We are the Opposition now

We are the Opposition now

the students of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), outside the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai. REUTERS

On December 16, when I started receiving messages from friends about the violence unleashed by the police on the students of Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) who were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Being a law student, I knew about the CAA and NRC issue and stand opposed to them as they are divisive, discriminatory and unconstitutional. But I never expected this kind of a brutal attack by the State on students protesting against it. The videos of the attack on students shook me from within. I could not believe that the police were behaving in such a barbaric manner with university students.

Many of my friends at TISS, Mumbai, were in a similar state of shock and grief at these incidents. We could not sleep that night. We consoled each other, gave each other support, and sang songs of resistance and hope to fight against these dark times of despair. We decided that we must respond to these barbaric incidents and show that we stand in complete solidarity with the students of JMI and AMU and that we completely reject CAA-NRC/NPR.

A call for boycott of classes and a protest march was given by the TISS Students’ Union and more than 2,000 of us marched in a completely peaceful and disciplined manner from our campus to Ambedkar Park in Chembur. After this incident, I got actively involved in this movement against the CAA-NRC/NPR as I realised that it is nothing short of an attack on the very idea of India and the Constitution. As students, it was our duty to fight back against this attack.

Then came another shock: the January 5 attack on the students of JNU. This time, a group of students from all universities and institutions in Mumbai gathered at the historic Gateway of India in solidarity with the students of JNU and other universities that had faced violence on their campuses. I was among those who gathered initially at the Gateway for a candle light vigil. As we started discussing the attacks on our universities and the larger issues of the CAA-NRC/NPR, we realised we needed to urgently respond to these issues along with the people of Mumbai at large and thus gave the call for #OccupyGateway. Large numbers of students and citizens from across the city responded to this call and joined in occupying the Gateway of India. This unprecedented occupation of the Gateway lasted for more than 40 hours. The message was loud and clear: students across the nation stand united, the violent attempts to curb dissent will not work and we will continue to raise our voices and speak truth to power.

Since coming to power in 2014, the present regime has been building a culture of hyper-nationalism. This laid the foundation for the new culture of blind obedience and worship and delegitimising of the culture of questioning the establishment. Suddenly, questioning or critiquing the government became equated with dissent against the nation itself. We became ‘anti-national’ for questioning Narendra Modi and his government.

The Modi government has always been at unease about the student movements across the nation. Its discomfort is genuine: Like any authoritarian government, it is terrified of being asked questions. It realises that students not only have the capacity to ask the right, and uncomfortable, questions but also the moral courage to do so, something the mainstream political parties and much of the media clearly lack today.

Therefore, public-funded universities across the nation, including some of the best such as JNU, which have a history of challenging and critiquing governments, have been the constant targets of the Modi regime, and in a planned manner. The purpose of the government’s propaganda attacks on JNU, etc., is to discredit them in the eyes of the general public and thus delegitimise the culture of dissent and questioning of the establishment.

The government must have realised that it has made a huge mistake by underestimating the power of students. Even criminalization of dissent by thrusting sedition charges on them and the use of violence to intimidate them have not deterred the students. Each such attempt since 2014 has resulted in the student movement growing in numbers and scope.

Students are now going beyond the narrow confines of ‘student issues.’ They are engaging with a larger spectrum of issues ranging from those of caste, gender and religious discrimination to issues of farmers and workers and the environmental crisis. We are not only participating in large numbers but are also at the forefront of many citizen-led movements for social, economic and political justice. Where the political opposition has failed, students have stepped in to raise the issues of the common people and voice their anger against the Modi regime. We have repeatedly broken the silence created by the fear of speaking against the government. The current student movement against the CAA-NRC/NPR cuts across the false dichotomy of Hindu-Muslim and the political Left-Right debates. It transgresses regional boundaries and finds resonance in every part of the country.

Student movements in India and across the world have always proved to be a ray of hope in a politically hopeless scenario. India has a magnificent history of the role of students in politics, starting from the freedom struggle. Those who seek to tutor and infantilise us by limiting our role to classroom study by not allowing us to engage with politics need to read an article ‘Student and Politics,’ written by the great revolutionary Bhagat Singh in 1928 for a Hindi daily Kirti. He wrote “…They (students) should study, surely study! But along with it, they should also acquire political knowledge and when required, they should not hesitate to jump into the fray and dedicate their life to this work. Sacrifice their life for the cause. There is no other way to save the situation.”

(The writer is pursuing Master of Law in Access to Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He has been actively involved in the Save Aarey Movement and was one of the 29 arrested for protesting against the felling of trees in Aarey Colony last year)

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