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Indian Universities and Activism: Fifty-Shades of Azadi

Let us dive deeper into the sphere of academic resistance provided by the Indian Universities during the colonial era; challenging the establishments and cores of the ruling government and placing itself as an integral catalyst in the National Arena.


The Indian Universities, especially the arenas of DU and JNU, are actively considered to be the battlegrounds of resistance and crusading making them an integral part of the National political framework. The recent decade has portrayed us multiple players including the national leaders actively indulging in campus politics and politicking. The Indian Universities have made headlines that indeed have ignited widespread debate among intellectuals about University autonomy, academic freedom and the freedom of expression. The recent case of Ashoka Resignations or the multiple excesses done in DU and JNU form the complete mosaic of the debate; nationalist vs. anti-nationalist with the media apprehending upon the public actions and behaviors, being interpreted in these inverse categories.

Curzon’s Upshot

The scope of activism within Indian Universities was very contrasting in British India, rather the suppression by the British was covert and highly brutal in its very nature. In the year 1828, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and a group of free student thinkers formed the Academic Associations in the undivided Bengal’s Hindu College, which played a great role in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th Century, intendedly placing a landmark for Student activism. Several more debating societies popped up across the educational institutions during the British Raj namely the Marathi Literary Society in Bombay College and Gujarati Dramatic Group in Gujarat University.

students with Gandhi
Student masses with Gandhiji at Champaran. (Source: Newsclick)

In the year 1904, Lord Curzon announced the New University Act by which all ingenuities, liberty and dissenting political right/scope were completely withdrawn from the Universities under the Raj. An upshot to Curzon’s Repression in the year 1905 the students of Eden College in Calcutta burned down the then viceroy Lord Curzon’s statue to protest the partition of Bengal being documented as the instances of students’ protest. The first students’ strike in undivided India took place in 1920 in King Edward Medical College, Lahore, against academic discernment between Indian and English apprentices.

Ironically, this backfired the colonial masters, the student unrest was successfully mobilized and channeled by Gandhi, though with a hypocritical stance to it. With his subsequent return to India, Mahatma Gandhi influenced the University students on the ideals of non-violence and civil defiance. Notably, Gandhi’s speech in the BHU inauguration deeply influenced the youth, with his signature clad in a Kathiawadi long coat and turban, Gandhi spoke about the fact that the nationalist movement has turned into an elitist phenomenon barring the interests of the less-privileged. 

Congress, Prophet and Zealotry

On the other hand, some students were nervous and bewildered by Gandhi’s strange and irrational ideals, but subsequently, they were thrilled by the Champaran Struggle with the root efforts of Gandhi. As a fallout there was a large chunk of student community actively participating in the Non-Cooperation movement, captivatingly almost all provincial, district and the root congress workers were young students, primarily dropouts leading at every front. Thus, in the year 1936, the All-India Students Federation (AISF) was formed, encapsulating the feelings of nationalism amongst the youth, but was this nationalism sceptical and dual? Well, the answer revolves around the simple datum, embedded nature of the Freedom Struggle led by the Congress. The Congress policy fostered disunity, cynically preaching a harmonious nature of favoring the rich-class while parenting the streamline of the socially and economically oppressed students. 

indian universities
Eden College in British Calcutta. (Source: oldkolkata.blogspot)

The student movement under the Congress became a larger political space where the students encapsulated the realm of religious identity. On one hand, the Muslim students voiced their concerns regarding a similar issue which can be seen today, about the failure to include adjournments to offer Prayers and voiced concern about the singing of Vande Mataram. The AISF promoted a Muslim-Hindu Student Unity campaign that sought to subdue the alternate rising of communal politics. On the other hand, the Muslim student leaders snubbed a campaign that equated the struggle for minority rights as communal politics and the militant students associated with the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS gradually organized supplementary protests within the AISF sessions often amassing to cycles of student protests or ferocity. The rise of these anti-Muslim student movements triggered Muslim students to leave the AISF, catalyzing to provoke this group during a period that their social identity had become contested and fragile.

Shift in the ‘Deity Love’

Despite the AISF’s leadership rejecting the Hindu nationalist politics and their campaigns for unity, the Muslim students stressed their general sense of frustration with the national student movement. They created a discord that represented themselves as an object of suspicion in a Hindu-dominated student movement and called the AISF the baby of the Congress. Ideological and opinionated divergences amid the communist and the congress student leaders summed up in the fragmentation of the AISF; the Nagpur split indicated the tense rapport between Gandhi and the bulk of Indian students. Gandhi who was once an idol of the students suddenly was deemed as a hypocrite especially for his stand upon the caste and religious minorities.

The irresistible mainstream comprising the regional delegates at the AISF consultation supported the motion that unswervingly condemned Bapu’s approach. This occurred despite Jawaharlal Nehru and Jai Prakash Narayan’s appeal to students to obey his instructions about student strikes, interestingly both having a radical base in the party attracting the mainstream youth then. In the 1940s period, the students played a great part in the Independence of India but unaware of the similar challenges the upcoming generations were about to face.

Jawaharlal Nehru at the AISF Formation Conference on 12 August 1936 at Lucknow. (Source: Arjun Muraleedharan Madathiparambil/ Wikipedia)

A mirror to the British Raj, the ruling party has a similar perception towards students as subjects rather than mere citizens and individuals voicing their side of the allegory. With internal differences at their peak compared to the British Raj AISF cacophony, the menace is more marked. The subsequent communal narrative which was even evident during the Raj has played a significant role in polarization in the contemporary student arena. Students are supposed loyal and well-behaved; meaning questioning and challenging political forces is deviant, what makes them tamed is the act of blaring ‘Jai Shri Ram’ outside University gates and yapping for blood, which indeed is marked as honorable moderately opposite to the Gadar Forces of students.

Featured Image Credits: OpenEdition Journals

Nirmanyu Chouhan

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Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history.Freedom to Express.