Col J P Singh
The political discourse of India in 2019 was determined and dictated by two powerful political leaders Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. But 2020 begins on a dull note for this powerful duo. Last month of 2019 witnessed nationwide protests, mostly spontaneous, led by the students, against the ‘Citizenship Amendment Act’ (CAA). With political support from opposition parties, the student unrest continues to prolong. The target obviously is Modi-Shah duo more than the Act. Both happen to be on the front page of ‘India Today’, a popular national weekly as ‘news maker of the year’, but actually students are making the news for various right/wrong reasons. I happened to hear a prime time TV debate on this topic. Interestingly some panelists stated that evidently students are the ‘newsmakers of the year’ for their nationwide protests. Since students got connected to the debate, my connect & curiosity increased.
A student is a youth. A youth is by its very temperament imbued with lot of physical and emotional strength by virtue of which he can take on any danger/challenge even as mighty as the formidable political authority. As a student, me and my fellow students were also the same. On a minor provocation, we would go berserk. We found it more interesting activity than the stereotype studies. Smashing passenger bus when any denied us free/half ticket travel concession would be a triumph. Hence recent students activism against CAA is no surprise to me, even if violent, because there certainly is a provocation. Declaration of extension of NRC, after troublesome Assam experiment, to the entire country followed by passage of CAA, to my mind was the provocation. That set the cat among the pigeons. Prime Minister was taken by surprise. Seeing his charisma fading, he denied that NRC had ever been discussed in the cabinet. This very denial means students have a point and their voice is being heard. Modi led Govt is going overboard to allay the apprehensions. Apparently that is not paying much dividend.
Spectacle of seeing stones being pelt on the police; cars, buses and property being burnt, allegedly by the students, is distressing. Equally disturbing is to see youth being tear-gassed and man handled. The worst of all is students versus masked students, as alleged, on 5th January evening JNU mayhem. When we blame students, we ignore their view point on national issue. When we blame police for excesses, we ignore their role in restoring public order. And when I see students versus students mayhem, I blame the mob mentality in us in India, a nation born out of non-violence. We got independence by Mahatma Gandhi led non-violent independence movement. Gandhi never condoned violence, no matter how grave the provocation. (Ironically a minor incident sometimes triggers mob violence). He showed us that ‘Satyagraha’ is best way to register a protest. Violent protests were alright when we were ruled by British. Now we are independent. The Govt we have elected is ours. Modi is our prime minister elected by an overwhelming majority. He keep toiling for ‘sab ka sath, sab ka vikas and sab ka vishwas’. How can his Govt be anti Muslims. Hence the agenda is mischievous. Law and public safety is the first and foremost duty of the govt. Police highhandedness at times becomes necessary. Ironically we have handed over our thinking to media and politicians. We do what they incite us to do. Mind you, both are not trust worthy. Even police is their prey leave aside the raw student minds.
We also know that students activism has changed the course of history all over the world and left an inspiration for the coming generations. In our neighborhood China, students activism has left long lasting negative impact on its political history. Tiananmen Square ‘protest for democracy’ in 1989 triggered nationwide chain protests against the govt. Govt brutally massacred the protesting students by running them over under the military tanks. Agitation failed but this protest became an inspiring example for student activists all over the world. Agitations continue in China despite Tiananmen Square Carnage. 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, a peaceful protest movement for ‘universal suffrage’ against Chinese discriminatory election laws, was led by ‘Hong Kong Federation of Students’. It remained peaceful despite Chinese highhandedness. Large scale solidarity rallies were held in main land China and world over. The entire Umbrella Movement was recommended for Noble Peace Prize by US Congressional Executive Commission on China for their peaceful efforts in forcing China to concede to their political demands. Hong Kong is currently on fire. Youth agitation once again has forced Chinese authorities to withdraw ‘trial of Hong Kong citizens in China’. But the agitation for full democracy continues. The lesson from Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong is that a brute force against a peaceful protest is no solution. At the same time inaction against violent agitations is also not the norm. Coming around own students anti CAA protests, my views are like this. Approximately half of the Indian population is young. Over 20 million students are on the roll of various Indian universities and colleges. All of them are connected to the social media. They are politically aware. They know what is happening around the country side. Social media keeps them updated of happening around the world. Hence Indian student is well informed and capable of forming an opinion about govt policies and perspectives. Given the passion and enthusiasm of the youthfulness, students tend to turn hyper emotionalist which is difficult to contain. They find strength in numbers and solidarity which is always forthcoming in their case. Thus part of 60 percent non BJP voter populace seems to have exploded in anti CAA protests. Their voices must be heard because they perceive themselves to be an affected party.
Politically aware and socially conscious students cannot be expected to remain mute spectators to perceived injustice. They also can’t be mute spectators to political hegemony. Let us see the history of students activism in India. Anti Mandal agitation of August 1990 in Delhi University deserves a mention. Mandal Commission gave 27 percent quota in Govt jobs and educational institutions to OBC students. Giving Govt jobs to certain caste on the basis of birth rather than merit was considered unjust and anti students. Students resorted to series of self immolations and suicides. These protests were so large scale that they were comparable to any ‘united labor unions protests’. Rajiv Goswami was the first student to attempt self immolation. Later he became president of Delhi University Students Union. JNU also students protested against execution of Afzal Guru in 2016. This in particular ignited countrywide debate on the justification of students activism against govt actions. These two are examples of aggressive students activism. Examples of successful students activism are anti Hindi movement in Tamil Nadu in 1965 and J P movement in 1974. J P Movement was started by Bihar students against misrule and corruption. It was led by veteran Gandhian Jayee Prakash Narain (J P). Later it turned against Indira Gandhi regime. For its popularity, spread and effect, it was also called the ‘Sampuran Kranti’. It paralysed the Govt. declaration of emergency and fall of the Govt is attributed to students movement. Army was extensively employed in aid to civil authorities during J P movement. A stage came when J P called upon the army not to obey illegal orders. This rattled Indira Gandhi.
Today the govt is being questioned by the youth. More and more students are raising their voice despite assurances that CAA is not anti-Muslims. Students voices are too loud and too strong not to be heard. Their Vishwas is equally important. The Govt must listen to them before the nation’s social fabric is ripped apart. It must realise that students do not stand in isolation. Behind each student stands their family, friends, academic faculty and ex students. Let the student activism not be viewed as challenge to the political authority of Modi-Shah duo. In democracy it is imperative to listen to and give credence to the views of the emerging voices, particularly the youth who will shape the future of their country.
So far it is a no win-win situation for both. My limited tryst with the protesting students is more of an ex student of their ilk and with the Govt of the day is being a concerned nationalist. I see politically powerful duo making gains in India but political parties diminishing in public eyes. Let us not enter into a happy new year with unhappiness and bigotry in our minds. Let compassion for those who need refuge for a dignified life be our noble goal and accept the fact that Modi-Shah will continue to occupy political center stage of India in 2020 and ahead. If we want India to grow, there is no scope for any violent protest.
Col J P Singh