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Campus Deja Vu

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POLITICAL PREY: SFI activist Sudipto Gupta's death is part of a long list of fatalities associated with party politics in West Bengal

Violence and political intolerance have always been a part of campus life in West Bengal. And, despite the promise of poribortan, even elections in primary schools are tinged by politics.

The more West Bengal's political landscape changes, the more it remains the same. SFI activist Sudipto Gupta's brutal death earlier this week shows that the politics of intolerance and violence that wracked the state under the Left rule is playing out in the Mamata regime as well. And it is sweeping across Bengal's villages, towns, cities and more unfortunately, its schools and colleges.

The only change is that the hunter has now become the hunted. The political tyranny that the CPM is accused of injecting into the state's polity was emulated by its student wing, the SFI, to stamp out all opposition in campuses. For 34 years, few student bodies in West Bengal managed to elude SFI's vice-like grip. Activists of rival unions could file their nominations for students' union polls only in a few campuses. In fact, few students dared to join the non-SFI unions like the Congressaffiliated ChhatraParishad or the Trinamool Congressaffiliated Trinamool Chhatra Parishad.

And then, in 2011, 'poriborton' happened;Mamata rode to power. And all that changed was the fact that from being the oppressor, the CPM and the SFI became the oppressed. A series of incidents, most of them bloody, over the past two years have proved that Mamata's slogan of 'badla noi, bodol chai' (we want change, not revenge) has remained just that - a slogan, and a hollow one at that. Even though she had promised to rid campuses of politics, West Bengal remains the only state (outside Kerala and Tripura that also have large Marxist footprints) where elections to management committees of even primary schools are as keenly and often bitterly contested by political parties as Assembly polls.

Mamata had earlier spoken of implementing the J M Lyngdoh committee recommendations to de-politicise students' unions. Ironically, Sudipto Gupta died protesting Mamata's decision to postpone students' union elections in colleges across the state after the death of police sub-inspector Tapas Choudhury on February 12 in campus violence. The Trinamool Chhatra Parishad, taking a leaf out of arch-rival SFI's tome on winning polls, had with the help of local leaders of its parent body tried to scare away the Congress-affiliated Chhatra Parishad activists from filing their nomination papers that day.

Sudipto's distraught elder sister Sumita Sengupta succinctly expresses the common person's disgust with this politics of intolerance. She feels that students should keep away from politics because parties take advantage of impressionable minds to further their own agenda. In one of his last Facebook posts, her dead brother too had spoken about his disillusionment with diabolical people who wear masks, perhaps hinting at politicians.
Sudipto will some day fade from public memory, as did SFI member Swapan Koley and Trinamool Chhatra Parishad activist Sanatan Hembram. Both were killed in student clashes. There was also Ashutosh College student Souvik Hazra, who was blinded in one eye.

Sociologist Prasanta Ray, who has been associated with the Presidency University for decades feels that in India, students' unions have necessarily been backed by party politics since the freedom movement when Gandhiji's Satyagraha sought young people to support the cause.

"In professional campuses like the IITs, students see politics as a deterrent to their career, whereas in the general campuses they look at it as a career even at the cost of their academic pursuits, " Ray explains. "A completely apolitical union is an impossibility till teachers' unions remain affiliated to political parties, " argues Sugato Marjit, chairman of the West Bengal Higher Education Council. However, Bengal Engineering and Science University has shown the way in this regard.

The state education department has also prepared a draft guideline for students' bodies in college and universities that says that there is no need to hold students' union elections each year. The guiding principle of the draft is to delink student bodies in campuses from political parties outside. One objective is to engage student bodies more in student-related issues inside the campus but under the supervision of teachers. For instance, the president and vice-president of the student union, to be renamed as student council, will be nominated by the senior-most teacher of the college. In universities, the vice-chancellor will select the president and the two vice-presidents from each faculty will be nominated by the executive council and the court - the two top bodies in a university administration.

This draft is awaiting Cabinet approval. But will Mamata Banerjee break away from the politics of intolerance and revenge and take a quantum leap to prevent deaths of other youngsters? If her actions and utterances over the past two years are any indication, there is little hope.

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