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How Indian Students Are Creating History By Being At The Forefront Of Expressing Dissent

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The past few years in India have seen numerous youth movements, with many students at the forefront. From matters specific to the student community like privatisation of higher education to issues as broad as gender justice and caste discrimination, the youth have been asking questions and raising their voices on multiple platforms.

To give the readers some sense of where these issues converge and diverge, Towfeeq Wani from Campus Watch talked to Nikhila Henry. A journalist by profession, Henry has been covering issues related to youth for ten years. Her book, “The Ferment,” was recently published by Pan Macmillan.

Towfeeq Wani: Your book “The Ferment” was released last month by Pan Macmillan, the subtitle of which reads “Youth Unrest in India.” From the blurb and reviews, however, one understands it is about students. Which would you say represents the book more?

Nikhila Henry: The book is about young people in this country, and in that, the student segment has been there at the forefront: be it Rohith Vemula in 2016 and the subsequent protests which brought out horrid caste discrimination in educational institutions and society, or a university like JNU which advertently or inadvertently threatened the idea of nationalism. This is a book on Indian youth with some clear and prominent voices of student leaders. The book is basically a conversation—threatening or negotiating one at that—which the youth of India are having with this nation.

TW: What exactly is this “unrest” you take up in your book?

NH: India is facing a time of demographic churning. We have a huge youth segment—the biggest in the world. We have reached a youth bulge where young people constitute a sizable chunk of the total population. Every third person in this country is a young person. While this has happened demographically, another phenomenon has developed simultaneously. Our youth segment has also been raising questions to the rulers of this country: be it the political leaders sitting in the parliament or the heads of educational institutions or the state entities like police or even judiciary. These questions are very pertinent because they challenge the societal fabric in India.

Rohith Vemula, for example, while questioning caste, was not just questioning what was happening in his university. He was questioning something which has been a part and parcel of Indian society for a very long time. The challenges and opposition which young people raise are not only against what affects their immediate reality. These have repercussions on India as a nation. But society, state and government have been rubbishing the many protests and agitations of youth as unnecessary ‘halla.’
The conflict or unrest here is between the Indian nation and its young population.

Simultaneously, there are raging conflicts within the different segments of the youth which within itself is diverse, on the lines of caste, class, religion and gender among others. So for me, the unrest would be an extreme sense of restlessness and an extreme sense of alienation which is raging among youth within the political boundary of the country. This is an unrest which poses a challenge to our democratic institutions.

TW: If youth and students are two separate categories which have a significant overlap, would you say the reasons for this ‘youth unrest’ are the same for the ‘students’? The former category could include unemployed and recently employed youth as well.

NH: I would say the questions which youth and students ask, somehow overlap. For example, #PadsAgainstSexism started in a university, in Jamia Millia, or #PinjraTod; when these two movements started they were addressing issues which were related to the university community and administration, but at the same time these issues struck a note with the other segments of youth population because they raised concerns about gender and patriarchy.

At the same time, the overlap is effective due to another reason. The youth segment is divided along several lines; class, for example. The middle class has also simultaneously grown in India like the young population. We have undergone a dubious yet very real middle-class bulge and a prominent youth bulge. The combined effect is that the concerns of some classes, some genders, some geographical locations, some castes, will almost always find affinities with people who are similar to them. On the whole, this ‘million mutinies’, pose a very important challenge which India’s policymakers should address.

TW: From where would you trace this ‘youth unrest’ – what are the issues that you would say have contributed to this, and since when?

NH: We have had strong youth movements in the past. The student struggles associated with radical left of the late 1960s and the 1970s, the anti-emergency movement of Jayaprakash Narayan which got the support of the youth, the Dalit Panther movement and even the more recent Anna Hazare movement against corruption are all part of what can be considered youth movements. The difference as I see, between now and then, is that the slogans of the young people have changed. Modernity has arrived, the Indian economy is now , and the Right-Wing has become a force to reckon with. Against this backdrop, certain voices which were previously relegated to secondary status have become prominent as they should have been, from the Dalit-Bahujan who form the largest chunk of the population, young people who want separate nations in Kashmir and the Northeast, to women who are still fighting for gender justice.

Chandrashekar Ravan Azad’s Bhim Army, youth filming and writing in digital platforms like Dalit Camera, Round Table India, are all representatives of these times.

TW: Would you say this ‘unrest’ has had some definite goals which it set out to achieve or has the ‘unrest’ itself been a contribution in the creation of a more just society?

NH: That is a very difficult question to answer because I don’t know what it is going to amount to, but “The Ferment” is absolutely sure about the fact that we are living at a juncture in history which is going to be considered historic. Not only are we going through youth unrest but also political unrest, economic turmoil, societal conflicts, and territorial conflicts. “The Ferment” looks at all these together through the eyes of the young people, and their vision is very sharp. Their struggles will find continuance in the future; that is India’s future. And this generation’s, I should add my generation’s, contributions will be marked in history.

TW: How did you research for the book? Did it come more from your experience of reportage over several years or did you separately conduct research for it?

NH: I have been covering students and youth affairs for a decade now. My reportage of the past ten years did contribute to this book. There were several things happening in 2016 that I could relate to events that occurred in 2009 or 2010. During the latest agitation for Statehood (Telangana), I had travelled extensively to talk to young people. But for “The Ferment” alone, I travelled extensively throughout India—from Kashmir to Kerala, and spoke to young people; some experiences were hopeful others tragic.

TW: Did you face any issues while dealing with the administrations of different universities?

NH: Administrations tend to ask me to stay out of their campus limits. At a recent book launch, it was pointed out that my voice as the narrator of “The Ferment” is a voice of empathy. This empathy factor is very tricky with university administrations. They think you are trying to write against their good name, their ranking, their reputation. Whereas, you are only trying to report what concerns the real stakeholders of these institutions—the students.

TW: You argue that these smaller movements have actually been about the larger issues. How do you see the administrations of these institutions trying to crush these smaller movements? Does it tell us something about the various administrations being run by larger hands who do not wish to see the status quo altered?

NH: I will be very clear about this: administrations are not working on their own. Educational institutions do not run on decisions taken in academic councils. Policymakers in this country, the government and our political system dictate terms to these institutions. Like the probe letters the MHRD wrote to the University of Hyderabad titled—“casteist, extremist and anti-national” activities, that contributed to the suicide of Rohith Vemula. Every student protest is watched. There is police personnel who document the protests. These are open secrets in Intelligence Bureau circles. There are IB sleuths inside campuses who asked me questions to figure out what I was doing there. There was an MHRD directive to different universities that said that student politics on campuses should be monitored. There is no way by which you can separate the ‘higher power’, the Big Brother’s watch, from smaller segments in the power chain.

TW: Where do you see this ‘youth unrest’ go from here?

NH: Because India is a democratic country, people will want representation. We are living in a country with a generation of ageing leaders. The youth will definitely want representation, and the beginnings of the process are already afoot. Jignesh Mevani, Chandrashekar Ravan Azad, Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar and others are already into political, and some of them are contesting elections. At the same time, I think there will be a large section of this youth segment which will get alienated from the democratic—they will be the anti-heroes (used gender-neutrally) of modern India. It’s a time of reckoning for all political parties, especially the vast majority of those who have not figured out the youth.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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