India’s Students Are Doing What Rahul Gandhi & Co Should Be Doing: Making the Government Think

Social Commentary

India’s Students Are Doing What Rahul Gandhi & Co Should Be Doing: Making the Government Think

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The Bharatiya Janata Party had a year to celebrate in 2019. Well, almost. Though the year was full of ups and downs, it was more thrilling roller coaster and less sinking ship. Less than two months ago, it seemed like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah could not set a foot wrong politically, so effective had their PR machinery become. The Opposition was teetering, and no challenger to BJP’s supremacy over the mainstream narrative was visible on the horizon.

A year that began with the downs of the Pulwama terror attack was converted into the ups of the Balakot surgical strike. Scrutiny over a shady Rafale deal and clamour over the exodus of corporate scamsters from the country was washed away by a thumping electoral victory in the Lok Sabha polls in May. Kashmir’s special status was revoked, and despite ruffled feathers among Opposition parties, the move went over well with most of the electorate. Then, the government turned the Citizenship Amendment Bill into an Act, confident that this time too, noises would be made in Parliament while citizens sat at home. That turned out to be a gross miscalculation.


Students from various colleges of Delhi University (DU), hold placards during a protest march against attacks JNU violence, CAA, NRC and NPR at North Campus, DU on January 8, 2020 in New Delhi, India.

Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

At first, the protest against the CAA as well as the looming National Register of Citizens was confined to armchair activism on the familiar battle grounds of Twitter and Facebook. The only people who seemed to be demonstrating on the streets were university students – not too much of a concern since the media has been running a sustained campaign painting them as the entitled, uninformed rabble-rousers. On December 15, using the forces of Delhi Police and CRPF, one such student protest against CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia was repressed with excessive force, possibly intended to cow the students into submission. However, as visuals of the brutality unleashed on the students spread on the internet, the opposite happened. Students on campuses across the country – Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, IIT-Kanpur and Madras, Delhi University – spoke up and reminded the establishment that India’s people have a voice of their own, and unlike corrupt politicians, they are not so easily silenced or bought. And it didn’t stop there.

Students on campuses across the country spoke up and reminded the establishment that India’s people have a voice of their own.

Massive public gatherings numbering in the tens of thousands were held in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and other parts of the country as well. Signs were made. Slogans were chanted. Songs were sung. The agitation which was largely restricted to metros eventually spread to small-town India – to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. For what seemed like the first time since BJP came to power in 2014, there was palpable frustration even among the normally sedentary middle class with the way this regime was conducting itself.

The government’s reaction to what was a simple campus protest at Jamia has created a situation that has snowballed beyond their control. Finally, it feels like there is more than one force at play in Indian politics, and refreshingly, it doesn’t belong to any political party. It took the students speaking up, risking (and in many cases, receiving) bodily harm for the rest of India to be shaken into action, and that needs to be acknowledged. 

I’m thankful that these protests have shown me that dissent doesn’t have to be as lonely as I imagined it to be. I’m thankful to the students of JNU, Jamia, and other universities for reminding me that speaking up can make a difference. But most of all, I’m thankful to these students for reminding so many Indians that they have a conscience.

Student Protests

Student hold banner and shout slogans during a rally to protest against violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU.

Photo by Ved Prakash/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

By throwing themselves in the line of fire, of not just police reprisal but also attacks from lawless, masked terrorisers, the student protesters have revitalised the spirit of dissent in this country. They’re doing what Opposition politicians have been trying to do and failing at since 2014, which is hold their ground against a belligerent Centre that has gotten used to having its way, and also show that you don’t have to love the government to love your country.

Less than one month ago, I had never participated in a protest in my life. In the last three weeks, I’ve been to three. And I’m not alone; so many peers of mine from privileged Mumbai have become more politically aware in the aftermath of this wave of student resistance. I’ve seen faces from college and school that I haven’t seen in years at protests. We’ve learned that we have a voice, and how to responsibly use it. Who would have thought the greatest lesson of this decade would be taught by students?