Student activism is increasingly shaping popular opinion and steering public discourse in the world’s largest democracy. From “Hokkolorob” (make some noise) in West Bengal to “Justice for Rohith” in the southern city of Hyderabad, to “Standwithjnu” and the latest “Students Against ABVP” in the capital city of New Delhi, student crusades are spotlighting pressing issues, influencing government decision-making and initiating policy change. And the fight isn’t only about student rights, but also about inclusion, women’s empowerment, rising fundamentalism on campuses, autonomy in universities, and discrimination in higher education.
India’s student activism finds echoes around the world — in the youth movements of Paris and Berkeley of the 1960s and the Chilean students’ uprising of this decade, which have resonated with millions. In the United States, students have a history of skillfully foregrounding the futility of American involvement in a foreign conflict.
Article 19 of the Indian Constitution grants all Indian citizens fundamental rights like the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to form associations or unions. Therefore, as citizens with full voting rights, students are entitled to form associations and unions and articulate their views on important matters.
“Students’ unions are like trade unions,” explains Maithili Mishra, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a former student leader. “They are the bedrock of liberal democracies and represent the collective interests of various demographics, in this case students. They encourage debate, discussion, persuasion, accommodation and consensus.”
India has a long and complex tradition of student unions dating back to the 1970s. The advocacy groups may be organized either within universities — like the Delhi University Students’ Union — or outside with affiliations to political parties like the Congress, right wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), or Marxist and Left-leaning groups. Some prominent student unions include the Indian National Students Organization, National Students Union of India, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Students Federation of India, All India Students Association, Muslim Students’ Federation, and the All India Democratic Students Organization Marxist.
According to data from the Ministry of Home Affairs, student-led movements in India surged 148 percent between 2009 and 2014. Overall, the country witnessed a 55 percent spike in protests in the same period, amounting to an average of 200 protests each day. Experts believe the rising number of student-led agitations is attributable largely to their ability to tap into the groundswell of youth angst through social media. Their aim, experts say, is to incubate future political leaders and highlight socio-economic malaises that remain unaddressed by governments, university managements, or policy makers.
On campus student bodies may raise a range of issues — from poor faculty and high fees, to reservations for certain castes and communities, and the general apathy from college managements. Many also protest the rot within academia, which remains pitifully under-reported and therefore unarticulated.
“Another big reason why student movements have become so vibrant in India today is because many universities prohibit student elections for fear of violence or politicization of campuses,” says Bharti Chaturvedi, a political science student at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Needing a platform to articulate their concerns, students organize themselves into collectives to make their voices heard.”
According to Saumya Iyer, a Ph.D. student at Delhi University, student solidarity is stronger than ever before in India. “It isn’t limited to a few elite campuses in big cities either. Youth in tier two and three towns are also seeking justice and want their grievances addressed.”
However, opinion is splintered on the merits and demerits of student activism. While some portray it as a disruptive force that takes the focus away from academics, its supporters say it keeps the spirit of questioning alive, and also fights for inclusion by allowing students from diverse backgrounds to bring in their unique perspectives to problem solving.
Some experts opine that student agitations have turned India’s university campuses into war zones between liberal, secular voices and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government – of which ABVP has become the most prominent on campuses. Affiliated with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ABVP is also one of the largest student organizations with 3.2 million members. In 2014, the year Modi took office, the group said it added more than 900,000 members.
However, some of the criticism for such activism also stems from the fact that student bodies have to be relatively radical in mobilizing. They organize strikes and rallies against government policies and actions that give the issues a political color.
“Youth unemployment has been a big factor for disenchantment among youth in India of late with successive governments failing to address it,” says economist Dr. Prakash Roy, formerly with the Ministry of Commerce. “Many student agitations have highlighted this issue.”
According to a report by the Labor Bureau, the unemployment rate in India has spiraled up to a five-year high of 5 percent in 2015-16 despite the ruling right-wing BJP government launching high-profile schemes like “Make in India” to promote job creation and inclusive growth in the country. Roy adds that unemployment, lack of economic opportunities, and limited access to education leads to repressive measures by the government to stifle protests, which creates further disenchantment within this demographic. It’s a Catch-22.
That’s why, say experts, governments have a special interest in curbing progressive student politics, more so when the latter is critical of state policies or governance issues. The Modi government has often been panned for smothering student politics or turning campuses into saffron strongholds. A report of a government panel on the New Education Policy highlights a set of absurd curbs imposed by the government on student politics, especially on student groups “explicitly based on caste and religion.”
The murkier side of student activism has manifested itself in India in the form of disrupted movie screenings, vandalism, women’s molestation, destruction of college property during demonstrations, as well as the loss of academic days. Of late, the political activism of ABVP has become even more controversial.
While ABVP’s leaders say they are fighting for inclusion, its critics accuse it of perpetuating a Hindu fundamentalist agenda and spreading anti-Muslim, anti-women, and anti-Dalit propaganda on campuses. Recently ABVP issued threats of violence, gang rape, and physical attacks to a 20-year-old student activist from New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram college who launched the “Students Against ABVP” protest. She started the campaign after a recent spat between protesters and ABVP.
In January this year, another student organization, the Kerala Students Union, which has affiliations to the Congress party, went on a rampage, smashing doors and windows of a local office leading to the arrest of 12 of its activists. The group was protesting the death of an 18-year-old computer science student at an engineering college in the southern state of Kerala.
These two high-profile incidents, among many others, have the nation polarized for and against student activism. The debate also raised the question — how much activism is too much? The overwhelming view was that while democracies need to create an ecosystem where youth can articulate their concerns, fight for their rights, and be groomed as national leaders, there’s no room for hooliganism or peddling of an ideological agenda under the pretext of activism. Only if such advocacy is peaceful and positive, addressing injustices, empowering the disempowered, and contributing to nation building, should it be encouraged.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist.