“Be the change you want to see in the world,” a famous saying by Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted by people when they are trying to question the established order in society.
Throughout history, students and the youth of various countries have taken initiative to mobilise and protest against unfair laws, policies, and injustice. Young people have been at the forefront of leading movements and protests against the existing status quo.
One of the most famous student led movements took place in Tiananmen Square, China in 1989. The students called for greater accountability, democracy, freedom of press, and freedom of speech. Almost 1 million people gathered at Tiananmen Square but the protests were suppressed by the government which declared martial law and sent troops to parts of Beijing.
In this context, freedom of speech becomes an important tool that is used by students across countries. Across the world, we are seeing an increase in division of thoughts and ideas which makes discussion and dissent harder to engage in.
One of the most significant student movements on climate change is being led by Greta Thunberg. Thunberg began a global movement by skipping school. Starting in August 2018, she spent her days in front of the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign that read ‘School Strike for Climate.’
The movement led by Thunberg has gained momentum and in 2019, there were coordinated protests with thousands of students across countries who took to the streets to demand action from their local governments on the pressing issue of climate change and global warming. Their work has directly led to political measures that are finally addressing the gravity of the effect of climate change not just in Europe but all across the globe.
Highlighting another instance of student activism and politics closer home, brings us to the protests that are happening everyday across all major Indian cities and universities. The past one month has witnessed violent uproars in the most reputed universities in India across all major Indian states, for instance, Jamia Millia Islamia, Dibrugarh University, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (to name a few) being the latest one to join the bandwagon.
Students have been allegedly beaten up for protesting against certain policy measures taken up by the government as well as issues students are facing at the university level. Across India, students have come out in large numbers to express solidarity. This student movement may become one of the largest movements in India after the 1975 Emergency.
Irrespective of the political system in place, student activism is one of the most important pillars of society. It is central to helping young people understand and negotiate their rights. It is through activism and protests that India gained independence or women across the world obtained the right to vote.
People may argue that student activism is inconsequential in nature and does not lead to immediate change, but this is simply false in today’s evolving world. Greta’s work has led to something that economists term as ‘The Greta Effect’ when examining climate change. The work of Emma Gonzalez and others (March for our Lives) had led to further awareness and some policy changes against gun violence in the US.
The purpose of education and educational institutions is the holistic development of an individual’s personality and character. When students take up causes and issues that they care about, it not only forms an integral part of their existence, but it also helps them to look for avenues and ways to solve that particular issue in innovative ways.
It is this process of engaging with issues personally and politically which drives change in society, at both the micro and macro levels. If students are not exposed to problems of today, how do we expect them to take up positions as policymakers, changemakers, and entrepreneurs who will see a problem for what it is and come up with creative and actionable solutions for these problems?
Fact is, if we don’t allow our students to ask questions today, then we will not have the answers tomorrow.