Student Protests: Universities Need to be Committed to Principles of Social Justice

While colleges often enable the search for more just social systems, spaces for independent thinking are shrinking and threatened by increasing majoritarianism.

On 15 December 2019, Delhi police forcibly entered the premises of Jamia Millia Islamia university and used teargas shells in the library and lathi-charged students. Instead of being provided medical assistance, several injured students were detained.  The police claim this was done after “a mob of unidentified people set a few public buses on fire nearby” and their efforts were aimed at detaining the accused. 

Students at Aligarh Muslim University became aware of the police’s actions in JMI and protest against the mistreatment. This protest, too, was met with police violence, with reports of the police beating students and hurling anti-Muslim abuses.  

The crackdown on students came four days after the Rajya Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 that radically alters India’s citizenship law, introducing religion as a central basis for providing citizenship. Taken along with the proposed National Register of Citizens, this has the potential to render crores of Indian Muslims stateless and push others—women, transgender and displaced people, Adivasi, Dalit and low-income groups—into additional strain and precariousness. 

Students continue to lead several protests—in both traditional and unique ways—across the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens. This reading list recounts past cases of student protests and the manner in which administrators have responded to the demands of students. 
 

Universities are Far From Hospitable Spaces for All
The Joint Action Committee at Hyderabad Central University, in 2000, recognised that administrators attempt to advertise the institution as a space whose central, and almost exclusive, mission is “academic excellence.”

Women, Dalit, Adivasi, queer, transgender, low income, and disabled students face barriers that impede their intellectual and creative abilities because of the university’s reification of structures of oppression. They are made to feel that this is because they do not work hard enough given that universities are projected as “modernised space[s] where free and equal agents interact.”

Any actor who performs within it has to necessarily reckon with these claims and take positions ‘for’ or ‘against’ this idea of the university. Since the everyday experience of many sections, especially women and Dalits, disprove the all-is-well myth of the university, they have formed important groups challenging it. As has already been indicated, sexual harassment is an anxious enough topic among women. And Dalits have borne witness to the daily exercise of discrimination in hostels, TV halls, not to mention classrooms

Militarisation of Civil Spaces and Varied Ways of Resisting
Mir Fatimah Kanth details an episode in April 2017, where students protested against the construction of a checkpoint outside a college in Kashmir. Government armed forces responded by entering the college, where they fired tear-gas shells and pellet gun shots, injuring over 50 students. Seeing this violence, students from other districts in Kashmir also organised protests and marches in solidarity with students in Pulwama and demanding the right to self determination for Kashmir. While this protest received significant local, national and international coverage, some coverage fixated on the participation of women. Kanth articulates what this reveals about the producers and consumers of such media. 

Indian media’s portrayals of these protests by young women were almost exclusively in terms of the “emergence” of a “new phenomenon.” News channels like AajTak expressed outrage that even young women were now “radicalised” enough to pelt stones during demonstrations (AajTak 2017). In the local media, these protests were framed in terms of the new generation of Kashmiri women “redefining” political agency, having arrived at a level playing field with men within the resistance movement (Kanwal 2017) … This mediatised spectacle of young women taking over the streets—a singular moment in history—obfuscated other histories and realities of women’s long-standing protests as well as other means of women’s resistance to the Indian state (Debord 1967: theses 11, 143). 

This type of representation not only functions as an act of erasure of past instances of masculine forms of resistance by Kashmiri women students, but also overshadows the various other ways Kashmiri women students resist and survive. 

Everyday acts of survival, refusal, and dissent articulated by Kashmiri women through the 1990s, become invisible when juxtaposed with spectacles of the “stone pelting” street protests framed as both exceptional and exemplary political resistance by a “new generation” of young women … The obsession with the transgressive and gendered act of pelting stones—as reflected by media framings—overshadows the ubiquity of resistance in the daily life of these young women. 

University Responses to Progressive Activism
Kavita Krishnan provides insight into how two universities responded to cases where students have attempted to combat harassment and mistreatment of workers. She reveals how rather than addressing the problems they have highlighted, administrators were determined to penalise students. 

On February 21 [2007], in Kashi Vidyapeeth, a student in the first year of her Masters programme in music was subjected to sexual harassment by a teacher who was known to have similarly harassed other students … On receiving the complaint, [the head of women’s cell], far from initiating an enquiry, pressurised the complainant in withdrawing her complaint, threatening otherwise to ruin her career. Women students held several protests, demanding action against the offending teacher, and also an enquiry into the role of the existing women’s cell and the constitution of a fresh complaints cell based on the Supreme Court directives regarding sexual harassment at the workplace. Receiving no response, they announced a relay hunger strike and dharna to begin on February 26. The VC then debarred the accused teacher from the campus, but refused to consider reconstituting the women’s cell. 

In this instance, Krishnan writes that university authorities used two tactics to penalise students for calling for accountability against sexual harassment: first, they disallowed them from appearing for exams (without giving a reason), and second, they withheld the scholarships given to Bahujan students.
 
Authorities at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) used other techniques to push back against progressive activism. When students of JNU campaigned to ensure that dining and housekeeping workers were paid according to minimum wage regulations, they were given suspensions and fines. The claims of underpayment we substantiated, Krishnan writes, after a right to information application found that JNU authorities signed contracts that authorised below-minimum wage payments to workers. 

 It took several weeks of relay hunger strike by hundreds of students, and finally a 13-day long hunger strike to force the JNU administration to agree to “reconsider” the punishments by August 14 [2006]. Another landmark achievement of this agitation was the agreement to set up a committee with representatives from all sections of JNU (including students) to ensure minimum wage payments and workers’ rights on the campus.

 

Student Protests for Tamils in Sri Lanka 
Kalaiyarasan A and  M S S Pandian recount the manner in which students at Chennai’s Loyola College protested against a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka that was supported by India in 2013. In response, they proposed a seven-point charter. This included an independent probe into the war crimes of the Sri Lankan state and a referendum on the creation of an independent Tamil state. 

 The academic excellence of the college, most believe, is a result of its depoliticised student body … Not only did the fasting students receive support from students from other colleges, but it also triggered and galvanised a statewide students’ protest against the UNHRC resolution. Thousands of them from arts and sciences as well as engineering and medical colleges took to the streets in different parts of the state, small towns were no exception. The protest in which young men and women participated in equal strength took varied forms – posters and pamphlets, hunger strikes, processions, human-chains, effigy-burning, rail and road rokos, and siege of central government offices. 

Public University Must Serve the Public 
A founding principle of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) is a commitment to social justice. Education curriculums at TISS, too, emphasise the need to encourage intellectual curiosity and investigate and address structural inequalities. In early 2018, however, TISS introduced fee hikes and cutbacks in scholarships for marginalised students that dilute the institution’s ostensible commitment to social justice. Aravindhan Nagarajan details the potential impact that these decisions can have and the manner in which students responded through strikes in TISS campuses in Mumbai, Guwahati, Hyderabad and Tuljapur. 

Protesting students have been vilified by the administration (and right-wing and “apolitical” commentators) for resorting to protests and strikes instead of “dialogue” (Rajranjan 2018). Ironically, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) (a student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which wields influence on the party in power at the centre) has supported the students of TISS. Of course, this support was extended with further irony—denouncing the method of protests and strike, and a comical offer to mediate the issue between the administration and the central government. 

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