“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it”
– Howard Zinn (American historian, playwright and socialist thinker)
‘A group of masked men and women armed with sticks, rods and acid unleashed violence on the campus of one of the premier institutes of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), on Sunday evening. The masked goons went about storming the campus, breaking glasses, rampaging through hostels and attacking students and teachers alike.’
This is just one amongst the many similar headlines that one would have been greeted with on that fateful day. Everyone watched in horror as the entire event unfolded in front of their eyes with Aishe Ghosh bravely standing even with blood flowing down incessantly from her head. News poured in from all other regions of India where different educational institutions like Jamia Milia Islamia, Jadavpur University and many more stood in solidarity with JNU. Even top management colleges like IIM Bangalore and IIM Calcutta showed their support and protested against the violence.
And that is when people finally realised the enormity and the significance of the protests going on. And a majority of them responded with full vigour and enthusiasm by doing what they do best – blaming it on the educational system and the student protestors of our country, just like any normal Indian household. Instead of trying to solve the problem, they blamed the problem for even being a problem. Just like how we have people blaming girls for enticing boys to rape them. It pretty much follows the same disjointed logic really.
Let’s first rewind a bit and understand the rich history that India has in this area. It all started with Bengal in 1905 wherein students of Eden College burned down the then Viceroy Lord Curzon’s effigy to protest the partition of Bengal. Then in 1920, students of King Edward Medical College, Lahore called a strike against academic discrimination between Indian and English pupils. Since then we have had students protesting against all the major issues in our country like the imposition of Emergency in 1975, the Assam agitation against illegal migrants (which, by the way, is now spearheading the protests against the amended citizenship act) and many more. And why stay restricted to India when the entire world is trying to cross borders, legally or illegally but almost always in order to have a better chance to survive. Australian students have a long history of being active in political debates while student activism triggered a general modernisation of universities in Argentina. The Quebec Student Movement started in Canada to protest against the 75% hike in tuition fees while Chile was rocked by a series of student-led nationwide protests demanding a new framework for education in the country, including more direct state participation in secondary education and an end to the existence of profit in higher education. However, the most iconic one would be the 1919 May Fourth Movement that saw over 3000 students of Peking University and other schools pouring out onto the streets and holding a demonstration in front of Tiananmen campaigning for a democratic revolution in China. The list goes on and on really and you can read all about the various student revolutions on Wikipedia. So I will spare you the obvious facts now.
Recently I read this BBC article with the headline – Does JNU campus attack mean India is failing its young? Is it? Let’s get on that De Lorean once again and drive it at 88 mph to find some answers.
First stop: Greensboro sit-ins, 1960 – The lunch counter sit-ins that would change American history began with four teenagers who walked up to a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and refused to leave. With the movement gathering momentum and support from all quarters, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed which outlawed segregation in public places.
Second stop: Apartheid divestment, 1970s to 80s – The uprising was started by public school students in Soweto, South Africa. It mainly started as a protest against a mandate but soon snowballed into a global movement against apartheid. The protests having spread to other countries as well, forced the administrators there to withdraw billions of dollars in investments from companies tied to South Africa. This led to economic stress and ultimately the successful dismantling of apartheid.
Third stop: Velvet revolution, 1989 – Following the fall of the Berlin Wall signalling the end of the Communist rule, students of neighbouring Czechoslovakia set about toppling its own. These stubborn but peaceful protestors achieved success within 11 days when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia relinquished power.
Final stop: Nirbhaya movement, 2012 – The horrific incident that shook the nation and the world to its core also started the conversation towards better implementation of rules that will protect the women of our country. And again the students spearheaded the movement for the same.
So I think now even Doc and Marty would agree that if the students are saying something everyone should sit up and better listen. Students are more than just test scores. They have their own opinions, desires, ideas et al. They cannot be revoked simply because they are younger. They are the future of any country and should have a prominent say in it as well. They are the ones who are studying right now and gradually realising what may or may not be good for them. Their inquisitive minds should be nurtured and nourished. Only then will the country be able to progress and go beyond simply aping the West. Instead of shutting them down and not giving them importance, their questions should be answered properly since they have been the drivers of all major changes in the past and will continue to be so in the future as well. People should remember that dissent is the highest form of patriotism and it is always a good idea to ask questions. That is the crux on which democracy stands tall.
I would like to end this with a famous poem with an added line:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the students, and I did not speak out-because I was not a student.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
[The article is the Second winning entry for the Article Writing Competition organized by Public Policy Club, IIFT. ]