Why are students across campuses rising? Shehla Rashid’s article in IE for those who missed it

Shehla Rashid | Courtesy: Indian Express

There is an attempt to portray student activism as mere rabble-rousing and as something that affects academics. In fact, it keeps the spirit of questioning alive, and also fights for inclusion

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution gives all Indian citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peacefully and without arms and the right to form associations or unions. These are fundamental rights, and cannot be taken away unless there is a situation of declared emergency. Therefore, as citizens of this country who have full voting rights, students (or any group of citizens, for that matter) have the right to form associations and unions.

Successive governments over the years have quietly stolen away this fundamental right from us, even in the absence of any declared emergency, as a result of which the rights and protections available to citizens have terribly declined. First came the “Special Economic Zones”, which were created as insulated spaces to give a free hand to big corporate players, and where no protection for workers would be available, as Indian labour laws won’t hold. The right to go on strike and the right to demand better working conditions was practically snatched away from employees. Now, universities are being turned into such “special” and insulated zones where the rights accorded to young Indians under Article 19 are being taken away.

For the record, the Narendra Modi government alone is not responsible for this, even though it has embarked on a special mission to wage a war against students. Congress governments over the years have had a special interest in curbing progressive student politics, as students have tried to resist the privatisation of education — a project that was inaugurated by the Congress, throwing the future of millions of underprivileged young Indians into the dark. Student unions have constructively intervened and prevented the onslaught of these disastrous policies. For the Modi government, in addition to paving the way for total commercialisation of education, there is an additional interest in curbing student politics — that is, the attempt to turn the campuses into saffron fortresses. By making Smriti Irani the minister for HRD, Modi has transported the vendetta politics characteristic of saas-bahu serials to the arena of higher education, where the government is waging a turf war with university students.

A report of a government panel on the New Education Policy, headed by T.S.R. Subramanian, has come up with a set of ridiculous diktats such as putting curbs on student politics, especially on student groups “explicitly based on caste and religion” and encouraging yoga on campuses. It appears that, rather than the panel giving suggestions to the government, it is the government that has dictated the content of the panel report. It would be interesting to know the response of the RSS on this issue, as the student wing of the RSS, namely the ABVP, is responsible for hooligan activities in campuses across India. Would the BJP and the RSS advocate banning of the ABVP as well? Also, the ABVP is directly involved in spreading anti-Muslim, anti-women and anti-Dalit propaganda on campuses. Does the panel characterise the ABVP as an organisation based on caste, considering that ABVP leaders and cadres are almost fully drawn from the upper castes? Or is it the case that only Dalits have caste and upper castes are casteless?

Let us take an example. Would an “Ambedkar Students’ Association” be characterised as one based on caste? If yes, then would a “Vivekananda Study Circle” also be called a caste-based organisation? And how about a “Bhagat Singh Chhatra Morcha”? Obviously, none of these organisations mention the word “caste”. But the casteist society that we live in teaches us to think of Ambedkar as having a caste, as if Vivekananda or Bhagat Singh, were casteless. Quite obviously, this diktat will be used to target Muslim students’ organisations. On JNU campus, the right-wing runs several fronts, namely the “Savarna Chhatra Morcha” (literally meaning, twice-born student front), Hindu Vidyarthi Sena (Hindu student army), but obviously, we will never see a BJP minister writing letters against such caste- or religion-based organisations. However, the Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya was quick to brand Rohith Vemula and his friends in the Ambedkar Students’ Association as casteist.

There is an attempt to portray student activism as mere rabble-rousing and as affecting academics. Is that the case? The MHRD’s own report ranks JNU and HCU as the top institutions. Student activism is not destroying academics. On the contrary, student activism is making campuses inclusive, where students belonging to diverse backgrounds bring in their unique perspectives, which gives rise to original thinking. This is true not only for the social sciences but also for pure and applied science branches. As an example, the mainstream thinking in science (which has been called “malestream” by feminist theorists) would have us memorise, without questioning, that women’s bodily capacity is weaker than that of men. However, the son of a woman who works as a construction worker can tell us that this is wrong. Women construction workers or agricultural workers do the exact same amount of physical work, in addition to the so-called “domestic” chores as well, including care work. It is then that we understand that such malestream science is not only politically lopsided, but also inaccurate.

In fact, is it not bias that introduces inaccuracy? Is it not a basic tenet of science that we must question? Student activism has kept the spirit of questioning alive, and also fights for inclusion. In order to ensure that tribals, Dalits and other poor people can send their children to schools, colleges and universities, we fight.

The report mentions that students must stop agitating. My advice to the government is to stop pursuing anti-people, communal, anti-student and anti-women policies. The agitations will stop, trust me.