For the first time last week, Shanthi S., an undergraduate in a college in Bengaluru, took part in a protest at Town Hall. What spurred the 18-year-old was footage of a masked mob attacking students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “I was particularly disturbed by the violence in educational institutions. Watching the videos made me shiver. Today if it is JNU, tomorrow it can be our campus,” she said.
Millennials and the generation born after 1997, like Shanthi, are often dismissed as Instagram-obssessed, hashtag-loving youth who prefer social media and armchair activism to ground realities. But recent events have upended this stereotype as it is primarily students and young adults who have been spearheading protests and marches against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NCR) and the violence meted out to students in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Aligarh Muslim University.
Though campuses in Bengaluru are far removed from the political turmoil and violence plaguing institutions in other parts of the country, student groups here are not sitting back. They have been instrumental in carrying out protests almost every day since December 2019, and sustaining the momentum.
Student activists are delighted with the turnout because unlike in other States, activism in Karnataka’s colleges has always been low key. Student union elections have been banned in the State for more than three decades as they were deemed responsible for perpetuating caste-based violence in higher education institutions.
Gururaj Desai, State secretary, Students' Federation of India, has seen students coming out on their own over the past few weeks. “I have been in the student movement for the last 16 years, but this is the first time they are fearlessly voicing their opinion on divisive forces. They are anxious about the political environment in the country,” he said.
For many, attending rallies and protests is a new experience, but they believe that the fight against CAA and for freedom of expression warrants their participation. They inject their own brand of humour with quirky placards. Even when Section 144 was imposed, they came out in large numbers risking detention and arrest. Others have gone against the diktat of their colleges undeterred by the consequences.
Ajay Kamath, State secretary, All India Democratic Students’ Organisation, said that students were turning up on their own. “Of course, some networks have been made among students of different colleges and we are circulating information on where protests are being held. But all we are doing is putting up the venues on social media,” he said.
Last week, students from different colleges came together and took part in a 24-hour protest. Hundreds of students camped at Maurya Circle all night while the police kept watch. The energy was high with students raising slogans, reciting poetry and singing songs. It was an open mic platform where everyone was allowed to express their opinion.
Hamza Tariq, president of the Student Bar Association, National Law School of India University (NLSIU), acknowledged that social media is playing a huge role in facilitating the protests. Students are using all social networking sites, messaging platforms and even dating apps to spread the word, but it does not end there. “While expressing our voice on social media is important, we have also realised the importance of group activism and, therefore, students of our university are participating in different protests conducted across the city.”
NLSIU students got a first-hand experience of the power of the importance of ground activism last year when they had staged protests, boycotted classes and examinations while demanding the appointment of a vice chancellor. Law students are taking it a step further by conducting awareness campaigns on CAA in residential areas. “We want to connect it with roti , kapda and makaan , and break it down to them on how it will affect them,” said Mr. Tariq.
Photographer Vaishnavi Suresh, who has been actively involved in the protests, said that the gatherings have also been “largely inclusive” with people from institutions such as NLSIU as well as those from government first grade colleges turning up in large numbers. “At the protests, we come across people speaking in Kannada, Hindi and English. There is a sense of student unity, a sentiment that is currently being echoed throughout the country,” she said.
Many of the protests are conducted by a collective of students without the name of any organisation. Those organising the protests state that students and student organisations are keeping their differences aside, and are coming together with an “incredible amount of resistance”.
“The more students are oppressed, the more our struggles are getting momentum. Things have not changed overnight, but the series of events over the past few weeks have acted as a tipping point for students,” said Mr. Kamath.