By Shivanshi Khanna:
The year 2016 has definitely been a year full of unexpected events. Internationally, the US presidential election results caught everyone off guard; whereas within India, the abrupt announcement of demonetisation led to a state of chaos in the economy. Amidst this, however, it also became clear that the student community will leave no stone unturned to make its voice heard. This year marked a pivotal turn in student politics due to the various student movements that happened across the country. Looking back at the tumultuous year of 2016, we bring to you the five most crucial student movements that challenged the existing norms of society and also led to the emergence of student leaders.
News of the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a second year PhD student at the University of Hyderabad sparked off debates, anguish and outrage across the nation in January 2016. He was suspended from college and not permitted to live in the hostel, following a dispute with certain members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in 2015. His suspension took place after interference from Bandaru Dattatreya and the Ministry of Human Resource Development. His monthly allowance was denied to him as well. A depressed Rohith Vemula decided to end his life.
Some termed it as an “institutional murder“, while others outrightly believed it to be victimisation on the basis of caste. The issue of Rohith Vemula was also raised at the 31st Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. People came out on the streets not only in India but abroad as well, with protests being organised by supporters of human rights. His suicide, once again, made us aware of the deeply rooted caste-based discrimination which is prevalent in our country. Even before his death, Rohith was considered a leader by many. His suicide reminded us that we still are not aware of exactly how many such students exist, how many lives could we have saved, had it not been for caste-based discrimination. On campus, the movement, for demanding justice for Vemula was led by his four friends, Dontha Prashanth, Vijay Kumar, Seshaiah Chemudagunta and Sunkanna Velpua. These were the four students who had been suspended along with Rohith Vemula. Dontha Prashanth emerged to be a leader who wishes to work for his community, not wanting them to go through similar experiences like his own, defined by discrimination and disrespect on the basis of caste. Together, the four of them paved a way for a movement that received unprecedented support from universities and colleges across the country, with masses gathering for protests, challenging the stance of the government, which did not consider it a matter of caste, through a unified and fearless voice.
Almost a year later, the demands and voices of the students remain unheard. The students have been involved in protests, asking their Vice-Chancellor to be removed, but till date nothing of this sort has happened. A year is about to pass, without any significant decisions taken either by the government or the administration.
On February 9, 2016, when some students at JNU conducted an event to protest against the capital punishment given to Afzal Guru, the man convicted for the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri separatist – they had little idea what they were getting themselves into. The protest was condemned by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which alleged that the students during the protests were involved in anti-national sloganeering. Within a week, Kanhaiya Kumar, the then president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union was arrested by the Delhi police on charges of sedition. Two other students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested later on. His arrest sparked off debates across the country on whether sedition, a law from the colonial era, should be applicable in an independent India. It made many citizens in the country reflect on the ‘freedoms’ guaranteed to us by the Constitution.
It made the students along with other members of the country reflect on whether we could openly state our opinions without being termed ‘anti-national’ later on. Students across the country held demonstrations in Kanhaiya’s support, demanding for his immediate release and portraying their disappointment against the decision taken by the government. His speech right after he was granted an interim bail for a period of six months and his defiant attitude made it clear that a new political leader was emerging in the country. Several people also looked down at Umar Khalid with contempt for being a Muslim. Such an attitude against him, and the accusations of being a terrorist without any substantial proof depicted the Islamophobia which exists in our nation. His fight, therefore, was not only against the archaic sedition law but also against those unnecessarily fearing the Muslim community.
The movement drew our attention to the leadership role played by Shehla Rashid Shora, who was the vice-president of JNUSU. She led the movement after Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested. She emerged out to be a strong leader with conviction, despite the hate she received for supporting Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. Anirban Bhattacharya is also another name that comes to mind, who was determined throughout to not to give up despite the accusations levelled against him. Along with Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar, he came out with a zeal and passion to survive despite the odds. Shehla Rashid Shora, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid shaped the JNU protest into a movement which will be forever engraved in the history of student movements in India, reminding each and every student to fight for freedom, and raise their voices fearlessly.
JNU resurfaced in the news again, when on October 15, 2016, one of its students, Najeeb Ahmed went missing. His disappearance happened one day after he allegedly got involved in a fight with members of ABVP. A month later, a notice was sent to ABVP member Vikrant Kumar after it was alleged that he had physically assaulted Najeeb Ahmed a night before his disappearance. Meanwhile, ABVP and JNUSU have both been accusing each other of politicising the matter by giving it a communal colour. The agitation of students was so strong that the college authorities denied the JNU Students Union from conducting solidarity protests for Najeeb in November 2016. This event has not only raised doubts about the potential of the Delhi police for their inability to find a person who has been missing for a period of more than two months; but has also gathered support from various student communities and campuses across the country, with many fearing political reasons behind his disappearance. The administration has been alleged of not taking action at the right time, with the students union being discontent with the treatment of the issue. According to the President Mohit K Pandey, the administration has been involved in protecting ABVP rather than listening to the two sides involved objectively. On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA) has stated in one of its notices that the JNU administration has deliberately tried to ignore the fact that Najeeb Ahmed was indeed beaten up a night before his disappearance.
Sushant Rohilla, a fourth-year law student at Amity Noida, committed suicide in August after he was debarred from appearing for examinations due to low attendance. This tragedy exposed the stringent regulations that certain colleges have regarding attendance. The family of Sushant said that his attendance was low because he had a fractured leg. Although the reason for his suicide was not mentioned in his suicide note, the circumstances prior to the incident and the mails sent out to the college authorities, indicated that the mental stress caused due to being debarred from examinations could possibly have led him to take this step. This incident received massive support both from the current as well as ex-students of the University.
As many as 200 students gathered in his support asking for the resignation of the two faculty members who had allegedly mentally harassed him. Despite being provided with a clean chit by the college committee, the two members resigned. This incident has raised crucial questions regarding the importance of attendance in the realm of education and the strict attitude with which college authorities deal with it. This protest also gained momentum on social media platforms like Facebook, leading to a campaign called #JusticeforSushant as well as the creation of the FB page ‘ALSD Alumni Against Atrocities.’ The Supreme Court took sou motu cognisance of the letter left behind by the student.
According to the Facebook page, Pinjra Tod describes itself as “an autonomous collective effort to ensure secure, affordable and not gender-discriminatory accommodation for women students across Delhi.” The year 2016 proved to be a successful year for this movement, as they conducted several successful demonstrations during the year. The first one, being a night-long march at North Campus. The second march, was held around the areas of LSR after alleged incidents of the college students being sexually harassed were reported in the months of August, September and October 2016. The march witnessed around 150 students, with all of them reclaiming the streets, demanding freedom from curfews in PGs, hostels and a safer city. Another successful march was also led at Jamia Millia University in the month of September, where they put up posters and encouraged women to voice out their complaints against sexist hostel rules that prevent them from engaging in campus-related activities beyond early hours of the evening.
Special mention should be made of the massive student protests which took place in support of the teaching staff during Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) agitation. It happened after the new norms were declared by University Grants Commission (UGC) leading to an approximate 50% cut in the jobs for teachers. The voices against the directions issued by UGC were not only of the teachers but also their students, who came out on the streets in order to express their solidarity with the teaching fraternity. Here too, students played a massive role in raising their voice against injustice of any form.
The above movements sparked off debates and questions crucial for the student fraternity of our country. They aroused the interest of several citizens in matters which had been otherwise neglected or not considered problematic. The movements might not have been in the limelight for a while now, however, the questions which each one of them have raised individually are yet to be solved and answered. The role played by various social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, has been at the heart of these movements. Social media helped the people to channelise their voices. They have proved to be effective platforms through which matters of immediate public importance could easily reach out to the masses; and have encouraged the student community to raise their voice against the evils that exist in our society, before it gets too late.