Students vs State

Students vs State

If the State had acted properly and fairly, students would not have needed to protest in the manner they have in the face of the unconscionable loss of life in Gaza and the continued threat to those surviving.

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Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 23:57 IST
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 23:57 IST

The wave of pro-Palestine student protests on US campuses from coast-to-coast has alarmed college administrators, disturbed politicians, and even moved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to label them “horrific.”

If the State had acted properly and fairly, students would not have needed to protest in the manner they have in the face of the unconscionable loss of life in Gaza and the continued threat to those surviving. On April 23, President Biden signed a bill to provide nearly $17 billion in weapons aid to Israel.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 34,000 Palestinians have perished in Gaza since the current hostilities began, as reported by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). 

Due to the State’s failure to act responsibly, students have felt compelled to express their sharp disapproval of the targeting of Gazans. In doing so, they have faced brutal State repression by heavily armed law enforcement.

Numerous images show students and faculty being tackled to the ground by burly, helmeted, and heavily armed security forces. We see them being pushed, shoved, zip-tied, and marched away. 

Such images have been reported from many campuses across the US, especially Emory University, the University of Texas (Austin), Emerson College, Northeastern University, and Columbia University, where the police have used disproportionate force.

In 2019, we in India witnessed excessive force used by the police to quell student protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The police are alleged to have entered the library of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in New Delhi, where several students were roughed up. At least two JMI students, Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, were arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). 

There was also a crackdown on student activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University (DU), with several arrested and some still in jail. 

Both in the US and India, student protests were demonised, and the protesters were targeted. In the US, this took the form of “doxxing,” where the names of student protesters were publicly displayed on mobile trucks. In India, the protestors were labelled anti-national and part of a “tukde-tukde gang,” and many faced personal attacks and mockery. 

However, the spirit of righteous resistance cannot be cowed down. In the US, despite the dismantling of encampments on campuses, arrests of hundreds of students, and threats of suspensions and expulsions, the protests have continued. Even in southern states such as Florida, where Republican Governor Rob DeSantis openly threatened expulsion for protesting students, the protests have persisted.

As universities carry out their graduation ceremonies in the US, students have protested in any manner they could. Graduation ceremony guests like comedian Jerry Seinfeld, an outspoken supporter of Israel and
its armed forces, faced boos and walkouts. Several graduating students have expressed their solidarity with Gaza in their speeches.

Similarly, in India, several graduating students in 2019 registered their protests against the CAA, some by tearing the CAA document while receiving their degree. Threats and State crackdowns also did not deter students from showing solidarity during the farmers’ protests in December 2020.

The US campuses have a history of activism for various causes. In the 1960s, there were protests over issues of free speech, the Vietnam War, and racial discrimination, especially at Columbia and colleges in west coast towns such as Berkeley and Oakland. 

Yet, in an instance of State overreach in the US in 1970, four students were killed when police opened fire
on anti-Vietnam war demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio.

The spirit of resistance and organising on campuses runs deep, despite a general apathy towards public protests in the US. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa again saw widespread demonstrations and calls for divestment on US campuses. The Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011 and later the Black Lives Matter movement had their effects on campuses. 

In India, while large-scale student protests gradually seem to have felt the effects of arrests and charges, there are pockets of resistance alive. Students at IIT-Mumbai have recently protested restrictions on their food choices. Even at private universities like Jindal Global University, students of conscience have expressed their disapproval of being drafted for political causes against their will. 

By and large, student protests are non-violent. Using State repression tactics is a disproportionate response to subdue the questions and objections of those who will be the future of the country. A healthy spirit of disagreement and debate on campuses, raising voices against instances of injustice, are signs of an engaged youth population and a vibrant society. 

(The author is a Delhi NCR-based writer. He has been involved in campus activism when attending university in the US)


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