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.
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.
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.
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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