Chennai’s college students take to the streets in support of social causes; the latest being human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Pooja Mishra talks to some of them to find out why.

A number of colleges across the city remained closed last week, due to widespread student protests against human rights violation in Sri Lanka. These recent demonstration witnessed large turnouts and were in progress at multiple venues simultaneously — the Marina Beach, the Raj Bhavan, Valluvar Kottam and many college campuses including IIT-M and Loyola College. These stand as the newest social protest in a long series of issues that have gathered students’ support in the city.

Last year, Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption drew large crowds, while the grave predicament of the Delhi rape victim saw people flock to the beach for candlelight vigils. Be it live protests or hot debates and interaction on online public forums, Chennai’s youth are participating a lot more vigorously in matters of social and national concern.

Reasons, twofold

Dr. Rajani Nandakumar, a student counsellor, feels that the trigger behind the increased students’ response is two-pronged: the idealism inherent in young minds and the power of networking sites. She says, “Students tend to see things in black-and-white or right and wrong. With the kind of pressure and deadlines they face today, supporting an issue like the anti-Sri Lankan protest gives them an emotional anchor. They feel that they are giving their time to something fruitful and meaningful.

Add to this, the fact that modern communication systems connect them in the wink of an eye — the access to more people and more information now means that the number of supporters for such issues has swelled.”

The role of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp in contributing to the number is undeniable. Today’s generation seeks information and news that affects them, and is forthcoming and assertive in their opinion. The Internet brings them all the information instantly today, as opposed to a few years ago when international issues came to people’s notice after a couple of days. Now people are well-informed, more broadminded and want to raise their voice in support of issues which they relate to.

Sowmya R. of MOP Vaishnav College credits the support and education provided by their colleges. “Our education today extends beyond academic areas. Teachers now delve into questions of moral responsibility and social development too. Students and parents are more broadminded.”

Amuthan, who helped organise the protest at the CA Institute in Nungambakkam, agrees with her. “This is the first time that neutral educational institutes like Loyola College and the Chartered Accountants’ Institute have taken active part in protests, with the encouragement of the institutions.” He asserts that protests in support of issues like the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils have been there before. But in the last few years, networking sites have increased the visibility of both the issues and student participation in the public eye, allowing information to spread virally across different colleges and cities.

Be it the issue of abortion, LGBT awareness and rights, earth hour and energy consumption, animal species conservation, women’s rights and safety or the freedom of expression for artists, youth today have a voice and opinion on every issue that affects their today and tomorrow, and the Chennai youngsters sure know how to make their voices heard and their opinions count. Amuthan adds, “Students are empowered by the feeling that through such mass demonstrations, they are capable of altering bad situations for the better. “Our collective voice can make the difference for the life conditions in a certain country for many, or change the way laws affect issues like environment, women’s safety, and freedom of speech and life choices in our country”.

Dr. M. Vasuki, counsellor and psychologist, explains this new semblance of social responsibility. “The youth have traversed from giving quiet sympathy to such issues to being empathetic. They believe that they must stand up and demand for social change so that this doesn’t happen to them tomorrow. Behind these protests there is a sense of communal belonging, especially for Sri Lankan Tamils because we share a language with them.” Karthik, who is a part of MITR — a guidance and counselling unit in IIT Madras agrees — “Tamilians have a patriotic feeling, the language commonality gives them a feeling of brotherhood and kinship with the Sri Lankan Tamils, and hence the issue has drawn out so much support from Tamil Nadu and other South Indians living in IIT Madras.”

Dr. Vasuki adds “Students are a very powerful social group, and their perceptions forge the future of a society. There protests have no hidden agenda — they raise their voice in the hope of a better tomorrow for themselves, devoid of inhumanity, corruption, or issues like reservation. The students have set a good example through peaceful demonstrations. However, they should be clear about what exactly they want the end result of the protest to be.”

The downside

Niranjan Siddharthan, a student protestor, agrees that social networking websites have increased awareness and connectivity among youngsters. “But,” he quips, “some youngsters join the protests for glamour and romance. They like the fame and popularity associated with it. A number of them are not even aware of the details and gravity of the situation.”

K. Bethanavel, who led the protests in IIT-Madras, adds, “The scale of atrocities happening around us lately. The documentaries, which surfaced through the Internet and news channels, are strong visual evidence that helped kindle a fire in students’ hearts.”

There is a psychological effect created from all the information that youngsters are exposed through various media. The nation’s problems are a lot more visible now and their impact far-reaching.

When the alleged violation of human rights is sensationally portrayed in media, the visual impact wrenches the emotions of the viewers and urges passionate youngsters to become personally involved and express their support and solidarity. Instead of delivering this student power into the hands of politicians, they now prefer to take their own stand and make non-political, yet strong statements. Dr. Rajani sums up the eventual relevance of these protests well when she says “if the protests started as a medium to increase awareness about the incidents, they have succeeded in it. However, if they aim to affect the decisions of the Indian government, the Sri Lankan role players, the UN and if they want to improve the fate of the Sri Lankan Tamil victims, students must channel their efforts in the right way. Are their means of protest right or questionable? Are they affecting the international scenario in a positive way eventually? These are some questions the students have to ask themselves.”

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