By Chandrima Pal Dec. 18, 2019
Middle India sold its soul a long time ago. As long as we have our comfortable jobs and pretty homes, our children are in good schools, we don’t want to question anything. And it is because of this calculated indifference and opportunism that we have left young students – like those at JNU and Jamia – to fend for themselves.
One of the most beautiful things about being a student is that you believe you can actually change the world. In the America of the ’60s and ’70s, students made love on the streets and believed they could end a war. In 1989 China, the Tank Man, an unidentified 19-year-old student who stood in the way of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, believed he could stop the march of the army that had massacred thousands of protestors. Today, Greta Thunberg believes she can make world leaders take constructive action against climate change. And students across India hope that their protests against the contentious Citizenship Act will force the government to rethink their discriminatory policies.
It is inspiring yet heartbreaking, this optimism of the youth. I realised as I found myself choking up at the images of a bleeding JNU student leader Aishe Gosh. She was beaten up by an iron rod by masked goons who barged into the campus on Sunday.
The images of young students bleeding, sobbing, yet continuing to raise their voices reminded me of the darkest 18 months in Indian history. Yes, I am a child of the Emergency, and I also grew up with stories about how the Congress regime had “cleansed Bengal of Naxals”. That was the political narrative. But in Kolkata, every family spoke in whispers about a brilliant son or daughter who had lost a career or life to Naxalism. But as I grew a little older, I realised the two accounts did not add up. I began to question our history, our political legacy.
As a curious teenager, I remember asking my parents, who started the fire? Why did brilliant young students feel compelled to rise against the system? Why were they disillusioned? And why did the State use the army to hunt them down? I never got my answers.
Students and supporters shout slogans outside to protest following alleged clashes between student groups at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on January 5, 2020. Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images
Students and supporters shout slogans outside to protest following alleged clashes between student groups at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on January 5, 2020.
Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images
The police and the army at that time had a free hand in quelling rebellion. Gun shots sometimes ricocheted in the narrow, dark alleys of Kolkata and crude bombs went off frequently in some neighbourhoods. I remember some of that.
Years later, when it came to my turn at a college education, my parents were both proud and wary of my choice. I was a student of English Literature at Presidency College, that was known to be a hotbed of student activism. My parents were worried: What if their only child, who had been raised in a protective environment of a Marwari-dominated girls’ school, got politicised? Their fears were not unfounded. There, surrounded by young students who questioned everything and took nothing at face value, I began to transform. I stood for the college elections; I did not care for any political ideology. I was convinced that I had a chance to do something different.
I’d sit for dharnas at the busy intersection outside our college, sing for hours, form human chains – raise our voices for human rights, animal rights. But that was as far as my middle-class upbringing would allow me to go.
Because somehow my parents convinced us that as students, our only focus was to study, score well, find a great job or a calling that is both lucrative and dignified. Obedience. Acceptance. Adherence. Those were the mantras for success. It was easy to stick to the plan. Because India, in the ’90s was all about opportunities of a different kind. We did not want to challenge the establishment. We wanted to be a part of it. And our ambition eventually took over our ideology. The fiery student gave way to a woman whose first instinct has always been to walk away from possible conflict.
I did not join my colleagues in 2002, when they gathered at Jantar Mantar, chanting slogans against the government after a young student was raped in the busy ITO area in broad daylight. I did not join the multitudes who held candlelight marches in Mumbai in the aftermath of 26/11. Neither did I join my friends at Azad Maidan during the anti-corruption protests that rocked the nation. I wanted my job. I did not want to be branded a rebel or a radical. Eventually, I found comfort in the echo chamber of social media. I did not have to hit the streets, I was happy being an arm-chair activist.
As long as we have our comfortable jobs and pretty homes and sedans to drive, and our children are in good schools, we don’t want to question anything.
I regret those days.
I regret the fact that when I could have stood up, be counted and make a difference, I chose to walk away. When I could have been one of the many who challenged the system at Jantar Mantar or Azad Maidan, I preferred to accept the system instead and my assured pay cheque. I reasoned with myself then, what difference would my presence, my voice make to the crowd? What if there is trouble? My middle-class upbringing always silenced my dissenting, questioning voice.
Perhaps it was accumulated guilt of having opted for the safer way, that I did something uncharacteristic in 2017. A young Muslim boy was lynched in a train over an argument over a seat. I joined a group of civil society members, led by intellectuals and artists, as they sang and chanted slogans to support the #NotInMyName campaign. I was there with my four-year-old daughter. Still, I am sure I would not dare to do something as reckless as that today. I am hamstrung by the facts of my life – mother, woman.
I never really had the courage to look the system in the eye. Which is why, when two young students stood their ground in a South Delhi colony and dared the rampaging cops to come and get them, I was engulfed with admiration and guilt. In that gut-wrenching moment, my life behind safety nets flashed before my eyes. Those kids were doing what we should have done long, long ago.
Over the past few days I have been watching students across the country rise to the unprecedented occasion that the contentious CAA and our political mandate has created for our democracy. I have watched in horror as the cops tear-gassed and lathi-charged them; as masked goons entered campus with batons in hand. And I thought of the parents, whose children are out there, taking it on their chin, because they believe they can change the world. I have found it difficult to hold back my tears.
Delhi police stands outside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on January 6, 2020. – Authorities deployed riot police at a top New Delhi university on January 6 after a rampage by masked assailants sparked nationwide protests. Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) (Photo by MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images
Delhi police stands outside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on January 6, 2020. – Authorities deployed riot police at a top New Delhi university on January 6 after a rampage by masked assailants sparked nationwide protests.
Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) (Photo by MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images
The idealism is infectious, but also fatal. Because this regime has been endorsed and blessed by the majority. It has the endorsement of the most powerful world leaders. And we have all been complicit in creating an environment of hate, and a culture of indifference. We have put rape and terror-accused in the parliament. And we have allowed our icons to be decimated. Anywhere else in the world, governments have toppled, regimes overturned over issues half as grave as the ones we deal with every day.
But middle India had sold its soul a long time ago. As long as we have our comfortable jobs and pretty homes and sedans to drive, and our children are in good schools, we don’t want to question anything. And it is because of this calculated indifference, opportunism and pursuit of our individual dreams, that we have left young students – like those at JNU and Jamia – to fend for themselves.
Today, when I watch students across the country unite in protest and face the might of this state machinery that is armed to the teeth, I find myself conflicted. I respond to the deeply disturbing visuals as a parent. As I try desperately to save enough money so that my daughter is able to flee this environment – I realise I am about to repeat history. We have failed our children, our students, in creating a culture that inspires them, protects their dreams and nurtures them.
But we can perhaps set things right by getting off that fence we have been sitting on for so long. From Calcutta to Delhi, Bangalore to Hyderabad, students are putting their lives, their future, their careers at risk to fight for what they believe is the right thing. The least our callous generation can do is allow that optimism to shake us out of our cultivated apathy.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).