“University students should be studying yaar. Why are they so interested in protesting” is a question I have encountered time and again. It is rife with condescension and rarely carries an element of wonder.
Protest, in today’s India, is a bad word. Quite like ‘intellectual’, and ‘secular’. However, it is important to understand that protest isn’t at all what many privileged folk perceive it to be. In fact, protest was deeply instrumental in winning India her freedom. And student protests, in many ways, have saved the world numerous times.
While recalling the iconic student movements in India in a video released last year, The Wire‘s Raghu Karnad had concluded: “Our history of protest is part of the reason we still live in a democracy.”
In the same video, he explained how most leaders, who at later stages of their life have decried student protects, were actually once deeply embroiled in the same. He talks about how former finance minister and an extremely powerful face of the first Modi government, the late Arun Jaitley, was immersed in student politics much before the infamous Emergency was even declared. The erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, now the BJP, had for many years shone with ‘Yuva Shakti’. Karnad also pointed out that Yuva Shakti “was the force the Sangh once harnessed to challenge the Congress (I) and its grip on power, and it is now the force challenging the Sangh and its grip on power”.
It is rather hypocritical of the BJP government, therefore, to use brute force to quell young protestors. It is also unfortunate that a section of the Indian middle class/elite is quick to dismiss them and shame them for “not focusing on their studies”.
Alankrita Srivastava, in an article for the Indian Express, shed light on the importance of student resistance:
“(But) students have hope and passion and integrity. They are not jaded by life, their idealism burns bright… Attacking the student community is to attack the future of the country, it is to attack the conscience of the country.”
Student protests have, more often than not, been an answer to fascism and injustice. If you pore over political history from around the world, students have gone out on a limb and fought for the rights of the less privileged, and sometimes for the rights of the more privileged too. A quick perusal of your world history books would do.
Famously in Nazi Germany, the White Rose movement was instrumental in shaking Germans up. The movement was led by medical students who having witnessed the atrocities committed by National Socialists set out to secretly carve movements of resistance despite tremendous, imminent danger. The founders of the movement were persecuted and killed but their “spirit lived on”. Their contribution isn’t forgotten by free Germany and they are remembered by many historians as important figures of the German struggle for liberation from Nazi fascism.
The Soweto Youth Uprising of 1976 is said to have “profoundly change the socio-political landscape in South Africa”. The uprising was a reaction to the totalitarian policies of the Apartheid government, and shed light on the state’s brutalities in South Africa, as visuals of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students made their way all over the world.
The 37th US President Richard Nixon had also stated that the anti-war protests over Vietnam, which mostly began on college campuses, were part of the reason the US eventually withdrew troops.
These student struggles I’ve mentioned are just a few among thousands of resistance movements, big and small. Student movements have often been a slap on the face of draconian laws, unfair practices and tyrants.
This is precisely why the State seems to leave no stone unturned in a bid to suppress them. Such protests are always hard to carry through, even though it is so easy to denounce them.
When a student goes out to protest against a figure of authority, she knows she will face innumerable attempts to discredit her, to hurt her cause and to inflict harm on her. She isn’t oblivious, she is daring. She knows what she is doing will impact the world that she goes on to live with. She is rarely enshrouded by the privilege that older, more established people command. She is old enough to know what she is doing, but inexperienced enough to be protected from the ramifications. So she faces them, head on.
No amount of classroom attendance and technical studies can compensate for a lack of inspiration, empathy and a desire to peacefully and passionately defend what one believes in. Grades cannot make up for the absence of a soul. A student protestor knows that. So she fights. She faces hatred and harassment and heartbreaking ignorance by the more privileged lot, and sometimes, even a government that is so brutal, so self serving that it will put its people through just about anything in order to get the last word in to make petty political profits.
So even if you find it hard to muster basic empathy and understand what the fiery, young protester in your neighbourhood is fighting for, what your daughter is posting against your wishes about, what your son’s friends are repeatedly rushing to Jantar Mantar and courting arrest for; even if you do not have the guts to stand with them, even if you’re blinded by privilege, and oblivious to the struggles of others – the next time you see a student skip class to go and defend her cause, the least you can do is not stand in her way.
And if you can take out a moment from tending to your failing businesses (let’s not kid about the economy here), do lend her an ear. She might just teach you a thing or two that the schools you religiously attended didn’t.
Students from Jamia Milia Islamia University, Aligarh Muslim University, Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, Mangaluru, Lucknow and all over the country have a fair idea of what their struggle can cost them.
They also understand why it is worth it.
Mekhala Saran is a law student, a poet and a freelance journalist. Tweet to her @mekhala_saran.