We should not be surprised if we find the engagement with the world and society of many great souls, from Nachiketa to Gandhi, was marked by questioning and conscientious disobedience.
Protest is an extraordinary act in extraordinary times. It cannot be judged from the perspective of everyday norms that hold under normal circumstances. But we must understand its place in the broader spectrum of social engagement that we deem constructive and congenial. Political protest by students – most often those at colleges, universities, and similar institutes of higher learning – should be viewed through this prism, and we must ask whether it forms a desirable, perhaps even essential, part of their education, and a fulfillment of their social role. An affirmative answer entails further questions concerning how educational institutions and society must view and respond to political protest by students.
To state my view at the outset, political protest by students concerning significant social issues is a natural corollary of their ethical and political awareness, and is a part of the self-correcting process that democratic societies see as an essential element of their constitution. But political awareness and protest among students is special, in comparison with that of the broader population. By some tokens more precious, it is also poses particular questions and challenges for us to grapple with. It should to be nurtured, suitably guided and circumscribed by principles of civil conduct, and not discouraged. There is a grand tradition to look back upon for support, from the Indian national struggle to anti-war protests, peace and social justice movements world-wide. But rather than dwelling on these examples, I will try to present a line of thinking in support of the view that I have stated.
Being a student at a university or an institution of higher learning is an exhilarating phase in the life of those fortunate enough to have the opportunity. As young adults, it is the time when students develop a sense of themselves, who they want to be, what their aspirations are for themselves, and for the societies they live in. Not many would dispute, I trust, that a mature world view that includes an awareness of social and political realities and institutions is a central part of the students’ development in this phase. Yet, even in very good educational institutions – this is true particularly of many technical and professional degree programmes — students can go through their schooling without burdening their minds with anything other than the courses they study, the examinations they take, and the theses they have to write, in order to graduate and to have the CVs to testify to their eligibility for the careers they wish to pursue. If students were merely to do so, we can ask, will they emerge as well-rounded persons, with a balanced comprehension of the world, fully equipped to play the diverse roles we would wish them to play, and to discharge all the responsibilities we would wish to have them undertake? The most blinkered of visions of modern education would acknowledge as among its goals the preparation of students to be good citizens. Minimally, in democratic societies, education should enable them with awareness and sound judgment to participate responsibly in the electoral process. A view that in order to be conducive to learning, a university should be a socially disengaged space, a cloister or an ashrama, does not conform to a modern view of education. Nor does an infantalizing expectation that students should not concern themselves with matters beyond their curricula. Although I emphasize political awareness and participation to be concrete, an ethical awareness is indeed both overarching in importance, and is essentially a part of political and social awareness as I am discussing them. If the mandatory requirements of educational programmes do not address these aspects of a student’s development, how else do we enable it? Is it the role of educational institutions to cater to this aspect? Answers to the latter question may vary, but in my view, it is very much part of the responsibility of institutions of higher education to enable the development of an ethical and political consciousness. We understand, in practice, that various activities associated with college and university life — general lectures, reading, debates, societies, participation in student organizations, etc. – cater to the overall development of students’ views and abilities. This is an acceptable, if not necessarily ideal, solution. Indeed, many good institutions do provide platforms for these activities, but opinions vary on how essential they are. If one accepts a broader view of education, however, these activities must be understood as integral to what educational institutions must facilitate, and at a minimum, allow.
But these extra-curricular activities that may contribute to social and political awareness may not necessarily be seen to include protest. Should they? Isn’t reading newspapers and books, attending talks, and browsing the web adequate for developing a healthy awareness? Why should students take part in protests? To answer this, we must first ask under what conditions protest can be seen as a legitimate act in general. Broadly, there are two situations to consider. The first is when we are faced with events that have occurred which are not tolerable. In such a situation, even if there is general agreement that such an event is not acceptable, what may be in question is the urgency and earnestness with which governance and legal measures are pursued. An expression of outrage and a demand for justice is often a necessary prod for action, an appeal to individual and institutional sense of duty and diligence. A second situation is when actions or decisions are willfully taken by the authorities – governments, administrations – that are seen to violate fundamental principles, one’s understanding of general welfare, etc, even when the same authorities may claim fulfillment of due process. An expression of disagreement, an appeal for re-examination, to conscience, then becomes warranted. Protest, as a broad term, may then take multiple forms – public debate, appeals, petitions, protest gatherings, disobedience, etc – and which form is appropriate depends very much on how responsive the relevant institutions are.
It is important to be clear about what place such protests occupy in properly judging their desirability. We must keep in mind that no institution entertains disagreement and negation as a basic ingredient of how it is conceived and how it functions. Educational institutions by and large are not an exception to this. Institutions are designed to meet specific purposes. Their members are expected to understand their roles and function within the established framework. Protest has no place in this idealised picture, and many conservative skeptical views of dissent and protest arises simply from the assumption of good faith and good design, which we are expected to trust and obey. But, to state the obvious, human institutions are not perfect. The gamut of concrete situations that may arise are impossible to imagine and address in advance. Society and its collective view of what is desirable evolves and changes, as we endlessly grapple with fundamental existential and ethical ambiguities. A static view of common well-being and purpose is not tenable. Disagreement and protest are among the instruments of correction and change, and however messy and inconvenient, enlightened institutions tolerate them. And tolerate they must. As Yudhisthira asserts, pithy and eloquent, in answer to the Yaksha’s question “what is the path?” in the celebrated episode of Yakshaprashna in the Mahabharata, “Arguments are inconclusive; the scriptures hold varied views; there isn’t a rishi whose words can be taken as pramana, and the truth about dharma is hidden in the cave”. His conclusion, that “the path trod by great ones is the true path” is enigmatic inasmuch as it is circular, but indeed, one must ever contemplate the path trodden by the great souls that have come before us. And we should not be surprised if we find the engagement with the world and society of many great souls, from Nachiketa to Gandhi, was marked by questioning and conscientious disobedience.
Some institutions do indeed embody questioning and disagreement with authority in their essence, and thrive. Scientific investigation, as an example of a broader range of intellectual inquiry and creative endeavour, privileges questioning of received wisdom as its animating trait. It is cliché in this context that progress emerges from questioning past thinking, and formulating arguments and evidence that may constitute developing and going beyond received wisdom. We teach our students to take this spirit to heart and practice it. We also teach them about their responsibilities – scientific ethics, rigor of argumentation and evidence – and we should. But we are clear about the fundamental fact – responsibilities are there to guide us along a constructive path, but the driving force is free thinking and expression. Human and political affairs are more ticklish, the rules for what we must accept as given and as conventions are more arbitrary, but surely, there is an essential place for fresh thinking, taking a position, stating one’s opposition, and protesting, even in this realm. If nothing else, there is no better motivation for clear and honest thinking than a felt need to disagree with a received position.
Beyond these general thoughts, there are considerations that are special to thinking about students that are paramount. The first is to be fully cognizant of the fact that students are, indeed, learning to learn — in their classroom learning, in how they investigate, create, and in how they conduct themselves in diverse situations including those of protest. They do need instruction and guidance, but not of the kind that will suffocate. Vandalism and violence are not tolerable, but peaceful forms of expression and protest should not be unduly constrained. Being a student is a period of passage and it should be so treated. The second is to take to heart the idea that the freshness of perspective, the more intimate involvement with ideas and idealism not burdened yet with the demands of real life, can lead the student population to possibilities and approaches that may escape the jaded and encumbered senses of older adults. In this sense, students can be teachers, and teachers, and the society at large should be receptive to learning from a vocal student population. Students can be conscience keepers, who prompt us to look beyond the narrow confines of what our imagination has become in the process of accommodating the realities, dull or harsh, of our adult lives. Silent, obedient students, even if aware, will not fulfill this role. The third consideration is one of what we owe, in terms of voice and freedom of action, to those that literally represent the future. A concern for what we leave behind for future generations is a powerful and visceral force that drives our actions. The most immediate of concerns in this regard has to be what we allow them to be, and to become.
Yet, all these considerations may not address a brass tacks worry: Isn’t it best for students to focus on their chosen field of study, and become as good as they can be at it? Isn’t everything else a distraction? These are not trivial questions. Those of us engaged with research, teaching, and various other forms of scholarship and creativity, are painfully aware of the frequent need for total immersion, in order to reach an intellectually satisfactory engagement. But, does real life – even normal, everyday life — permit us to be so immersed and detached from our surroundings? The answer is a clear no, but we learn, as adults, to apportion our attention to what we deem important, according to their merits. In a good life, its different dimensions sustain and not intrude upon, each other, but sadly, not always. In thinking about this, I am reminded of a poignant scene from Bertolt Brecht’s play “The life of Galileo”. After Galileo has recanted his teachings under pressure from the Church, a former pupil exclaims in disappointment “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”. Galileo responds, “No. Unhappy is the land that is in need of heroes”. In times of unhappiness among some about student protests, we must deeply ponder what we really ought to be unhappy about.
Srikanth Sastry is a Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. 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.