On the Demonising of Student Activists

University is where I found my political self. I became aware of systemic oppression and learnt to decolonise my mind. ‘Decolonize and moisturize’ by the feminist comedy troupe Hot Brown Honey became my mantra – more so in the winters. I was proud of being the kind of student who questioned the university’s faults and demanded fairness for all its students. I was a student activist and I revelled in it.

On April 6, 2018, the students of Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) organized a press conference to talk about the on-going protests against the withdrawal of aid for OBC and ST/SC students.

Historically, as enshrined in its vision statement, TISS used to be a place that supported marginalised communities in their quest for education equality.

However, in 2015, OBC students had their scholarship cut, specifically, the Government of India Post Matric Scholarship (GOI-PMS) was suddenly discontinued – and the percentage of OBC students enrolled has been dwindling ever since. At the Mumbai campus, the percentage of OBC students has gone from a low 22% in 2014-2015 to a lower 18% in 2016-2017.

This year, SC/ST students had their fee waivers reduced as well. The 2016 and 2017 batches were told about these grants in their admission prospectus, but it has been discontinued mid-way through their education. The previous agreement made such reneging a legal problem, and after further talks, the university agreed to continue aid for these batches.

TISS’s student leaders all assert that they want to fight for the upcoming generations and not just the current students. “We have learnt this democracy in our class, and that is what we want to practice,” said Priyanka Sandaliya, a second-year doctoral student from TISS.

(L-R) Priyanka Sandaliya, Fahad Ahmad and Shubhankar Roy Credit: Devina Buckshee

After expanding their campuses and courses, TISS is claiming funding deficits and increasing its fees, including hostel and dining fees, while simultaneously cutting its aid programmes, thereby harming its most economically vulnerable students. This makes it very difficult for students from marginalized communities to access education. Shubhankar Roy, another student at TISS asked, “Where do we go if education is closed?” Faced with the denial of their right to education, students are demanding financial transparency from the university.

To make matters worse, on March 27, 2016, six OBC students were given a legal notice by the administration. Out of these, three were Muslim and out of these three, one was a woman and one an Adivasi. The judge in this case said that there were no grounds for legal action by the administration as the students were “normal students peacefully protesting” and all they wanted was a dialogue with the authorities. The registrar, however, defended the university’s actions saying the protests were by ‘fringe elements’ and that the matter they allegedly wanted to discuss had been resolved already.

The student leaders made it very clear that they were not activists; in the press conference and in court, and that they were only ordinary students protesting for their rights.

Student activists are now seen as radical and revolutionary – qualities that are important for progressive change, but are instead painted as distracting, unimportant and worst of all, ungrateful. At a press conference in New Delhi yesterday, TISS Student Union General Secretary, Fahad Ahmed, spoke of the growing “attack on democratic spaces that were created after Indian independence”.

The demonising of student activism in recent years is a troubling trend. For me, being a student activist meant standing up for myself and my fellow students; standing for vulnerable people, and creating a community focused on social justice. ‘Empowerment through education’ is something we hear very often. But how can this be more than just a hollow, feel-good phrase if we restrict our education spaces into elitist bubbles? If public universities close their doors then how will the system uplift anyone? As Sandaliya puts it “Who will be left? Do only certain people have the right to study?”

Student activism is what pushes us to demand that ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ be more than empty words. As Sucharita from the Lok Raj Sangathan said, “Students from social welfare courses and liberal universities that are being targeted the most, are the ones that will help the country, to create not just a liberal elite but enlightened young people”.

We need to re-address how we write about student politics – and not dismiss students protesting for positive change as one-dimensional ungrateful, tax-evading troublemakers. We need to assess whose voice is not being heard in the debate about student politics – and if it’s the students, we have a problem.

Young people are often told to be grateful for the status quo, as if our voices are unimportant and we should just learn to live with inequalities. We’re often told, ‘That’s life, it’s rough.’ But the way things are, is not always the way they should be, and student protesters – and activists and questioners – are the ones we need to thank (and support) for inspiring change.