Kolkata Campus: The Devil is in the Detail

Hokkolorob Protest March photo credit Kabir Chattopadhyay and Mitarik Barma

What would you call the college and university students of Kolkata? Overly active?A tad too emotional? Or just plain volatile? I call them wonderful – special in ways that keep the heart of the city alive.

In Kolkata, the college and university campuses have always been the nerve-centre of every movement that has shaken the country over the years. Walk into any Kolkata campus on a given day and you will encounter a vibrant, eclectic and strongly opinionated community of young adults determined to make something of themselves and the world. Despite the differences in personal tastes and backgrounds, they can band together as a particularly well-knit community whenever there is a threat to their identity or institution. Be it a girl in a fashionable jumpsuit or a boy in tattered jeans, if you happen to make a stray comment like, “Do you even have time for classes with all your politics and lifestyle choices?”, you will surely be on the receiving end of a frosty glare as they mentally castigate your poor, uninitiated self. In fact, the university I’m from (the much adored and equally debatedJadavpur University) actually takes it one step forward by emphasizing the need for absolute equality in every sphere of one’s campus life regardless of gender, sexuality or ideology.

Presidency College Street Play on Delhi rape 2012, photo credit M.A.D

So much so, that the students as well as the faculty members would regularly arrange protests, workshops or just an impromptu street-performance to condemn issues inside and outside the campus that encroach on one’s democratic rights. From the epoch-making Hokkolorob (“let there be cacophony” in Bengali) movement amongst the Jadavpur University students to the most recent “Stand with JNU” campaign in Jawaharlal Nehru University– Kolkata campuses have regularly employed both performative and social media platforms to demonstrate their beliefs and mobilise mass opinion.

JU street play on corruption in politics photo credit M.A.D

However, if you dig just a little deeper, you will discover insidious cracks beneath the seemingly utopic surface of unquestionable solidarity and liberalism. They don’t always make sensational headlines, but these issues definitely constitute the everyday discriminations that become so endemic to one’s life so as to eventually be considered as inconsequential or even normative. If you look away from the glitz and glamour of the relatively well off, English medium-educated, urban category of students, you can see intolerance, sexism and also racism running unnoticed in these institutions amongst the multitude of people belonging to different strata of our society.

The most striking theme in a city campus is the disparity in the gender ratio of various disciplines. For example, in humanities departments, the number of women is significantly higher than that of men, while in the case of science and engineering faculties, the scenario does a complete 180. In truth,women are considered to be unsuitable for the more practical or labour-intensive subjects chiefly due to pervading myths about physical or academic inferiority and severe hazing rituals. All my engineer friends concur that the number of female students in, for example, a Mechanical

Hokkolorob Protest March Sept 2014 photo credit Kabir Chattopadhyay and Mitarik Barma.

Engineering class of 80 never exceeds single digits, and funnily enough, the boys in the class send valentines to each one of them throughout the duration of the course primarily on account of them being such a rare breed. One of the other unacknowledged patterns of campus life is that male students from the science and especially the engineering departments generally seek to woo their own classmates and harbour a conception that girls from the humanities departments are above their league or just not appropriate in terms of femininity or homeliness.

Again, there is a palpable glass ceiling in terms of women’s careers in these institutions as despite there being no dearth of well-known scholars and professors who are female, you would almost never see a woman in a high administrative position such as that of a university chancellor in the city. In fact, most of the women academics often face some amount of ridicule from the administrative offices due to an assumption that they are terrible in maths and therefore, automatically incapable of accounting for their monthly pay and other procedural details.

Jadavpur University Girls photo credit Amita Das Gupta.

At the most basic level too there are some nagging issues that are symptomatic of deep-rooted discrimination – a few of these are inadequate women’s toilets, a lack of sports and gym facilities for women, and also some demarcated “unsafe zones” on campus where girls tend to get harassed more. What is crucial in such a context is the glaring gap in the knowledge of these students about how to report an incident to the institution’s sexual harassment cell or even about where it is located. Some campuses in the city also suffer from the hegemonic influence of the students’ unions in power and the female students feel obligated to attend their meetings just to avoid recruitment.

Furthermore, the campus authorities sometimes turn a blind eye to the blatant intolerance against minority community students(especially women who come from hill-stations) practiced in these universities’ culturally dominant circles. And perhaps, the most troublesome of all these behaviours is the persistent schism between the so-called elites and masses of the student-body.

So, what’s the solution to all this? How do you start a dialogue between these cross-dimensional groups to bring about better understanding? I cannot tell you for sure. But in my opinion, gender sensitization can exist only after class and race boundaries are dealt with. The moment the fundamental prejudices about one’s education or economic status are eradicated, people will stop thinking that combating gender inequality is solely the prerogative of the urban intelligentsia. And instead of being edified and campaigned about, the fight would become a boring yet indispensable part of every individual’s daily curriculum – like paying your taxes or remembering your anniversaries.

Well, here’s hoping!

  • Written byMayurakshi Sen

    Mayurakshi completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata in 2015 after receiving her Bachelor’s degree from the same institution. She has been extensively involved in the study and practice of theatre and performance since 2011. She received the British Council Scotland Scholarship which facilitated her participation in the Theatre and Performance course conducted by the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School in 2015. She loves to write about art, theatre and culture, and reads an unhealthy amount of fanfiction. She intends to pursue research on women playwrights and practitioners in India. Mayurakshi resides in Kolkata, India.


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