We Need to Create a Vocabulary of Protest Which Resonates with Students, Citizens

I am writing this from the comfort of my home, protected from state violence and police brutality. I have not been protesting on the streets like thousands of other students protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

I also had the privilege of pursuing my masters from a university abroad, which meant that I didn’t have to make tough choices like my friends at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who are boycotting their exams and risking their futures.

But like thousands of students across the country, I too am troubled and disturbed by what is happening to my country and to fellow students. I have friends who are part of these protests, who have been attacked and brutalised and find themselves beaten, humiliated and despondent. A friend I talked to recently, told me, “It feels as if I am fighting a losing battle, I feel so angry and yet it seems like there is nothing I can do about it.”

I felt a sense of helplessness as my friend said that. Maybe as I write this, I am trying to overcome just that.

As someone who has researched student politics and Indian nationalism, I have found myself grappling with a host of questions – questions I believe other students are asking themselves too.

At a personal level I found myself asking whether student protests are only a matter of intellectual abstraction for me or should they also be a part of my political commitment? What is it that my fellow students and citizens are fighting for and is it even worth it? Can we really make a difference at all? What can each one of us do and how do we resist and respond? Who can lead us in these troubled times?

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I am someone who subscribes to Gandhian values and ideas. I abjure violence in all its forms and I don’t support the vandalisation of state property or violence as a mode of protest under any circumstances. Neither do I personally feel that violence is the right response to state brutality.

At the same time, I believe that we are part of a historical moment where democratic civil resistance has become a necessary response to a discriminatory and unjust law and a tyrannical government. Writing, speaking up or making ourselves heard and expressing solidarity with protesting students and citizens is not only an act of courage and resistance but has become our very duty in these times.

I believe young people in this country must be taken seriously and that young people must take themselves seriously. In the absence of any credible political leadership, and given the emasculated state of the opposition in the country, students have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. As students, this is our moment and we must own it.

We have something that this regime lacks: the power of imagination and the ability to think and ask questions. Those in power are afraid of us and our ability to question their authority. The brutal response of the state to these protests is only a symptom of that fear. Those who have an acute sense of their own impotence are trying to vasectomise the constitution by introducing divisive laws.

It is our responsibility to fight for constitutional values and the rights of our fellow citizens. We must harness our collective imagination, to read, write, discuss, debate, educate others and create poetry, art and literature. We need to create a vocabulary of protest which finds resonance with students and citizens all across the country. Now is the time when even small, everyday acts of resistance will count.

Write, talk to your neighbours, distribute pamphlets, sing, perform, organise reading or discussion groups, participate in or organise inter-faith prayer meetings in support of your fellow citizens who are being targeted because of their religion. Do anything but remain silent, neutral, apolitical or worse still apathetic. If your personal circumstances prohibit you from coming out on the street to protest then remember that these small acts of resistance and solidarity can contribute a lot to the present struggle.

They can ban the internet but they can’t stop us from talking to each other, they can beat us but they can’t prevent us from marching together. They might break our bones but they can’t break our spirit. We must make ourselves heard and speak in different languages and disseminate our message across the country. Now is the time for students in every district and every town of India to rise and articulate their message in Punjabi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati and every other regional language. We must find a way to correlate our concerns to those of ordinary people.

What comes to mind is a conversation I had with a bus conductor recently during a journey from Sonepat to Chandigarh. The conductor made a very pertinent and a rather poignant observation, “The people at the helm don’t have any children of their own, why would they care about ours?”

I think this statement holds true for every parent who might have sympathies for the current regime and doesn’t want his or her children to raise their voice or protest. This fight above all else is about your children’s future and the country they will get to live.

It is about restoring civility and decency in our public life, the right to disagree respectfully, the ability to speak our minds without threat or intimidation. It is a fight to save our public universities and to ensure that they are open to every student regardless of their social or economic background. It is a fight for constitutional and democratic values and above all it is a fight about who gets to be an Indian.

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This is the moment for students to raise and engage with some fundamental questions like, historically what has been the role of students the world over and more specifically in our country’s freedom struggle? What role do students play in a democracy and what role do protests have in a democracy? Who gets to or has the right to protest and how can protests deepen democracy?

In the process, students might very well end up redefining what it means to be a student and a citizen. A friend of mine bemoaned the fact that we don’t have leaders like JP anymore who could provide both moral and political leadership. My response to her is that the movement will throw up its own leaders and it is now incumbent upon each and every student and citizen to show moral courage and stand up for each other.

More importantly this moment must gain momentum and turn into a full-fledged movement. This sentiment against the government must translate itself into concerted political action. We must hit this regime where it hurts the most and eviscerate it electorally. From now on in every election big or small we must register our protest through the ballot and punish the ruling party for its excesses.

It is also our time as citizens to claim our country back. I have no qualms in saying that a government which goes to the extent of attacking its own students and vandalising universities is a morally bankrupt and illegitimate government. The only authority that the current government has comes from the fact that we elected it and we must not forget that the ultimate authority in our democracy lies with “We the people.” If we decide we can even boot this government out through the ballot.

The ideological heirs of those who killed the Mahatma hold the reins of power today but we can choose to bring the Mahatma back to life through our actions. In the spirit of Gandhian values, I can only appeal to the conscience of my fellow citizens and can’t coerce them into speaking up or protesting but each one of us must remember the immensity and importance of this moment in history.

Madhav Nayar has done his Masters in Modern South Asian History from SOAS. He worked on student protest and resistance in colonial Amritsar and Lahore (1918-22) for his dissertation. He can be reached at madhavnayar@gmail.com

Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis