Student politics can kill you: Is Sudipto Gupta's death a wake-up call?

The death of the 23-year-old SFI student leader Sudipto Gupta is not just “doorbhagyajanak” or  “unfortunate” as Mamata Banerjee described it.
“Unfortunate” is rather a tepid word to use for a death in police custody which resulted in the young man’s eye being pushed out of its socket.  The police claim it was an accident – he collided with a lamppost  His friends who were there say he was beaten as part of a police lathicharge first.

Either way, his sister Sumita Sengupta said she doesn’t care. She called on Mamata Banerjee to set up an independent probe - "she too is a didi like I am."

“The SFI or Trinamool didn't lose anything. It’s the families that lose their loved ones,” she told the media. She complained all political parties use "impressionable children" like her brother and "drain them".

While Sudipto’s comrades blocked the streets and shouted amar rahe and lal salaam and loudspeakers blared,  his grief-stricken father sat and played purano shei diner kotha (Auld lang syne) plaintively on his violin.

The crowd at Sudipta Gupta's funeral procession. PTI.

The crowd at Sudipta Gupta's funeral procession. PTI.

Campus violence is not uncommon here. Custodial deaths are not new in this state. What has made this death so shocking is that it happened not in a firefight that broke out inside a college over elections. Nor did it happen inside a jail away from the eyes of the public. These were not students running away from police.

“I have done civil disobedience 100 times, 200 times,” said BJP leader Samik Bhattacharya on a television talk show. “I have never seen someone killed in a lathicharge in a bus on the way to jail. This is not unfortunate. This is plain murder.” The bus driver was arrested and released on bail but no policemen have been held responsible yet.

“Whether it was an accident or murder, he died in police custody,” said a guest on a Bengali talk show last night. “If my son goes on a school trip and something happens, does the school not have any responsibility?”

“What will happen next?” retorted another guest. “Will they just punish the lamppost?”

Sudipto’s sister said politics robbed her of her brother. She disapproved of it but thought it was college sloganeering. “Had I known the extent of his involvement, I would have hit him before the police baton fell on him,” she said.

Left Front leaders appeared on television to  say that was the emotional opinion of a grief-stricken sister. Students have a right to be in politics if they choose. Sudipto was not a child.  “If at 18 you are old enough to vote for a political leader, why should you not have the right to be part of the process?” asked one guest.

“And if good boys like Sudipto don’t come into politics, then shall we just leave it to thieves and ruffians?” asked another.

That’s a bit of a red herring. There is a middle ground between no-politics-at-all and musclebound student politics where one party’s union will not even allow students from any other party to file nominations.

In 2006, the Lyngdoh commission said there should be a separate election commission for student elections. Candidates should meet minimum attendance requirements, be only allowed to spend Rs 5000 on the elections collected through voluntary contributions from other students and here’s the clincher, provide a declaration that he or she does not belong to any political party. In other words, there’s no reason for senior party leaders, neighbourhood dadas,  and local councillors to hang around colleges during student elections to intimidate each other.

No party has wants to give up that sphere of influence. It’s just not in their interest. Because Gupta was an SFI student leader, his death has immediately become a political football despite the pleas of the chief minister and her partymen.

“This is a moment of grief,” Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien told television channels. “This is not an evening for politics.” That sounds good except his party boss has never held back on ascribing political colours to other incidents - from someone being called Maoist for asking a question to a rape victim's long dead husband's political affiliations being questioned.

This specific case is obviously not just about student elections. It’s also about how the police handles crowd control said journalist Subir Bhaumik on CNN-IBN. And it’s about how much the police is under the administration’s thumb despite all of O'Brien's protestations. But what got Sudipto to court arrest in the first place was his union SFI protesting the government’s directive on college elections.

On the other hand, the  CPM leaders admitted to the media that their big challenge was how to “sustain” the “outburst of anger” that his death has provoked “cutting across party affiliations”. “We want to carry on a continuous movement on the issue,” said Biman Bose, the CPM state secretary. So Sudipto is well on his way to becoming a political slogan for a party struggling to rally the troops.

The only truce that comes out of this, the olive branch if you will, is a directive by the Trinamool to its Chhatra Parishad wing to not get into any confrontation with the SFI today as it protested the death of its student leader with calls for a strike and a road blockade.

But the grief of Sudipto's sister is likely to go unanswered by all parties – the ones laying the wreaths and the ones calling it an “unfortunate accident". Neither party ultimately has any incentive to implement the key recommendations of the Lyngdoh commission. Now that is not just unfortunate. It’s tragic.

 

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