Protests are usually a combination of conviction and tokenism. They are collective, and often eloquent, gestures by which civil society asserts itself as part of a democracy. But there is also a risk of the symbolism falling rather flat. This is quite likely to happen if Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association decides to boycott the American Center in order to protest against the United States of America’s attack on Iraq. One of the organizers has isolated the Center as the best example of “typical American institutions” in the city, and since the US consulate is difficult to get to, this seems to be the best bet. First, the political logic seems a bit askew. Since Britain is an ally in the war, why not boycott the British Council as well' Second, the tokenism in this case, predominantly left in its character, is ludicrously hypocritical. A community — a considerable portion of whose energies are devoted to wooing the favours of American universities, research institutes, scholarships and funding bodies — would be solemnly boycotting a local institution because doing so would be the most convenient symbolic path of least resistance.
This is no unapt emblem of how the entire culture of protest in Calcutta and West bengal has been degraded and banalized by the state’s long tradition of a particular school of politicking. Communist West Bengal has turned a powerful political tool into a common and meaningless nuisance. The only passion motivating such protests is one of mindless partisanship. The only emotions they inspire in the public is exasperation or, at best, merriment. The real issues, when there are any, are entirely lost in a sort of automatic lawlessness. The thinking that has gone behind this “academic” protest betrays an intellectual and political impoverishment which makes a mockery of the university as a source of meaningful radicalism. Ordinary people all over the world have been publicly communicating their sense of outrage over the Iraq war without taking recourse to political clichés. The JUTA boycott throws into doubt the ability of an important section of academics to think politically and ethically.