From Jadavpur to JNU, student protests gained momentum since 2014; India ranks third in number of attacks on education community

  • Attacks at three university campuses — Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — were reported within a span of three weeks

  • A report tracking assaults on higher education community globally has put India on third place after Turkey and China in terms of number of attacks took place between September 2018 and August 2019

  • The deteriorating law and order situation in varsities may be an attempt to muzzle dissent in Indian campuses in the face of a strengthening students’ front

Attacks at three university campuses — Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — within a span of three weeks resulted in injuries to students and raised questions on the role of the police in containing such violence and the safety of varsities in India. Moreover, it stirred lakhs from various sections of the society — irrespective of religion, professions and political ideologies — to stand in against such atrocities.

While Jamia and AMU saw violence during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) within the campuses on 15 December, followed by alleged police atrocities, attacks were reported in JNU on 5 January at a time semester registration had begun following the implementation of a hostel fee hike that had seen the disapproval of students in the form of protests since October last year. More than 30 people were injured in Sunday's JNU violence alone, that came shortly after more than 100 other students and teachers had protested against the fee hike.

Meanwhile, 60 people each were injured, PTI reported, when Jamia and AMU campuses witnessed a stir against the contentious Act that gives citizenship to migrants from six religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who moved to India on or before 31 December, 2014.

 From Jadavpur to JNU, student protests gained momentum since 2014; India ranks third in number of attacks on education community

People stage a protest condemning the attack at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, at GPO in Lucknow. PTI

The CAA-NRC issue also saw widespread protests in Assam, where six deaths, many injuries and widespread damage to property were reported. In fact, the protests led to the cancellation of a summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Guwahati. The protests saw the prominent participation of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), a student body which had led the student agitation in the state between 1979 and 1985 to protect the Axomiya identity from an influx of Bangladeshi migrants following the 1971 war. The protest had received support from people from various walks of life and had led to the Assam Accord in 1985.

India has a long history of student movements. Among the earliest documented student movements can be traced back to as early as 1905 in now Kolkata. The 1965 stir in Tamil Nadu against the Official Languages Act of 1963, which made Hindi an official language, and during which self-immolation of students led to 70 deaths, the agitation against a hostel fee hike at an Ahmedabad hostel in 1973 – which ended with the state government’s dissolution – and the underground protests during the 1975 Emergency — which led to the imprisonment of over 300 student union leaders — are among the movements that bore an impact in terms of damage to life and property and questioning the freedoms of students.

In the following decades, India witnessed the anti-Mandal agitation in 1990 when protests were held against the introduction of 27 percent reservation in government jobs for people from the Other Backward Classes. The reservation issue returned to the fore in 2006 when students launched a stir against reservations for OBCs in both central and private higher education institutes.

However, what signalled the return of campus politics and students' movement after years of intermittent uproars and protests was the ‘hok kalorob (let there be a revolution)' movement at the Jadavpur University in 2014. It was after this year, that student uprisings were seen at varsities almost every year. The 'hok kalorob' movement began when police attacked unarmed students who were staging a protest demanding an inquiry into the alleged molestation of a fellow student. The next year came the FTII agitation. In the 140-day protest, students boycotted classes and held protests against the nomination of the actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the institute. The entire country joined in solidarity.

Thiruvananthapuram’s College of Engineering saw protests by female students, who conducted cycle rallies and street plays, among other activities, against discriminatory curfew timings in March 2015. Later, in the month of October, the female students of Jamia Millia Islamia started the Pinjra Tod movement in response to a circular by the varsity that cancelled late nights for its girl’s hostel residents. The movement reached campuses all over the country to defy sexist rules set on campus.

In January 2016, hundreds of students from universities across India participated in rallies, condemning the administration’s failure to prevent the suicide of Dalit scholar of Hyderabad University Rohith Vemula, who was among the five Dalit students expelled from the hostel and given restricted access to the campus for allegedly assaulting a leader of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The same year JNU erupted in protests after student groups clashed over the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of conspiring in an attack on the Parliament of India. Amid protests and clashes between student groups, then JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and booked for sedition. Other students, including Umar Khalid, too were arrested and 21 students were penalised with measures ranging from rustication to fines, leading to an indefinite strike.

Delhi University's Ramjas College had turned into a battleground in February 2017 as students of Left-affiliated AISA and the RSS-backed ABVP armed with hockey sticks rained blows on each other, causing injuries to many. The genesis of the clash was an invite to JNU students Umar Khalid, facing sedition charge, and Shehla Rashid to address a seminar on 'Culture of Protests' which was withdrawn by the college authorities following opposition by the ABVP.

The deteriorating law and order situation in varsities may be an attempt to muzzle dissent in Indian campuses in the face of a strengthening students’ front. The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 in varsities and the condemnation of the violence meted out at student protesters, by political leaders as well as the Amnesty International, are a clear pointer to the power that this front holds.

The protests against CAA and NRC forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a complete U-turn on the NRC issue and the existence of detention centres during his Ramlila Maidan speech. Modi's remarks were completely opposite to what Home Minister Amit Shah and others NDA ministers had said on the subject in the past.

The JNU fee hike has raised concern among students that an apparent retreat from public funding of institutes may be on the cards, given that the Centre’s budget allocation to education came down to 3.4 percent of the GDP in 2019-20 from 4.14 percent five years ago, according to an Outlook report.

Protests within campuses take shape over matters that seem important to the student community therein. Attacks on students and violence within university premises, however, point to a grave threat on the educational system of the country. A report tracking assaults on higher education community globally has put India on the third place after Turkey and China in terms of the number of attacks that took place in recent times.

While the number of attacks reported in Turkey was 49 between September 2018 and August 2019, China and India had 27 and 22 onslaughts each, according to the Free To Think 2019 report.

"While they (the attacks) differ across states and regions and by severity and type, these attacks all share a common motivation: to control or silence higher education institutions and personnel," the report said.

Violent attacks on scholars, students, and their institutions are among the gravest threats to higher education, the report said adding that "these attacks not only result in the loss of lives and injuries impacting hundreds if not thousands of immediate victims, but also severely compromise the university space more generally, by sending a message that certain ideas are off-limits, and anyone who expresses them risks physical harm — even death."

With inputs from PTI

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 23:17:16 IST