The city was still DMK country. And we had probably tapped into the pro-DMK orientation of the students.

This was an unexpected surge. We had called for an all-college strike and a protest rally against a hike in bus fares announced by the newly elected AIADMK government. We knew that Chennai students would not be easily stirred into agitating for a cause that went beyond their campuses. But on that day – in 1991 – they came out in thousands on Anna Salai.

Our organisation simply did not have the muscle to gather a crowd such as this. We were a motley group of five students with little street cred. The students had come because the strike call probably resonated with them.

We had belled the cat, one of our group members said triumphantly. We had organised the first real protest against the AIADMK government that had been voted to power with a massive mandate a few months back. The DMK had been decimated but had scraped through in a few seats in Chennai.

Madras, as it was then known, was still DMK country. And we had probably tapped into the pro-DMK orientation of the students.

Despite being politically aware, Chennai students have largely stayed out of national agitations. The JP movement and the Anna Hazare protests received a less-than-lukewarm response here. But old timers often recall the anti-Hindi agitations of 1965 in which Chennai students participated in massive numbers. The agitations served as a springboard for the DMK to come to power.

On that day in 1991, the students were in charge. It was as if we owned Mount Road. The public was sympathetic too. After all, it was their cause.

But the agitation was a one-off event. Our next step was another students rally. It was supposed to be a secret but the police knew. A few arrests took care of that plan. The government announced a partial rollback of the hike.

Our other attempts to organise students on broader issues were failures. Chennai students, then and now it seems, are moved more by language and ethnic identity. In March this year, many of them were out protesting and expressing sympathy and support for Sri Lankan Tamils. A generation of students and IT professionals, descendants of the early supporters of the Dravidian movement, were trying to reclaim the spirit of ’65.

22 years ago, my friends and I were standing near the Anna Road post office, watching the students’ procession with pride. I felt, if only for a few moments, the absolute thrill of having sparked off something big. Barely 20 years old, I felt I had been catapulted into sudden adulthood, reaching for a role that few adults dare to aspire for.

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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