are clear.

According to a comprehensive 23-page report titled ‘Progress Report of Monitoring the Ragging Prevention Program,’ authored by Raj Kachroo, Founder Trustee of the Aman Satya Kachroo Trust, the cumulative count of ragging complaints documented between June 15, 2009, and December 31, 2020, amounted to 7,059. The state with the highest reported incidents of ragging was Uttar Pradesh, with 1,202 complaints, followed by West Bengal (808), Madhya Pradesh (758), Odisha (542), and Bihar (377). Alleged ragging incidents are reported from elite private universities like O.P. Jindal Global University, as they are from IITs – not particularly known for political activism or a “lack of CCTVs.”

Ragging constitutes a criminal offence and is against the law. Many believe that it can be curbed through more stringent regulations and heightened vigilance, requiring a proactive role from the university administration.

No admin

At the time of the incident, Jadavpur University did not have a permanent Vice-Chancellor due to an ongoing dispute between the state government and the Union government-appointed Governor. The new appointee is deeply controversial. With only one active pro-Vice-Chancellor and three vacant Dean positions, the university administration’s effectiveness has been compromised.

Since the incident, the Executive Council, the university’s highest authority for decision-making, was not able to convene a meeting because to do so it needs the Vice-Chancellor’s nod. With the suspension of student elections in recent years, the campus anti-ragging cell, which includes the Vice-Chancellor and elected student representatives, is also facing operational challenges. This is not being questioned by the media, who have singularly concentrated on students’ lives on campus.

In a report presented by an independent journalist, the image of empty alcohol bottles on campus was contrasted with students engaged in an ongoing protest against Swapnadeep’s death. There is little attention to the consequences of exposing young students to public outrage, while at once mobilising such outrage. 

A national media group with local presence went a step further and arranged a debate between the deceased’s mother and the main accused’s father. The same channel also ran a report alleging presence of sex racket in the university campus without a shred of evidence. 

On primetime, students are vilified on a daily basis with administration or government facing little or no questions.

Also read: Controversial Appointment of Jadavpur University’s New Vice Chancellor Raises Concerns

No government

There’s a notable absence of queries about why the chief minister has allocated merely a third of the necessary funds for the university’s maintenance or stopped payment to about 250 permanent support staff members.

The university hasn’t hired any guards for a long time, allege many. Work is carried out through agencies and as a result appointees lack authority. 

On August 7, the parliamentary panel on education, women, children, youth and sports, headed by BJP MP Vivek Thakur placed a report in the Rajya Sabha stating that Jadavpur University would not get the Institute of Eminence tag as the state government has refused a financial commitment. 

This went largely unreported in West Bengal. Sensationalism sure helps in the TRP game. Posing difficult questions to the authorities do not. 

A gruesome death has thus become a pawn to settle political scores. Instead, he has used the incident to carry forward the Sangh’s agenda of taking control of institutions known for freedom of speech. The CM, meanwhile, is eager to acquire a bigger footprint in the university.

Students are the most vulnerable targets. On social media, JU’s female students are being subjected to slut shaming.

At this point, narratives surrounding the JU, right from the mild “Jadavpur must learn from my college” to the open threats of thrashing JU’s students, are systematic attempts to malign the sanctity of this academic community.

As an economics department student, also 18, tells me, the irony is that those critiquing the entire university, its teachers and students perhaps fail to comprehend that this too is a form of ragging and verbal abuse.