The campus is the place where a student understands the socio-political system and thus, understands certain aspects of society. With huge energy and new ideas, students give voice to various issues that shape and influence the country and the world. In the 1960s, the ‘free speech’ movement at the University of California, Berkeley, gave voice to the issue of civil liberties.
Soon, other student groups criticised the US foreign policy, especially its involvement in the Vietnam war. In India, during the Emergency, a large number of students (some of them now in government positions) dissented and raised their voices to strengthen democracy. Their fight gave a new life to the largest democracy in the world. Such representations have strengthened and reformed democracy.
But nowadays, we see the varsity administration and governments curbing dissent. Newspapers mentioning the witchhunt of students has become common. In May 2016, the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) suspended eight students and barred them from appearing in the examinations for protesting that their library should be kept open for 24 hours. It took a year when the Supreme Court revoked the suspension in May 2017. It was thanks to the petition filed through Prashant Bhushan and Neha Rathi by these students.
In August 2016, Allahabad University suspended Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists and union leaders for protesting against the alleged mass cheating in the PG entrance and Combined Research Entrance Test held in June 2016. Recently, JNU Students’ Union office bearers were fined and barred from attending official meetings for protesting and disrupting Academic Council meetings respectively.
Most of the witch-hunting cases are politically motivated. Derecognising the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (later lifted) and Rohith Vemula’s cases are the best examples. All these are cases where the administration attacked the students. Students of Lucknow University were arrested for showing black flags to Yogi Adityanath.
Government and varsity administrations need to understand that student activism, however it may be, needs to be given a space for expression. This expression from the young generation, through criticism, questions and appraisement, gives new ways for reforming democracy and society. In case the way of dissent seems unsuitable, the administration should try to go on with reformative measures such as consulting mentors and parents. Students always have the best interests of the country and its institutions at heart. Administrations need to understand that taking up issues like that of a library would improve the institution. The modern state works on the idea of reform. Thus, retribution and deterrence must have this aspect.