In the midst of growing protests against the CAA, NRC, and the unleashing of violence against university students, protests on campuses like IIT Kharagpur, IIM Ahmedabad, IISc Bangalore, and St Stephen’s College, Delhi have surprised many, given they are considered predominantly apolitical spaces.
Media coverage surrounding the protest and class boycott at my college, St Stephen’s, on January 8 has largely focused on the college’s non-participation in Delhi University Student Union elections, and its reputation as an institution that focuses on academic achievement. The career-oriented “high achievers” enrolled in such “institutions of excellence” are presumed to be “above” the fractious politics of campuses such as JNU.
This conception is a formidable element of the government’s response to the recent agitation. Police violence at AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia and mob attack on students at JNU triggered the protests. Therefore, the government has sought to characterise such institutions as recurring centres of political dispute — their students, distracted by activism and ideology, academically incomparable with those at IITs, IIMs, and St Stephen’s. A binary has been created between the “good” student, focused on academics, and the “bad” student who protests needlessly, based on which university they attend.
“Good” students have voiced their dissent on many occasions, including against the abrogation of Article 370, the Transgender Bill and the NRC in Assam. While there is no denying that protests of the scale and significance of the recent one at St Stephen’s rarely happen on such campuses, the idea that it represents a moment of awakening among overachievers generally engrossed in academics is a dangerous mischaracterisation. It allows the casting of campuses that are centres of robust opposition as ideologically-motivated “anti-national” spaces. In the government’s opinion, the long-present culture of protest at institutions such as JNU and JMI represents the dangerous degradation of these universities. This argument is confirmed by repeatedly stressing that the duty of a student is to study and succeed professionally.
Through this logic, the government seeks to divide students, especially when its platform and policies are being so widely questioned. That students at institutions such as St Stephen’s are participating in and organising protests is worrying — the “good” student is now out on the streets, using the mechanism of the protest, alongside the answer script, to express her opinions on the nation’s politics.
Challenging this narrative is crucial for the continuing unity of students in the face of an increasingly repressive government. I believe that meeting this challenge must also involve changing the way in which many Indians think about higher education. Universities cannot simply be seen as imparters of formal knowledge. Education shapes one’s worldview, and therefore, plays a fundamental role in constructing a student’s perspectives, including on politics. Those committed to understanding Indian business, economy, and history must channelise what they learn in classrooms into their views on the nation and its current state of affairs. That students are on the streets, leading fellow citizens against divisive, fearmongering forces is majorly because their education has imbibed in them an unbreachable sense of justice, of equality, of morality, and of the right to dissent.
It is extremely important that the larger populace understand the fundamental link between the classroom and the protest. The student protest slogan “lado padhai karne ko, padho samaj badalne ko” demonstrates that this demand has long been a component of what higher education ought to be. That eminent institutions are protesting should not be an anomaly that arises only when circumstances are extremely dire — it should be seen as an inalienable consequence of young citizens’ advanced understanding of their political environments.
The concern that the country is being divided has been voiced most strongly by young people. No concerned observer ought to weaken their voice. Be they from JNU or IIT, Jamia or St Stephen’s, students should be seen as equals leading the long march against discrimination, disunity, and repression as a consequence of their education.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 20, 2020 under the title ‘Students as protesters’. The writer, 20, is third-year undergraduate student of history at St Stephen’s College, New Delhi.