The student protests in Tamil Nadu are only the latest chapter in the long history of student movements in the country.

It has been has been over two weeks of unrest in the colleges of Tamil Nadu. Students of over 130 colleges across 20 districts have boycotted classes, organised hunger strikes and even taken out awareness rallies — to demand an external enquiry into the genocides and war crimes in Sri Lanka. When it first started with eight students fasting unto death at Loyola College, sources predicted it could be a Jesuit-driven campaign, but soon the movement spread to almost every reputed college in the city, giving rise to many other speculations. It is a welcome trend, say historians who recall the last seen major campus protest in the State was during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1960s. “It is a churning that is taking place. If the movement has students from Presidency and Pachaiyppa’s who have been notoriously famous for indiscipline, it also has students from IIT-M who have never thought beyond their careers,” said V. Krishna Ananth, a political historian. The protest has also given way to more important questions — should students be kept at arms length from politics or they should be allowed to take an active part in politics.

It is believed that when Huen Sang, a well known scholar of China, visited India in the days when Nalanda University — one of the oldest universities — was at its prime, he was impressed to see that students had the full right to express themselves.

“They did not have to follow the teacher; serving of teacher does not mean captivity of the intellect. But in private colleges now, there is a great deal of indifference among students to issues,” said Anasuya Kumar, a research scholar at the University of Madras.

Going back in time

Historians say student movement in its organised form should be around 70 years old in the country. “Sporadic student activities can be traced as far back as 1905 — a student strike in a college in Punjab to oppose racial discrimination between the English and the Indians. It was the first successful student campaign documented,” said Bhairavanath Basu, a History professor in New Delhi.

While most of the initial student movements were to fight the British rule, experts note in the 1960s, there were nearly 2, 200 protests of which over 400 were violent. That was a time when student unions were largely under the control of political parties. “There was no ideological fervour in them. But that changed in the 1970s,” said Mr. Basu. In 1973, students of Ahmedabad protested when asked to pay a higher mess fee. The protest spiralled into State-wide protests soon, and later spread to other States leading to major political repercussions. The nationwide strike launched by "Anti-reservation" medical and engineering students lasted for a month and created quite a ripple.

Students’ movements have always played a crucial role, particularly in the recent past in different parts of the world. For instance, explained Ms Kumar, students’ movements influenced the revolution of 1848 in Germany and Austria, the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Chinese revolution. “Even the recent uprisings in America or against rapes in India have been highly youth-centred,” she added. Protests against capitation fees, fee hikes have met with powerful protests all over the country. “But those are different from the politically-motivated ones.

Every management these days is scared of unions and politics on campus, said a principal of an all women’s college here. “We have strict rules. As part of admission procedures, every student is made to agree that he will not indulge in political activity on campus,” she added. Many private managements and students hold this view. “I am disgusted with student politics. Elections are nothing but a stepping stone for a few towards a political career. The rest is just manipulated,” said Akansha Shenoy, a student of M.O.P Vaishnav College.

However, there are campuses that swear by elections and student issues. “We see violence before elections every year but ours is one of the few colleges that has had regular elections every year, in the last 70 years,” said K. Selvaraj, student leader, Presidency College.

Being politically correct

Universities like the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University are known for their political activism that spills over to issues related to national policies and international affairs. “But now, political student groups seeking to debate policy issues and political matters are denied permission to hold public meetings in many colleges. They have started charging huge fees for the spaces that were earlier available for these purposes, said Sheetal Mitra,” a history student at DU.

Even States such as Kerala that are known for their politically-active campuses have started deploring campus politics. Last year, many of the colleges pitched for the parliamentary form, where the students of each class select their class representatives who in turn elect the college union office bearers. This, activists say, takes away the democratic rights of students.

Even in Tamil Nadu, in the colleges of Anna University, only high-scoring students are permitted to elect their leader.

Old timers in politics believe that today the lure of plum jobs and foreign degrees have taken students away from politics. “There is a concern for the future of students. Instead of bothering about the problems of society, students should utilise their time for studies and concentrate on their career. They can always solve the problems better then,” said R. Ramaswamy, who teaches mathematics in a private college in Chennai.

K. Ravi, a leader of the Students Federation of India said many colleges tend to associate ragging with student politics and hence apply a blanket ban on all campus politics. “Some students come together for a certain cause, but no one wants to belong to a party, especially be a full timer,” he added. The student movement today faces unprecedented challenges.

But many are hopeful that there is a reversal, especially after the recent protests in Tamil Nadu. “I have been involved in student movements in the last five years and I will continue to lead my fellow students. It is not only our right but also our responsibility to demand answers to everything that concerns us — from foul smelling toilets to assault on fishermen,” said Dhiviya, a law student from Madurai, also the coordinator of Student committee for Tamil Eelam, one of the organisations involved in the ongoing protests.