Jadavpur University Ragging: A Theoretical Analysis in the Light of Gramsci and Foucault

Examining hegemony and counter-hegemony: A comprehensive analysis of Jadavpur University’s ragging incident

Lately, we have learned that a tragic incident has taken place as a consequence of ragging at Jadavpur University. It’s a disastrous event and this tragedy has deeply affected me. Many others have also been bruised by this incident. It’s heartbreaking when I look at Swapnodeep Kundu’s picture, think about him, and imagine the agony he must have gone through in that place. 

Any problem typically has two aspects. One is the immediate measures, meaning what can be done right now, what can be thought, giving a quick reaction to it. The other is the long-term perspective, delving into why it happened, how it happened, and what the underlying reasons are.

Immediate Perspective

We need to investigate and find out the truth, to detect the real culprits, those who are fully or partially responsible, no matter what their economic or social status is, whether they are from Kolkata or a small town or the rural areas, whether they belong to the fields of science, engineering or arts, whether or not they have political connections; they all deserve an exemplary punishment to prevent further repetition of such ghastly incident. When I read these descriptions, I imagine a fire burning inside my head, thinking about that boy running naked from one door to another. He had to prove that he was not gay, not homosexual. He had to prove he was a heterosexual man. I imagine a boy struggling like a desperate animal propelled by the urge to survive when we all were comfortably asleep watching TV, or studying. We couldn’t save him, and those who were in responsible positions, whether it was the hostel superintendent, the Dean of students, or any authority figure, were nowhere to be found even after being informed. The police were barred from taking entry while the young body lay there. Perhaps he was still alive and his heart was still throbbing awaiting the slightest chance of life. But he was not rushed to the hospital. Instead, it has been reported that four General Body (GB) meetings were convened in the hostel by the senior students or former students. These were held to fabricate a fake narrative so that the culprits could evade suspicion. 

Further, some media are portraying the incident at Jadavpur University in a biased manner. Some groups and some powerful entities are trying to destroy the reputation of this University although the students, teachers, and employees have risen against the incident. They have not only achieved impressive success in their educational excellence, but also they have played a valiant role in inspiring protests against the injustice in the country, by the government, and around society. This incident is no doubt gruesome, but it must not tarnish the glorious history of Jadavpur University. They are resisting the treacherous plan to degenerate it into a jail. But this inexcusable incident cannot be an adequate reason to discredit all the great achievements made by Jadavpur University. Such incidents of ragging have happened and continue to happen in various distinguished universities across India, like IITs and other institutions. The progressive legacy of Jadavpur University should by no means be blamed for it.

jadavpur university ragging gramsci foucault campus culture
Swapnodip and Jadavpur University

Long-term Perspective

While going to engage in this discussion, the names of two political philosophers come to my mind. One is Gramsci (1891-1937) and the other is Foucault (1926-1984). Of course, they did not write about the raging crisis or the problems of student life in India. 

Gramsci’s Hegemony

I will try to apply their thoughts to this context. Firstly, let us see what Gramsci talked about the concept of ideological-cultural hegemony and counter-hegemony. The Leninist definition of the capitalist state professed that the bourgeois state machine is an organ of class rule where the ruling class governs only through direct coercion, such as through institutions like the police, military, bureaucracy, legal system or prison. Gramsci referred to this sphere collectively as the political society. But Gramsci contended that the capitalist state doesn’t rule merely by political society or force, i.e., only through domination. He added, that besides political society, there’s another side of the state: the civil society. Civil society is formed by various voluntary, private, and self-governing organizations, such as educational institutions, cultural associations, seminar and debating societies, film clubs, newspapers, journals, religious associations, families etc. There’s a widespread perception that civil society is somewhat free and independent from the control of the ruling class and its state. But Gramsci argued that through these institutions within civil society, the ruling class spread its hegemony, based on which common sense permeates the civil society. Common sense is generated here in such a way that it feels like the state has no direct control here, and as if this civil society is not working for the ruling class. Seemingly, this is an autonomous and impartial domain. However, in reality, civil society constructs common sense in such a way that it ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. Thus, it produces consent and legitimizes the class rule by the bourgeoisie. In India also, the same phenomenon exists, like what Satyajit Ray showed in his film ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’ (Kingdom of Diamonds), where he illustrated the ‘Brainwashing Machine’. 

Five Aspects of Hegemony in India

At present, five major aspects of hegemony can be noted: 

1. Neo-liberal hegemony: The cultural-ideological hegemony of global corporate capitalism and its new ethical predominance has been established, e.g. rat race, selfishness, egoism, unbridled desire and greed for profit and economic prosperity, corruption by government officials and even ministers, unscrupulous career ambition, the pro-corporate sector New Education Policy. 

2. Legitimacy for the destruction of nature: Even though it destroys nature, Development has to be promoted, and large industries have to be built up even at the cost of ecology and environment. 

3. Legitimacy for class exploitation: Class struggle or economic exploitation, especially of the working class and the peasants, is ignored. The condition of the temporary contractual workers and landless peasants is deplorable. We saw just a few years ago that three agricultural laws were passed, (later repealed after a prolonged protest). Four labour codes have been implemented. Working hours have been increased. In the informal sector, we see the terrifying situation, the migrant workers faced the lockdown, walking mile after mile, even resulting in death, the distress of child labourers, sex workers, and delivery boys. 

4. Illegitimacy of community rights: Different types of community rights are neglected, which has induced identity politics. There are varied expressions: 

a. Gender: Gender sensibilities are suppressed by patriarchal culture. The rights of women and LGBTQIA+ are trampled. Swapnodeep had to prove that he was a male being naked before the seniors. The rape of Hathras, Kamduni, Nirbhaya in Delhi, Unnao, Kathua, Manipur, Bengaluru etc form a looming shadow.

b. Adivasi: The rights of Scheduled Tribes, indigenous, and tribal people to water, forests, and land are being trodden as corporate capital takes over forests, rivers, land and hills. Dams are being constructed indiscriminately and despite the disapproval of environmental activists and ecologists. Forests are being encroached upon within 100 kilometres of the border. 

jadavpur university ragging foucault campus culture
A rally by JU students against ragging | Courtesy: The Telegraph/Bishwarup Dutta

c. Caste: There’s the oppression of Dalit (Scheduled Castes), and shudra (Other Backward Classes) communities. Burning alive, rape, plunder, brutal thrashing and so on frequently occur and these are legitimised by Brahmanical ideology ironically reinforced by Neo-liberal hegemony. We remember the institutionalized murder of Rohit Vemula, a Dalit student, at Hyderabad Central University.

d. Minorities: The voice of protest of the religious, national, linguistic, ethnic, and regional minorities is being stifled. Mosques or churches have been desecrated. The discourse of secularism has been marginalised by the dominant discourse of aggressive Hindutva which is again paradoxically endorsed by Neo-liberal hegemony. Hindi is being imposed on other linguistic communities. Ethnic conflicts are happening in Manipur.

e. Race: Apartheid of South Africa or White racism of the USA is not found in India. But implicit is discrimination based on skin colour. People of North-East India usually have Mongoloid physical features Tamil people usually having Dravidian physical features are often subjected to humiliation by the north Indians who are usually having Indo-Aryan physical features.

5. Illegitimacy of individual rights: Lastly, individual rights, such as freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to write, speak, criticise the government and debate are not protected because of the dominant majoritarian discourse which again is paradoxically armoured by neo-liberal hegemony.

This hegemony is prevalent even in universities as well as university hostels. 

Gramsci’s Progressive Counter-Hegemony 

Gramsci further emphasised that an alternative progressive counter-hegemony needs to be established in civil society. Alternative moral values, political ideas, social practices, cultural idioms, philosophical concepts, ideological ideals, etc must be inculcated. The existing common sense needs to be challenged. Only then a new progressive common sense can be created and a broadest possible struggle for a radical transformation would be possible. This is certainly not an easy task. It is to be accomplished through protracted people’s struggle, both ideological-cultural struggle and practical class struggle. Those ordinary students, teachers, and non-teaching staff, guided by progressive students have attempted to establish this counter-hegemony of new values. Gender sensibility and spirit of equality among LGBTQIA+, female and male, caste sensibilities and resistance to untouchability and Dalit oppression, respect for the tribal movements for ‘Jol, Jangal, Jameen’, slogans for the emancipation of workers and peasants, the rights of migrant workers, unorganized sector workers, and agricultural labourers, opposition to global corporate capital and neo-liberal hegemony, concern for environment and ecology, protest against attacks on Muslims, among others gradually became prevalent there through this counter-hegemony. Not only in Jadavpur University but also in JNU, HCU and Presidency University (and definitely in several other institutions). This counter-hegemony has made individual freedoms and the right to express oneself, like freedom of speech, debate, and individual dignity ever more powerful.

Ruptures in Progressive Counter-Hegemony

However, within this counter-hegemony, many cracks could be detected. I want to attract the attention of the progressive and common students, teachers, and employees to the fact that the struggle to build up a new counter-hegemony has suffered from serious lacunae. One example is ragging. True that the progressive students must win over the hostel’s organized strength on the side of radical change. But they must not endorse the network of micro-power. Certainly, progressive students have sporadically stood up against ragging. But we have not seen such a resolute agitation by which ragging could be completely wiped out. Recently, in their writings, Prof Kalyan Kumar Das of Presidency University and Prof Samrat Sengupta of Sidho Kanhu University analysed this laxity.

I must say that consuming addictive substances like marijuana, excessive alcohol, cannabis or other drugs is not part of the heritage of our protest, not a tradition of the progressive movement. They are part of the neo-liberal hegemony because if students and youth get involved in activities like drug abuse, it diverts their attention from the injustices of society, which the government, authorities, and the ruling class use to weaken resistance. Drugs, alcohol, and other intoxicants provide a deceptive relief to suffering, unemployment and poverty but invariably it distracts the students from the real issues of power and domination over the weaker sections and economic exploitation. The students must expose and resist this lucrative trap peddled to them in the dazzling packet of inviolable and sacrosanct individual liberty with the ulterior motive of muddling their road to building counter-hegemony. 

The use of CCTV, ID cards, etc., should be considered in the specific context. If these were arranged as a bid to foil a student movement against injustice, we would have certainly opposed without hesitation the installation of CCTV and compulsory provision for carrying Identity Cards. But when an innocent young boy is harassed to death as a victim of ragging, then the suggestion for the installation of CCTV cannot be challenged. This naturally allowed the authorities to curtail the autonomy of the progressive and democratic forces. We can only demand that CCTV, ID cards etc. must not be misused in future to quash any progressive student movements launched for just causes. In addition, resistance is important both in consciousness and in real practice in the fight to change this hegemony. A new common sense was indeed emerging at Jadavpur University. This has had an impact on LGBTQIA+ community members who feel non-toxic there. Students have told me that many transgender Dalit or poor students have found a certain level of security and self-assertion there. The film director Rituporno Ghosh, who was transgender, is remembered with respect by Jadavpur University students. In contrast to the commonsensical thought of people, respect for the rights of transgender, Dalit, women, Adivasi people etc is broadly permeated among the students of Jadavpur, Presidency, JNU and many other universities and colleges. However, cracks in this counter-hegemony have already appeared. But why? For this probe, we need to look into Foucault’s concept of micro-power.

Foucault’s Network of Micro-Power

At this point, I would like to mention Foucault’s concept of the Network of Micro-Power. His concept of the Triangle of Power is about the three forms of power in modern Western societies. One of these forms is 1. Sovereignty, the state-centred power, from this centre spectacular power radiates. It is established through violence or coercion and it was the most predominant form of power in the pre-modern period. It still exists. 

However, Foucault argued that this is not the only form of power. Gradually, sovereign power gave birth to a new kind of power i.e., bio-power, from which later emerged two poles which engendered two more forms of power: 2. Disciplinary Regime and 3. Governmentality. In the book Power, Foucault enunciated this in much more detail. Bio-power controls our lives, influencing what we eat, our weight, dietary habits, vaccination for children, and sexual behaviour (e.g. use of Viagra). It not only regulates our lives but also enhances our capabilities. This is a unique feature. It doesn’t just repress but also enables and empowers. 

At this moment, I’d focus only on how Foucault elicited power’s network permeating throughout modern Western society through finer capillaries of power. Not only the state or government but power extends also through various institutions within society, including educational institutions and hostels. We are not only subjected to the power of the state or government, but we also exert power over others. When we fight against the state or government’s injustices, we often overlook the micro-level power. We should fight against injustice perpetrated by the macro-level powers. Yet, we must not forget that within a family, the husband holds power over the wife and the wife exerts power over the maidservant. Women also discriminate against the queer community. Urban students pity the rural students. The elite class discriminates against subalterns, and the privileged mocks the underprivileged. The peasants are seen as barbaric. The manual labourers are subjected to ridicule. Recently, when Vikram and Chandrayaan reached the southern region of the moon, a railway bridge in Mizoram collapsed the same day killing around 23 workers, mostly migrant workers from north Bengal. It’s an incredible paradox. Terrible Railway accidents kill hundreds of migrant workers (e.g. Balasore, Odisha). This is the power of micro-level marginalization. Many Muslim labourers in Nuh and Gurugram in Haryana have been subjected to violence. They witnessed discriminatory demolition of their settlements through bulldozers and that was sanctioned by a large number of Hindus. Marginalised tribal people of Manipur suffer from violent riots.

Ragging is pervasive in many educational institutions and their hostels, girls or boys. When it comes to the students who are now enrolling in eminent colleges or universities like Presidency, Jadavpur, or IIT and so on, these incidents raise concerns. Recently, a student’s death at IIT, Kharagpur, likely due to ragging, has transpired. A female student lost her life in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has received reports of 99 incidents of ragging and deaths. If you do not also fight against the injustice of micro-power, your resistance to the unethical acts of macro-power will be morally weak. Many well-off individuals often abuse poor rickshaw pullers. Recently, a female student has described how she was tortured in her hostel. A retired police officer and author, Nazrul Islam, mentioned that ragging is generally not perpetrated on the children of the police, ministers, businessmen, industrialists, or political leaders. It is often inflicted upon those who are vulnerable. There is a patriarchal angle as well to this practice. The males are generally the perpetrators. Many hostels with patriarchal traditions are controlled by senior ex-students called ‘baba’ (father). 

Lastly, many of the students who committed such crimes without having adequate awareness and sensibility should be provided with psychological counselling to correct their pathological psyche, sexual disorientation, rapist mentality, violent disposition, propensity for mob violence, sadist tendencies and deep-rooted patriarchal values ingrained in their personality.


Please Note

This piece is an abridged version. The full original article has been published in The West Bengal Political Science Review, Vol. 24 (2022-23), published in February, 2024. Some ideas of this article found their first expression in my online lecture delivered in Bangla language at AK Basak Auditorium in Presidency University on 31st August, 2023 organised by ‘Bhalobasi Jyotsnay’.

On 9th August, 2023, in late evening, there occurred a heinous incident of ragging of first year students by senior students in the Boys’ Main Hostel which led to the brutal death of Swapnodeep Kundu, a first year student of the Bengali department.

I am grateful to Dr Satyajit Dasgupta, Director, Post-Graduate Diploma Course in Counselling (CU) & Legal Aid Services, WB for drawing my attention to this point.

Pradip Basu

is Retd. Prof. of Pol. Sc., Presidency University.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button