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

Swapnadeep Kundu's death has triggered widespread anger and led to conversations on the wider politics at play in Bengal's education.

Kolkata: The death of a first-year Bengali student at the city’s Jadavpur University has unleashed a wave of anger against an education system run with scant attention to rules, regulations and safety concerns.

On Sunday, August 6, 18-year-old Swapnadeep Kundu left his house in Bagula of the Nadia district. On Thursday, August 10, his corpse returned home. 

Swapnadeep’s body was found at the main boys’ hostel of one of the country’s top institutions on Wednesday, August 9. Police said there were deep welts on his body. Many have suspected that while his death could have been made to look like suicide, Swapnadeep had actually been pushed from the third floor. He was a victim of brutal ragging, it has been alleged.

Swapnadeep’s father Ramprasad has lodged a complaint against hostel residents, alleging murder. Late on Friday, August 11, police arrested one Sourav Chowdhury, a leader of the campus’s influential group Democratic Students’ Federation. Chowdhury had studied Mathematics at JU but had already got his master’s degree and had been staying on at the hostel. Herein lies one of the chief reasons why anger has poured out over this death.

Afreen Begum, a leader of the Students Federation of India – which is in power in the Arts students’ union of JU (under which the Bengali department falls) – says that students like Chowdhury wield enormous power in the Science and Engineering departments. And because these students are more in number at the hostel, there is little any new student can do to escape their elaborate ragging rituals. So powerful is the network of former students at the hostel that some reports have it that when police first attempted to visit the hostel in the aftermath of the discovery of Swapnadeep’s body, hostel residents initially tried to stop them from entering. 

“These students claim to be politically neutral but are anything but. Many join Trinamool Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party after graduating,” says Afreen.

When JU physics professor Partha Pratim Roy, who represents the JU Teachers’ Association, visited the hostel a day ago, he says he saw several first-year students all sporting the same haircut – an indication that they had all been victims of ragging. JUTA has asked that former students be immediately removed from the hostel and that first-year students be housed separately. The latter has, it is learnt, happened yesterday.

Ragging is banned on the JU campus, but the institution’s history of tackling it is not pristine. 

JU: In the eye of a bigger political storm

Action against ragging, as a source puts it, depends on the decisions of a self-appointed political elite and not on the admin itself.

In 2013, the then V-C Souvik Bhattacharya resigned after students gheraoed him and other officials demanding the revocation of punishment given to two students in connection with a ragging incident.

Professor Roy says that the lack of elected representatives in various administrative positions has led to a breakdown in dialogue between students, teachers and administration.

Several university professors have written of a sense of collective failure at the death of a student in this manner. At least two teachers in the Arts faculty told The Wire that they were deeply disturbed and could not speak on the matter.

There is no Vice-Chancellor at JU since June 1

JU has long since been the flashpoint of a struggle between its students, the Mamata Banerjee administration and the Union government (the Bengal governor, appointed by the Union is its Chancellor) over efforts to control the functioning of the institution. 

Amidst significant annoyance at the lack of opportunities for the young in Bengal, this incident has also stirred conversation on an essential divide which liberal campuses like JU are loathe to acknowledge – between poor students and rich, and between students studying certain subjects and those who don’t.

Vulnerable to ragging despite ban

Swapnadeep was seen to be especially vulnerable. His ‘disadvantages’ were many. He chose Bengali – seen as a ‘soft’ option against even Arts subjects like English and even more when compared to Science or Engineering, especially for men. He came from a faraway district. And he had no immediate friends or relatives in Kolkata to whose houses he could escape when the alleged ragging took place in the hostel. 

Many former students – on social media and in local news channels – have pointed out how they were compelled to leave the hostel when faced with ragging and live in nearby ‘messes’, but could only do so because they had the money to.

Swapnadeep, whose father is a cooperative bank employee and whose mother is an ASHA worker, had been enthusiastic about his first few classes at the Bengali department on the day of his death. He spoke happily to his mother, at 5.30 pm, she recounted. But by 9.30 pm, in a phone call, he was in tears and asked to be taken home.

The turn of events has not only been shocking but deepened distrust of an institution otherwise known for its free-thinking campus. 

At Bagula, one Ramkrishna Ghosh tells The Wire that it is scary that “big city murderers can kill the meritorious young of the village.” 

Police sources told The Wire that investigation is ongoing, but have not revealed any more.