The Power of Student Protests in India

With almost 1 year to the recent Anti-CAA-NRC protests, let’s introspect about how the state reacts to student protests, and how its attitude towards them has changed over the years.

An area otherwise neglected by historians for long, as admitted by scholar Ghanshyam Shah, has become a part of the popular conversation since 2016 after agitations broke out at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and University of Hyderabad– that of ‘the student movement’. In such a context, it is important to ask the kind of question, “Does the current upsurge in student protests indicate the advent of a new phase in the history of the student movement in independent India?”

While a definitive answer can only be given in time, it does encourage a more careful look at student protests across India, post-1947. Early instances of student agitations in the postcolonial context can be traced to movements such as the demand for linguistic states in the 1950s (in Odisha, and even leading to the creation of Andhra Pradesh and later Telangana) and the Madras anti-Hindi agitation of 1965.

Historically speaking, the three major universities of Uttar Pradesh – Banaras, Aligarh, and Allahabad – have also been major centers of student unrest and agitation, as pointed out by Subas Chandra Hazary.

However, one of the first major moments of radical pan-India student politics is the Naxalite movement. What started on May 25, 1967 as a peasant uprising in a small village of West Bengal- Naxalbari- became a byword for revolutionary zeal, inspiring an entire generation of students in the late 1960s.

The Naxalite movement engaged support across the country – Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, etc. – with ‘Andhra Naxalites’ being active in the regions of Telangana and Srikakulam. The romance of revolutionary fervour even impacted urbane and middle-class students such as Dilip Simeon (academician) and Rajiv Kumar (NITI Aayog vice-chairman) to leave elite institutions like the St Stephen’s College to become part of the Naxalite movement.

The next milestone for radical student politics was the Emergency. An entire generation of India’s political leaders emerged from the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement against the Emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on June 25, 1975. Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan are in that sense JP’s children and the very genesis of the JP movement lay in student agitations in Gujarat known as the ‘Navnirman Andolan’ (Reconstruction Movement) in 1974. The movement began due to a hike in hostel food fees in Gujarat colleges and universities. Moved by JP’s call for ‘sampoornakranti’ (total revolution), a number of students – including the current home minister and prime minister – cut their political teeth during the movement.

The student-backed JP movement was successful in relegating Indira Gandhi to the margins of Indian democracy and installing the first non-Congress government at the center. A September 1977 image of Sitaram Yechury as the JNU Students’ Union leader confronting the then chancellor Indira Gandhi, along with George Fernandes’ defiant pose are some of the iconic images from the period.

The last phase of student movements or agitations chronologically starts from the onset of the BJP government. These include the spate of protests against the CAA and NRC, but can be traced to the JNU agitation of February 2016 and the agitation against Rohith Vemula’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad. This time the situation is quite different, the government is not willing to engage with the students and instead of trying to villainize the students (case in point, JNU, and JMIU being labeled as anti-national) and the media, instead of helping these student movements getting traction, playing a large part in antagonizing the movement and whatever it stands for.

The police had entered the library of Jamia Milia Islamia University during the anti-CAA-NRC protests and were responsible for throwing tear gas at the university and injuring several students. Despite the police committing what may be said in simple terms human rights violation, the way the mainstream narrative was spread in the society justifying this state-supporting violence was shocking and horrifying.

At that point in time, the question that remains is that would these student movements be able to sustain themselves when the state is not willing to engage with them and is ready to suppress their voices through any violent means possible?

It is imperative that at all costs, these voices of dissent must have the channel to echo throughout the country. Because if these voices are heard, only then can the narrative change and people like Rohit Vemula and Najeeb get justice!

Read our article on The Year of Dissent: Timeline of Protests 2019-20

Featured Image Credit – The Diplomat

Sloka Roy