The incipient anger building up in the minds of students all over India has taken the form of a youth movement, which goes beyond a mere expression of solidarity with the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Millia Islamia, and Aligarh Muslim University on their stand against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the issue of police repression.
I have forgotten the last time India witnessed such huge student-led protests, since the Independence movement, anti-Emergency movement, anti-reservation Mandal protests and others.
Since then, students have smashed their way into political consciousness and opposed various ideas on grounds of discrimination, threats to unity, freedom and diversity. In the case of CAA, not only did minority-dominated institutions show dissent, even students from private universities extended their support. I am struck by the potential of such movements to reshape our national politics and overturn power structures, given the fact that the students participating in these mass protests are not organised by any political group and go beyond any self-interest.
Will this uprising of students be a new benchmark for the transformation of India? An embodiment of unity, these change-makers are often terrorised for speaking up, but the real question is: will this break their motivation, or ignite a new fire that will be difficult to douse in the coming days?
When I was amongst the students of Presidency University in Kolkata, I could sense the impatience and dissatisfaction in their minds when they staged a sit-in on 5th March at around 6 pm at the College Street-MG Road intersection. Demanding quick renovation of three dilapidated wards of the Hindu Hostel, the students sought answers for the ‘autocratic’ dismissal of eight mess staff of the hostel by the college authorities.
Even though hired goons threatened the students to withdraw their protest, the roadblock continued with the help of immense support received from the locals. Few students said that these mess staff had allegedly sided with the students who had been complaining about overcrowding in two wards of the hostel, which accommodated around 10 students in a single room and lacked basic amenities.
While conversing with a research scholar from the Department of Life Sciences, I got to know that in 2016, the hostel boarders were asked to leave because of the renovation work and were assured that they would be accommodated back after 11 months. Years have passed since then and there has been no progress at all. After three years, students started protesting. Students at the forefront of the protest were suspended, following which there was a hunger strike and two wards out of five were made functional to the hostel boarders.
According to the students, the boys hostel in Rajarhat had nine mess staff, who provided only one meal per day to the students. The situation worsened when the students were shifted to the Hindu Hostel, where the number of staff members was reduced to eight. The students tried to get in touch with the authority, but the Dean of students replied by saying, “I am not the competent authority and you should speak to Vice Chancellor (VC) Anuradha Lohia regarding these.”
The students claim that their fight now is not just about getting back the Hindu Hostel, but about fighting for ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ (food, clothes and shelter). “We are fighting for roti, we are fighting for makaan. Thankfully, we have kapda,” said another student jokingly.
Witnessing the apathy of the administration by refusing to communicate with the students, the students lifted the roadblock. However, despite lifting the roadblock, students have vowed to continue their fight. The VC reiterated that the funds allocated for hostel renovation were stuck with the government, therefore, no work could be done until the funds were available.
This is the same Eden Hindu Hostel where hostellers burned Lord Curzon’s effigy and boycotted college examinations in 1905 to protest against the government’s decision to partition Bengal. Bengali students were among the most active participants in the early Swadeshi movement. Educational institutions were the recruiting grounds for political parties.
The major student organisations at that time included the All India Student Federation and the Student Congress. Also, several parties had their own smaller student organisations: the Samajwadi Yovak Sabha (Socialist-sponsored Young Socialist League), the progressive student union, the Hindu Student Federation, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
In the book, Student Movement, Political Development And Modernisation in India, Braz Rita writes, “The growing awareness among students of being a distinct and influential part of society and politics, and of the possibility of changing policy decisions,” contributes to the politicisation of students.
Anything big starts with small, self-mobilised groups of individuals capable of critical thinking, and who can rise above their narrow self-interests. What shook me is the number of female students participating in these protests challenging authority in any shape or form.
Be it the protests against Rohith Vemula’s death, JNU protests of 2016, JNU’s agitation against the hostel fee hike, or the Presidency issue, speaking to students of various educational institutions made me realise how the Indian educational institutions have turned into a place of debates, opinions, liberalism and radicalism, and how these protests are results of something that has been brewing for a pretty long time.
After speaking to all the students, one thing was clear: those at administrative positions in universities always tend to act like bureaucrats, trying to infantilise students, not to mention falling in hands of the government. Hence, these vindictive people in power and position often get ridiculed by the students and the staff.