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Should students take part in public protests?

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Summary

Students and youth have always been in the forefront of any viable movement, and they will always be.  The sooner we accept it, the better.

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The question that is the title of this post has been debated since the pre-independence era. Every time some political decision rakes up the nation and students are seen engaging in public protest, this question is raised by some quarters. Parents advise students to keep safe distance from politics, fearing that it may ruin their career. Teachers tell the students that they should not engage in anything other than studying. Some students also pride themselves in remaining ‘neutral’.

 

Yet, can one really remain aloof from political events? No, because humans are social beings, and politics decides how the society will run. How the economy will function, whether there will be jobs in the market, whether inflation will overtake the average income, whether communal tensions will flare up, what kind of education will our children get – all these are decided by politics. Thus, politics directly affect our lives.

 

That is why whenever some step is taken by the political establishment that can have adverse effect on our lives, people protest. And the only way to protest is to make the public discontent visible – by coming out to the streets, by organizing demonstrations, and if everything else fails, by going on strikes. The question is, should students get involved in such protests?

 

Let us see what stand great thinkers took on this issue. During the civil disobedience movement, Gandhiji gave a call to students to boycott schools and colleges run by the British. The great litterateur Sarat Chandra said “Age cannot bar anybody from responding to the call of the Nation – not even the teenagers. It is necessary to pass the exams, but call of the Nation is a bigger cause.” Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose said “Many people try to dissuade students from working for the Nation by citing the general belief ‘Chhatranang adhyanang tapah’ – studying is the ‘worship’ for the students. I think studying cannot be the only activity of students. Studying involves reading some books. This may yield good results in exams, one may also get a good job, but this alone does not give one humanity.” When asked if the unrest during political movements will harm students, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Dash said “Education can wait, but the struggle for Swaraj cannot.”

 

One may argue that those days were different: It was pre-independence era. India was under the British rule. Now India is a free nation. But in one respect the situation is the same. These great men urged students to act against oppression and injustice, and to participate in nation building. If they were present today, they would have taken the same position: students and youth should act against oppression and injustice, and should participate in nation building. True, the perpetrators of oppression and injustice have changed. But the problems remain, and students do have a role in ameliorating these.

 

Students played the main role in the French uprising of the 1960s and the great thinker Jean Paul Sartre urged them to take to the streets in protest. Similarly, students and youth played a major role in the Arab spring uprisings that saw the end of autocratic rule in Egypt and other countries. Students played a major role in the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. The climate strike of this year was spearheaded by a school student, Greta Thunberg.

 

Students and youth have always been in the forefront of any viable movement, and they will always be.  The sooner we accept it, the better.

 

Soumitro Banerjee is a Professor of Physics at IISER Kolkata

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.

 

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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