CAA Protests: Governments Can Attack Students with Tear Gas, They Can’t Smother their Voices

Social Commentary

CAA Protests: Governments Can Attack Students with Tear Gas, They Can’t Smother their Voices

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It’s December. Students of an engineering college stage a protest against hiked canteen prices. Food prices have been rising in the state, and the new Chief Minister is facing allegations of corruption. Soon, a meagre issue about prices turns into angst against poor education and the government’s ineptness. Colleges across the state stage protests and are joined by middle-class workers and daily-wage labourers. The protests eventually lead to the resignation of the reigning CM. They also give birth to a young political mind, who despite his modest stature and resources, throws himself full-fledged into active politics. Slowly, he gains prominence, rises through the ranks of a national organisation and goes on to become one of the most popular Prime Ministers to ever be elected by India.

No, this is not a story set in the future – this is the story of PM Narendra Modi, who has clamped down on student dissent in a way that absurdly, defies his own origin story.  

Watching videos of the Delhi Police brutally attacking students of Jamia Millia Islamia – beating them up with lathis, firing tear gas shells – has made me angry and uneasy. How could the police force unscrupulously attack college students with such venom? Under what moral or legal garb can their action be dressed as normal? If the sole basis for state-sanctioned violence is the suppression of dissent, then it is contradictory to the ruling party’s own roots that were sowed in student activism. The BJP, especially PM Modi and his close friend, the late Arun Jaitley, rose to prominence through student politics. Why has the weight of their own heritage then, become so burdensome that they would much rather erase its memory? And more importantly, stall its future?

CAA Protest

If the sole basis for state-sanctioned violence is the suppression of dissent, then it is contradictory to the ruling party’s own roots that were sowed in student activism.

Hindustan Times/Getty Images

There was a time during UPA-II when Modi proudly announced his activist past. A student and young activist, according to himself, he participated in the Navnirman Movement that began as a student protest in Gujarat. The Emergency was a major turning point in Indian politics, because it also gave modern India some of its most recognisable young politicians. Most of these youngsters followed in the footsteps of charismatic leader Jayaprakash Narayan, who led a nationwide crusade against the rapid decline in governance under Indira Gandhi. The likes of Modi and Advani were part of the JP Andolan, that led to the imprisonment of many young students and activists. Arun Jaitley, then a student studying law at Delhi University, followed the movement around India, mobilising people along the way. Narayan himself considered youngsters to be a crucial part of his campaign against Gandhi and her dictatorial turn before plunging the country into socio-economic despair.

That the same party today looks at student politics with such abhorrence is confirmation of at least one of two things. First, that the party simply sees students as illegitimate carriers of political opinion, that they ought not to speak up, or worse, be heard. Second, and perhaps more pertinent and troubling, is the fact that the ruling party knows the power of student politics, having been a part of it and learned from it. The young can’t be systematically downed like their adult counterparts, resigned to the everyday drudgery of work and responsibility. Students are effectively freer and closer to fact compared to grown-ups, who have migrated to the world of convenient, capsuled learning, we amicably call WhatsApp University.

Meanwhile, the past couple of years has seen our institutions, their frameworks, their syllabi, their ideals, and their principles under attack. Attempts to distort history have become par for the course.

This is not a story set in the future – this is the story of PM Narendra Modi, who has clamped down on student dissent in a way that absurdly, defies his own origin story.

But, as the public’s reaction to the clampdown at Jamia evidenced, the spirit of student activism is more resilient than those in power give it credit for. Protests against the Mandal Commission, for example, were largely led by students and brought down the VP Singh government in 1990. In Assam, a large majority of protesting citizens is made up of students from AASU (All Assam Students Union). It was the youth that was at the forefront of the Assam agitation of 1979-85 against illegal immigrants.

In their attempt to muzzle student dissent the government only confirms its legitimacy and need. As commentator Sidin Vadakut said in his tweet on Monday, “”You can muzzle media, scare off corporates and intimidate film stars. But students… Students have nothing to lose, their entire lives to gain and an infinite capacity to stay pissed off.” No wonder the BJP doesn’t want you to know about its own past days of student activism, nor does it want you to pay heed to its influence on the present.

Maybe this is all premeditated to divert attention from the one discussion that the government cannot afford to have at the moment — about the floundering economy. Maybe this is just an angry retort against a gradually building wave of interrogation and doubt. Whatever the motivation, it is clear that our leaders don’t want students to speak. Maybe, just maybe, it is fear, having once been on the other side of the wall. Either way, gassing defenceless students doesn’t smother their voices – ironically, only amplifies their significance. Look around, you shouldn’t miss it.

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