Twenty-five years back in Presidency College we were unaware of the real world. Much of our politics was idealist statements, based on a binary of good socialist versus bad capitalist people, occasionally taken to absurd levels.
Let me give an example. A dear activist friend, who was a senior when I took admission, used to regularly advise me against taking exams. One day, I ran into him at the college many years after I had left. I asked over tea what he was up to. “My friend,” he said, “I never did a politics of compromise and I never will.” My friend was a rebel student for life. This, of course, means that your class struggle must be eternally extended to a struggle with the classroom, a struggle against taking the class literally. Such was our passion for politics back then but not everyone took it to such epic proportions.
For the keen and committed activists, Promodda’s canteen and the union room used to be the temple blessed with the spirit of young Bengal. Now sadly burnt and possibly gone, the canteen was a constant core of activities. Every morning it started off a lot of intense debates and lectures, taking place right next to complicated chess and card games, interrupted by songs and poetry, witty puns and polemics exchanged across tables, occasional pamphlets circulating with the tea.
Posters on the wall were arresting, often with lively and angry excerpts from Leftist poets, and strong images recalling Chittaprosad Bhattacharya and Jamini Roy, occasionally Picasso. The more statement-based posters that were hung at the gate or the portico were differently done, often on newsprint with ink.
In the middle of all this, you could not avoid meeting a few, unusually grave and intense looking student leaders and devoted apprentices, in declassed panjabi and jeans with a jhola. That was the uniform of being political.
This is admittedly as good as any stereotype but the important thing is that this stereotype started breaking down when we joined as students. We came to witness, as well as, became a part of certain experiments with students’ politics, leading to the formation of a diffuse and indefinite group, called the Independents’ Consolidation.
I will come to the story of IC in a moment. It is important to recall the larger background as we saw it and practically struggled to understand. The old school Left was facing a global crisis at this point. The Soviet Union of Lenin was gone, the Berlin Wall was gone, communist China had brutally repressed pro-freedom demonstration at Tiananmen Square.
As if this was not enough, the explosion of caste and Hindu communalism shook our innocent world to the roots. This was a different world of politics that did not play by the rules and ideas we knew.
We did not know anything about this world but the more questions we asked the more it made the old school Left hostile towards us. Here we were, some of us convinced with Marxism but not the way in which we saw it around us. None of the different shades of the Left seemed convincing any longer and we were left with nowhere to go. The word ‘postmodern’ had not come around yet but perhaps it gives a sense of our spirit of experiment with regard to politics.
It is not that those who were experimenting were always doing things very consciously. Most of those involved with making IC came from a background of the third stream Left, by and large critical of the ruling dispensation but not everyone was a Leftist.
There was a willingness in some to take part in the public life of the college, to ask a set of new questions and create new activities, to push the political sensibility and cultural discourse on the whole.
At the same time, some others shared a strong dislike for the sense of boredom and stereotypes that came to be associated with Leftist politics. What brought them together was a desire for an organisation that will not impose a suffocating discipline of doing politics. Instead, it will be one where people will explore and enjoy doing politics. Politics will be affirmative activity, connected to celebrating life, not a lonely path of monks like the old school Left.
It was, loosely speaking, a disagreement with the communist party form of political practice that tried to look for democratic alternatives perhaps with questionable success.
The point I want to leave you with goes past the failures of such experiments, which acquire a structure over the years. Our idea was to try and resist this solidification and the suffocation of hierarchies.
These were intuitions that I believe are real forces in popular politics today. Much of the students’ unrest ranging from Jadavpur to JNU reverberates with the fragments of memories like the nineties from Presidency.
Rajarshi Dasgupta is assistant professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed are personal.