Disturbing your peace


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Campus agitations (and now campus violence) are a consequence of the breakdown of communications between the administration and the student body, not the cause. Especially after  months of a lack of communication, patience can wear thin. When one hears the different sides of the story, it can seem like a contemporary re-enactment of Rashomon, and a slightly fantastic one at that.

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One of the themes of Mishima’s The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea is that there is a natural order in the world, and when that is disturbed, actions must be taken to restore that order. This is a simplistic summary of course, but one that is in keeping with a view (that is prevalent in some sections of society) of our universities today – students should study, teachers should teach, administrative instructions should be followed, and all will then be well with this world.


The consequences of such a simple world view – which then asserts that students should not participate in protests, even if they are peaceful – is that it poses a ridiculous binary: good students would attend classes, and bad students are out there protesting. One of the things this view does not factor in, is that for all to be truly well with the world, many others have to do their bit too. One of the great advantages of an education – any education – is that it forces one to think. and free thought can have unintended consequences. Especially at a university, it is dangerous to infantilize students.


We carry within us so  many different identities – our language, religion, class, caste, politics, and is simplistic to assume that one can overshadow others.  In The Idea of Justice [1] Amartya Sen eloquently alerted us to the dangers of a solitarist view of humankind saying “The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant identity is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs).”


For those that are fortunate enough to have access to higher education, it is a commonplace that the period of young adulthood largely overlaps with the period of university education. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that students would participate in all activities that impact their future, be it the more mundane aspect of classroom learning or the more public role of speaking out against policies and actions that have more long-term implications.


This set of essays in Confluence addresses contemporary events, of course, but also in historical context. Student uprisings have been a constant feature of public life over the last several decades, going back several centuries even. Anybody who has taught at a University knows that the best students are the ones who are capable of independent thought and articulation. Students can obviously concentrate on their studies as well as take part in political issues– and can do them both well as recent events can testify. It is not always given that the political events of one’s times will be of great magnitude, but if – as in 1968 or now – they are, then it is inevitable that strong voices will be heard from academia. Universities have played such important parts in various political events in our country – the language agitation of the mid 1960’s, the protests against the Emergency, the agitation against the Mandal Commission Report, to name a few. And outside India, there is Paris 1968 though one does not have to go far either in distance or in time, given the agitations that have been rocking Hong Kong and Santiago over the past few months, to see the important role of students in public protests worldwide.


The agitations and protests in our country today are centered around two different issues. One is a discussion of the Constitution of India, its scope, ambit and its meaning, and the repeated attempts to trivialize the issue. The second is the siege on all bastions of higher education, crystallized as it were on the Kristallnacht of  5 January, 2020 when imported violence erupted on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.


Who else would speak against such violence on our campuses? This may be an issue for society at large, but beset as we are with our own niche worries, it stands to reason that the most affected parties should be the loudest in speaking up. Not surprisingly, therefore, students all across the country and indeed across the world have spontaneously and publicly condemned the violence, underscoring the feeling of vulnerability that all students feel at this time but at the same time reflecting the fearlessness of youth and their willingness to risk much for their future by the simple act of speaking out.


Confrontation with the state is always expensive, and students in our central universities are today paying the price for this. Given that our universities are funded by the government (central or state) the university administration can appear as an extension of the state itself, the autonomy of our temples of learning being more an idea than the reality. There is a surreal atmosphere though, as each of the different groups of players seems to be acting in isolation even when their actions are linked. As remarked by Jayati Ghosh in an article in Times Higher Education, Indian higher education is now withering on the vine.


Campus agitations (and now campus violence) are a consequence of the breakdown of communications between the administration and the student body, not the cause. Especially after  months of a lack of communication, patience can wear thin. When one hears the different sides of the story, it can seem like a contemporary re-enactment of Rashomon, and a slightly fantastic one at that.


There is a upside to all this too. Protests that arise on the campus have a way of sharpening an observer’s logic. Seeing and hearing students argue and debate issues, the freshness of the minds, the passion that they bring to the argument, the earnestness with which debates are carried out. A simple “How dare you”, voiced by a teenager, bringing anguish and outrage together on the issue of climate change, can hone the discussion in a way that more refined protests do not. Personal experience apart, every academic administrator of any standing can recall that one moment when a protesting student made a clinching argument that helped to change their point of view. It does not take much more than the willingness of the administration to learn, to concede that they are not infallible or omniscient. But minds have to be open, and ears have to be willing to hear.


The other issue is a larger one, and those that have been protesting in the recent past and – uniquely on a Constitutional matter –  are speaking not just for themselves as students but as members of society, as citizens. They speak for their families, their communities and those related to them by the extended kinship of schools of thought. And this is a consequence of the multiple identities that they carry. Regardless of where one stands on the issues per se, it goes without saying that all of us should have the freedom to express ourselves without fear.


But to speak of now,  there is something unique happening at this time, something unexpected and something that should fill one with hope. Across the country, in addition to the  student uprisings, there have been quiet and brave expressions of dissent by people of different social groups, of different age groups, and of different histories. The events of the recent past impact each one of us in different ways and in different ways we all are finding the courage to express ourselves and not always in agreement. A democracy is ultimately about its people, and what should triumph in the end is their will. As Faiz says in Hum Dekhenge


Aur raaj karegi Khalq-e-Khuda

Jo Main Bhi Hoon, Aur Tum Bhi Ho.

Loosely translated (“And then God’s creation – we the people – will rule, both you and I.”)


If the young voices raised publicly make us think and see these issues in fresh light, they will have served a part of their purpose.



[1] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Penguin, 2010).


Ram Ramaswamy is the ex-President of Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru and is currently associated with IIT Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.


This article is part of a Confluence series on Students and Political Protests. The remaining articles in this series can be found here.

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