Why you should care

Sure, everyone always says it’s “nothing like the ’60s.” But what if it is?

Say “student government” to most Americans and they might think cheesy cafeteria stump speeches or campaign posters smeared with bad yearbook photos and paste. But say it to most Indians and they get another vision altogether — one of fiery debates, occasional physical violence and, these days, suicide, arrest, terrorism and treachery.

India’s college campuses are in an uproar. The ostensible spark: Over the course of the past six months, several student groups organized high-profile protests against the death penalty and what some called “judicial killings.” It didn’t help that at least two mourned convicted terrorists. At the country’s top liberal arts college in Delhi, one such event recently resulted in the arrest of the student union president on charges of “sedition” and “antinational sloganeering.” Weeks earlier, down south in Hyderabad, another event had resulted in Ph.D. candidate and Dalit-born (low-caste) Rohith Vemula losing his stipend; shortly thereafter, he reportedly hanged himself with the banner of his caste-rights student organization. The arrest and the suicide have left the nation with a hefty set of conversations about privilege, speech, dissent and nationalism on college campuses.

Student protests in India have a long and rich history, dating back to the Independence movement, says Anshul Tewari, founder of the millennial news site Youth Ki Awaaz. But they’re picking up in speed under a new right-of-center government. It’s understandable: Universities tend to lean left and brew dissent — Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where campus president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested, is no exception. But this isn’t just a case of leftist students versus conservative government. There’s social media and demographics at play here too. Over half the population of the nation of 1.4 billion is under 25. Young muscle has been flexed on everything from supporting anticorruption activist Anna Hazare in 2011 to responding to the Delhi rape case in 2012.

Much of this story is uniquely Indian: Few university systems enjoy the kind of political activity that India’s does.

Student politicos on either side of the spectrum agree something is heating up. The old government was “a slow poison,” says Abhilasha Sandhya Shrivastava, one of the national joint secretaries of the All India Students Association, the Communist Party’s student wing. She figures the rise of what she calls “fake nationalism” is now just easier to see and to protest. On the flip side of the ideological spectrum is Saket Bahuguna, who became motivated to participate in campus politics while an undergraduate at JNU because of the lack of “patriotism” at the university.

India’s hullabaloo is a familiar story, notes Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. In the U.S., from Yale to the University of Missouri, a new, controversial student activism is taking hold, pitting free-speech enthusiasts against those hoping to turn the conversation toward questions of race, class and privilege. Meanwhile, in Chile, student protests over educational costs have significantly impacted national politics. And in South Africa last year, students demanded that the University of Capetown remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes to “decolonize” education. Things are bubbling over globally, although Altbach, who’s written about student activism in India, says nothing worldwide today approaches the scale of 1960s antiwar fervor.

Yet much of this story is uniquely Indian, Altbach adds: Few university systems enjoy the kind of political activity that India’s does. Student government elections here include conversations about better dorm facilities right alongside swirling ideological speeches. Take Shrivastava, a master’s student in Mumbai who found left-wing politics as an undergraduate in Nagpur, the city where the right-wing volunteer organization the RSS was formed. It all began over a dress code. With her eight best friends, she protested gendered curfews and bans on blue jeans. But national ideology soon bled into local problems: After gender followed questions of caste and other issues. Shrivastava, who’s jointly protesting Vemula’s “institutional murder” and the events at JNU in Delhi this week, says it’s impossible to discuss student issues without handling national debates too.

Bahuguna, a JNU alum who’s now a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at Delhi University, points me toward the sheer scale of India’s student bodies — hundreds of thousands of students might vote in an election. As in Chile, those students can be mobilized to weigh in on national issues related to education.

Yet some argue that the students were openly seeking the breakup of India and glorifying a terrorist, which doesn’t just fall into a simple case of freedom of expression and speech. Nalin Kohli, for one, the national spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, asks me to consider what the U.S. would do in the case of a pro–Osama bin Laden rally at a “premier Ivy League institution.” Indeed, the argument in some states has been that student politics is a dangerous distractor; in the 1990s, Maharashtra banned campus elections after a young man affiliated with the Congress party’s student wing was murdered.

But in Chennai, an Asian College of Journalism student named Archit Mehta says though he expected some marches to take place over the weekend, in his master’s program people were busy with schoolwork. He went to college at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, on a campus where politics was banned, so he’s happy to see conversations about dissent take prominence. Yet, at M. S. University, he’s also seen his student union peers “get carried away with the whole political involvement. They’re not focusing on the education and that’s very sad.”

Clarification: this version specifies Archit Mehta’s observation occurred at M. S. University.

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