My recent visit to India coincided with the student protests that convulsed the nation. What was striking was not the scale of the agitation but the idea of India put forth by these young men and women seeking freedom, equality and justice has resonated with the people and altered the national discourse. In the words of a leading feminist writer, Nivedita Menon, they are “fighting for the soul of India.” Their youthful insurgency represents an indictment of the entrenched power system that is elitist, exploitative and devoid of concern for the disadvantaged. By energising the public debate on social justice, they have rattled the right wing BJP-led Government under whose watch there has been an assault on free speech, on concessions for the disadvantaged and on minority rights.
The protests were triggered by two seemingly personal tragedies-a suicide and an incarceration. On 17th January, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student of the University of Hyderabad , hanged himself at a time when he was under suspension along with four others allegedly for being “a casteist, extremist and anti-nationalist” (Bandaru Dattatreya, Union Minister). Describing his own Dalit status at the lowest end of the caste hierarchy as a “fatal accident”, Rohith’s suicide note is a searing indictment of a caste-ridden, unequal society where in his words, “the value of man is reduced to a vote, a number, a thing”. In another incident on 12th February, a PhD student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested for sedition. The “anti-national” activities he and his group were allegedly involved in included raising anti-India slogans and questioning the hanging of Afzal Guru based on a contentious Supreme Court decision that has been criticised by human rights activists across the world. In a speech on 3rd March after his release from custody, which went viral globally (half a million hits in 12 hours), Kumar ripped apart the coercive tactics, elitist concerns, false propaganda, pseudo nationalism, caste and communal bias of the present Government.
In telling truth to power, these two young men and their supporters, have picked up the gauntlet on behalf of all who have been diminished by an oppressive governing class and parochial politics. In stark contrast to the smugness and social apathy of the ruling elite and a middle class consumed by self-interest, these young men and women have emerged as standard bearers for a more humane, caring and inclusive society. Their youthful fight for justice is directed against caste and communal discrimination, against curbing of dissent and freedom of expression, against institutional violence, against extremist jingoism masquerading as nationalism, against the growing chasm between the power elite and the rest. They have demonstrated that education is not just about the competitive pursuit of personal advantage but also about values, such as equality and justice and about proactive social engagement.
Significantly, the students have been backed by a cross section of academics, social activists, writers, nationally and internationally. We cannot overlook the link of this movement with the earlier protests by writers, artists and others against the present Government’s insidious assault on free speech but the courage and strength of youth power in the struggle against oppressive forces has inspired the hope that a society based on truly egalitarian principles is possible.
The current student protests have particular significance for us in academia and the global community of sociologists. In its intrinsic nature, the university represents hope, the site where resides the deepest and most sensitive consciousness of the community, where human sensibility is refined and sharpened. The university’s role is to promote critical thinking, to analyse society’s “common conscience”, to question given truths. It is gratifying that the current unrest in India has been sparked by students in the universities, who are asking uncomfortable questions about society that the “Establishment” has conveniently ignored or suppressed. Not surprisingly, JNU and perhaps in some ways the University of Hyderabad, are among the few liberal enclaves in an otherwise staid and risk-averse academic environment, that are at the forefront.
It is also significant that sociologists have been prominent in their support, participating in protest marches, issuing statements, speaking at rallies, publishing thought-provoking articles, giving public lectures on what nationalism means in a humane society. They have provided invaluable intellectual and sociologically meaningful content to the agitation. Through their active involvement, some of these sociologists have underlined the positive impact of the real time sociological perspective in grappling with the problems of the world. On March 4, 232 sociologists from all across India signed a letter of protest to the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. They stated, “The constitution of India guarantees to all citizens the right to their beliefs and to peaceful expression of these beliefs, but we are deeply disturbed by the ongoing events in the country and feel the urgent need to make a public statement,” They also wrote that “We are, therefore, deeply concerned at the growing attacks on students, faculty and staff of various universities by organisations which seem to have the backing of the authorities and the police,” (http://www.bangaloremirror.com/news/india/President-PM-urged-to-rein-violence-in-educational-institutions/articleshow/51259282.cms). In my first message as President of the ISA, I had advocated the need for us sociologists to proactively engage in issue beyond academia, to operate “from the trenches”. Indian sociologists, academics and activists have shown us the way.
To slot this as India’s “Tahrir moment” would be effusive hyperbole because what happened during the Arab Spring was cataclysmic in every sense – a bloody, mass civil war against ruthless dictatorships. It is also too early to tell whether this movement is as impactful as the student revolts of 1968 across Europe and America that unsettled the ruling regimes of the time. Although small by comparison, most importantly, the student-led movement for equality and justice in India has clearly laid bare the fault lines of a society immersed in a commercial and mercenary neoliberal culture that has heightened the inequities in the system. It has certainly galvanized a countrywide public debate on justice, freedom, nationalism and equality. It has lit more than a spark in India’s search for a more just, equal society.
Below are a few links to access some of the significant speeches and writings on this momentous period:
Lecture on Nationalism by Professor Tanika Sarkar
Video of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech
Sangeeta Dasgupta- “Umar Khalid, My Student”
India Tomorrow – “It is clash of ideologies at JNU”
Romila Thapar – “Nationalism does not allow the Hindu in India to claim primacy”
Partha Chatterjee – “India today similar to the Mccarthy era”
Hindustan Times – “Shehla Rashid leading JNU students’ fightback”
Lecture on Nationalism at JNU # 1– Gopal Guru (Video)
Video of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech after release from jail, 3rd March 2016
Why our universities are in ferment”
The Hindu – Cartoonscape Februar 16th 2016
The Hindu – Cartoonscape March 05th 2016
The Indian Express – “News of Kanhaiya’s bail turns protest into song-and-dance affair”
Margaret Abraham is a professor of sociology at Hofstra University and the president (2014-2018) of the International Sociological Association. The content of this blog post is not an official position of Hofstra University or ISA.