Once in a great while, there comes a moment in your life when you realize with perfect clarity that you are but a small cog in a scheme of things much bigger than you. Walking alongside one lakh people under pouring rain for a single cause is one of them.
Today is 20th September. Four years ago on this day, the sky had opened just like it did today, and one lakh people walked on the street of Kolkata demanding justice for a woman who had been sexually harassed in my university and the people who were attacked and beaten mercilessly for standing by her – a movement that came to be known as #HokKolorob in social and traditional media. I will not wax eloquent on how it felt, or what it meant. It meant a lot of things, some stated and some unstated. It achieved some things, and did not achieve others. It was a rare moment of clarity for me in this vague passage of time that I call life, but that is not really significant, in the greater scheme of things.
I will, rather, give an account that is four years late in coming. Below are the words I had meant to write as I sat before my workstation in my newspaper office, and could not get out of my chest. Other people have written and spoken about these events on various platforms. This is not a sequence of events. This is just what I saw, and how it affected my life and my future.
I was outside the Aurobindo Bhavan portico when the police came to break the sit-in protest in Jadavpur University demanding an inquiry into a sexual harassment complaint on the intervening night of 16-17th September 2014. I wasn’t supposed to be there; I was a desk person and not a reporter. But my friend and colleague had gone there to report, and I was supposed to stay over at her new place. So I joined her there for a smoke and chat with old faces in the university. The atmosphere was already tense; the protesters had gherao-ed the vice chancellor; that is, refused to let him pass till he gave them a conclusive answer regarding the complaint.
I had gone out to buy cigarettes couple of hours ago; had to walk a bit and cross the main road since it was past midnight and the only cigarette shop open at that hour was the Jadavpur market one. People were walking around haphazardly then, and the street was bustling with protestors, police and onlookers alike. I and my journalist friend strolled out of the lane, crossed the street and walked some more into the lane on the opposite side to the shop. We met some more acquaintances there and stopped to have a chat. It was around 20-25 minutes later that we came back on Station Road.
The atmosphere had changed. The entire length of Jadavpur Station Road up till Gate no. 1 was empty except uniformed personnel standing rigidly by the flank. They had riot gears on. Long black vans stood before shuttered down shops. The atmosphere was taut, charged like a gathering storm. As I look back four years down this comes back as the most ominous part of my memory of the entire episode.
We went in. The portico was alive with songs and clapping hands. People talked and joked. It was one hour since we came back when the buzz started – the police are coming. It was passed around from ear to ear, like a Chinese whisper game taking over the entire portico. The music got louder, the jokes bawdier. A general body was called. Everybody was talking, a blur of loud voices, tense limbs and faces shining with sweat and excitement. I stood with my colleague just outside the portico, in the dark. I studied her – slender, with her hair pulled back in a bun, standing taut like an arrow with her arms crossed over her chest, large eyes darting from the portico to the gate and back with a few moments interval. I must have resembled all of them, yet I don’t remember how I felt.
A shout, and at the same time I see two policemen striding in from the gate, with riot gears on. There must have been other at their back but I still can’t see them, and anyway, now I see the portico alive in a flurry of activity, hands and legs and bodies jostling up against each other to form human barricades on the open sides. Within seconds the police filled the gap between me and the protesters. They slammed like a wave on the barricades, which broke after a few moments of initial struggle. The inside of the portico was a battlefield. I remember running around the edge of the garden with my phone camera open to get a better view, but all I could see were a sea of heads with sticks going up and down, up and down, and a red cap.
That was no police cap, I remember thinking. I had not seen them enter but now burly henchmen in t-shirts and track pants dominated the scene inside the portico, and they were going about the business with a professional precision and a detached performance of hatred that is the domain of the military.
Screams and howls of pain punctuated the din. My phone screen was divided in two, the yellow of the walls framing the fuming, bustling black underneath, till it suddenly went full black. Somebody has switched off the lights of the portico. I inched closer to the opening of the portico but policewomen in white blocked the way. One of them tried to grab my phone and I just ran back as far as I could. They did not follow; they had just needed me and others to be out of the ‘action area’.
It was from behind that police line that I saw what is still the most vivid image of that night for me, and the crux of the whole matter. A body rose up in the air above the general commotion, a pair of sturdy hands clutching it by the neck, its legs flailing frantically, and was thrown down so forcefully that it ended up a few feet away. It is still hard for me to imagine that it was a boy and not a cloth puppet that I saw thrown down with such ease and apathy. More people were escaping from the hell-hole the portico had become by then. People were collapsing right and left, people were crying aloud, trying to revive friends and comrades and even unknown people who have fallen unconscious.
I don’t remember when the Vice Chancellor was escorted out. I don’t know if he felt shame, or anger, or fear. I had just leapt out of the way of the official car when someone collapsed against my feet. A girl, I saw. So thin, I remember thinking, so small. Her eyes were unfocused and breathing irregular. The back of her dress was torn all the way down to her hips. I held her up and massaged her limbs, I looked around for water but it was utter chaos now, even outside the portico. Trauma and grief reigned. Some were tending to the hurt, others were sitting like zombies, the rest ran around listlessly, venting their rage at the obscenely (it felt so then) manicured flower garden.
The rest of that very long night was spent running back and forth, making frantic calls to the office, talking to people, to women who apart from being beaten had been specifically grabbed by their private parts during the attack. The focus had shifted to the Jadavpur Police Station intersection by then. Over 30 people have been hauled off by the police, 19 women have been molested. I walked around the intersection as young people claimed that piece of city and made it the site of their pain and rage. My colleague did the talking and note-taking. I just watched, and listened. At some point, we went inside the police station to talk to the OC. I was reluctant but felt it was my duty as a journalist present at the scene. It felt unseasonably cold, and like a trap that would close any moment now. People kept pouring in, among them my physically abusive ex-boyfriend who had come to “show solidarity”. I felt like slapping him but didn’t, as always.
I don’t remember when I went home with my colleague, what I ate, how we reached office. I only remember how I stood before the editor all dazed and not speaking a word. I only remember staring at the blank MS Word page on which I was supposed to write the eye-witness report. I felt lost. I could not remember a single detail from the scene. Nothing came back, and I second-guessed everything I did remember. My colleague had come by to check after mailing in some additional information. She saw me sitting like that, and without any word, just propped me up, sat in my chair and wrote the report I was supposed to write as the desk person assigned for that job. Till this date, I can’t help feeling overwhelmingly grateful to her when I think of this.
I remember this moment with perfect clarity, unlike the other details of that period, for I will go back to this moment for a thousand times over the next two years. For me, it was conclusive proof that I lacked a very crucial thing required in a journalist – the faculty of critical distance.
I was traumatized, and too affected by the events happening in my Alma Mater to write a coherent account of it. What happened in the following weeks only deepened my guilt and discomfort. I saw several news articles published in my own newspaper that presented the matters in a skewed light. I heard reporters freely discrediting and mocking the movement and could not match them word for word. Colleagues with various kinds of insider tracks claimed that it never happened, that it was all just ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘overreaction’, all the while freely naming the compliant everywhere. And I kept blaming myself for my inability to speak up at the moment when I had the chance, I kept thinking that had I been a journalist, I would have gone back and reported it authentically to effectively mark my sympathy, and not stand paralyzed like that.
I felt torn; I felt guilty for not having the courage to join in defending the attack on that night, and I was betrayed by my own mind when I did have a chance to set things right. Whichever the side I spoke to, I felt like I was on the other side. It affected my performance at the news desk. It affected my family and social life. I obsessed over every detail, and I could not tolerate when somebody criticized the people whom I have seen getting beaten to a pulp. One thing led to another, and I left that job roughly one year after #HokKolorob was over.
I know now, of course, that I could not have made a difference. That the very structure of the newsroom in my state and my country did not allow for the kind of truth-telling I wanted to do. It was the same structure that allowed a few drunken men to harass and manhandle a young woman on campus that day. It was the same structure that allowed the vice-chancellor to shove the harassment complaint under the rugs with such impunity. And it was the very same structure that allowed him to call the police and ruling party henchmen to beat up his own students without fearing retribution.
The #HokKolorob movement did not ‘win’ when the Chief Minister ousted the Vice-Chancellor in a dramatic gesture a few months down. The structures that fueled the incident at the heart of it still operate, both in and outside the university. The case, as unbelievable as it may sound, still remains unresolved as per my knowledge. The very next year there was a complaint against a professor in my own former department which was swept under the rug even more efficiently by the same professors who walked in the 20th September march and joined the class boycott protests. It taught us that the war against patriarchy was not one to be won with a single movement; it would take several more lifetimes of chipping away at the behemoth to achieve even a semblance of resolution.
What it did, however, was to create a fear of retribution in the state machinery. Of one lakh people walking down the street unperturbed by rains overhead, of an entire university and a huge part of civil society united behind a single cause irrespective of political preferences and agendas.
Four years down and a slew of student protests in various institutions of the state later, that remains the one big takeaway for me.
And the fact that I am not a journalist anymore.
The Accompanying photograph is by Ronny Sen, who had chronicled the #HokKolorob movement right from its inception to the final ‘victory’ march. Ronny’s images captured the restless energy and spirit of the movement with unparalleled grace and love. This image shows the stretch of Mayo Road on which the march met the final police barricade on its way to Raj Bhavan.