April 06, 2013

Gone too soon; don't ask whether he was "ours" or "theirs".

There are some moments in public life that are just irredeemably sad and tragic. The past few days have been very depressing. The accidental death of a young student in Kolkata – an activist of the SFI, the students’ wing of the CPI(M) – shook me. At 23, he had a full life ahead of him. He lived very close to the middle-class neighbourhood where I stay. As I watched and read about his family’s dignified grieving, I was left with a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach. This isn’t how the world should be.

Every death is a tragedy. But lest we forget, 80,000 innocent people lost their lives in 34 years of brutal rule.The young man’s passing has been more than just a loss to his parents and siblings, friends and colleagues. It has been a wake-up call to our city, Kolkata, and our state. There is something which Sudipto’s sister said, as reported in the media, that got me thinking. “Leaders use young and impressionable children like my brother to pursue their own agenda… ” she said, “there have been so many instances of violence. People must rise above politics. The SFI or Trinamool don’t lose anything. It’s the families that lose their loved ones.”

“I am not against politics,” she concluded, “but students should be free to pursue their own cause. If they have a problem, they should approach the principal. Why should students be fighting under the banner of a political party?”

It is easy to twist that statement and play politics with it, to blame the CPI(M) and the SFI for pushing Sudipto and his friends into a dangerous brinkmanship. I wouldn’t want to do that. It would not just be in bad taste, but downright ghoulish. Some issues are beyond politics.

The CPI(M) was the dominant party in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. In this period, it established its hegemony in every aspect of political and public life. The police, for instance, had a mandate to act but only when crime was seen through a particular prism. The Trinamool government has liberated the police of that prism, but much more remains to be done – by all of us, in government, in the opposition, as stakeholders in the enterprise of Bengali life.

The campuses of West Bengal and particularly Kolkata were key recruiting ground for the CPI(M). The SFI was the dominant force in student politics, even influencing admissions and teachers’ transfers in some episodes. Today it is an ebbing force and obviously its rivals – including,in some colleges,students’ bodies affiliated to the Trinamool – smell their chance. The SFI is not giving up easily, it is desperate. The consequences are there for all to see.

We cannot allow the situation to spiral out of control. When a student dies, it is not a question of whether one of “our boys” has been killed or one of “their boys” has been killed. A young life has been snuffed out. A citizen has been lost. A family has been deprived of a precious child. All of Bengal is poorer; this needs to be acknowledged. That’s why Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reached out to condole with Sudipto’s family in their hour of sorrow. This was not a gesture from a Trinamool politician to a SFI worker. It was a chief minister and a senior person showing her feelings towards a younger fellow citizen. I wish all parties follow this approach. It can change the political culture of our state and bring down tempers.

Second, should students’ union elections be freed of party symbols? Should students reclaim campuses from parties? It is one thing to be a politically-minded student, serious about and keenly observing and following the currents of the day. It is another to be politically partisan and a foot-soldier of a massive electoral organisation. This was the point Sudipto’s sister was making and I think it is worth considering. Everyone, student or otherwise, has a right to hold a political view and participate in political life, but that should not blur his or her ethic as a citizen and member of wider society.

A six-month cooling off period for students’ union elections would be appropriate. In this phase, let’s discuss the prospect and idea of revamping students’ union elections, without in any way undermining the student community’s right to political participation and the legitimate desire of political parties to engage with young people. This is a delicate and nuanced argument. I know where I stand but do acknowledge that others may have a different view. Let’s give ourselves six months to discuss and debate this at least.

If nothing else, Sudipto’s memory deserves that. Let this be our collective catharsis and our tribute to him.