Reading the Walls: Decoding Student Politics and Democracy through Wall Art
In this paper, Debopriya looks at the alternative modes of expressing youth voices through wall posters and wall arts. Focusing on a particular student protest in the Jadavpur University of West Bengal (India), namely HokKolorob (Let there be Clamour!), the paper tries to understand how university students negotiate space, democracy, and citizenship through active political participation.
(This was written on the walls of the old ‘FETSU room’ that is the Faculty of Engineering and Technology Students’ Union room at Jadavpur University. Drawn during the হোক কলরব (HokKolorob) movement, it quotes from a poem by Bengali poet Srijato Bandyopadhyay. The lines were translated by Alokesh Duttaroy, an MIT scientist and an alumnus of Jadavpur University, as- “Human creates human/Defiance clusters to align/ You're human we're human/ Difference is in the spine”. The photograph is collected from an unknown source)
“দেওয়ালে দেওয়ালে মনের খেয়ালে লিখি কথা
আমি যে বেকার পেয়েছি লেখার স্বাধীনতা”
(I write my mind on the wall/ I am unemployed but I am free to write my mind on the walls)
This is from a poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya, a youth, poet, and rebel. However, there is no evidence to substantiate if he at all wrote anything on walls, the quoted lines manifest the quest for freedom that drives people to write on the walls. From the 1970s Naxalite movement to the recent protest against the citizenship amendment bill whenever the youth actively participated, writing on the walls had become an act of political dissent. Youth activism’s quest for visibility could not use instruments like newspapers or other mass media. The status of youth circumvents their access to the mediums that formulate public opinions. In an attempt to locate other modes of accessible communication, posters and slogans on walls become one of the significant ways to communicate their message to the masses. As the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano said, “The walls are the publishers of the poor”, writing the walls has fewer financial or regulatory constraints. The walls are the sites for the youth to make themselves visible. It’s a place where their politics is being practiced way before social media became the crucial site for political debates, campaigns, and contestation. Unlike social media, it does not land them in a complex interaction of algorithms to reach the people they are meant to. It is a form of art, an expression that caters to different meanings to different people. One of the members of the then outlawed CPI(ML) Subhendu Dasgupta had said in an interview that they used to commemorate the killings of their comrades by the police on the walls of crematoria during the Naxal movements of Bengal, “We would use charcoal from the pyres to write. It was our way to remember the dead comrades and make people aware...Every letter carried our deepest emotion and sentiment." (Bag, 2016) This subversive activity of writing on the walls used to be done in the nights to avoid law enforcement. Interacting with the citizen and the state simultaneously, the walls are way more than a set of slogans thrown together.
In contemporary times, wandering through the lanes of Indian campuses with a political students body, one has to witness the wall posters, arts, and slogans that are regularly imprinted and removed by abundant student organizations to show their commitment to the diverse political ideologies, their strive for equality, their passion for freedom, and their rights as students and as citizens of the largest democratic nation. It’s one of the central elements of performing student politics in India. Historically, Indian colleges and university walls have constituted a reflection of everything that is required to maintain an active interaction between the powerful and the powerless, the governing and the governed. In a nutshell, the university walls help to envision students as active political intellectuals instead of conforming to an alternative imagination of apolitical studenthood. This essay uses the visuals of the walls of Jadavpur University, Kolkata to understand how university students negotiate space, democracy, and citizenship through active political participation.
(Photograph collected from a Facebook page named Jadavpur University)
Jadavpur university campus has been politically active for a long time. In 2014, the student protest Hok Kolorob (Let there be Clamour) that ran for four months was one of the most impactful student movements of its time. Named after the title of a Bangladeshi song by singer Arnob, it used social media and other classic leftist protest tools simultaneously. The initial sit-in demonstration by students demanding an unbiased investigation into the molestation of a student took a critical turn on 16th September. That day after several failed dialogues between the students and the authority, protesting students gheraoed the university authority. The consequent police brutality unleashed upon the students in the early hours of 17th September triggered the wave of protest asking for the resignation of the then vice-chancellor who called the police to the campus. The diverse cultural manifestation of the protest included a large oeuvre of posters, graffiti on university walls.
(Photograph Collected from the public Facebook post by Rimi. B Chatterjee, 2014)
Three years after the HokKolorob, the fate of student politics on campus was at threat. The West Bengal government decided to replace the campus political unions with the apolitical student council to avoid violence during campus elections every year. Although this phenomenon was not the reality everywhere, especially on campuses like Jadavpur University or Presidency University. Nevertheless, this decision came into huge resistance from the students’ community of West Bengal. Jadavpur University students started demonstrations inside the campus. The political union was the platform for the students to communicate with the authority their demands and concerns. Here, the students had the liberty to choose the best-suited representative of them. The question remained if the apolitical student council where the members are employed by the authority can be independent in their functioning at all. The democratic exercise of the power of the students to have control over every decision that is taken for the students was threatened. With the power of the united students fading into uncertainty, the protesters subscribed to the legacy of HokKolorob. The narrative of the movement brewed on the exceptional competency of united students that HokKolorob demonstrated. This movement was later named ‘HokUnion’( Let there be union). The wall account of HokUnion reflects the same nostalgia of HokKolorob.
(Clicked in October 2021. The charcoal graffiti from 2018 is overridden with posters.)
The site of democratic practice space that these walls become embodies the experience of being a politically aware student or a curious young adult who has just become a voting citizen. The everyday production of space by and on the walls is amalgamated with the idea of the university. Thus, university spaces are shaped by students and it shapes them. During HokUnion, the activist students evaluated the decision to abolish the union as a threat to the very idea of Jadavpur University. Hence, their arguments were largely drawn on the idea of the university space that they took pride in. To them, Jadavpur University was a symbolic eutopia of democratic rights, freedom, and equality.
[Photographed on October 2021. This reads- “Bodlatey debo na kawkhonoi Jadavpurer abohawa, jawtodin achey union aer chhaya.” (The union won’t let the ethos of Jadavpur change)]
In 2017, large graffiti with stencil and spray paint depicting a young man running with caged sun started appearing on the walls of different places like Agargaon, Mohakhali, Old Airport areas in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The graffiti character Subodh was instructed to flee the city with messages like “Subodh tui paliye jaa ekhon sawmoy pokkhey naa” (Flee Subodh/ time is not on your side), “Subodh tui paliye jaa/ tor bhagye kichchu naye” (Flee Subodh/ your fate is bleak), “Subodh tui paliye ja/ bhuleo firey asis naa” (Flee Subodh/ Don’t even return by mistake). Interestingly, this politically ambiguous street art sprung up in the walls of Jadavpur during the HokUnion movement as well. Subodh, the protagonist of the art series, was instructed to flee the space that was overpowered with hatred in Bangladesh. In Jadavpur University wall arts, he is asked to make the time and luck work in his favor.
[Photograph on the left- Graffiti on a wall of Jadavpur University which reads ‘Subodh tui palas na somoy takey songe aan.. #Hobe_ki, #Hokunion’(Subodh, don’t flee/guide the time in your favor). Photograph on the right: Graffiti on a wall of Dhaka which belongs to the original series of graffiti with Subodh from 2017. This reads, “Subodh, tui paliye ja ekhon somoye pokkhe na… hobe ki?” (Subodh, please run away. Time is not on your side.) ]
Delving deep into the wall narratives of the movements will help to locate two distinct groups, one is constructed as a unified group of people who are destined to win their struggle for a better future. The negatively portrayed group of the other is evil in its exercise of power. In the graffiti below ‘they’ are perhaps the administration against whom the students were fighting during HokKolorob. But this slogan is universally applicable to every protest site where people are dissenting against the brutal regime- “Jara marchey jara marbey tara harchey tara harbey” (Those who are assaulting/ those who will assault / they are being defeated/ they will defeat!)
(Photograph Collected from a public Facebook post by Rimi. B Chatterjee, 2014)
University walls can be considered as a counter space that is formed within the mainstream idea of an educational institution as a conscious alternative to the latter. The parallel to this, anti-language is generated like in the quoted slogan in the picture above (Jara marchey jara marbey tara harchey tara harbey). Anti-language reigning the campus space is rooted in the creation of that space. Calcutta’s history of anti-language too has a historical past. W.H. Sleeman’s collection of the slangs of the thugs and Bhaktiprasad Mallik’s documentation of the vibrant anti-language of Calcutta in his book Language of the Underworlds of West Bengal can be mentioned. But beyond the arena of criminal activity, the use of anti-language in youth society is intriguing. Stemming from a critical view of the system, the walls of Jadavpur University like any political campus in India generates antilanguage which others the administration. The discursive space of campuses especially during protests delineates the governing people acting against the students’ right to protest, to be free, and to be safe in the university. This kind of use of anti-language attempts to deconstruct the dominant view of government as guardians of society. (Serafis, Kitis, & Archakis, 2018). Here, the ‘us’ is a positively characterized group of united people who hold enormous power to decide who governs them. The other is outright undemocratic. But the other is also changeable, and definitely powerless no matter its machinery efficiency against a bunch of united people. The democratic imagination of the power of the ‘powerless’ produced identity of the students which is shaped throughout with the continuous use of anti-language.
The collective identity of the students evolves from shared intersectional experiences. Hence, the questions of privilege, power, and inclusivity become intriguingly coherent in their political practice because this is the key site where these identities are being continuously created and contested. Most Indian public urban university space is still dominated by people from socio-economically privileged strata. On the contrary, universities like Jadavpur University, Jawaharlal Nehru University witnessed a large number of youth from different sections of the society migrating to these spaces for the aspiration of higher education because of their low fee structure and alternative modes of entrance. The homesick youth carry their nostalgic memories to paint the walls. The urban dialect is sometimes replaced by the versatile dialects of Bengal or regional languages of India. Again, driven by the philosophical underpinning of the world without borders, the student politics in this campus aspires to be international & intersectional in its ideology and discourse. In every sense, the dynamic walls are built upon a continuous process of inclusion and exclusion. This choice of discourse creates the identity of the student which is not exclusively based on individual experiences.
(These newly painted wall arts are posited in a way that they are visible to people other than campus students. On the left, there is a reference to a poem written by Amir Aziz during the CAA-NRC-NPR protest in 2020- “you write injustice on the earth, the revolution will be inscribed to the sky.”)
There is an abundance of painted walls especially inside the Jadavpur University campus which cannot be unseen by visitors entering through its main gates like gate no. 1,2, or 4. The walls do not only represent the struggle between the students and the authority. While the conventional channels of debates between different political organizations are narrowed, the walls become an important medium of contestation. The artistic practice on all the walls is a scene of dissent and resistance where flows of narratives shift from different socio-political issues and ideology contests. Students are the central force against the rise of fascism in every corner of the globe. Their youthful enthusiasm to protect democratic fervor transcends the students’ involvement in mainstream politics. The campus walls of Jadavpur University too are vocal on local issues like reopening of the campuses, vaccination for students, students election campaigns to issues that are of national or international interest like citizenship amendment bills, free Palestine movement, etc. The student organizations not only paint the wall but also put posters on them which offer a better frequency than wall art. The posters can be put down or be overridden with newer ones creating visual noise due to contrasting messages from different groups. The students walking through the university scape or faculty members rushing to their workplace encounter innumerable messages every day which change regularly. While the architectural images are locally fixed, these changes on the walls coupled with the movement of the people create a sense of flowing messages. This creates a dilemma of mobility which shapes and is shaped by the experience of those people every day.
(Graffiti reading 'No Walls' near U.S.-Mexico border. Tijuana, Mexico. 2018. Photograph: Mario Tama, Getty Images News)
Discussing the narrative of the wall cannot eschew the overriding question of why do universities have a border wall? Institutes reason it to protect their material space and property from intruders, to secure the students and other stakeholders. These walls are meant to control the flows of outsiders. However, the political intention of the wall concerns both the people who are living within the protected place and those who will witness the walls (Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary, 2012). Marking the difference between who has access to the protected place and who does not, the outwalls have a greater significance, a sense of security that is imposed on everyone’s imagination. Constructing the outsiders as evil makes it easier to rationalize complex problems with seeming apparent solutions. During the HokKolorob movement, the people supporting the then university administration generated the narrative of ‘bohiragoto’ (outsiders) creating nuisance on the campus. To which, the students’ reply was, “আমরা সবাই বহিরাগত, মারবি যত বাড়ব তত!” (We all are outsiders. We’ll be mightier with every strike unleashed upon us.) The narrative of outsiders disturbing university or college campuses is not exclusive to Jadavpur University in recent times. However, most public universities in West Bengal did not follow any strict mandate to control who’s entering the university until recently. The installation of CCTV cameras, building new border walls, employing security guards are more prominent now than ten years ago. Nonetheless, the political intention of building outwalls for identifying its territory exceeds the boundaries of campuses. Restricting the population in their flow of mobilization and in their right to inhabit the bordered land is a pivotal part of contemporary global politics. The Mexico-United States border crisis, Rohingya crisis, refugee crisis in Europe, and other similar political activities continue to negotiate new modes of understanding of border walls and interpreting the multifaceted rendition of who is an outsider and who belongs to the country. This inherits the question of to whom the idea of the university belongs?
University space is a practiced place. But the answer to the question of whom a public university space beyond its material existence belongs to would not be of binary choices between the people who govern that space or the people who represent that. The biggest stakeholders of any university or campus are the students. Campuses are a system that is structured to nurture their potential. The youthful enthusiasm to be empowered with choices on issues concerning one’s future motivates the young adults entering the university to counter the system. The blank walls constructed by the universities denote discipline and regulation that is mostly imposed on students. But by reclaiming the walls to perform their politics, students produce a counter-narrative which subsequently creates counter space. Walls are one of the crucial counter spaces that are put there by the governing authority but reconstructed by the governed.
However, people’s inability to choose the place they inhabit coupled with their ability to generate various counter spaces is not restricted to the debates of campus walls or campuses at all. In contemporary times, the citizenship debates around the world have raised the fundamental question of whom the nation belongs to. How do people become stateless? Who owns the idea of a nation beyond the relentless obsession with borders? This classical dilemma of democracy intertwines the students’ activists’ crisis with the crisis of citizenship. The sense of belonging to a piece of land is further enhanced by the idea of that land. Ultimately, every debate regarding citizenship or nationality centers around the idea of the nation. On this, the walls of the Jadavpur University rejects the idea of a nation to be just a piece of land and recalls lines from an old song- “Mon jawtodur chaichhey jetey / Thik tawtodur aamar desh” (As far can my mind travel, as far as that my country is)
Youth is not fundamentally a transition through time (Farrugia & Wood, 2017). Hence, the wall art embodies the young adults’ experiences of becoming and being citizens through the creation of political space. Popularizing political participation by bringing artistic visuals and slogans for public consumption, wall arts offer a sense of engagement. This is where the producer and consumer of arts are the same, they are the students and also the citizens. Their quest for discursive public space to counter-hegemonic ideology creates the wall and also reflects on them.
(This piece of charcoal art is painted on the walls of a classroom of Journalism & Mass Communication at the Rabindra Bhavan, Jadavpur University. The metaphor here is supposedly intended. Photograph: Ratul Pal(M.A. JMC 2018-20)
1. Some of the photographs used here are collected from public Facebook posts, news sites, students, etc. In an attempt to delve into the experience of an outsider as well as the students, most of the visuals are collected from the university’s areas where people other than students walk through regularly. No copyright infringement is intended. The photographs contained in this write-up are used for non-profit research and educational purposes.
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Debopriya Roy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mass Communication & Journalism, Tezpur University, Assam. She is currently working on the politics of protest space in reference to South Asia’s feminist resistance. Her area of interest also includes feminist media studies, communication for social change, and conflict communication.
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