The Citizenship Amendment Act continues to spawn protests across India. Legal scholars say that the religious test for citizenship under the new law violates the basic structure of the Constitution. Protesters see it as an assault on India’s pluralism that threatens its delicate social fabric. The Narendra Modi government has tried to downplay the concerns of the protesting students, whose anger refuses to ebb. But India’s political history and the current economic scenario makes it incumbent on the government to take their concerns seriously.
Legacy of student protests
The history of how students have shaped India’s political development has been examined by scholars Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph in their landmark 1987 book, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State. Using the Home Ministry’s data, they track the impressive growth of student agitations after Independence, which was tied to the expansion of higher education in India. Student protests rose from 93 incidents in 1958 to 395 in 1964, jumping to 3,861 in 1970. By 1974, the number of protests had swelled to 11,540. The Emergency period saw a dip, owing to state repression, but protests soon climbed to 10,600 incidents in 1980.
Students mobilised for varied reasons, but misrule by the central government was a recurring theme. The late 1960s saw students in Tamil Nadu mobilise against the nationwide imposition of Hindi. Despite counter-protests from the pro-Hindi lobby, students’ efforts succeeded with the 1967 amendment to the Official Languages Act, which granted flexibility to states while permanently establishing English, besides Hindi, as India’s official language. The 1970s was a period of heightened student unrest, stoked by economic woes and authoritarianism of the Indira Gandhi government. Gujarat’s Navnirman Andolan and Bihar’s JP Andolan (both led by students) became national movements.
Congress-led state governments were brought down and Indira Gandhi’s political authority was challenged, leading her to impose Emergency. United against authoritarianism, a hodgepodge of opposition parties joined hands to defeat the Congress.
Despite the significance of student protests, the Indian state and media historically underplayed their seriousness. Home Ministry records referred to student protests as incidents of “indiscipline,” rather than political demonstrations. Governments routinely painted them as isolated incidents of unrest, stoked by political adversaries and miscreants. These narratives aimed to invalidate the legitimacy of student protests. Students were projected as immature, lacking the capacity to think and act on their own terms.
History repeats itself
Taking a page from the historical playbook, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have made speeches and posted tweets trivialising student demonstrations against the CAA. Instead of engaging with students’ arguments, they have attributed the protests to the work of the Congress and other “vested interest groups,” charging them with “rumour mongering” and “peddling lies.”
Authoritarian tactics have also been on display: using the police to launch a brutal response at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, opening fire on protesters and detaining people (including minors) in droves, and cutting off mobile and internet services.
The response by Modi and Shah is misguided on multiple counts. For one, it gives far too much credit to the Congress leadership, which has proven politically feckless and uncommitted to grassroots organising. While students have been out demonstrating and facing blows from the police, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been away meeting the prime minister of South Korea. More importantly, the Modi government has failed to acknowledge that students can have legitimate apprehensions with the CAA, and that it has a responsibility to allay their fears.
The failure to see students as citizens engaged in democratic dissent belies the BJP leadership’s own history of student activism. Modi and Amit Shah earned their stripes as pracharaks of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Prior to the 1975-1977 Emergency, a young Modi led the charge in Gujarat against Indira Gandhi’s populist “garibi hatao” campaign, calling it a cruel programme of “garib hatao.” Today, students are on Modi’s doorstep protesting cruelties against Indian Muslims, Kashmiris, Assamese and other communities. By opting to silence these voices, the Modi regime has shown its political incapacity to handle disagreement and dissent.
Whither achhe din?
The student protests can also be understood in light of demographics and India’s deteriorating economy. PM Modi rose to power in 2014 on the promise of bringing achhe din (good days). His victory reflected the aspirations of a young population that desired change, after decades of cronyism and corruption under the Congress. More than five years and another Lok Sabha electoral victory on, acche din are nowhere in sight.
Economic growth has decelerated, rural incomes have collapsed and the unemployment rate has risen steeply, especially among those holding college degrees. India ranks 115 out of 157 countries on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, revealing its woeful health and education outcomes, which are worse than those in Bangladesh and Nepal.
India’s economic woes predate Modi, but his political ascent bestows immense responsibility. An unprecedented electoral mandate allows the Modi government to pass legislation for building human capital, employment and institutional reform. Since 2014, however, public programming in education has languished and few serious reforms have been attempted. Worse, state agencies overseeing the Indian economy have been eroded. If the suppression of statistical data suggested a disdain for economic evidence, demonetisation revealed Modi’s willingness to risk harming the economy, without due consultation.
Playing with students’ future
The cost of policy missteps falls on students, whose life chances depend on a vibrant and inclusive economy. The labour force participation rate for urban youth (ages 15-29) has declined to 37.7 per cent, which implies that most young people have given up looking for jobs. Yet, Modi’s policy agenda is not focused on improving their economic prospects.
Students look nervously to the future, while the Modi government’s signature projects — the CAA, the dilution of Article 370 to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya — are fixated on the past.
One cannot predict in which direction the CAA-NRC protests will take India. Much depends on how the Modi government reacts going ahead and whether opposition parties join hands. Some elements may use the protests to cause violence and disorder, which needs to be avoided.
The protests carry signs of promise. Students have displayed immense courage in standing up for their principles. Most remarkably, diverse students from campuses across India have stood in solidarity, and raised their voice not only against police brutality at Jamia Millia but also against an unjust law. India’s students have shown what citizenship means in practice.
The author is a political scientist at the University of Oxford. Views are personal.