JNU Protests: State, Students and the State of Students

“We were aware of their protest march to parliament. To stop them, we created three-four layers. We first deployed our force and put up barricades. Four areas – outside the campus gate, Katwaria Sarai, Nelson Mandela Marg and Baba Gang Nath Marg – were marked as stopping points.”

As I prepare for my upcoming examinations, safely within the walls of my house, I read the statement made by a senior police officer. This unnamed officer presented a convenient picture – the protesting students of Jawaharlal Nehru University had been informed that Section 144 has been imposed, and had been advised to not continue their march. The police strategically surrounded the campus, and though the ‘incorrigible JNU students’ slipped out, the police never lost sight of its ‘duty’. Despite impromptu changes in the route, the police was eventually able to control this ‘mob’ by using barricades and force.

A group of uniform-clad men, carrying the legitimate backing of the government with the tacit consent of the citizenry to use legitimate force, did everything in their power to warn students to not proceed. And when the protestors did not comply, the police did what their duty demands.

Nothing wrong here, right?

The disturbance that I feel because of what’s happening is not something that was triggered by watching the violence unfold as it did. This disturbance has a context, it has been building; waxing and waning for quite some time now. It’s not fleeting, it’s not immediate.

It’s heavy, and it makes me restless.

I still remember one particular day during my first year at Lady Shri Ram College. There was a call for protest by the Delhi University Teachers’ Association. This was the first time my friends and I witnessed something so overtly political happen right before our eyes.

As students of political science, the call was irresistible. We didn’t read much about why the protest was happening, we just knew that the university was not appointing professors in a permanent capacity.

Without further enquiry, we, a group of five young women, reached the place of protest – which was overwhelming, to say the least. Since it was a DUTA protest, not many students could be spotted. We could see the scattered presence of some media and were absolutely terrified of being approached by someone who could potentially question us about why we were there.

We weren’t angry enough because we didn’t know enough, and thus it didn’t make sense for us to be part of a crowd that wanted to block traffic and shout slogans.

Also read: ‘Emergency in JNU’: Section 144 Imposed, Students Lathi-Charged, Detained

As we were handed pamphlets by strangers, we slowly started to grasp the gravity of the situation. We spotted our professor, collectively heaved a sigh with relief and followed her around. The sun was unforgiving, and we realised that standing shoulder to shoulder with those who are enraged is a tiring activity. Bottles of water were passed around, and a professor offered me some orange candy when I got hungry. Many others came and asked if we wanted ice cream.

Within that angry mob, we experienced kindness, safety and camaraderie like we had never before.

A month or two later, there was another call for a march. This time, DUTA specifically asked students to stand with them. I knew I absolutely had to go. I saw groups of students walk out of their classrooms to join the march. In fact, students from LSR occupied three-four compartments of a metro train.

We were instructed to take off any earrings or jewellery, tie our hair in a bun and to not wear a dupatta – all things that people could hold on to and yank us with. These instructions scared a few of my friends, but I reassured them that it was simply precautionary. It was just a march by professors and students, demanding that the system of public education be made stronger.

What could possibly be the contention here?

This was the first time I was fully exposed to the might of the State, and I was afraid. I had never seen so many police officers in the same place, bearing lathis and shields.

I took it personally – had so many policemen really been deployed to stop me, a first-year student demanding that no compromises be made on her education? For from making an effort to talk to those who were making unilateral decisions without consulting all stakeholders?

I was surely not that revolutionary, nor was my demand so rebellious or controversial that the State would be this afraid of me.

I also witnessed the true power of a crowd – I was a part of it, and yet, not one bit of it was scary. I knew why these people had gathered here, and why they felt so strongly for this cause.

I then saw a woman hand a pamphlet to a policeman, and he obliged and read it. I witnessed people around me shout passionate slogans about freedom and calls were made to the government to wake up and listen to those suffering.

I would find myself standing in the crowd, clapping along to someone else’s rebellion. When the crowd sat in front of police barricades and sang songs because they weren’t being allowed to march, I felt their pain.

For different reasons, of course – they wanted to march to the parliament, while I was too tired and just wanted to reach the nearest metro station (which just happened to be on the opposite side of the barricades).

I could see that the singing would take its time, and the policemen had seen that I was emerging from a crowd that could potentially break the barricade the moment they ran out of songs. If I went and asked them to let me through, would they think I was conspiring against the State?

Thankfully, they did not.

Conversations regarding the dismantling of government-sponsored higher education institutions have been around since I started studying at Delhi University. DU is sinking like a mighty ship, a professor lamented a few days ago.

And it’s not just us, as is evident by the JNU protests.

An entire university screams and fights to preserve its diversity. Students question the State to get beaten black and blue just so that their fellow students can continue their education.

Also read: When the Corridors of JNU Echoed With ‘Azadi’ Slogans Again

The data clearly shows that not everybody can afford an increase in the fees, and even though students have taken to the internet to share their stories of struggle, or the stories of those around them, the public has by and large responded and collectively branded every word coming from any student as patently false.

An entire university is being targeted for something it’s not; attacked for having a voice, attacked for doing what democracy demands of us as citizens when we are denied our rights.

Is the idea of affordable education for everyone really this revolutionary that it is countered by such force?

I have witnessed the compassion of the crowd, and I have also witnessed the consideration of the police. The former questions because it must, the latter creates a wall because it has to. When these two clash, it is easy to miss the point. The only one who walks away unscathed is the one questioned, the powerful elected.

The movement is forced to tend to wounds before it can continue to resist and rage.

I am disturbed, because I could’ve been a part of that crowd. I am disturbed, because I should’ve been a part of that crowd. I am disturbed because I can see public education crumble in front of my eyes.

Yet the fears of thousands of students are ignored. These students are fighting many battles all in one go, and the apathy with which they are being met is shameful.

Is it really that hard to look beyond one’s privilege, to sit down and be willing to look beyond prejudices and have a conversation?

Maybe it is. That disturbs me.

Aparna Joshi is a third year undergraduate student of political science at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, who alternates her time between consuming and preaching about the right Netflix content.

Featured image credit: PTI