By Arnav Das Sharma Mar. 07, 2017
The one thing that set students of Delhi University apart from our jhola-carrying friends from JNU was this absence of a protest culture. But the dime flipped this February.
am convinced there is something in the capital’s air. Something about the early months of the year, the promise of spring, or maybe the onset of exam season, that raises the hackles of university students. Last year, around the same time, JNU was erupting apparently over the questioning of Afzal Guru’s execution and a call for Kashmir’s “azadi”. This year, close to the first anniversary of the JNU moment, there has been serious violence at Delhi University, triggered by Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s attempts to shut down any form of protest.
You could argue that students should be in classes and not out on the streets wasting taxpayers’ money. And you’d be playing right into the hands of a typically Indian notion that young adults do not know any better, and are not right-thinking autonomous individuals who know their minds. Just like Maneka Gandhi, who believes that a “Lakshman rekha”, in the form of a hostel curfew needs to be introduced to contain the hormonal outbursts of young men and women (which apparently switches on only after twilight).
Gandhi – and union minister and an erstwhile advocate of women’s empowerment – might have made this statement yesterday, but the students of Delhi University, JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, and National Law University, have been opposing this mindset for close to two years now. Since 2015, Pinjra Tod: Break the Hostel Locks, a campaign opposed to the oppressive measures introduced by hostels to curb (primarily) women’s freedoms, has been gaining momentum. The campaign grew out of a Facebook page, and led to an outpouring of students into the streets mobilised through signature campaigns, online petitions, and jan sunwais (public hearing).
This is not the university I have known. The university I have been a part of for the last five years, has never been so politically active. Or rather, politics was a business we left to the ABVP and National Students Union of India members. The rest of us just took leave around the time of the Delhi University Students Union elections.
Of course, I have seen the Arts Faculty as the theatre of many low-key, peaceful protests such as the infamous decision of the then-Vice Chancellor, Dinesh Singh, to implement the controversial Four Year Undergraduate Programme. But the one thing that set students of Delhi University apart from our stereotypical kurta-wearing, jhola-carrying friends from JNU was this absence of a protest culture. Us DU folks were far more comfortable having short bustling conversations over a cup of lemon tea from JP Tea Stall at D-School or getting sloshed on weekends in our respective hostels. Sure, we spoke of revolution, read Marx and Foucault and Derrida over alcohol. But the following day we’d be back at our lectures and tutorials.
What has caused this “radicalisation” of the student body that has the ruling party and its minions so riled?
But the dime flipped this February – and I have never witnessed this earlier. There is a serious mobilisation of the student body, and it would be reductive to attribute it to the violence unleashed by ABVP. The party, after all, has a history of violence: In 2012, they’d gone on a rampage in the history department because of one 13-page essay by the scholar-poet, AK Ramanujan, who’d argued that the Ramayana had many versions.
Back then, we’d all expressed our anger by doing what students with limited monetary resources do: post on Facebook, invite a debate, and lament over the idiocy of our situation over drinks. But there were no actual street protests – unlike in the aftermath of the Ramjas fracas. Five thousand students marched from Khalsa College to Arts Faculty a few days ago, bearing “ABVP Why So Creepy” placards. Later, they assembled at Mandi House and marched to the Parliament, chanting “azadi”. All of this, despite the threat of violence.
What has changed in the last few years? What has caused this “radicalisation” of the student body that has the ruling party and its minions so riled?
The answer, in all fairness, is really simple. All that most of us want is to have an environment where we can freely talk and debate, without the threat of violence looming over our heads like the sword of Damocles. Whether we want to endorse Marx or diss him or debate the idea of Kashmir – we want to be able to do it the way we once could.
This “radicalisation” doesn’t mean that we’ve suddenly turned into a guerrilla army, a threat to national security, as the present dispensation seems to be thinking. Most of my friends, who are marching for free spaces in the university right now, are equally committed to the idea of serving the nation by taking up public and administrative service. Some of us still think of Kashmir as an integral part of India. But we are equally horrified to see images of children blinded by pellet guns. And we are equally aghast at the ways in which “nationalism” as an ideology is being brandished every time we raise a question, as if it is the only indicator of our “Indianness”.
Marching with the 5,000 students and teachers on the last day of February, I felt a way I’ve never felt before. I felt that finally, all these million mutinies that have come to define India, seemed to have found a voice, encapsulated in the word “azadi”. That word might soon be deemed seditious, but I doubt censoring the word will make the sentiment that it represents disappear.
That, is here to stay.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow at the Delhi School of Economics. He writes on cinema, literature, caste politics and music. He is currently working on his first novel.