‘The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events.’
My first memory of someone telling me ‘You should study, do not indulge in activities that may jeopardize your future’ goes back to school days. When I was in class 6th, a very respected teacher, referring to an ongoing agitation in AMU Aligarh, said, ‘Politics is a bad thing, you should not indulge in it, focus on your studies. You can do politics when you grow up’. The conversation took place in Urdu language and he repeatedly used the word ‘siyasat’, which I did not understand. I asked my father ‘What is siyasat (politics)’? My father replied, ‘Politics is a form of education that makes you a citizen. Good and responsible politics makes you a good citizen, bad and irresponsible politics makes you a bad citizen’. Since then, I have heard this assertion probably millions of times, obviously not always directed towards me. During a personal conversation, the words chosen by the adviser are a function of the age the listener. For example, when you are a student, the teacher will say ‘You are a student complete your education, then you can participate in politics’. If you are unemployed, then the argument is ‘Seek a job first, once you get it you can do politics’. If you are employed, then you are told ‘Don’t indulge in politics, you may lose your job, or the conduct rules don’t permit it’. When you are married and have a family, they tell you ‘Don’t indulge in politics, you have responsibility towards your family’. And finally, when you are old, they tell you ‘You are old and sick, look after your health, why are you indulging in politics’? The moral of the story is that they do not ever want you to get educated in politics which shapes the society, the nation and the whole of humanity.
Those who say that ‘Students should not indulge in politics’, can be divided into two categories. In the first category, we can put all those who use this position for ‘political’ purposes. And secondly, there are those who have a very narrow vision and skewed definitions of citizenship, politics and education. For the latter category, education is only a tool to secure a job, politics, as opposed to education, is a route that leads to political leadership, and citizenship is limited to an act of casting one’s vote, preferably only after five years. Let me deal with the second category first.
Education for a majority of people is limited to what Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationist, calls the ‘Banking Model of Education’. The teachers must deposit ‘information’ into students, for which, either society or parents have paid, and students must receive the information passively, for the simple reason that it is a commodity which has been paid for. Freire aptly describes the impact of such an education when he says ‘It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them’ (Freire, 1996). Most of us are happy with the results. The system, sometimes efficiently, but more often inefficiently, produces docile doctors, engineers, managers, historians, sociologists, economists, workers, mechanics, etc., who ‘adapt to the world as it is’. The degrees given away are a proof of passivity and submissiveness of the citizen shaped through this pedagogic modus operandi. Those who are in favour of this system of education develop extreme ‘cognitive dissonance’ when students indulge in any activity that may convert them into active agents of transformation of the social order that they live in.
The recent protests by students in universities across India has, once again, unsettled this section of the society. They are worried about the educative, disruptive and transformative nature of participation in a protest. When students come out on streets, their banking system of education gets disrupted and they are likely to acquire the ability to become catalysts for social change and, more importantly, question the balance of power. The danger that the students may thus become political and thinking beings permanently is far more unsettling. The consequent perception of ‘permanent damage’ caused by a protest forces this section of the society to vehemently oppose participation of students in politics. The old arguments are resurrected: ‘Students should not indulge in politics, their duty is to study, universities should not be converted into centres of political activities, politics is a dirty game student must keep away from it, etc.’
Ironically, most members of this section of society never tire of lauding all major student movements that have had significant impact across the world, about which they have read in school or college. The Vietnam War Movement in USA, the Occupy Universities Movement in France, the Anti-Pinochet Movement in Chile, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa are but a few examples of great transformative movements in which the role of students was significant. They may also hold student leaders like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Dhanvantri and Ehsan Ilahi, in high esteem and argue that the Indian freedom movement (Swadeshi-1905, Non-cooperation-1920, Quit India-1942) would not have succeeded without wider participation of students. For this section of the society, these are events of the past, fossilized into passive pieces of information, which just have exchange value. It scares them immensely when through participation in a protest, the younger generation realises a connect between the past and the present. This connect leads to exploration of their own ability to transform social reality. Bhagat Singh, Steve Biko, Patrice Lumamba, Martin Luther King Jr., come alive out of the text books and the realization dawns that we could also become ‘transformers of the world that we live in’. The banking system is so ingrained in the thought processes, that people in this category, more often than not, do not even realize that the argument ‘students should not participate in politics’ is a highly political assertion.
People in the first category, i.e., those who use the argument that students should not get involved in political issues for political purposes, are far more difficult to reckon with. They know the explosive potential of a students’ movement. They were themselves often groomed as politicians while participating in protests as students. They have followed the trajectory and have risen to positions of power, by replacing the older generation. They are fully aware that a protest may throw up new political leaders who may challenge their authority, unhinge them, or may even render them completely irrelevant. This is the category of highly motivated people, who not only propagate the idea that ‘educational institution must be free of politics’ but also actively sabotage or suppress students’ movements. They leave no stone unturned to block the political path that they themselves have followed.
A good example of this behaviour is the present students’ protest which was suddenly started by a bunch of students in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The response of the state machinery was brutal and sharp and, instead of quenching the fire, it further inflamed students, and within a few hours, the protest spread to multiple universities across the country. Thanks to modern communication channels, international support from universities across the world also boosted the students’ confidence. They realized the educative potential of a sustained public debate and gradually prepared themselves for a prolonged struggle. Besides discussing all issues related to Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, a remarkable feature of this protest is the public reading of preamble of the constitution of India, in English and regional languages, that has almost become a ritual.
The strident opposition to this protest comes from those who participated in anti-emergency protests in the 1970s as part of the JP movement, and are presently in positions of power. This category of politicians are trying to crush the dissent using state power, and have also unleashed propaganda against student participation in protest. The discourse has stooped to such a level that students are being accused of wasting public money, and their subsidized food charges and hostel fees are being shown as a proof of burden on tax payers. The political leaders in the power of position are well aware of educative resistance, it has a potential of spreading beyond the four walls of educational institutions, and therefore they are scared of it.
I was always worried that the present generation has had no opportunity to get educated beyond the four walls of educational institutions. The present movement, which has spread to many universities around the country, will surely educate them to become catalysts of social change instead of passive and submissive citizens.
Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum.
Gauhar Raza is Former Chief Scientist, CSIR.
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.