Under lockdown in Europe, Indian students go online to protest inequalities back home, keep up with academics

'All of us are fighting a global coronavirus pandemic, along with a failing political economy at the age of 24/25. And at the same time, we are trying to navigate through life — none of us are prepared for that. It is unprecedented,” says an Indian student living under lockdown in Europe

Preeti Nangal April 16, 2020 22:37:33 IST
Under lockdown in Europe, Indian students go online to protest inequalities back home, keep up with academics

Editor's Note: Thousands of Indians are stranded in foreign lands across the world, some by choice, others due to geopolitical, financial and academic constraints. In this multi-part series, Firstpost takes a look at how they are managing through the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic

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One cannot fail to observe that the lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic came at a time when India was seeing nationwide protests against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) proposed by the BJP-led Central Government. Global solidarity was extended to the movement, especially by SOAS students in London via social media channels, by holding in-person protests outside the office of the High Commission of India in London and by organising movie screenings.

Protests have been a part of university campuses for long. But how are activists abroad mobilising and registering their voices in the current scenario where more than a few people are not allowed to congregate as per government rules – the same government whom most activists would not trust but whose guidelines one must follow now in the time of the pandemic?

Under lockdown in Europe Indian students go online to protest inequalities back home keep up with academics

An empty street in London. Image courtesy: Suhail Rashid Bhat

“I have been an LGBT activist before I came to London. My politics began with identity politics as I navigate my identity as a gay person. The LGBT community has been involved with political activism over the past many years both on a grassroots level as well as online. So, the present political activism — the CAA-NRC protests — that we find ourselves in is not new," says Jo who is based in London.

The 25-year-old PHD at SOAS, however, says that as soon as the coronavirus outbreak happened, many people started feeling tired.

Jo adds, "A global pandemic creates so much anxiety. All of us are fighting a global pandemic, along with a failing political economy at the age of 24/25. And at the same time, we are trying to navigate through life — none of us are prepared for that. It is unprecedented.”

Some of the activists groups that Jo is part of such as the South Asian Students Against Fascism, UK are still functional online and they discus issues virtually via Twitter, etc, to keep the community informed.

“We cannot take it anywhere else right now. We are also putting efforts into fundraising for communities back home that need it the most. My PhD research focuses on the communities that practise sex work in India. Sex workers, especially those who intersect with the transgender community are people on the fringes of economic stability, and the last few months have been toughest on them. We have been trying to create online databases of resources available for people to access if they want to donate to causes back home in India, as well as research resources for fact-checking on various events and archive the resistance as it moves online by taking enough videos, recording articles, comments and thoughts on the current climate,” Jo adds.

Others have also been trying to make the best out of self-quarantine. Suhail Rashid Bhat, a student at SOAS, London, UK, has initiated something called ‘Quarantine Learning’ for law students in Kashmir.

“I prepare the reading material for law students back home. It is on Facebook. I notify them about the time and material. I try to be of help to other students and those who have been less advantageous than me,” says Bhatt.

Another uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought into the lives of the students is the delay in PHD fieldwork and hence the concern of whether or not the extra months they might have to put into their degree completion would be covered by their current scholarships, which are durational.

Gaurav Dubey (34), a PHD student of Geography and Environment at the University of Oxford has the same concern.

“This lockdown and pandemic has delayed our fieldwork. It means we might have to spend a few months extra after our PHD duration is over. Our scholarship is durational and is limited to the time that was already fixed as per the academic calendar. The worry is if or not our extra months will be covered by the scholarship. My fieldwork was meant to start in August in India. I don’t know yet if the scholarship will be extended. Plus, we are expecting UK to be in this situation for at least next six months and we are trying to adjust to working from home. The library is closed and students who heavily rely on books for their research will be hit hard and face difficulty (hence, grading issue). Earlier one would sit in the library and get 6-8 hours of work done, which is now becoming difficult,” says Dubey.

Under lockdown in Europe Indian students go online to protest inequalities back home keep up with academics

The govt in the Netherlands enforced stricter rules after people were seen venturing out to enjoy spring. AP

The difference in the contexts of the students is part of the reason why

Several students have raised concerns of fair grading as the current lockdown is affecting students differently. While not everyone might have access to a high-speed internet connection, some might even have to worry about essential supplies while some would be needed to take care of their families during the pandemic and may not be able to focus on their academic submissions.

Mini Dixit, who is pursuing MSc in the Netherlands said that the Dutch government has laid down strict guidelines about social distancing and self-isolation.

“From what I have gathered, the rules are largely being followed. However, because of the good weather last week after months of rain and winter gloom, the government noticed people were venturing out. The govt imposed stricter rules and fines if people gathered in groups of three or more without being 1.5 metres apart,” she says.

For Dixit, the abrupt goodbyes due to sudden cancellation of in-person classes were heart-breaking. “I had been following the news closely, so I was aware that this virus was more serious than the seasonal flu contrary to what some people believed. The gravity, however, settled in when the news from Italy started coming in. Within days, my university announced that all face-to-face lectures had been suspended and we were indefinitely shifting to Zoom for our classes. While this arrangement worked well, it is the abrupt goodbyes that have been truly heart-breaking. I have classmates from all over the world many of whom had to head back to their respective countries. There were no final goodbyes, no hugs, no reminiscence of the months gone by,” says Dixit.

With her family in Uttar Pradesh, Dixit has been in two boats keeping abreast with information in the two countries.

Under lockdown in Europe Indian students go online to protest inequalities back home keep up with academics

Mini Dixit has been enjoying spring through her window. Image courtesy: Mini Dixit

“It is difficult to compare India and the Netherlands considering the huge difference in the size and scale of both countries. I do, however, think the government in India should have been more perceptive before declaring an abrupt nationwide lockdown including restrictions on public transportation for 130 crore people many of whom work in the informal sector and depend on daily wages," says Dixit.

The 26-year-old says that the saw heart-broken after seeing the images and videos from back home.

"This also puts into perspective that social distancing is not feasible for those who are vulnerable to unemployment, poverty and starvation. I am also not sure if the relatively low number of cases in India is a good sign or if it is just reflective of inadequate testing. I, thus, think India currently faces two very crucial challenges: managing the spread of COVID-19 itself and safeguarding the human rights of those most vulnerable,” says Dixit.

Dixit has also made small joys a part of her coping mechanism for the current period of uncertainty. “Since I am now in the research period of my degree, I am trying to read articles related to my studies and write the initial chapters of my thesis. The online lectures help maintain a somewhat concrete structure to my days and I try to exercise regularly using online tutorials since I can’t go out. I am also trying to innovate with cooking and trying to sustainably make use of the ingredients I have already bought. It’s silly, but I also occasionally try to look at spring flowers from my door.”

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