Why Is The State So Uncomfortable With Student Protests?

Posted by Towfeeq Wani in Campus Politics, Campus Watch
March 21, 2017

In May 1968, France saw one of the most violent and widespread protests in its history. It started as student protests against institutions, capitalism, consumerism, traditional values and order. Later, it was joined by the workers as well. It forced the then President Charles de Gaulle to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new parliamentary elections, in which, of course, his party won the majority again. The movement, thus, may not have had any immediate significant impact on the politics of the country but is widely considered as a cultural and social turning point in the history of the nation.

Now, most of us know all this, have read about it in books and magazines, seen it in films and documentaries. However, as we near the golden jubilee of the French student protests, it would be interesting to put it in the context of the student protests and resistance India has seen in the last two or three years.

The Purpose Of A University

For a long time, I have wondered why we don’t have universities that specialise in only one discipline or field of study, like IITs and IIMs. Why do we call the IITs and IIMs ‘institutions’ and not ‘universities’? Imagine a single institution teaching English literature to all the students pursuing the subject in different universities of Delhi. After all, the purpose of a university is to give its students specialised education in a certain subject and honour them with a degree at the end of the course. Or is it?

On the contrary, that is not the purpose of a university. A university, as its name suggests, is a universe in itself, where different elements interact with each other. It doesn’t just have to be people from varied socio-economic backgrounds with different ideologies, but students pursuing altogether different fields of study. It is a place where a student of engineering could learn politics from a student of political science, not in a classroom, but under a tree or near a canteen when they both sit down to protest against an authoritarian administration. This is how the former would be able to tear apart the authoritarianism masked as democracy later in her life when she is asked by a politician to vote for him.

The first aim of any authoritarian state/administration would thus be to break the solidarity between the students, and the easiest way to do so is to limit their interaction. Please don’t be surprised if you see an increase in identification parades at different university gates on the pretext of increased security. Student of one institution or university, thus, will belong to only that institution or university.

JNU students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya being taken away in a SWAT van. They had been arrested on charges of sedition last year. Image source: Sonu Mehta/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The mushrooming of the specialised institutions for professional courses, therefore, is actually a step towards isolating them from other students, and then from the larger society.

The state is not only afraid of solidarity among the students, but also of the solidarity of students with minorities, farmers, marginalised sections of the society, and workers. There is no other reason why the seminars, conferences, and protest marches organised by the students against the violence perpetrated by the state against these people will be disrupted and pelted with stones.

The Politics Of Depoliticisation

The attempts made at ‘depoliticising’ universities, then, are actually steps towards isolating students from each other and ultimately making them ignorant, submissive, and depoliticised. A student of political science would argue that even this act is a political act in itself; an act that will for sure backfire.

For example, the ‘clean’ walls of a certain university do not tell us that its students are apolitical, but that its administration has come down on them with a heavy fist and banned any medium of protest. The ‘clean’ wall, thus, becomes a form of protest in itself. However, what it is able to do is that it creates an environment of silence, therefore largely limiting a student’s power to engage in meaningful conversations.

Another effective way of depoliticising universities is to reduce the scholarships and increase the fees; in short, the privatisation of education. When a student is living on a tight budget and knows that if he is failed by the administration, he or she won’t have enough money to spend another year on the campus, they will be discouraged to stand against the excesses and arbitrary rules of the university administration, and the state at large. The decision to scrap the UGC non-NET scholarship in 2015 was a step in this direction.

Lastly, the most powerful weapon to dissuade the students from expressing their views which challenge the dominant structures of power, as always, is fear. Who wouldn’t be afraid of standing up against power when a student disappears from within the campus and no one in the police or administration is able to trace his whereabouts? Who wouldn’t be afraid when all of a sudden during a conference you hear the window panes shatter and see stones flying from every which way, and most importantly, the police protecting those who inflict violence? Who wouldn’t be afraid when a certain student is forced by the administration to take his own life?

However, all of this is happening in India in a slightly different context for more than a year now. The state right now isn’t exactly aiming at outright ‘depoliticisation’ of campuses and universities but wants to change the nature of politics on the campuses. It very much wants campuses buzzing with political activities, but only those that follow a certain ideology and are sympathetic to the ruling party. It doesn’t want campuses where varied views and opinions can emerge, but the one where any opinion challenging its authority is stifled. The ruling party’s members across various universities and other campuses are thus, provided with institutional impunity.

Making Sense Of Things

In such a scenario, one shouldn’t be surprised if the academic and political spaces in the universities are further stifled and constricted. It might be difficult to see a movement like the French student protests of 1968 in India in the coming days and years since most of the campuses across India have already been effectively ‘depoliticised’ using a wide range of methods, some of which I have tried to list above.

From left to right: JNU student leaders Shehla Rashid Shora, Rama Naga, Kanhaiya Kumar.

Moreover, in India, the students are not only fighting the assaults on free spaces in universities by the administration and the state but also resisting the attempts made by a section of students who want to enforce certain views, opinions and ideas.

However, if the assaults on academic spaces continue to take place inside and outside the universities and the free spaces continue to shrink more and more, one cannot help but predict that the protests will only get larger and the slogans will only grow sharper.

For some people, the various student protests India saw in the last two years may not even qualify as a movement, but its repercussions, for sure, will be felt for many years to come. The little it has been able to do is mobilise the students and bring the debates around the validity of student politics on every tongue, the very act this state was (and is) trying hard to suppress.


Image source: Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images