Anti-CAA protests: Where most political parties fear to tread, students show opposition and take on government

  • India's student community has shown the Opposition that it is possible to challenge the government and the ruling party on a nationwide scale

  • And they have done this with no nationwide organisational structure or premeditated blueprint

  • Most parties are both so caught up making intricate electoral calculations that they do not have the political energy left over to organise a movement, as opposed to strategising for elections

In May 2014, shorn of viable leadership, beset by corruption allegations and governance paralysis, the Congress plunged to an electoral nadir that few had imagined possible, winning just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. The BJP, with 282 seats, won an absolute majority: The first time any party had managed to do that since 1984.

The result paralysed the party — which went into a shell, still unable to resolve the leadership problem with president Sonia Gandhi ailing and then merely Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi waiting interminably in the wings. Rahul finally became party president in December 2017.

There seemed to be some new sort of energy in the party as its president fashioned an aggressive strategy to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led in December 2018 to victories in Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But the BJP arrested the Opposition momentum in 2019, turned it around and returned to power with a larger number of seats — 303 — while the Congress managed to increase its share marginally, to 52.

 Anti-CAA protests: Where most political parties fear to tread, students show opposition and take on government

Students protest at Mumbai University on Monday. Firstpost/Neerja Deodhar

Then-Congress president Rahul lost in the family pocket borough of Amethi and resigned from the party presidency, plunging the Congress into a new crisis from which it is yet to recover despite the return of Sonia as party president. In the past five years, the Congress — the only nationwide Opposition to the government, even if only notionally — has not succeeded in mounting a nationwide movement against the ruling party, which has transformed itself, in the meanwhile, into a ruthlessly efficient political and electoral machine that brooks no opposition.

The other Opposition parties, all regional in character save the Left Front, which is even more notionally a nationwide entity, severally or conjointly, too, have failed to mount a nationwide movement against the ruling party. Being regional players has obviously meant that most Opposition parties have succeeded in mobilising only regionally by themselves. And Opposition unity, whenever it has been achieved, has been fleeting and usually for electoral purposes. Opposition parties have neither tried to produce nor accidentally produced a nationwide movement because they have, as usual, been too cynically engrossed in individual gains.

India's student community has shown the Opposition that it is possible to challenge even this ruthless government and the ruling party on a nationwide scale. And they have done this with no nationwide organisational structure or premeditated blueprint. Students have risen spontaneously, throughout the country, against the unconstitutional Citizenship (Amendment) Bill/Act, 2019, and in some places the National Register of Citizens (NRC). And suddenly, the government and the ruling party doesn’t seem to look so puissant anymore. Caught unawares, the Union government's response has been knee-jerk, almost panicky and, as a result, brutal, as events at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, demonstrated on Sunday.

A quick recapitulation would help.

Student involvement began in Assam as protests erupted in the state against the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, through both Houses of Parliament and its enactment via presidential assent on Friday, 13 December. The All Assam Students' Union played a big role in organising the protests, despite attempts to ban student participation in political activities relating to the Act. The salient role students played, and are still playing, in the Assam agitation, should not have come as a surprise given that they have played a huge role in the state's politics, especially over the past four decades or so.

As the movement against the amendment bill spread across the North East with the significant participation of students from Meghalaya, Tripura and Sikkim, Opposition political parties across the board were caught on the wrong foot. The only party that responded to the passage of the Act on its own steam was the Trinamool Congress, which chalked out a programme of mass rallies and meetings, including some headed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself. The Trinamool's programme gained urgency because of the violent protests against the Act in some districts of Bengal, which, by targeting railway infrastructure, significantly affected quotidian life in the state.

The student movement, however, took off on Monday, to protest not just the Act but the brutal police action against students of Jamia Millia and Aligarh Muslim University, the day before. On Sunday, the police had barged into the Jamia campus, shot teargas shells at various locations, including the library; caned students after dragging them out of toilets, the library and the campus mosque. They had switched off the lights in the library to keep their illegal acts, including alleged sexual misconduct, under wraps. Similar scenes unwound in Aligarh Muslim University.

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At the time of writing, student protests had broken out in Varanasi (Banaras Hindu University) and Lucknow, apart from Aligarh of course, in Uttar Pradesh. Students spilled out into the streets in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. In Delhi, of course, students of Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) joined the protests, students boycotting examinations in the DU. In Kolkata, students (and faculty members) of Jadavpur University and Presidency University staged protests against both the Act itself and the police action in Jamia and Aligarh.

Students across Maharashtra, including those in Mumbai, and Gujarat joined the protests, as did students in Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka and Kerala. What was significant was that students of elite specialist institutes, who normally do not join agitations with boots on the ground, joined the protests. Institutes included the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the Indian Institutes of Management in Ahmedabad and Bengaluru, and three Indian Institutes of Technology. A poster at IIT Kanpur read: "They struck down the students' retaliation at Jadavpur University. We didn't respond. They hiked the MTech. fees, we didn't respond. Manhandled the student protesters at JNU, we didn't respond. And now its JMI and AMU. Our commitment towards the students' community is under huge jeopardy if we don't respond now. Therefore, let's come together for a campus-wide march in solidarity with students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University." Students have called for a march on Tuesday. IIT-Madras students also plan a rally and protest.

The student protests have also sparked off popular protests in many parts of the country that had not responded earlier to the protests: From Mau in Uttar Pradesh, through Karnataka and Bengal to Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra sitting in protest at India Gate. Students have unwittingly proved both a catalyst and a glue for a nationwide protest that the government is finding difficult to deal with. The Union home ministry and Delhi Police's defence of its panicky and unconscionably violent actions in Aligarh and Jamia just don't cut the mustard.

The question with which we could end is: Why have students succeeded in rattling the Union government, several state governments and the BJP and its allies, where no party, including the Congress, has been able to organise a coordinated programme on an issue so emotive and politically charged as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill/Act?

The answer lies, possibly, in the grey area between rhetoric and commitment, oratory and activism, and clarity and prevarication. The students, in the periods before the Jamia and Aligarh atrocities and after, just took to the streets. They didn't waste time issuing statements or just making on-campus speeches. They could because they were committed to ideas relating to justice and fair play, and, possibly, because it is their future that is most at stake: What India will look like a decade or a couple of decades down the road is an existential issue for them in a way it is not for (often geriatric) political leaders and parties.

Moreover, the students don't have elections to win and constituencies, often socially and ideologically contradictory, to pander to. They can, therefore, proceed without prevaricating on issues vital to them and to the political 'community' we call the nation-state. Most parties are both so caught up making intricate electoral calculations that they do not have the political energy left over to organise a movement, as opposed to strategising for elections.

We could have said that the Congress, though a national party, has atrophied organisationally to such an extent, that it lacks the sinews to mobilise on a significant, nationwide scale, even if it has the will. But we would then have to explain how students have managed to spark a nationwide movement without having even the rudiments of a nationwide organisation. It's a question of commitment to causes and ideas, and India's political parties have once again flunked the test.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2019 08:31:01 IST