Tuesday, 25 January, 2022
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Youth protests against CAA, NRC has potential to change politics. But 2 key things missing

The pan-India student protests are not just about the CAA or the NRC. It is about a problem with the business of settling past scores.

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Events of the last week and the past few months suggest that we may be looking at a new phenomenon in youth politics that has the potential to change our national politics. This incipient youth movement has the required footprint and some depth. It is still in search of the icons and the ideas that can capture the imagination of this generation.

Just look at the geography of reaction to police action in the Jamia Millia Islamia protests. The spontaneous reaction was not limited to minority-dominated institutions like Jamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) or Nadwa College. It was not just the usual centres of political action like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Jadavpur University or The Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This time, students from the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, Indian Institute of Science and even the private universities joined their counterparts in premiere public universities in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, Chandigarh, Lucknow and Bhopal, besides institutions in small-town India, to express solidarity with the students in Jamia.

Also read: This isn’t just about Muslims, say anti-CAA protesters in Delhi, blame police for chaos

Higher education

Ever since my own student days, I cannot recall many instances of such widespread support for students of any university and that too on an issue like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that did not hurt the student community as a group. As I spoke to the protesting students in AMU, Jamia, JNU and those present at the extraordinary gathering at the India Gate, I was struck by the massive participation of youth who were not mobilised by any political group. A majority of the youth gathered at the India Gate protest did not belong to either of the two communities directly affected by the CAA: the Muslims and those from the northeast.

And what is more, women students have participated in these protests in a big way. Any major movement needs precisely such a nucleus of self-mobilised persons ready to go beyond their self-interest.

This is what allowed the Jamia students to win the war of perception against all odds. The media-backed official narrative of arson, stone-throwing and rioting by the students was soon overshadowed by stories of police brutality against students. Of course, the omnipresence of mobile cameras, the reach of social media and the disproportionate presence of Jamia alumni in mainstream media helped. So did the support from many artists and actors. The videos of the students being chased into the university library, hostels and residential areas were too powerful to be overlooked. Still, all this would have come to nought if this version were not to be backed by the common sense of ordinary students.

Going deeper, these protests also reflect something that has been brewing in India’s campuses for quite some time. Universities are gradually turning into arms of the central or the state governments, irrespective of who the ruling party is. More often than not, the heads of higher educational institutions act like bureaucrats, petty and vindictive, willing to bend to powers-that-be and thus expecting every subordinate person to do the same. Far from inspiring trust and confidence, these institution leaders invite ridicule from the students, the faculty and the staff. Campus life is becoming suffocating.

Students find themselves surrounded by all kinds of restrictions. Student union activities are discouraged if not outlawed. You need permission to hold any talk or seminar. Social media communication is monitored and students penalised for offensive Facebook posts. Women are made to adhere to ridiculous hostel timings and restrictions. And there is always the fear of vigilante groups that monitor relationships. The protest against police atrocities in Jamia is also a protest against suffocating authority figures who seek to infantilise university students. These students, often first-generation learners from rural areas and disadvantaged communities, have tasted freedom and they don’t want to let go of it. No wonder “azadi” is the favourite clarion call of the youth today.

Also read: Pushed to the edge, young Indian Muslims are asked to not react

Higher principles

Let us note that this round of protest has gone beyond a mere expression of solidarity with the students of Jamia and AMU on the issue of police repression. The youth are also voicing their opposition to the CAB. This has political significance. The students, including a significant proportion of non-Muslim students, are rejecting the CAB on principle – specifically, its non-secular and discriminatory nature.

The youth protest has thus added to the third strand of anti-CAB protests, beyond the opposition in the northeast and from the Muslim community. Here again, the problem is not just the CAB or the NRC. The youth is impatient with the business of settling past scores. They are tired of the projects of righting the wrongs of Partition or the wrongs perpetrated by the Muslim rulers. They want to get on with their lives. They wish to live in the present and look forward to the future.

Also read: ‘Shocking violence’ — Harvard, Yale students & academics condemn police action in Jamia, AMU

Higher aspirations

Finally, there is the issue of unequal educational and employment opportunities. The ongoing JNU agitation against the hostel fee hike was really about this fundamental issue. Higher education is unaffordable and unrewarding, especially given the state of the economy. Successive governments have done little except hold back fee hike, which is a small component of the expense of higher education, and that too under duress. Our student aid programmes continue to be a national scandal. And if the quality of higher education has not become a public scandal, it is only because no one cares to gather systematic information on this issue.

The new generation of students who have entered higher education is not satisfied with just getting an entry. They bring new aspiration. And they can see that university education is unlikely to land them half-decent jobs. Our unemployment rate continues to be unacceptably high, even higher among the college graduates, and the highest among college graduates in the age group 19-24. This rate drops after 24, not because they get the jobs they were looking for, but because they begin to settle down in whatever job they can land. The sudden and spontaneous eruption of the student community this week expressed this deeper frustration of aspirations as well.

So, we are at the point of departure of something significant. But we have not arrived there yet. The movement is spontaneous and can get dispersed sooner than we think. It does not yet have an organisational instrument that can widen and deepen its impact. There are many emerging youth icons, but no one who can bind the movement together. It is also looking for a new set of ideas. It would be a mistake to read their desire to break free of shackles as liberalism, or their aspiration for a dignified livelihood as the harbinger of a socialist revolution. It is still a movement in search of a name.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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  1. Government was not alive about NRC while asking vote to prove that we are Indian or not now suddenly he statd about NRC wah it’s a just religious partiality

  2. Question of a confused Bhakth?
    Will the struggle or mass movement stop if NRC is withdrawn and CAA retained?
    Or CAA is expected to withdraw?

    This fire is lit by Raavan onto Hanuman’s tail, which will burn Lanka first, then will invite Ram to defeat Raavan, then Ram will release Sita and takes her back home.

  3. All students should join in the protest against CAA-NRC as many of their fellow Muslim students will be directly affected besides disturbing academic life of all students and future of India’s knowledge based economy. The CAA-NRC siamese twins, bills diabolical evil genius lies in what it does not mention specifically that Muslims need not apply. End effect of this will be like demonetization of citizenship…. stand in long line with documents and BJP govt will say you are not a citizens until you prove it otherwise. This may take decades until then you stay in detentions centers.

    India’s freedom fighters fought for everyone’s birth rights and now Modi-Shah want to decide who is a citizen. Actions of Modi-Shah duopoly under the guidance of their ideological parents Hindu Mahasabha-RSS are like burning haystack to search a needle. Demonetization of currency notes to identficy black money lead to sending Indian economy to ICU and now demonetization of citizenship will lead to destroying Bharat, a civilizational state.

    • Very true. More and more people are daring to say this out loud. We need to now call for Shah’s resignation. The nation chose Modi – not Shah, but Shah has taken over and unleashed brutality.

    • India’s freedom fighters went to jail and died for freedom for all. Now BJP and other children of RSS, an organization that did not take part in freedoms struggle, want to murder soul of India. In the process also take citizenship of large number of people of India and thereby deny freedom this even Britisher’s did not do. This Modi &Shah govt is worse than colonial oppressive powers. Modi, Shah and RSS should remember even China couldn’t crush people’s movement in Hong Kong.

      BG Tilak said “Freedom is my birthright and I shall have it!”. India’s new struggle is for “Freedom & citizenship are my birthright and I shall have it!”. Jai Hind!

  4. It has happened before in India and elsewhere in the world, students being in the vanguard of change. I remember the late 60’s as a student in Calcutta – those were the days of Congress Raj – when young people, with idealism still not tainted by cynicism, took to the streets to protest against venality in our political system. Then again, how can we forget the student movement led by JP?

    Most student movements are spontaneous, much like what we are witnessing today. It is a venting of frustration with a society that is not only suffocating their rightful aspirations but is patently unjust. It is a heady age when we shun compromises for the sake of a comfortably settled life. There is a raw energy fuelled by a deep sense of anger and anguish. Yet, if this anger is not channelized it will extinguish itself achieving very little.

    So the question that comes to mind is what do the students want? Is it about CAA-NRC or some such issues, or does the frustration go deeper? Is it about our morally bankrupt power structure and ruling politics? Is it about an iniquitous society where the rich get richer with patronage while the poor are left to die? Is it is about an ossified nation run by merchants of hate peddling fake dreams? Is it about a bleak future where they will be forced to eke out a sub-optimal living in a modern day ghetto? If it is to bringing about a change then the youth needs to define that change and not succumb to some nebulous idealism. Once a goal is defined then it is that much easier to focus their energy onto the goal and pursue it relentlessly with sustained momentum. They need a leader who is not a usual suspect from one of our unscrupulous political parties but a true mentor and a reformer.

    Mr Yadav are you up to the challenge?

    • you are right Mr. Ghosh, 20’s is going to be the new 60’s – from the UK-Youth-quake in 2017 to the Greta-wave in 2019 to renewal of democratic conciousness in the USA, protests in Lebanon and Iraq, from JNU/Vemula to JMU/AMU and WAY-beyond, we have seen a beginning in the 10’s. 20’s will see all this mearge and a common fight emmerge: to save the world from the gravest threat – climate emmergency and at the same time to build a world worth saving. Jai Hind!

    • “Mr Yadav are you up to the challenge?” apparently he was! he got arrested. what about others here? who has marched and who has been detained or beaten?

  5. Done and dusted. New socialist revolution to usher in the Marxist nirvana.
    Of course. Just ask Jeremy Corbyn. And Hilary.
    These leftist illiberal pseuds still dont get it.
    Get ready for a crushing defeat at the hustings.

    • Hillary a leftist, commie? Great joke. World presently is going through a phase of islamophobia and extreme right orientation which is a result of deliberate propaganda by leaders of capitalism and weapon merchants to fill the void caused by end of cold war. This too shall pass and people may see through the game.

  6. The movement does not need a name – it is spontaneous and it should stay that way. Loved the way everyone was reading the constitution – the Pathagadi guys were persecuted for writing it in stone, now a million voices will chant it. Even if the movement peters out now, we have seen the taboo against Modi-criticism broken, it is again respectable to be secular, again possible to be patriotic without being a Hindu-nationalist. The youth has reclaimed India from the clutches of Hindutva. Even IITians are out on the street, even Bollywood has dissenting voices. Proud to be Indian again. Jai Hind.

  7. The writer does not seem to know the relatively recent history of student agitations. Between 1973 and 1975, students agitated against Indira Gandhi’s mis-governance, and uncontrolled inflation. Jaiprakash Narain in Bhiar and Morarji Desai in Gujarat took lead. These protests were not violent. Governments are generally at a loss when faced with peaceful protestors. The agitation spread throughout the country. In the meantime, Allahabad HC unseated Indira Gandhi and she used the occasion for imposing the infamous internal emergency on India. She gave us a taste of dictatorship, press sensor and police State. This agitation gave us political leaders like Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and even Lallu Prasad Yadav. In the criminalised state of present politics, I don’t think any future leader will emerge from these agitations.

  8. Very difficult for bright students to get into politics and then rise. Consider the case of Kanhaiya Kumar. The RJD should have made space for him, given him a ticket. Compare his charisma to Tejaswi, Tej Pratap ki toh baat hi mat kijiye.

    • Could you please brief if not explain whats your definition of “bright” students? as per me one who bring a reasonable solution to an exiting problem he/she can be considered bright. Kanhaiya is just a charismatic speaker , nothing more. He is like Tejasvi surya from BJP who represent Bangalore south. He is nothing but a firebrand Hindutava speaker, nothing more. We need leaders who have ideas….no idea will be perfect…but someone has to come with reasonably good idea. Neither Left nor Right can produce such leaders. I can say Mr. Sachin Pilot is the only sensible leader as of now. Congress is in such a pathetic state because of tilting towards leftist ideology..it needs a leader who can make it a centre right again.

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