Organising on the campus
The HokKolorob experience
Towards the middle of August an interview cum discussion was held with one of the leading activists of the Jadavpur University HokKolorob movement. Three members of Maidan's editorial staff were present. As the movement celebrates its first anniversary, we present here a transcript of the discussion.
For a background of the movement you may see the following past articles on this website:
The HokKolorob Interview
TM represents the editors of The Maidan. HK is the HokKolorob activist, Shraman Guha.
TM1: This movement was initiated by an event. There were few people in the beginning and then other events happened and the movement spread. From the experience of previous movements, this seemed more in the tradition of Direct Action/Spontaneous Action and not initiated by an organisation.... Would like to know more about this from you.This type of independent organising, how did it come about?
And the second issue is something that appeals to us a lot, the way you mobilised the media, the language you spoke, the way women students were addressing the media, the rallies you organised, the posters... there seems to be an important cultural change. This was unimaginable even five years ago. The culture of Bengal or India, never mind even Left culture, does not correspond with this temperament.
TM2: Yes, In fact, the day you guys hung down festoons from the rooftop of the main building... the scale was unprecedented and invigorating... we were always into posters and wall-writing... in our generation.
HK: Yes, it's sometimes referred to as 'Chinese banner' but it could also be hotel banners....
In response to your first question, actually we are ourselves not entirely sure how these organisational aspects evolved. In the first seven days, when we were squatting, after the incidents... there is supposedly such a culture in JNU... but here, there is a passive support for this.
In JU (Jadavpur University), FETSU (Faculty of Engineering and Technology Students Union) has a tradition like DSF (Democratic Students Front), etc., for independent student organising. There is always a lot of outside pressure, in other campuses, be it CPM, TMC (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Trinamool Congress, former and present ruling parties in West Bengal)... but in JU, because of this long tradition, these political parties could not penetrate the campus or cast an intimidating atmosphere. So there is already a certain independent desire or incentive for movement without restraint from outside forces.
We were not sure how to articulate our demands. But there was a basic unity... of course there were differences... but there was a basic unity. But, whatever it was, there was in these GB (general body) meetings no established parties. Some asked how can you go on without some committees?... etc.,... but in the demonstration on the 20th (September 2014), we mobilised 100,000 people... in this way. No functioning body.... The point is that in these GBs, yes, some were trying to inject some party lines, but there was no understanding that as a group we have to follow a "line".
We had a loose organising, no hierarchy, no one controlled us. We decided we would watch and learn. Everyone was treating this as a personal affair, like an in-house issue. We did not resort to bringing the neighborhood ("para") in...as has been a tradition.
Some folks were talking about globalisation and how it affects individuals... how larger issues make individuals self-centric, etc. On the other hand there was the self, the rights of the individual... that were also coming into play. Otherwise this incredible participation on the 16th (September 2014) night, when it was heard that the police were threatening to invade the campus and TMC was also planning to come in and break up our demonstration... how could it happen? Then more and more people... even students who were at home... started coming in solidarity... even at midnight... incredible!
Around 7:30 pm we heard that the TMC were already planning to disrupt. The police started coming at 9 pm. Our demand was that there should be a transparent complete independent investigation of the [alleged sexual harassment] incident. We were pressurising the administration. There were two sides as well. On the one hand there was a non-negotiable view that those responsible must be brought to book. This was the overwhelming view. On the other hand, there were folks in the hostels who were saying, "We have not done anything, so why this movement, why this complaint?"
So, there was a situation... police and the state are coming in, and JU students... consider this an autonomous space, sovereign... whatever we do, or say, is sacrosanct... whatever problems we have with authorities, it is our problem. Our problems with authorities will happen... they will exploit us... it does not matter, it does not come in from the air... there is a material basis... they will not give us rights... we have to struggle and obtain it.
TM1: When you had some kind of a meeting, like a GB, etc., how many people assembled for the meeting?
HK: You mean before the police beating?
TM1: Yes, before...
HK: First there was the Executive Council meeting... the university's highest decision making body... and we were having our own GB meeting with 100 to 150 people. After three days, sometimes 40 people were in a meeting. At night if there was an emergency, there were 35-40 people.
TM: There were women in these meetings?
TM: How many?
HK: In the same proportion as in the university population.
TM: What is that proportion?
HK: In the Arts faculty there are 60-65 per cent women. So the same level of participation in the movement. In Engineering, the participation in the movement was the same as in the population. In the Science faculty, there are fewer departments...they have labs, their participation in the events was there always, but they were not upfront and active as much in initiating and leading the movement.... in the Arts faculty, in Engineering, the movement participation represents the proportion of the population.
TM1: So when you called for a meeting... if someone from a party wanted to intervene from a political platform or wanted to state their manifesto... what would happen? What platform would you give them?
HK: One thing in Jadavpur is that no party representative can explicitly intervene. No one has the guts to do that.
TM: Why is that? Can you explain?
HK: There are political groups participating in movements in JU, but...
TM1: Are you saying that the movement is upheld by everyone?
HK: Exactly, organisation is not in command... the movement is in command. Secondly, there is an irritation amongst JU students against such intervention by political party reps... in fact there is an activism and organisation against outside political intervention.
TM1: What are the politics of those who are against outside intervention?
HK: You have to note that there are two types. [On the one hand] there are three independent forums: DSF, WTI (We the Independent) and FAS (Forum for Arts Students). Then there are many [who] don't participate in these forums. But these people are participating in a large measure in the movement. Again there is a universal understanding. Movement is in command. Not a party or organisation. The collective is to be assembled on that basis - that is to respect the individual and maintain the politics. And that will happen on the basis of a common minimum programme, and we have to collectivise on that basis. Also in these forums - third point - there will be no hierarchy.
TM1: Where is this "no hierarchy" coming from?
HK: This comes from internal organisations themselves. There is no narrative, no world narrative that suggests a comprehensive solution to all these issues. Let's say as an example, I am coming from a Communist Party's student front organisation, let's say. I cannot wrap everything with a single narrative... even if I believe in Marxism... I cannot tie a complete thread around such an assumption. If I have to engage in a party, the regimentation... the party whip dictates, I can't speak against that diktat... if I let's say want to work on GM crop, I have to talk to the SFI (Students Federation of India - student front of the CPI(M)) hierarchy!
TM1: So, is this distaste coming from lack of confidence, frustration because of the behaviour of Leftwing parties or is it coming from an anarchist ideology?
HK: I can say that there is poor experience from interacting with the CPI(M).
TM1: I am not talking about the CPI(M) only... even to their Left...
HK: It is not that there is a lot of political engagement as such amongst us from outside .... Yes, but this vanguard tendency percolates everywhere... whether we will make revolution on behalf of the proletariat or win elections.... same. In the Arts group, there are strange contradictions... amongst certain M-L tendencies...
TM1: Okay, I get the point. Now, the way you represent these views about vanguardism, heirarchy... is it more of a general belief or is it your belief.
HK: I may be expressing myself in very specific ways and you may not always find a lot of people stating it in such a manner... but if you participated in general discussions with general students and they were not politically engaged otherwise, you will get the same feeling. There is this same strain of beliefs expressed in different ways. The beliefs that will emerge are no different from my views. Those who are not cadres or signed members, they speak the same ideas... they come to college... chat, but still the same idea will emerge.
TM2: You mentioned about "sovereign space at JU." Is this something special that emerged from the mid-1970s... when elsewhere students were being beaten up for not following one political group or the other? In JU did this not happen because the student associations were able to remain special... mobilise students from day one, when they got admitted, when they were filling out forms for various issues? Is that the case?
HK: I am not entirely sure that this process itself was enough. There are other conditions continually building up.
TM2: Beyond issues, is this trend amongst JU students - student union engagement from day one - helping the cause?
HK: It may not be the only and determining factor. It has had an effect. Today, since the 1970s, many things have evolved. I also want to emphasise that the sovereign space is not just unique to JU. We are getting news from various campuses, where they are seeking solidarity. Take for instance Burdwan. This place is hot, and the terror is just incredible... and in that city, 800 students are going out in processions... on various issues. There have to be local trends everywhere. The fertility is there in the soil... people are trying to integrate with workers' associations also... but differently. All the formal unions... no one really believes in them... there is tremendous lack of integrity... it is not because of individuals, it comes from [their] practice.
This is a feeling I have, the moment people think that I am the vanguard and I will teach the workers... it is not really succeeding... all movements since the 1990s have not really captured success... have not worked. The Maoists in Dantewada, yes, they have developed a mass base. But I don't know much about the actual workings. You know about Lalgarh, though. There was a disconnect with the mass movement. Even [in] the Posco movement, where CPI (Communist Party of India) was involved. Mobilisation is not significant. What did we have before the 20th of March? What did we have? Some email contacts, Facebook, etc. You were talking about slogans, placards, etc. These slogans, great graffiti, talking with the press/people... This is your second question, actually. The students are realising that we have to be humble.
TM1: Yes, my second question... the humility and where it comes from... the steadiness. Let me reframe it. I am curious to understand, where this cultural transformation is coming from. I mean as a nation, we are still culturally backward, from a democratic point of view. Elections, parliament, judiciary don't mean anything. Our culture is still feudal, restrained. The basis for power is extra-economic domination. Political clout by other means.... This is not a "capitalist democracy" at all. "Our demands have to be met." That was pretty much the sole basis of struggle. Now, we see here a certain cultural departure that happens in advanced capitalist countries. Ok, there has been neo- liberalisation, globalization, etc., but it seems there is a certain similarity. My question really is: has the degree of estrangement and frustration about Leftwing politics led to this? Or, some of you are studying various movements from the Bolshevik and Chinese, Cuban revolutions and the new Left in Latin American countries, Syriza and Podemos... there seems to be a certain commonality, where is that coming from? This cultural evolution in terms of re-looking at methods of struggle, etc.... Where is this alternative, non-party Left approach coming from?
HK: I have a point of departure from you on one issue. Firstly, HokKolorob has one characterisation... you may have read. That it is an elite movement. TMC is stated to be more from the rural areas... but they have brought people over from remote areas to demonstrate and many don't know why they have come to the city.
TM1: Yes I am aware of that. There has been some criticism of HokKolorob and at the same time an enigma has been made out of subalternism. As if that yardstick will solve all issues. I don't personally categorise HokKolorob as elitist. Yes, I have read the piece.
HK: I am giving this example because I don't think that criticism can be brushed aside. Because within our HokKolorob movement, some have joked about the woman peasant from Bhangar who was brought in by the TMC and she did not know why she had come. So, there is an urban content in HokKolorob. Where does this come from? This is an information-empowered You-tube watching generation. There is an urban content at work here. So the criticism is not totally off.
TM2: But is it possible that you are the next generation after the 1970s generation and your base was laid there?
HK: Frankly speaking, I will talk about my father. He was from the '70s and very active. What he told me was, "Whatever you do, don't get involved in politics." The point is that for sure we have imbibed some politics from the '70s. But to practise what we did...
TM1: The reality is that that woman from Bhangar was laughed at. That vindicates the accusations of elitism that was made. Let's be clear about that.
TM1: Having said that, what I was pointing out is that it is not just an urban/subaltern/elitism issue. There is a cultural evolution that has happened. Take some of us. We are not from the rural areas. Some of us don't use Facebook. We don't know how to update a website. Some of my generation are still doing door to door leafletting. You people have utilised the ability to communicate wonderfully... and that is very invigorating.
HK: We started a movement and we see there are so many possibilities to use the media. What to do? We have to use it.
TM: In one case there was someone calling the officer-in-charge of Jadavpur police station and continuously calling and taping everything. It is totally ridiculous how the police were responding. Everything was taped and put on the Net. Even in foreign countries they cannot always achieve this. If I was the OC, I would simply dig a hole and hide. These require a certain mentality towards being effective, certain organisational skills. It is not about smartphones and laptops. It is a thinking, a democratic thinking that is behind this. It's a transformation. A cultural transformation. It is an innovative way to undermine the hegemony of mainstream cultural domination.
HK: Facebook comes to us naturally. What else can we do? In fact we have not done leafletting! One thing we want to say, there is a strong urge to overpower and acquire technology, to wrest it from them. Some of the best students come to JU. But at the same time, in a way, we are anti-capital. Anti-capital is a space we want to emphasise and occupy. Whether you want to call it, anti-capitalism or not. There are many centres of resistance to capital.
TM1: Are you therefore thinking of anti-austerity issues also?
HK: Of course! All this resonates with us. We must understand this thoroughly. But all this understanding must happen through movement. New forms of unity will be based on new movements. Movements in command.
TM1: Wish we had more time.... All the best!
Tags: HokKolorob, Jadavpur University, student movement