Trinamool, BJP in battle for brownie points over JU student death

Blaming its Leftist students’ unions for all ills is the name of the game in West Bengal as the prestigious Jadavpur University fights a perception battle

Days after the death of Swapnadip Kundu, West Bengal's two largest political parties seem to have found a common enemy — the Left-dominated students' unions (photo: National Herald archives)
Days after the death of Swapnadip Kundu, West Bengal's two largest political parties seem to have found a common enemy — the Left-dominated students' unions (photo: National Herald archives)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Earlier this week, a drive past Jadavpur crossing, the bustling T-junction right across the sprawling Jadavpur University campus, was a tough challenge. As Trinamool Chhatra Praishad (TMCP) representatives addressed a rally from a dais, demanding that the culprits behind the recent death of a first-year undergraduate student be brought to book, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP students’ wing, was doing the same from a smaller stage a stone’s throw away.

Exactly 10 days after the mysterious death of Swapnadip Kundu, West Bengal's two largest political parties seem to have found a common enemy — the Left-dominated students' unions, which are being termed ‘anti-national and anti-social’, and being held up as the root cause of all that is wrong with the prestigious institute of higher education.

Swapnadip, a 17-year-old student of the university's Bengali department, succumbed to his injuries in hospital on 10 August after allegedly falling from a second-floor balcony in the main hostel the previous night. Various media reports have quoted senior Kolkata Police officials as saying that the youth was tortured and 'ragged' before being thrown to his death from the balcony, though whether the death was suicide or murder is yet to be clearly established.

TMC leaders and the BJP's Suvendu Adhikari, leader of the Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, were quick to visit the deceased student’s home, providing plenty of fodder for primetime media.

Admittedly, a myriad of Left-leaning students' bodies have made the university a hotbed of politics in recent years, but overall, the students and faculty seem to be doing something right, given Jadavpur University's fourth position among India's top-ranked universities according to rankings released by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) in 2023, and among the top three institutions in West Bengal.

While it is almost a given that political parties of any hue will try to leverage a tragedy of such proportions, there is always a fear that the growing political din may derail the course of justice.

Across social media, the dominant narrative right now seems to be that the Jadavpur University campus is a haven for alcohol, drugs and ragging, a narrative that anti-Left parties have enthusiastically adopted, blaming the trend on Left-leaning students' bodies.

As of now, however, only the students’ union of the Arts faculty is controlled by Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the official students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), though a rival exists in the form of Forum of Arts Students (FAS). The Science faculty is controlled by WTI (We the Independents), and Engineering is run by DSF (Democratic Students’ Front). All three are viewed as radical Left students’ bodies.

In a signed article in the CPI(M )mouthpiece Ganashakti, former SFI leader and current CPI(M) party member Srijan Bhattacharya has shared an interesting piece of information — as early as 2012, a TMCP unit was formed in JU as a breakaway from FAS while in 2017, an ABVP unit was formed by breaking away from DSF. If that is true, is it fair to assume that the so-called ultra Left students’ fronts have their share of sympathisers in both the TMC and BJP?

Whatever the answer to that question, the fact remains that the TMCP, the ruling party's student wing, has been unable to make a dent in students’ body elections, though the TMC has been in power in the state for 12 years, and now controls the employees’ union of the university.

On the other hand, union minister Babul Supriyo, then in the BJP, was manhandled by a section of JU students when he attempted to address a rally convened by the ABVP in 2019. At the time, he had said, ‘’This is not expected from students of JU. If they have a problem with me coming here, they should have debated the matter. They should not have assaulted me. They cannot stop me from going anywhere… This is the state of the education system in West Bengal.’’ Supriyo has since defected to the TMC and is now a state minister.

Soon after Swapnadip’s death, Abhijit Chakraborty, a former vice-chancellor of the university, aired his views on a regional TV channel, blaming students’ bodies for stopping the administration from installing CCTV cameras and floodlights to monitor movements in key areas on campus.

A students’ movement in 2014, famously known as Hok Kolorob (let there be noise) had disrupted classes for months during Chakraborty's tenure, until he was forced to resign at the behest of chief minister Mamata Bandyopadhyay for inviting a police force into the campus to break up the demonstrations.

Laying all blame at the doorstep of the Left students’ unions — and tarring them all with the same brush — is the easiest thing to do under the circumstances. The strategy neatly absolves the university's management and all other stakeholders, such as teachers, of any culpability in the matter.

However, when talking about the tragic death of a 17-year-old, shouldn't the agenda be to remain focused on whoever caused it, irrespective of political affiliations? Whether accident, suicide or murder, the young man's death and the reason behind are all that matter, surely. Instead, the anguished cries of the bereaved family are growing fainter with every passing day as the political noise threatens to drown them.

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