Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.
"Debraj, I didn't believe that I would be able to walk this long in this heat" said Uttara Chakrabarty. Senior Citizen. Teacher in the History Department. Former student. Her face was red as a result of walking in the heat from College Street to Esplanade East.
A few days back, April 8 and 9 to be exact, I was in New Delhi. I was there to participate in a conference on local governance and democracy in India, Brazil and South Africa. This was part of a build up for the IBSA summit in New Delhi to be held in June. I was fortunate to listen to eminent speakers talking on achievements of democracy in these three countries. What came out of the conference as a clear message was that the world over it was increasingly felt that representative democracy was not good enough, we need a shift towards participatory democracy, where the participation of the citizen is vital for the survival of democracy.
On 10th, still in Delhi, waiting to leave for the airport, I got the news that Presidency University has been attacked and vandalized by hooligans carrying TMC flags. Century old Baker Laboratory has been ransacked and female students have been threatened that they might be raped.
Three hours later I was back home, sitting in front of the TV looking at media reports. Shocked.
Conflicting emotions passed through me - fear, rage, despondency, anger. I was not sure what I could do as a former student but someone who has no direct connection with the college any more except personal friendships with some other former students.
A Facebook message came - protest meeting at Presidency followed by walk. I thought I should participate.
Still I wasn't sure. The information was chaotic - 3.00 pm or 4.00 pm? Meeting or walk? Are ex-students invited? Or is it a close door matter? What is the outcome expected?
The confusions prevailed this morning as well. I called my friend Anirban. He said he would try to go but he was not sure exactly what the programme was. I called my former teacher Subhashranjan Chakrabarty. He said that he has received a message - something at two and something at four - but he also was not sure exactly what was going on. Then I managed to talk to a former student, we call him Comrade Jishnu, who had become famous during agitations against Nandigram violence during CP(M) regime. Jishnu said there would be a meeting at three followed by a walk but he was also not sure.
So I landed up at College Street at about two. However, I could not resist the temptation of Coffee House. Chicken Afghani and black coffee. Anirban called and joined me. While we were enjoying our food, Jishnu called - the walk has already started and we need to come quick. Confusion. We went to college and met another former student not known to us. Yes, the walk has started and we need to catch the metro. Three of us left. We were joined by another person, a little older than us, an actor and theatre activist. The taxi was caught in the traffic jam. So we went for the Metro. In the Metro, two others joined us.
We got down at Esplanade and headed for Esplanade East. "Come to Rani Rashmani Road" someone told over phone to one of us. Where is the procession, we wondered and walked. Then from a distance we could see a big crowd. Yes, that's must be it, we thought.
A big crowd, more than a thousand people, had gathered near Bhawanipur Club, near Governor's House. Mostly young people, but also not so young ones like me. Also teachers. Journalists.
I looked around. I could recognize some faces. Some were there when I was in college. Some junior students I know. A young student who recently has become famous for asking a question to Mamata Bannerjee.
The mood was spirited and youthful. No fear. Still tired of the long walk in the heat showing in some faces. In some ways a reunion spirit was prevailing. Some policemen and women were walking around with grim faces. Chaiwallahs were selling lemon tea and doing brisk business.
We heard that a delegation has gone to meet the Governor and submit a deputation. Then I saw Uttara Chakrabarty. She said, I repeat, "I didn't think that I will be able to walk so far". I smiled as I greeted her. Her husband and my teacher, Subhash Ranjan Chakrabarty, had gone to give the deputation.
I sat down beside her. In front of me were groups of students chatting away. Their body language was neither of anger nor of fear. It was almost as if they were in the college canteen. Laughing. Joking. Enjoying themselves. Perfectly at ease in the street demonstration. Some even discussed their exam question papers. Somebody tore the strap of his sandal in excitement. Some were sipping tea.
I tried to locate fear in their eyes. I failed.
I also chatted away. Came to know how the hooligans entered the college premises from behind the college. How they threatened female students. How they ransacked the Baker Laboratory. Discussions proceeded on current political scenario. How all this is related to the panchayat elections. How such vandalism cannot be seen in isolation but has to be seen as part of a conscious attempt to spread terror.
A journalist approached. What brought me here, he asked. I explained that the ex-students of the college have always had a strong link with the college and in good times and bad times, we are always there. Presi, as we like to call it, is always within us. In our hearts we never leave the college.
About half an hour later, the delegation which went to the Governor returned, including my teacher Subhash-babu. The journalist thronged to take interviews. Once the crowd cleared a bit, we stood on the divider of the street and chatted as if we were back in college. Jokes. Laughter. Gossip.
Apparently, the Governor did not meet the delegation but an official received them and promised to pass on the message. Very bureaucratic. Very boring.
However, I was not interested in what the bureaucrats had said. I was more interested in the smiles, the laughter, in the jokes, in the "adda".
Yes...I could see the Presi spirit.
Yes...Presi has bounced back.
As I bid good bye and walked away from the crowd I thought once more about the New Delhi conference. Yes, democracy is all about citizen's participation, I thought, as I walked past the historic Shahid Minar.