Students, they indeed are!


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Students need to and have to actively engage in [the] dynamic process of contestations, tensions, enquiry, discovery and re-discovery if they have to co-create knowledge and uphold the ‘desired’ values. Participation and protests are indeed an essential part of this process, and such education is critical for an evolving society that cherishes and aspires for democracy, equality, secularism, justice and freedom.

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In the context of whether students should be out on the roads protesting against what they see as injustice or violation, or not, let me start with a story from JNU. How can we talk of students protests in India and not mention JNU? Prof. Anjan Mukherji, former professor of Economics, and now Professor Emeritus, in JNU, told me this story in support of his statement that G. Parthasarathy, known as GP, the first vice chancellor of JNU, was the best VC the university ever had. It was 1974 – JNU was already five years old but the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) was only one year old – and students were agitating, echoing the students movements’ voices in Gujarat and Bihar. Young professors like Anjan were worried that courses, the way they had been designed, needed continuous engagement and rigour, and the agitation would have a negative impact. They shared their concerns to GP, who decided to attend striking students’ congregation and listen to what they were saying. Having done that, he gathered these concerned teachers and congratulated them saying their students were not only well-read and had the confidence and competence to argue for what they wanted; they also had the discerning capacity to stand for justice, freedom and equality! What else do you expect from the university students? This was not a joke, it was a serious conversation, and many conversations like these shaped the university that JNU evolved as in the following years.


It is important to remind that Anjan was narrating this by calling GP one of the best VCs, rather than complaining that he did not reign in students back to classes. Mind you, Anjan is also not a ‘Marxian’ economist, as for some vague reason we think only Marxists protest. Also important is to point out that GP was not an academic; he came to JNU after a long career in journalism and diplomacy, yet not only understood the ethos of what a university should be but also introduced radical measures to develop and maintain that ethos. During the years to follow, the relationships between VCs, students, teachers and non-teaching staff have not necessarily remained as mutually respectful but the culture and ethos of engaging with issues of justice and rights, ranging from local to sub-national, and from national to international, have remained strong in JNU. In addition, it is also important to remind that by all measures of success, JNU has also remained one of our most ‘successful’ universities in the post-colonial India. I will return to the aspect of measures of success and what I mean by that a little later.


So, the best way to answer the question of whether students should be protesting against issues that do and do not concern them directly or be sitting in their classroom or libraries or laboratories, is to ask a counter question: are these two necessarily oppositional to each other? My answer is: ‘No’ – to me, these are complementary and one advances the other. And now let me explain my response by answering three more basic questions: (i) what is education and what the aims of education are, (ii) why education is important for any evolving society, and (iii) why students have been an essential and very important part of any major social and political change that countries including ours have witnessed in the modern era.


What is education? A universal definition that perhaps most agree to is that education is a process of co-creating values, skills (including thinking and critical skills) and knowledge. And this definition remains valid for all ages of students at all stages of schooling, and for all subjects, disciplines, and streams of subject-areas. Education, therefore, is not only an active process but it also involves continuous and simultaneous selection of values, skills, knowledge and pedagogy at every stage. Where do we draw these values from, how do we pick and choose relevant pedagogies for selected knowledge streams, which skills get priority and what gets left out – all these choices that are made in the process of education are essentially part of a political process. The education systems make certain choices, individual institutions, even while following those, makes its own choices that may bring in newer elements and finally individual teachers also make certain choices that could bring new or even opposing elements. This means education is also a continuous process of subversion. This definitely happens when one consciously adopts a radical or transformative approach such as one propagated by Paulo Freire but it also happens even when a system, an institution, or a teacher is not consciously trying to adopt or promote the radical pedagogy. Let me illustrate this with a few real-life examples.


A Masters level Physics class in Bangalore University in progress. While in the midst of teaching Brownian Motion in English, the professor realises that a number of students have blank faces. He switches to Kannada and the expression on those faces change: they are not only comprehending better but also feel ‘included’ as their language is being acknowledged. This decision of the teacher is indeed ‘political’ in nature.


Another M. Phil class for the course on ‘Equity in Education’ in progress in JNU where the teacher was discussing the issue of affirmative action in the form of Reservation in higher educational institutions and public sector jobs. The teacher first asked everyone for their opinion and then facilitated a debate by supplying arguments on both sides. This was followed up by a number of readings that she made it compulsory for everyone to read before the next class. Not easy, as this meant spending long hours in the library in a short period of time. The arguments by students in the next class were more refined and better informed, and by the end of that topic, all students not only understood the rationale of affirmative actions but also started engaging deeper with the issues of caste, cultural capital, discrimination, exclusion and justice. This story is from early 1990s and some of the students who had started by questioning the rationale of having  reservations in jobs with the argument that once equally educated, they should have the same chances, took diametrically opposite positions in support of Mandal Commission’s recommendations and argued for the same on public platforms. Obviously, education is about rigour, about grades, about learning, but it is also about sharpening your values, thoughts, positions and actions, and the two are intermingled.


It is not only about higher education; the basic characteristic of education remains the same at every stage of education. So, let us move to school education – early years. When the Environmental Science (EVS) textbook developed by NCERT for a primary level class refers to children coming from different parts of the country and relates it to their language and the kinds of houses they live in, there is an obvious effort by the school system to impart an awareness of the diverse nature of India. Similarly, if the language textbook has a Play for young children with names from different religions, it is a deliberate attempt on the part of the school system to make the classroom inclusive. But if a teacher decides to change it and uses all similar sounding names– as if they are from the same or similar religious groups, it is a kind of subversion. Similarly, if the primary level EVS textbook tells teachers to teach them about different plants by showing them pictures in the classroom and a particular teacher instead decides to take children to the garden to show the plants that children can see and touch, this is also a kind of subversion. Every single act in the process of education and knowledge creation is political in nature, and conveys one or the other kind of value. And students are an important actor of this process.


If this is what education is, then it is also a space for continuous contestations – deliberate and not so deliberate. And in that case, what gives us the anchor or what is our reference point to decide what is most desirable? In the context of India, the constitution definitely provides one important reference point. But the values that the constitution upholds the most -democracy, equality, secularism, social justice, freedom, dignity – are also rooted in the evolution of human society and go beyond national borders, and hence at least broadly ensure a continuity of thoughts and values at a global level. One of the major aims of education is to uphold and promote these values and it does not matter which stream or discipline one comes from. This is true for everyone who is engaged in the process of education, most of all, teachers and students. Students need to and have to actively engage in this dynamic process of contestations, tensions, enquiry, discovery and re-discovery if they have to co-create knowledge and uphold the ‘desired’ values. Participation and protests are indeed an essential part of this process, and such education is critical for an evolving society that cherishes and aspires for democracy, equality, secularism, justice and freedom. That is why students have been an essential and very important part of any major social and political change that countries including ours have witnessed in the modern era. For instance, what is known as May 68, referring to the civil unrest of 1968 in France that is also known as social revolution and led to substantial changes in labour laws including wage gains, started with massive students’ protest against class discrimination and was later joined by workers and others to take a national character.


It is important to know and understand this history to be able to appreciate the importance of students’ engagement in protests. In the Indian context, even if we consider just the post-colonial period, there exist several examples of students’ participation in protests and turning those into movements. 1970s witnessed several of those. Students’ movement in Gujarat and Bihar in 1974 on a number of issues including corruption and public education had far reaching impact on regional and national politics; the then state government in Gujarat had to resign and the Bihar movement led to a national students’ movement against corruption. Many student leaders of these two movements joined active politics leading to the formation of the first independent-India non-Congress government at the union level in the post-emergency era. Several examples exist in various parts of the country. And in most of these, students were raising an issue that is of significance, be it for State supported higher education or for greater autonomy to universities or against big dams or for gender justice. Even when there are two contrasting positions, such as the Mandal Commission agitation, where students were divided in their positions, their participation in the debate was desirable and critical in a democracy.


Interestingly, apart from serving the national interest, participation in political debates can benefit students directly by adding to their education. To illustrate this, let me go back to the issue of measures of success for a university that I mentioned above in the context of JNU. How does one assess the success of an educational institute? One standard way would be to look at the completion rates of those who admitted, and also the quality of what is done there. A good proportion of JNU graduates join a number of prestigious universities across the globe, and that definitely speaks about the high quality of teaching-learning there. A good percentage also joins academia within the country and perhaps majority of them have a reputation of being a good teacher. Being a ‘good’ researcher or teacher also involves issues such as what problems are selected for studies, what kind of relationships are built with students and fellow-teachers, and what positions one takes on various issues in one’s own context in addition to brining rigour and depth in the research and teaching per se. A good number also join bureaucracy and if I go by my own experience of anecdotes in the last twenty-five years of working life, they generally have a reputation of being more sensitive to people’s needs. A high number of those who clear NET (National Education Test) and fellowship examinations also belong to this university. That means that high level of student activism does not adversely affect their academic and related achievements; on the contrary, it could be contributing towards their achievements! Also, many a times, a number of teachers in JNU actively continue to take their classes outside the classrooms, and these are well-attended – showing that protests do not necessarily mar the academics.


Let me draw from my own experiences of being a student in JNU. I actively participated in Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) on Medha Patkar’s call for some time: she had come to one of our late-night, post-dinner public meetings (an important tradition in JNU which is a major source of leaning, as students get an opportunity to interact with various kinds of people including, artists, politicians, academics and activists) and challenged our conscience by highlighting how greedy we urbanites could be in terms of our demand for electricity, water and other resources, which then becomes the raison d’être for interventions such as Sardar Sarovar. Engaging with NBA not only made me much more aware of our own lifestyles that needed change, and of issues of power, rights and inequalities but it also helped me understand the concepts of social and economic costs much better that I was learning in my classroom as a student of economics. Despite the fact that NBA did not succeed in stopping the construction of the dam, the movement and the discourse around it tremendously contributed to the knowledge as well as awareness around people’s lives, resources and rights. And the protests did have an effect! The mighty World Bank not only withdrew its support but added a mandatory clause to all its future projects dealing with eviction and rehabilitation of people.


If students do not raise their voices about important policy or constitutional issues, who else will? Recent JNU protests about protecting the public universities and higher educational institutions is extremely relevant in that context; we still have a very small percentage of relevant age group entering the higher education, and this proportion is even lower for women and those belonging to disadvantaged social and economic groups and communities. One major reason is the absence of well-funded free higher education – in a highly unequal society, the only way to enable education among those who cannot afford is through public delivery. The rationale for public higher education also comes from the standpoint of quality; increasingly, one hears horror stories of students of rich parents demanding high grades in private universities and colleges, as they have already ‘paid’ for the same. This means commercialization of education is bad not only for equality but also for quality in education. Even from an instrumental perspective of pushing economic growth, the country needs a larger number of well-educated work-force and publicly supported higher education is one of the best ways to make that happen. Important to add here is that students are also protesting against the fact that their union was not consulted before announcing steep fee hikes – process is as important in democracy; democracy is not only about electoral wins.


Another case in point is the recent anti NRC – CAA agitation. By coming out in large numbers and voicing their views fearlessly, the students of our country are proving that they are indeed serious and committed about their nation.


At this point, it is important to add a word on violence. Violence is definitely condemnable and it is important for students to ensure that their protests remain non-violent under all circumstances. But it is even more important for the State to remain committed to non-violence, especially when dealing with young students. Serious students must rise to the occasion to oppose these in every possible form and that is what they are doing by adopting democratic means of protests – declining to receive medals, boycotting ceremonies and attending protest calls. And this is not limited to JNU or Social Science institutions – a good number of Science, Engineering and Management institutions are also joining hands – showing that these are fundamental issues of an evolving society committed to democracy and freedoms, and our educational students understand that.


Jyotsna Jha is currently based in Bangalore and heads the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. The views expressed here are her 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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