Updated: May 18, 2020 10:04:03 am
Fifty years ago, on May 4, 1970, the students of Kent State University in Ohio gathered to protest the Vietnam War. The oldest democracy of the world faltered as the Ohio State National Guard fired at the crowd and felled four students. Observers concluded that the US was rapidly spinning out of control. The report President Richard Nixon commissioned on campus unrest said that “a nation driven to use the weapons of war upon its youth is a nation on the edge of chaos” — and Americans were feeling the “chaos”.
Days after the Kent shooting, on May 15, there was a shooting at the Jackson State College in Mississippi during a protest against racism that the students on campus were facing. Two students were shot and killed, and 12 others were injured at the hands of the police.
After the shootings, there was a nationwide student strike that saw four million turn out in response to the tragedy. As many as 1,00,000 students marched on Washington. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young released their protest song “Ohio”, a month later, with the chorus, “Four dead in Ohio,” after seeing the photographs of the shooting.
President Nixon, who initially spoke of the protesting students as “bums”, then made an effort to reach out to them. His intelligence officials could not find evidence that the protest was stirred by outside agitators. Nixon accepted that the anger was coming from the students themselves — and it was only growing. The end of the Vietnam War, it is said, began in Ohio. It changed America forever. A year after the shootings, the voting age was reduced to 18, giving the students the right to vote when they were old enough to be drafted. That generation of voters forced the war to end although it took another five years till April 1975.
I do not believe that the worst critics of the students, even those who called them “bums”, questioned their patriotism for opposing a war that they believed to be immoral and unwise.
At home in India too, there have been casualties in January and February and the students who participated in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, particularly those from Jamia Millia Islamia, have been booked for sedition and unlawful activities, a euphemism for terrorism. They had all quietly folded up their protest when the COVID storm hit the country. There is no evidence to arrest them, and some others who have been arrested since the onset of COVID-19. So, sequentially charges are added to the investigation by inter alia adding Section 302 of IPC (murder) and Section 13 of the UAPA. Suddenly it seems that the glorious jurisprudence of Articles 14, 19, 21 of the Constitution too has been locked down. India has chosen to fight its own children and their mentors and guardians have chosen discretion before valour. How did you sustain the protest financially for 60 days, is the refrain that they must answer. How will they manage to defend their honour in court and afford lawyers, one might ask. Suddenly, a long line of cases culminating in Anuradha Bhasin remains high on the stated principle of rights and sparse on practical impact. Rights in ordinary times are not much to boast about. It is in extraordinary times that rights should matter as the great legal philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, argues in Taking Rights Seriously.
Earnest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms comes to mind. Hemingway sought advice on the ending after Catherine’s death in childbirth, from F Scott Fitzgerald, his friend and fellow author. Fitzgerald suggested Hemingway end the novel with the observation that the world “breaks everyone”, and those “it does not break it kills”. In the end, Hemingway chose not to take Fitzgerald’s advice. Instead, he concluded the novel with these lines: “But after I had got (the nurses) out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
However broken and defeated by destiny the protagonist of the novel might have been, in real life for us there is no walking away from a lifeless statue. Post COVID-19 we have to make a fresh beginning, hopefully united and trusting each other as we must have been through a life-death experience together. We will have to crush the infection of hate that seems to have found some spreaders. Meaningless and misdirected hate must not last. We will have to learn to put India ahead of anything else — in fact, humanity first. This is something we have successfully done in our fight against the coronavirus. Fifty years from now, people will applaud and light candles to say that when India seemed to be spinning out of control our generation joined hands, hearts, and minds to hold it firm and sound. We would be remembered for having saved India.
The writer is a senior Congress leader and former external affairs minister
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