“Dude! You not going to the rally?”


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Among the student community in research institutes, a sense of moral superiority in the fact that one is protesting could easily arise and in my opinion does arise. This is sheer nonsense. Protests are held for change, not so that you can look good in a photo and then reminisce about it twenty years later. Or make cool sounding noises when you pass each other in the halls.

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It is always hard to write an opinion when it is the most unpopular one on any forum. I am not in favor of long drawn out student protests. I am not in favor of activism, which I think is of limited use when done in the comfort of one’s institute when there are clearly more important things to be done. So, I am writing this as an opinion piece primarily based on the observations of one individual. Just to be clear, I have never been a ‘model’ student. If I ever were accused of this, it would not be the model everyone is thinking about when applied to this context. I was always told that students should be ‘good.’ This roughly translated to, “Do well as a student, then you will be successful.” The problem was that no one successful has ever said this.


On the other hand, Politics was always a dirty garment to be left untouched by ‘sensible’ people. And as a ‘sensible’ student, I left it alone. Growing up in Pune helped. In any of the hundreds of colleges and the three major universities, there is practically zero political influence. So I encountered protesting students for the first time in my life in IISER-Pune last year. And my first reaction, to be candid, was “OK,” followed by a shrug of my shoulders.


Student protests are not new or unique to India. Indeed some of the significant changes in human history have been brought about by students leading the change. But, this is where the cynic that lives in the real world comes alive. For me, any kind of social reform was always broken up into two main types. Either someone was really desperate for a change and willing to do anything for it. Or, someone was really desperate to gain any kind of mileage from fostering the protest.


Situations like Tiananmen Square and the Velvet March in Soviet Russia are clearly cases of the first kind where people had had enough. I would like to point out that this was in the absence of any ‘Social Media’ (or as I prefer to think of it, community S & M). In today’s world, students get access to a world of information at a very young age, which is wonderful. And this is where the second category of fostering protests is made possible.


Students are on social media; why would they not be! It is the best place to be when you are young and want to be noticed! For whatever reason, for or against, true or false, students protested against police brutality in JMU. Based on information that was spread by social media. Then it slowly came to light that the original miscreants may not be students of JMU but just hid inside it. What the police did was vile, but then all the student protesters saw was the reaction and not the original action. Is student opinion so readily convertible that not one of the protesters took a deep breath and tried to sort the facts? Maybe they did. I do not know.


My only problem is this. Students protested, they held a lot of rallies, made a massive splash of opinions in the public mind. But, all I see as an outcome, is intelligentsia on social media reaching new heights of pedagogy.


And nothing else.


Would there be a new level of informed opinion among students? Or is this just another of those trends that come and goes?  That remains to be seen.

If a change happens, it is terrific! But to assume that it happens just by protesting the way things have been going on is foolish. Or worse, to assume that without protesting, it won’t happen is equally inane. All I see when I look at the ‘coverage’ of the protests is a cachet of ‘coolness’ or ‘being woke’ attached to this. In other words, ‘Selfies of holding placards get likes.’
Students can be shamed into joining protests by saying things like the title of this post. I don’t know how often it happens, but to assume that it doesn’t is just narrow-minded. I would like to believe that all of those who protest are genuinely doing it for their cause, but knowing how human beings are, I find that hard to accept.


Of course, that is true for any protest or public endeavor, but I think for students, it is especially important to think about this. Don’t’ get me wrong. I will love it if a generation learns to question any government. But, I would hate it that same generation is doing absolutely nothing else.


To do anything else, one needs to study in their chosen field of endeavor. When one is a student, get better at what you want to do.  Then, there is the practical side of protests as well. Protests consume resources. Not money necessarily, but energy and time. Students may not know that both are limited and that as they grow out of being students, the demands on both are going to be more intense than they could have believed possible.


If one has a goal to achieve, it is logical that all the energy and time one can spare is invested in it. I am NOT saying a student should only aim at academic excellence. What I am saying is that a student should aim at figuring out what their goal is while they are a student. If the two statements seem contradictory, then it is because one just does not accept the fact that there is a whole world of enterprise outside of protests. If some student does not include social conditions into their sphere of enterprise, it should be perfectly acceptable. But it is seen as a sign of selfishness to even voice an opinion like mine and that is a just sad.


Studenthood is the best time of life to explore but exploration should be without peer pressure. Protests, in this case, can be a distraction, something you did because it felt nice at that time, or were goaded into, but then, later on, you moved to other things.
I happen to be a taxpayer, who pays in some small part for the scholarships and salaries of the student and staff in central government funded research institutes. I would like my investment to bear fruit in the form of brilliant young minds taking on real problems of the universe. Not churning out brainwashed, hair-triggered, activism-hyped, pseudo-self-aware drones. However, intelligent they are, drones are still drones.


Just as the quintessential ‘good’ student models we had in the last two decades are drones, these new ones, who live on the very edge of skepticism and are ingrained with radical activism, are of limited use to a healthy society. With the current way, where protests are treated like some kind of hallowed practice, and it is a genuine possibility that it becomes a fashion. This would kill the meaning of demonstrations. Or probably already has!

A student, especially one of science, would be lost in the wonder of the natural world. As a former science student and then researcher, I find it impossible for this not to be the case. This, for me, was the single most beautiful thing about being a student, not marred by anything else. In that case, in my head, there was no space for anything else. Students who feel this way may not bother about anything else, in my opinion.


While it is perfectly OK to get angry and then give voice to that emotion, it is equally silly to rate that as ‘the most’ significant contribution of one’s life when one is a student. A lot more is undoubtedly going to happen. And most importantly, opinions change. When one is in protest mode, one is seldom ready to listen to an argument and go out of protest mode. So one needs to be careful in entering this state of mind. For students, this is easy to slip into and then may not be the best outcome.


Among the student community in research institutes, a sense of moral superiority in the fact that one is protesting could easily arise and in my opinion does arise. This is sheer nonsense. Protests are held for change, not so that you can look good in a photo and then reminisce about it twenty years later. Or make cool sounding noises when you pass each other in the halls.


I feel that those who see the idealized outcome of students protesting changing the world, often forget that protesters are also human beings. Often young human beings. A set of morals and rights may not drive them for the rest of their lives as the pro-protest lobby believes. In this case, they are just wasting their own and everyone’s time.  All of the above, of course, is when the second type of social reform, the one that is fueled by political motivation rather than a rational expectation of change, is the case. Which currently in India, I think is.


And now the other side of the coin, the staff. The taxpayer argument applies to them more intensely. If they are spending their energy protesting, then who is doing the research/education they are supposed to be undertaking? Protesting is definitely not doing cognitive neuroscience. Nitpickers would say, “I only did that on weekends” but that is a specious argument.  If some reader responds to my statement above by saying that just because I am a taxpayer, I don’t own them. I would remind them of this opinion whenever they are complaining about any government servant/agency which is taking too long to do something. The next time one complains that the granting agency is taking too long to process their applications, I would gently remind them of the fact that none of the government servants are owned by the applicant so they should respectfully shut up.


The government funds research, for better or for worse. Then if protests are the mainstay of one’s career, then one should not be in the career of academia. This does not mean one bows to the government at its every beck and call. But there is an accountability to be had in terms of training young minds. Somehow most academicians in India believe that they should be judged by a different set of standards than almost any other government enterprise. But this is a fallacy.


Academicians like to make cliques (one cannot think of a reason why seeing as to how rational they are), but this can be and most probably is, another criterion for inclusion or exclusion from one — your political views.  In my (obviously limited) experience of Indian Academia, a scientist who wears the Rudraksha is likely to be taken less seriously because of his overt expression of belief in being a Hindu. As opposed to another who is an atheist and is schooled in the whole ‘left-liberal’ ideology. I am not saying one is better. I am just saying that it should not matter.  But it does. If political protests are a measure of one’s civic duty or citizen’s rights or something equally righteous, the ‘contribution’ of a person engaged in academic research is not only measured by their quality of work but by their political views. And this is just stupid.


Protests are not a problem by themselves. Making protests into something special is a genuine problem. It may seem I am trivializing protests, but in reality I am trivializing the cachet of ‘something necessary to being a ‘good’ student’ being attached to protesting. This post is an opinion for all practical purposes. I do not have objective data about whether students think protests are cool or not etc. but I believe most do.


So asking someone, “Dude! you are not coming to the rally?”, with a shocked face, is unfair. It is the same as asking someone, “Dude! You gay?” with the same shocked face. Students are easily impressionable and once convinced of something capable of performing great feats for it. When students are led to protests, the sources should be held responsible as well. In our country, this has not happened, and then the sad events of JMU occur.


Ashwin Kelkar is an ex-Wellcome Trust fellow at IISER Pune, currently an entrepreneur and a hopeful scientist. Not a liberal in the usual sense of the word. The views expressed are personal.


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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