From FTII to Presidency College: Students should be cautious of 'sympathetic' politicians

Just when you think it could not get weirder, it does.

The Trinamool Congress announced over the weekend that it will send a fact-finding team to Pune to express solidarity with the striking students.

Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien, the party’s youth wing chief Abhishek Banerjee and its actor-turned-MP Satabdi Roy form the Trinamool delegation and prepare a "ground report". "The students want to know whether Mamata di would be coming," said Derek O’Brien to the media.

Didi is not coming but Mamata Banerjee tweeted out her support in a three-part tweet.

"The Central Govt must resolve the prevailing unrest situation at #FTII Pune. They must take students and teachers into confidence."

"Political purpose should not stand in the way; institutions are above everything."

"Since I was associated with student movements in the past, I respect student movement. I support their genuine cause always."

Apart from the fact that college student Mamata Banerjee became famous for jumping up and down on the bonnet of Jayaprakash Narayan's car, the real irony is even as Didi was tweeting out her support for far away Pune, she was being booed in her own backyard on the hallowed grounds of Presidency University. Protesters greeted her with black flags, slogans and graffiti that said she was not welcome. Mamata who had come bearing gifts – checks for the University – protested “There is no reason everyone should like me. But why won’t I come?”

 From FTII to Presidency College: Students should be cautious of sympathetic politicians

Classroom at FTII, Pune after students boycotted classes. Reuters image.

But the other questions is given all the campus heat she is facing at home, why would Didi want to possibly burn her fingers in Pune?

When FTII director Prashant Pathrabe called police into the campus after he was confined to his cabin by protesters, media in Kolkata wrote about the shadow of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University on Pune. In September 2014, Jadavpur University vice-chancellor was gheraoed in his office and called the police who resorted to a late night lathicharge. Protests picked up steam and eventually the JU vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti stepped down. At the behest of Mamata Banerjee, it is true, but not until a long bitter and acrimonious stand-off between the students and the administration had played out in the media with the Left Front stoking the flames.

Presidency, Jadavpur, FTII all have different back stories. Even if the basic demands sometimes sound the same – the vice chancellor should resign – the nuances are different. In Presidency, one point of contention is a probe into a 2013 ransack of the heritage Baker Laboratory. At FTII, it’s the qualifications of its new anointed head. At Jadavpur, it was the probe into a molestation incident that was not making headway. But all had wheels within wheels. At FTII there are issues about old batches who have not graduated yet but should have. At JU there is a struggle between old Communist affiliated unions and a Trinamool backed one trying to make headway. Presidency has had a problem retaining its staff. But it also boils down to different political factions trying to exert or retain control over the campus.

All stories are playing out differently in the media, due in part to the personalities of the heads of the institution. Gajendra Chauhan, thanks to his less than stellar resume, has a few sympathizers even among those who think the students are just troublemakers who need to be taught a lesson. Presidency’s vice-chancellor, an academic named Anuradha Lohia gets a much more sympathetic reception because she is described as “mild-mannered”. The students sound very much like the outlaws here. One local report about the protests begins by setting the scene thus:

Feet stretched on the conference table, cigarette smoke wafting in the air, earphones plugged in and eyes glued to Facebook.

Another national daily headlined their front-page report as, “Presi shamed as protesters boo CM, gherao and abuse VC".

For the layperson reading these stories from the outside ,they however start merging into one larger narrative of student unrest. All of the nuance gets lost in the shuffle creating one overriding narrative of students running amuck. The local Bengali daily had a picture of one of the protesters, a bearded young man in black boxer briefs and a white bra under the headline “Is this a student movement!” And everyone reacts not to the issue, or even what that student’s protest was meant to convey but the shock value of the photograph.

However ,the larger problem is that the genuine issues of the educational institutions get short shrift as politicians start fishing in troubled waters. When Rahul Gandhi shows up at FTII, it does little to help resolve the impasse. The FTII becomes one more point in his arsenal of ways he can needle the Modi government which seemed equally hellbent on teaching the students a lesson. Mamata Banerjee has been accused of having gone a little soft on the NDA government lately. A Trinamool leader tells the media “Now, she is trying to involve herself in a national issue and… cause some embarrassment to the Centre.”

Some, but not too much. This all feels like a delicate political balancing game where parties send out mixed signals to different constituencies. When an Arun Jaitley comes to Kolkata to inaugurate a Bandhan Bank and makes appreciative noises about a “pleasant change”, the CPM sees that as him “using the dais to increase Mamata’s comfort level”. But when a Narendra Modi announces a package for Bihar, Mamata can cry foul to underscore her independence.

Where does all this leave the students? Their issues with their educational institution get swallowed up in this larger political chess game where they become a pawn for political parties who will in the end have no compunctions about abandoning them if it suits their grander electoral needs.

Student politics is indisputably linked to bigger political masters. But in the end, student politics should still serve the needs of students not the electoral math in the assembly. To that end, while all sides are perfectly free to drum up support from all quarters, they would be well advised to beware of politicians bearing gifts.

Their motivations tend to be distinctly extra-curricular.

Updated Date: Aug 25, 2015 15:45:11 IST

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