In the weeks after the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, protests broke out in large parts of the country. The Bill which has now been enacted into a law - the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, - is a contested legislation. It amends the Citizenship Act, 1955. According to the CAA, people who came to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan till December 31, 2014, having faced religious persecution in their native countries, will not be treated as illegal immigrants and would be eligible for Indian citizenship. However, this is only applicable to members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, and not Muslims. Such an Act is unconstitutional in the sense that it violates Article 14 of the Constitution which says, ‘The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.’ Experts in the Indian Constitution suggest that Article 14 is not only applicable to Indian citizens, but also anyone who enters India. Protests against such an unconstitutional Act had spread far and wide in India, and students have been at the forefront of these protests. However, student activism is not a newfangled phenomenon in India.
The roots of student movements in India can be traced back 200 years ago with the formation of the Academic Association in undivided Bengal’s Hindu College under the guidance of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, a teacher there and a reformer, in 1828. He spearheaded the Young Bengal Movement consisting of boys from middle-class Bengali Hindu households who were driven with the radical ambition of eradicating every belief system that thwarted free thought. These group of young men were also the ones who played an important part in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. In the years following the Bengal Renaissance, several more debating societies came up across educational institutions, namely the Marathi Literary Society in Bombay College and Gujarati Dramatic Group in Gujarat University, among others. These students were inspired by the progressive thoughts inculcated in them through modern literature and sciences that were being taught at that point in those colleges.
One of the first documented instances of students’ protests in India was in 1905 when students of Eden College in Calcutta burned down the then Viceroy Lord Curzon’s effigy to protest against the partition of Bengal. This uprising was called the ‘Swadeshi Movement’ in the history of student protests, when over 10,000 students were punished variously by the repressive tactics of the foreign government.
In 1919, student unions were formed in various colleges both within and outside Calcutta to serve as platforms for the anti-imperialist struggle. The 1921 non co-operation movement saw the participation of groups of students from Vidyasagar College, Ripon College (now Surendranath College) and City College. There was a students’ strike on the 20th January, when 3000 students met at Shraddhananda Park and vowed to not return to college till Independence was granted. The first students’ strike in undivided India however took place in 1920 in King Edward Medical College, Lahore, against academic discrimination between Indian and English pupils.
From 1925 onwards, there were mass protests against the Simon Commission which was formed to study the effects and the operations of the constitutional reforms in India. However, it was strongly opposed by Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress because it comprised 7 members of the British Parliament, but no Indians. Students in the schools and colleges in Kolkata went on a strike over this. The participation of Bethune College in the protests saw the involvement of girls in a protest for the first time.
The post-Independence era saw the formation of the student wings of almost all major political parties. Several independent student groups catering to socially and economically deprived sections of the society also came up. After Independence the main demands of the Student Federation included increasing government allocations to education, adopting the mother-tongue as the prime medium of teaching, the right to form student Unions and the recognition of all democratic and political rights of students and teachers, the right to a job, free and compulsory education to all those below 14 years of age, the distribution of books at low cost, the liberation of the syllabus from colonial overtones, the withdrawal of India’s name from the commonwealth, voting rights at the age of 18, rights of assembly and protest to all sections of society, and helping the peoples of Asia in their struggles against imperialism and oppression. From 1947 to the beginning of the 1950s tuition fees in colleges and schools continued to increase steeply, almost 150% in colleges, and 28% in schools. This evoked a wave of protests.
The partition of Bengal during India’s Independence led lakhs of people from East Bengal to cross over into West Bengal, leaving behind land and property. From 11th to 20th January, 1949 a historic movement unfolded, demanding the rehabilitation of the refugees or the migrants who crossed over. When several people were killed in two police firings on the refugees, students assembled on the Calcutta University Lawn on 18th January 1949 as a mark of protest.
In 1953 there was a 17-day long protest against a hike in tram fares in which 10 student organizations took part. In 1954 students came out in support of a 12-day long teachers’ strike for respectable wages. In 1959 the food crisis hit a new low and people from all over Bengal marched the streets of Calcutta demanding grains at an affordable price. The police came down on them with tear gas, lathi charges and gun firings, and in the course of the movement, 80 people including 4 students were killed.
The 50s also saw a number of anti-imperialist demonstrations and debates organized by students against the invasion of Korea and Vietnam, against the US-Pak military treaty, demanding punishment for the nuclear warheads being built by the USA, and in support of the freedom struggles of different countries. In 1959 when the newly-formed Communist Government in Kerala was broken up by the Centre, there was a students’ strike in Bengal.
When the Official Languages Act of 1963 made Hindi an official language along with English in Tamil Nadu, a large number of students across the state broke down in protest against it. Despite protests by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Parliament, the law was passed. The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru assured that English will continue to be official language. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the Congress government in the state introduced a three-language formula in the state assembly, leading to student protests. There were self-immolations by several students ; about 70 people died in the ensuing violence. The agitation ended when then PM, Lal Bahadur Shastri, assured that Nehru’s promise would be kept. The Congress was ousted in the 1965 elections and the DMK came to power. On 20 December 1973, students of L.D. College of Engineering, Ahmedabad went on strike in protest against a 20% hike in hostel food fees. The same type of strike also organised on 3 January 1974 at Gujarat University resulted in clashes between police and students which provoked students across Gujarat. A statewide strike was organised on January 25, which ended with another round of clash between the police and protesters. A curfew was imposed in 44 towns and the army was called in to restore peace in Ahmedabad. The Indira Gandhi government at the Centre asked Patel to resign. The agitation led to the dissolution of the state government.
The student uprising against the Chimanbhai Patel government in Gujarat had inspired Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘Bihar Movement’ during the turbulent 70s, that eventually led to the Emergency, according to official documents of the period. The Chatra Sangarsh Samiti led by Jai Prakash Narayan, engaged in a non-violent protest which started from Patna University and spread to several other educational institutes in Hindi-speaking states of northern India. The protest was focused on corruption, nepotism, electoral reforms, subsidised food and education reforms. Nitish Kumar, now the Bihar chief minister; Lalu Prasad, a former Bihar CM; and Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former UP CM, were some of the prominent youth leaders who participated in the JP movement that promoted the idea of socialism.
In several universities and academic institutions across India, students and faculty members organised underground protests, using pamphlets and leaflets to protest against the imposition of Emergency. Over 300 student union leaders, including then Delhi University Students Union president Arun Jaitley and Jai Prakash Narayan, who headed the Chatra Sangarsh Samiti, were put behind bars.
The agitation in Assam against illegal migrants was launched by the All Assam Students Union, which is now spearheading protests against the amended citizenship act. It was an agitation to protect the identity of Assamese people in wake of influx of people from Bangladesh following 1971’s War of Liberation. People from different walks of life joined the students’ protests, which it ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord.
On August 1990, students from across India started a protest against the introduction of 27% reservation in government jobs for people from the Other Backward Classes. The government, led by VP Singh, implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations submitted to the government in 1980. Although the protest began in Delhi University, it spread to several educational institutes across the country, leading to violent protests in many parts of the country. Students in several places boycotted exams. The agitation ended when Singh resigned on November 7, 1990, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) withdrew support to his Janata Dal government.
A second major protest against the reservation system took place in 2006 in educational institutes, opposing the decision of Congress-led United Progressive Allianace government to implement reservations for OBCs in both central and private higher education institutes. Students and doctors belonging to upper castes called the move discriminatory. There were counter-protests in favour of the decision by OBC student groups.
In July 2015, the students of Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, launched a stir against the nomination of actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the prestigious institute. In the 140-day protest, students boycotted classes and refused to take exams, claiming Chauhan was not eligible to head FTII. Symbolic protests were held in several other places in solidarity with FTII students.
The “hok kalorob (let there be uproar)” movement at Jadavpur University was against alleged police attack on unarmed students. The students were demanding a fair inquiry into the alleged molestation of a student inside the campus. The week-long protest led to the removal of vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty, who had allegedly allowed police to enter the campus.
The suicide of a Dalit scholar of Hyderabad University, Rohith Vermula, triggered a nationwide outrage against the university administration over alleged failure to prevent his suicide. The suicide took place days after the university’s executive council expelled five Dalit students, including Vemula, from the hostel and limited their access to the campus for allegedly assaulting an ABVP student leader. Hundreds of students from universities across India participated in protest rallies.
On February 9, 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) erupted in protests over the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of conspiring in an attack on Parliament 16 years ago. Many human rights groups felt that the verdict was flawed. The demonstration witnessed clashes between different student groups. Four days after the event, then JNU students’ union president, Kahhaiya Kumar was arrested by Delhi Police and booked for sedition. Two other students, including Umar Khalid, were arrested later. JNU authorities conducted an inquiry and took action against 21 students. The action ranged from rustication to fines. In response, students went on an indefinite strike. The Delhi High Court suspended the university action on the condition that students end their strike.
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