When Students Rise Against Those in Power

The anger raging in the minds of students all over the country morphed into a youth-led movement, which went beyond a mere expression of solidarity. The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University stood against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the National Register of Citizens and instances of police brutality.

I have forgotten the last time India witnessed student-led protests at such a massive scale, since the Independence movement, anti-Emergency movement, anti-reservation protests and others.

Since then, students have been actively engaging in political debates while opposing the established beliefs on the grounds of discrimination, threat to unity, freedom and diversity. In case of the CAA, not only did the minority institutions express dissent, students from private universities also came out in support. I am appalled thinking about the potential of these movements to reshape our national politics and overturn power structures, given the fact that the students participating in these mass protests are not organised by any political group.

These change-makers are often terrorised for speaking up but the real question is: Will this break their motivation or light a new fire that will be difficult to douse in the coming days?

Presidency University protest

Recently, I visited the Presidency University in Kolkata and I could sense the impatience and dissatisfaction amongst the students. That day, March 5, students had gathered to stage a sit-in protest at the College Street – MG Road intersection, demanding quick renovation of three dilapidated wards of the Hindu Hostel. They were also seeking answers for the ‘autocratic’ dismissal of eight mess staff of the hostel by the college authorities.

Some students said that these staff had allegedly supported the students who had been complaining about overcrowding the two wards of the hostel, which accommodate around ten students in a single room, and also lack basic amenities.

After talking to a research scholar from the department of life sciences, I got to know that in 2016, the administration asked the hostel boarders to leave because of the renovation work and assured that they would be accommodated back after 11 months. Students say that there hasn’t been any progress since then compelling them to come out and protest.

Also read: Explainer: Why Are Students Protesting at Presidency University?

The administration suspended the students at the forefront but a few students sat on hunger strike to continue the agitation. As a result, two wards out of five were made functional to the hostel boarders. According to the students, the boy’s hostel in Rajarhat had nine mess staff, who provided only one meal per day to the students. Situation worsened when the students were shifted to the Hindu Hostel, where the number of staff members was reduced to eight. The students tried to get in touch with the authority but the dean of students said,“I am not the competent authority and you should speak to the vice chancellor Anuradha Lohia regarding these.”

The students claim that their fight now is not just about getting back the Hindu Hostel, it is about fighting for ‘roti, kapda and makaan’. “We are fighting for roti, we are fighting for makaan. Thankfully, we have kapda,” said a student.

Students say that some hired goons threatened them to withdraw the protest, but they didn’t budge and the roadblock continued with the help of the locals. Subsequently, the students decided to clear the road after the administration refused to communicate with them.

Youth-led movements

This is the same Eden Hindu Hostel where students burnt Lord Curzon’s effigy and boycotted college examinations in 1905 to register their protest against the government’s decision’s to go ahead with the India-Pakistan partition. Bengali students were among the most active participants in the early Swadeshi movement. Educational institutions were the recruiting grounds for political parties.

The major student organisations at that time were the All India Student Federation and the Student Congress. Several political parties also had their own student wings, such as the Samajvadi Yovak Sabha (Socialist sponsored Young Socialist League), the progressive student union, the Hindu Student Federation, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In the book, Student movement, political development and modernisation in India, Braz Rita writes “the growing awareness among students of being a distinct and influential part of society and politics, and of the possibility of changing policy decisions,” contributes to the politicisation of students. Anything big starts with such small self-mobilised group of individuals capable of critical thinking, people who can rise above their narrow self-interests.

Also read: Why I Fight

For the past couple of years, women students have also become active participants in the protests challenging the authority in any shape or form. Be it the protests against Rohith Vemula’s suicide, JNU protests of 2016, JNU’s agitation against the hostel fee hike or the Presidency issue, women have also been at the forefront.

After speaking to the students from different universities, I realised how these institutions have turned into a place of debates, opinions, liberalism and radicalism and how these protests are a result of something that was brewing for a very long time.

One thing was clear among all the students: Those in position of power at the universities tend to act like bureaucrats, trying to infantilise students while playing in the hands of the government. Hence, students and staff often ridicule these people in power.

In coming days, such spontaneous student movements will probably spread sooner than we can imagine.

Kasturi Chakraborty is a journalist at The Millenium Post and has previously worked a the Deccan Chronicle, Pioneer, The Sunday Guardian, the Embassy of Georgia and the Indian Economist.

Featured image credit: Reuters