Universities, protests and dissent: The importance of ‘quiet’ politics must also be considered
Student-led protests grew by over 148 percent in the five-year period between 2009 and 2014, an analysis from the Ministry of Home Affairs data on police organisations shows.
Student-led agitations grew by over 148 percent in the five-year period between 2009 and 2014, an analysis from the Ministry of Home Affairs data on police organisations shows. In general, the country witnessed a 55 percent rise in protests in the same period, amounting to an average of 200 protests each day. The analysis posits a correlation between literacy rates and incidence of protests, with Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra accounting for more than half of the protests. The ‘underdeveloped’ states such as UP and Bihar, on the other hand, account for less than one percent of the protests in the five-year period.
What stands out from these numbers is the rise in student-led protests. The data seems to have captured the rumblings of a phenomenon that exploded post the 2014 general elections, especially with Narendra Modi government’s interventions in the arena of higher education. It is only over the last two years that we have come to realise the full force of this movement, from Hokkolorob protests at Jadavpur University, Occupy UGC movement to the protests in wake of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and subsequently, the response to the crackdown on JNU students. However, the surge in the number of student-led agitations in the preceding years points to much deeper socio-economic causes, to which adequate attention has not been paid. The unfolding of student politics in India in recent times, especially now in the much more dramatic context of global politics, warrants careful analysis.
In April 2015, when a fledgling student group at IIT-Madras issued a pamphlet announcing a lecture to commemorate the birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, little did they know that it will attract national limelight (the institute student body recently banned the distribution of pamphlets in the campus ostensibly due to environmental reasons). Quoting from Annihilation of Caste, it said, “Ambedkar proposed to annihilate caste by destroying Hinduism. He says, ‘You must destroy the Religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis. Nothing else will avail’. ‘Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors and it must die for caste to vanish’”. Consequently, an anonymously written letter undersigned by ‘Students, IIT Madras’ reached Smriti Irani-led MHRD. The letter accused the concerned student group Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) of “creating hatred among student in the name of caste and trying to polarise the ST, SC students (sic)” and “trying to create hatred against the Honourable Prime Minister and Hindus”. The ministry swung into action and sought comments from the institute in an official letter, which included handwritten notes, as reported by The Telegraph: “Unfortunate. IITs were never used for such purposes. Pl get comments”.
Ideologically on the same page as the ruling dispensation, the Dean of Students acted to "de-recognise" the student group. In the days that followed, the IIT-M campus resembled a fortress with protests by students inside as well as different ideological groups outside. The de-recognition of APSC led to the group being catapulted to the centre of a sharply polarised national discourse. Similar groups sprang up at other universities overnight, in solidarity, and much of this battle was waged on social media. It is important to note that this happened at an institution which takes pride in its “apolitical” credentials. Politics of any sort indeed triggers deep anxiety among the IITs which have constantly sought to distance themselves from the political spaces that exist in institutions such as JNU, with the underlying assumption that they somehow exist outside politics.
And yet, it ought to be recognised that one would be hard-pressed to find one singular imagination of student protests or student movements. Even in institutional spaces that are deemed explicitly political and within movements deemed explicitly progressive, new arrangements, alliances, and tensions have taken shape. For instance, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) at JNU was born out of the failure of organisations such as SFI and AISA to take up issues around caste. However, even amidst the fragmented landscape of social movements, student groups have found common ground to express their political creativity and unsettle totalising narratives.
What the APSC case does is that it provides an instance of the polarising context that set in leading up to the 2014 general elections and thereafter, and against which we could read the data on student protests. Interestingly, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections witnessed increased voting by young people. The turnout among the ‘first-time voters’ (18-22) and ‘other young voters’ (23-25) was 68 percent, 1.4 percent above the national voter turnout, a Centre for the Study of the Developing Societies (CSDS) analysis shows. The number is significant as the turnout among young voters remained below the national average in the past. It would, however, be naïve to treat the polarised context in itself as a possible cause. The history of social movements in India that drew heavily on student politics — ranging from the anti-Hindi struggle to the anti-Emergency movement — point to the layered socio-economic circumstances that resist easy reductions. It is then pertinent to look at some of the characterisations of student politics in the country in recent times.
An important strand of argument looks at student politics primarily in response to the “neoliberal” reconfiguration of our universities and the economy at large. It is a structural feature of the Indian economy that sectors that contribute the most to productivity in terms of GDP do not provide the proportionate number of jobs. Unemployment, and youth unemployment in particular, has been a persistent feature of the economy with successive governments failing to address the issue. This is in addition to cuts in public sector jobs. There could be as many as 10000 applications for a single government job, as Craig Jeffrey reports, as part of his research, published in The Guardian. With the continued prioritisation of capital intensive industries accompanied by the agrarian crisis, the problem is unlikely to go away, says Delhi based researcher, Thomas Crowley in Jacobin Magazine. Economic instability, the arguments goes, does not only have a bearing on youth aspirations, unemployment and access to education, but it also compels the state to engage in repressive measures to create distractions. These measures include the kind of crackdown on student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. Student politics in this sense comes to be defined as a response to a repressive state.
Additionally, the changed composition of universities following the implementation of affirmative action policies is treated as an opportunity, even though they remain inherently exclusionary as argued by Satish Deshpande and Mary E John in The Hindu. Furthermore, the “neoliberal university” becomes “less a space for critical engagement, debate and inquiry, and more a skills factory for the technocratic workplaces owned by transnational capital." The administrators act in nexus with state-capital to discipline different forms of activism. The reconfiguration of spaces of learning then generates disillusionment, and such spaces are to be rescued through student activism. As an example, the Occupy UGC movement sought to protest the discontinuance of fellowships for MPhil/PhD — among the reasons for the move are budgetary cuts for higher education and the likely opening up of education to international trade, as pointed out by Ayesha Kidwai.
I would argue that looking at student politics solely in terms of a “neoliberal” development is an easy critique, one that we must stretch. This has implications for how we look at student protests in contested times. First, taking the incidence of protests as the sole indicator of political dynamism risks reducing the nature of our political engagements to some predetermined schema. It also implies that we contest correlations such as that between ‘underdevelopment’ and protests, and go beyond them. Bihar and UP may account for only one percent of the registered protests between 2009-2014, but ethnographic literature has mapped the complex linkages between larger macroeconomic shifts, gendered youth cultures, and students’ political engagement — sometimes good, sometimes bad. The lack of protests doesn’t take away from the political richness of the dynamics in the region which could be as potent as any protests.
Second, while overt crackdown on dissent is a feature of the current political regime, we should also remember that a lot of our institutional spaces are interstitial in nature. It means that spaces for negotiation and engagement do exist albeit in the interstices of power and surveillance. We should, therefore, also consider the importance of ‘quiet’ politics in addition to protests and demonstrations.
Finally, as a conceptual alternative, the notion of ‘precarity’ offers a useful way of looking at student politics, and here I draw on Wanda Vrasti's essay, Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work, The Disorder of Things. Precarity usually refers to a sense of uncertainty mixed with anxiety. It is usually used to denote some sense of betrayal, either by the state or the society. However, as different scholars have argued, precarity is a consistent feature of life under capitalism. This is a problem as well as an opportunity. In terms of the latter, it is imperative that we re-appropriate ‘precarity’. We then look at precarity not just in terms of loss and betrayal but as a series of contingencies that offer opportunities to build solidarities and seek common ground, however shifty it may be.
The author is a fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru.
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