In the past few years, students have taken to the streets to protest against social issues they feel strongly about.
Newspapers today are rife with articles on protest, revolt and demonstration. Students are being hailed as the dormant giant who just emerged to take control, take charge and change the landscape of activism. They constitute a large community and when united, can be the catalyst for much proactive change. All over the country, and even the world, students are coming together. They are stepping into their shoes as the citizens of tomorrow, the new leaders of a more empowered society, the representatives of a generation characterised by concern and socio-political consciousness.
When news and pictures from the Sri Lankan army found their way to the rest of the world, everyone was up in arms. It was a war crime, they said. Across Tamil Nadu, sympathies and indignation were sparked and the people were consumed by a sense of anger and incredulousness. Students in particular, chose their battles and took up the cause as their own. In the city, beginning from Loyola College, various institutions held protests, rallies and strikes. There were demands for an independent international enquiry to be conducted, and the internet and social media were used to convert this to a mass movement.
According to Deepak Johnson, a student of IIT Madras, the purpose is not only one of protest. “We want to express our support to the cause. It may be a drop in the ocean but we hope to motivate others to continue this struggle against injustice. Also, our fight is highly symbolic. Since the student community of IIT is usually associated with being apolitical, it is a significant step for us to express our solidarity for a cause that matters.” IIT Madras conducted a hunger strike, a protest march as well as a panel discussion on the subject, with experts on the field addressing an audience composed mainly of students. The protests gained momentum, with some even becoming violent and city colleges were shut down for over a fortnight as a result. The student fraternity had made their mark as a group who could unite in the pursuit of action.
Though student activism grabbed headlines largely after the Sri Lankan issue, the spark was lit with the Delhi gang rape in December last year. Candle light vigils, protest marches and rallies — the streets of Delhi were rife with agitated students evangelising the need for women’s safety. Across the country, newspapers were flooded with pictures of crowds, strikingly young, raising their voice and demanding justice for the victim. Despite teargas, water cannons and the fear of the police, the protests continued undeterred for weeks. Students had made their mark on the national scene. A trend had emerged and a precursor had been set.
This phenomenon of student involvement is not just restricted to India. Across the world, the student community is becoming a force to reckon with. In Egypt, during the Jasmine Revolution, students formed an integral part of the demand for change. In the words of Hadeer Adel, an Egyptian university student, “Young people are always at the forefront of any revolt. They are the first to raise their voice and object. For most of the protests and sit-ins, the average age lies between 18 and 25.”
And yet, one must not make the mistake of assuming that student activism is a new phenomenon in the socio-political scenario of India. In the pre-Independence era, students formed an integral part of the effort, providing the manpower for marches and rallies in pursuit of freedom. After 1947, the protests took on largely local, apolitical issues including the inflation in the 1970s. Though the impact of student activism was severely impaired during the President’s Rule when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister., it re-emerged with renewed intensity once it was lifted. Leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan were known to have gained much support by garnering the student community.
Yet, with the advent of liberalisation in the early 1990s, the Indian middle class slipped into an attitude of apathy and political passivity. Activism reached its all time low and students were no longer the harbingers of change.
However, the winds of change seem to be here. Starting with Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption beginning in 2011, students’ involvement with social issues began to increase. The middle class, which was thus far linked with apathy, now constitutes the core of the Aam Aadmi Party, launched by Arvind Kejriwal. With the average age of India very tellingly in the 20s, youth activism is an integral component of any societal change.
What used to be a scattered, uncoordinated smattering of activists has now transformed itself into a cohesive effort by the student fraternity. With the internet and social media at their beck and call, the youngsters of today are more empowered to put forth a united front and exert the force of the collective. Today, change is the new watchword, students are the new leaders and the future is looking much brighter.