Authority expects obedience. Power demands submission. Political leaders want followers. Religious leaders desire blind faith. The economy requires literate cogs that will keep the system running. That is the combination that supposedly ensures stability in society. Everything would be just fine if everyone accepted this ‘peace’ and didn’t raise our heads.
But stability means ‘status quo’ and not everything in society is right and can be frozen in time.
And, the problem sometimes is that young people often choose to educate themselves rather than just being literate slaves ‘oiling the system’ after University education. They learn to think, and therefore ask questions. They do not stop at questions. They have courage, they have dreams. They propound alternative visions, many different visions.
Now that can be subversive in some places, seditious in others and blasphemous in still others.
Those in power, being custodians of vested interests, i.e., the interests of the rich, influential and powerful – never mind what their ideology is, what the colour of the flag they wave – cannot and will not brook any such threats. And India has had an extreme right wing fundamentalist Government for the last two years. Since then students across many Universities in India have been under one or another kind of attack over the last few months. For instance, the Government appointed as Chairman of Film and Television Institute of India in Pune city (Western India), a man who was not particularly known for any creativity or contribution to the fields of Films or Television in India. The students vigorously resisted the appointment and the Government clamped down with Police violence against students.
Then, students at India’s premier Technology Institute in Chennai (Southern India) faced the wrath of the Government because it did not like their ‘activities’. What were the students doing? They were asking questions about the Environment, about the poor state of Agriculture, about Genetically Modified crops, about Government’s economic policies and about the rights of Dalits (the lowest, the untouchables, in India’s caste hierarchy). The University administration thought it fit to act against the students’ body that organised these programmes.
Another University in Southern India – Hyderabad Central University – stopped paying students their fellowship money and threw out five students because they were asking similar inconvenient questions of the powers-that-be. One of them was forced to commit suicide in January ’16 after months of struggle.
The next attack was on the students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Three students, including the elected President of the University Students’ Union were put in jail and now face Court proceedings on charges of sedition! The ostensible reason was that ‘they were shouting slogans for the destruction of the Nation’! When was the last time anyone heard of a Nation being destroyed by a motley bunch of sloganeers?
In each of these cases the mighty State has used flimsy grounds to attack students. It has had to resort to the use of trumped up charges and doctored evidence. As if that was not enough the might of the Police has been unleashed on them and a section of its ‘loyal’ media has been used to spread lies to defame and portray them as ‘the worst kind of criminals’. What can one say about a State that does that to its students? The State has ceded the moral ground to the students by resorting to lies and senselessly excessive force.
‘Welcome to the cruel, unforgiving, real world’ seems to be the message to these students. Their response to this baptism by fire has been brave, reasoned, united and innovative. Students and Faculty of JNU have responded to the ‘anti-national’ and sedition charges by organising an open air lecture series on the ‘real meaning of Nationalism and Freedom, lectures that are attended by hundreds, often thousands of students. Who said education happens inside the four walls of the classroom? In fact, they are also educating the country today. That is, if people have eyes, ears and minds.
Students across Universities have traversed quite a distance in the last few months. They are forging a broad unity among themselves and asking all right thinking citizens across the country to do the same. Through that unity and process of learning from one another they are posing deep and serious questions. They are challenging:
- the direction and focus of India’s Education Policy, the privatisation of education
- the tendency to reduce every individual to her / his lowest, primary identity, that of caste, religion, region etc.
- the spread of hatred, labelling this or that group or community as the ‘other’ and enemy
- the pitting of one toiling section of society against another, the farmer against the soldier, the the urban worker against rural worker etc.
- the current fashion of reducing love for the nation to chanting of hollow slogans
Indeed these young women and men are educating the ‘nation’ about the paramount importance of respect for plurality and diversity, freedom of thought, thinking out-of-the-box.
Instead of engaging with students in a meaningful way, coming up with serious, substantive response to their questions The State chooses to target, harass, punish them. What does this pattern show?
When politicians, and the Governments they run cannot tackle the burning issues of the day, when they are unable to fulfil the promises they made at election time, when the hype they have generated comes back to bite them the only escape can be to find an excuse, find someone to blame, identify an enemy to run down, and start a national frenzy of vilification. Innumerable tricksters, despots and elected leaders have used these strategems again and again. A despotic ruler’s worst fear is that people will stop fearing him.
They would do well to remember what Lincoln is believed to have said, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”, especially when students and young people ring the wake up bell.