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From Being A Strong Supporter Once, Why I Now Have No Hope From Student Politics

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By Amlan Jyoti Chaudhury:

“Hasta la Victoria Siempre!” (Until Victory, Always!)

This was the concluding line at the effigy burning organised by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad in solidarity with the Hokkolorob Movement on September 24, 2014. Being an active member of Jadavpur University’s student politics during graduation, it was important for me to be beside my alma mater who had given me one thing apart from my B.A. degree, and that is my conscience. I believe that those of us who were part of the Hokkolorob Movement had made history. But there are sceptics who will not support my belief.

Well, I do not care much.

I joined Jadavpur University in the year 2010 with hardly any knowledge about student politics. My father used to tell me about the Naxalite Movement in Kolkata and how many of the students’ lives got destroyed due to them joining the Movement. I was never an ardent supporter of student politics. But my thought process changed once I joined JU. Many events compelled me to change my opinion. These include the arrest of Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University who was arrested for having forwarded emails containing cartoons of Mamata Banerjee. Another incident is the chief minister’s reaction to a gang rape in Kolkata, which she stated to be a “staged” incident.

The 1960s and 70s may be considered to be the golden period for student movements in India. It was so, to a large extent, due to the Naxalite Movement. Though the Naxalite Movement was a failure, yet I would say that the golden age in student movements will not be or cannot be replicated in today’s era. Here’s why I say that.

During the Naxalite Movement, students picked up arms to bring about a revolution. Today, however, students tend to use a new form of weaponry, i.e., social media. During the Hokkolorob Movement in Jadavpur University, #Hokkolorob flooded Facebook and Twitter. All events and happenings were updated on the official Hokkolorob Facebook page. It was through Facebook that the ‘Mahamichhil’ (the Big March) was organised on September 20, 2014.

However, social media also presents an image of the protesters as social misfits who threaten the stability of the state with petty violence. Many on social media also make a mockery of the ongoing movements. One such example being my classmate during my Masters who had compared Yakub Menon with Bhagat Singh by calling them both terrorists. Besides, it seems to me that candle light marches and protest demonstrations often act merely as platforms for taking pictures, selfies and posting them on Instagram and Facebook as display pictures.

The pivotal role in provoking change and challenging governmental policies has taken a defeatist step back. Yes, there have been protests against the scrapping of the non-NET scholarship and FTII protests against the appointment of a new chairman. But most of the protests in the recent past have been student-centric, or rather campus-centric. Policies affecting the general public appear not to have been considered worthwhile to ponder over. On the other hand, the Naxalite Movement during the 1970s was initially a peasant uprising against ‘feudal’ exploitation which gained massive student support.

Not much attention was paid when Rohith Vemula was raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) due to which Hyderabad University stopped paying him his fellowship. The issue gained nationwide media attention as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits only after Rohith committed suicide. Voices of support came from all over the world. The entire incident could have ushered in a new era and finally necessary steps could have been taken against discrimination and years of prejudice. But instead, the entire campaign simply turned into a political blame game between the BJP nationalists versus the opposition parties. In my opinion, ‘Justice for Rohith’ became a mockery in itself when the authorities started looking into whether Rohith was a Dalit or not. A campaign loses its dignity when the validity of the case depends solely on the identification of the caste of a dead person.

Today, issues which are highlighted more turn into massive movements while issues with less exposure are not given much importance. For example, the Delhi Nirbhaya rape case received prominence, while rapes in the villages of UP do not get much coverage. Hokkolorob was initiated due to agitations in protest against the inaction of the college administration in a molestation case that had occurred in the Jadavpur University campus which went on to receive global attention. But a similar molestation case in Shantiniketan around the same time was simply ignored.

None of the established political parties represent the students’ views – the leadership consists of older men whose rhetoric represents a different age and style which does not match with the humour of today’s youth. Political differences mainly come from ideological differences. Many have commented about the unholy alliance of Congress and CPIM in the recent state elections. However, I would like to remind people of the students’ body elections in JU in 2014. In that election, the TMCP ate into the vote share of the FAS, leading to an SFI victory. One might wonder if there was a secret deal of some kind between the two big organisations. So much for political ideologies if that is true.

Nowadays, students get into the process of political socialisation mainly through their participation in campus politics. However, being a part of JU politics, I have witnessed that the sole reason for student politics is simply to win the college elections. In my first year, a senior from my department came into my class and spoke about how prices of onions had been increasing and how the students’ union was taking steps to oppose the government on this issue. However, when I met him in person to talk about this issue, he simply spoke about the methods by which they could win the college elections the following year.

The JNU protest was mainly against colonial era laws in our democracy and dealt with the issue of freedom of speech and expression. But instead, the entire country got divided where one half considered Kanhaiya Kumar to be a national hero, a patriot while the other half considered him to be an anti-nationalist or, rather, a terrorist. The debate shifted from human rights and free speech to defaming and degrading the stature of JNU as an institution and its students as well. While on one side, the RSS, the ABVP and supporters of BJP raised slogans like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Matram’, JNU students, on the other hand, sang renditions of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s anti-dictatorship poem. Amidst all the pandemonium and clamour from both sides, the true sense of revolution got lost without any worthwhile change taking place.

In this era where student movements reflect the direction or the character of the new vision of society at a micro level, there is an abundance of student disillusionment and a nonchalant attitude towards mainstream politics. Social injustice and apathy prevail while frustrations still flourish in a pandemic of cynicism. In this scenario, protests and dissents might not be changing public policies, but they may change public opinion, hence, in turn, future policies. Many influential leaders have come out from the past student movements, like Prakash Karat, Jyoti Basu, Kavita Krishnan and Charu Majumdar. But there is a lack of very highly influential student leaders in recent movements. Whether or not Kanhaiya Kumar will be the next only time will tell. As a conclusion, I would want to quote a line which used to be written on the wall right outside the Economics Department of Jadavpur University:

“If politics decides your future, decide what your politics should be.”

Featured image for representation only. Credit: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

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