Why student activism is spooking the government
Several academics and researchers have contested the human resource development minister’s stand against students engaging in politics on campuses, citing students’ past participation in landmark national-level agitations, including the freedom movement.
Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal had on January 6 said that campuses cannot be allowed to become political addas (dens), speaking at a time many universities are witnessing student protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens.
His comment came in the context of the JNU agitation against a hostel fee hike. Pokhriyal reaffirmed the stand on January 13.
But several academics from various institutions have differed with the minister and highlighted the long and illustrious history of student politics in India, one of them dating its birth to almost a century and a half ago.
Soumyanetra Munshi, an assistant professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, who has studied student politics and the influence of political parties in Bengal colleges, flagged Ananda Mohan Bose’s establishment of the Student Association in Calcutta in 1875.
“The Calcutta Students Association was the earliest attempt made to organise students for constructive political work,” says the Congress website in its section on Bose (1847-1906), an academic, social reformer and political activist who was the Congress president in 1898.
“Historically, student politics has been rooted in the national cause. There should be no problem if students discuss, debate or agitate on national issues like the CAA and the NRC,” Munshi said.
She cited how student boarders of Calcutta’s Eden Hindu Hostel — associated with the then Presidency College — had protested the 1905 partition of Bengal.
However, student activism and politics have in recent decades been increasingly affiliated to dominant political parties, which is problematic, Munshi said.
“The problem is with political parties’ interference in campus politics. From my study I found that student groups affiliated to powerful and dominant political parties are likelier to inflict violence, irrespective of the results of union elections. They do so because they are likely to get away with (committing) offences,” she said.
A day before Pokhriyal’s January 6 comment, JNU had witnessed an attack on supporters of the elected students’ union by a mob led allegedly by the ABVP, defeated in student elections but affiliated to the ruling BJP’s parent organisation, the RSS.
“There should be a dissociation between political parties and campus politics,” Munshi said.
Heramb Chaturvedi, an expert in modern history and a professor at Allahabad University, said students’ movements had been integral to the freedom movement. After Independence, too, student movements had laid the foundation for major political developments.
“In 1973-74, students on Gujarat campuses started an agitation against an increase in mess charges. This spread to Bihar and became a national movement under Jayaprakash Narayan, known as the ‘JP movement’,” he said.
“This led to the toppling of the Indira Gandhi government (in the post-Emergency 1977 elections). The government is afraid that history might repeat itself.”
Two HRD ministry officials told this newspaper that with the nationwide students’ agitation against the new citizenship regime gaining teachers’ support too, the government was worried and that this had led to Pokhriyal’s remark.
Students of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, have been on strike for over a month against the citizenship amendment and the proposed NRC. The university traces its birth to an anti-colonial student movement a century ago.
According to the Jamia website, Mahatma Gandhi had visited Aligarh Muslim University in 1920 and urged a boycott of all educational institutions supported by the colonial regime. Responding to the call, a group of nationalist teachers and students had quit AMU, “protesting against its pro-British inclinations”, and founded the Jamia in Delhi.
Shikha Kapoor, a teacher at Jamia, said students’ participation in politics and protests is a natural development that should not be discouraged.
“Students are the future civil servants and politicians; they will take the country forward,” Kapoor said.
“They are already voters. They have the right to form a political view about the nation. Peaceful protests are a constitutional right. It is natural for them to protest if they find the CAA or the NRC problematic.”
Amitabh Kundu, a distinguished fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a Delhi-based policy research institute, said students cannot cut themselves off from national politics.
“They have to raise the level from street politics to debates and discussions on national issues and take informed positions, considering their sensitivity and controversial nature. This would help minimise the intrusion by political parties and vested interests in campus politics and bring down the level of violence,” Kundu said.
Rajib Ray, president of the Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers’ Associations, said several ministers in the Narendra Modi government, such as Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar, were products of student activism and had taken part in the JP movement.
“Students and youths take part in activism. All governments share the tendency to suppress student movements,” Ray said.