Student Unrest: Moral Compass or a Disconnect

Student activism in premier institutions has been grabbing headlines. Are protesting students the moral compass of a society or is it merely their naive enthusiasm?

Background

Student activism is dominating the socio-political landscape of India today amidst the fears of a depressed economy and a deeply divided polity.

Protests rage across India- against a steep hostel fee in a prestigious institution like JNU to the violent outburst against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and its linkages with National Population Register (NPR) in Jamia University, AMU and others causing damage to public property and several deaths and injuries, both amongst the students / innocent bystanders and law enforcement agencies.

This has triggered a strong debate on the logic and merits of such protests by a segment of the society which in the main is expected to focus on the pursuit of education.

Social media has been the catalyst for the inflamed passions, both amongst the supporters of these protests and those who oppose them, once again highlighting its power as an opinion influencer.

Analysis

The world is not new to the idea of students on the boil within their campus and outside it. Supporters of student activism claim that students have always been the moral compass of society. They quote Socrates, who said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” There are various examples in history where students, guided by a higher calling, have played a pivotal role in the reformation of society and liberation from tyrants.  

Whether it was the Reformation movement led by scholars against the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic church or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, youth are not bogged down with legacy thoughts and concepts. Without the opening of minds by scholars against a repressive mindset, the Renaissance would never have taken place. 

In the African continent, early student activism focused on national politics for independence in colonized countries. Post-independence, African students engaged in a second liberation struggle for social justice and democracy, and against apartheid in South Africa. In Asia, since World War II, students have organized protest movements that toppled authoritarian regimes in some countries and threatened governments in others. In Latin America, students organized and participated in the 1918 Cordoba Reform protest movement that swept across Latin America to bring changes in university governance. Thereafter, student inclusion in university governance in African, Asian and Latin American countries were institutionalized. In the West, the 1960s was a decade of turbulent student activism as students participated in the United States civil rights movement, struggled against the Vietnam War and called for student representation in the university decision-making processes.

In Iran, although Gen Qassem Suleimani’s death stifled dissent against the stringent cries for war by the regime, it was the students who have protested strongly against the downing of Ukrainian Jetliner and demanded a change at the apex level.

During the Indian independence struggle, students were at the forefront- boycotting schools and colleges in large numbers, organizing and participating in mass processions and rallies all over the country. This trend has continued post-independence whether it was the language movement in states, the anti-Emergency protests or the demand for separate states of Uttarakhand or Jharkhand.

Concurrently, the dark side of student politics cannot be ignored. It is common knowledge that mainstream politics have made deep inroads into the university campus and political parties on both sides of the political divide use them as a nursery for future cadre and generously support them with funds and muscle. All that is expressed during such protests are not totally untainted by vested political interests and deeply rooted dogma and political doctrines of their ‘masters’. In most university campuses, a small elite drives the narrative forcing the majority to follow them, risking their common limbs and careers. In a close-knit student community, the fear of social exclusion keeps the flock together, including the fence-sitters and the nonchalant ones. 

While the youth, the academia, and the art world is largely supporting the student protests, there is a big segment of the civil society, and of course, the government and the ruling dispensation, who feel that the students are being used as willing pawns by a weak and fractured opposition bent on embarrassing the government and raise issues where none exist. In the present context, they would applaud this quote of Socrates, written almost 2400 years ago- “Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”  

The contradictory narrative, which is being spread by both sides of the protests through their respective media mouth-pieces and social sites, has turned the national debate extremely murky and divisive. 

Assessment 

  • There is a palpable concern in students, especially those from a weaker economic background but just above the poverty line, that there is a concentrated effort to privatize and commercialize a higher level of education. They feel that the state is no longer willing/able to sustain the socialist form of free/ highly subsidized higher education in universities and is eager to turn them into elite institutions affordable only to the better off. The state must put to rest this fear.
  • Some educationists like Prabhat Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, JNU, compare it to the trend in the US (post the massive anti - Vietnam protests which literally drove the national narrative in America), where campuses have gone virtually silent as cost of higher education has soared. Burdened by exorbitant study loans, students have barely time to participate in any kind of activism as they struggle to make ends meet.
  • Student activism addresses three critical issues. One is the understanding and respecting of differences in opinions, cultures, orientations, and dispositions. Second, the ability of students to express their voice and third the connection to the international community. These are critical understandings that lay the foundation of an enlightened education system and needs to be encouraged.
  • However, at the same time, student unions of large and well-attended universities like DU and JNU have been the breeding grounds of future political players. It is no secret that mainstream political parties openly encourage partisan politics within the university political landscape with party symbols and credo being openly displayed. Substantial funding is also provided. Therefore, the narrative of genuine and well-intended student activism is always in the danger of being sacrificed at the altar of subjective politics.

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