If you were a student at Delhi University in the nineties, you didn’t expect to make national news. And so, about fifteen years after I’d left it—planning never to return to the complicated repressions of this little world, which we were dying to escape for the wider universe through our three years here—I rode the metro from Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub to Vishwavidyalaya at lunchtime, surfing the placid monotone of mid-week corporate drudgery, to what approached the throbbing pulse of something we’d left behind with the college years.
The sight before us: barricades thick on every dusty old university lane leading off the Ridge, stern streams of policemen, Lego legions of television vans, flocks of students—5000 and counting—chanting for freedom. The sounds: speeches and references to the hilarious ‘ABVP so creepy’ (a new viral video doing the rounds); murmurs of ‘I’m not the political type but…’. Many of these young people were first-time protesters, they said.
In 1999, we went to Jantar Mantar for most of our action; now, it has come home.
I was joining the protest against ‘gundagardi’ that had spread outwards from Ramjas College, site of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)’s shocking and violent attack on a peaceful student protest on February 22nd. A certain young woman was unable to attend herself: such was the nature of threats to the daughter of a Kargil war hero who dared to challenge received ideas of nationalism. The Ramjas attack had happened under the watch of the Delhi Police—some, it appeared, had even participated. Teachers had been assaulted—one was almost strangled with his own muffler.
This was another jolt to the system of a generation of liberals who have not had to fight for nuance; who now have to stand for the national anthem before watching their Hollywood prestige pictures or risk harassment and arrest; who accepted, long since, that a little injustice was par for the course as long as it didn’t shake their world too hard. It was the crest of a shockwave of intolerance that had begun to get the nation’s attention last February at JNU.
This was another jolt to the system of a generation of liberals who have not had to fight for nuance; who accepted, long since, that a little injustice was par for the course as long as it didn’t shake their world too hard.
The next day, I rode the electric rickshaw to the Arts Faculty, where I had spent a sporadic year after studying English at St Stephen’s. There was the familiar thrill and relief you feel when you finally get to a protest: ‘This is on’. Among those attending, speaking, beaming out at the crowd: economist Jean Dreze and writer Mukul Kesavan, activists Gautam Bhan and Kavita Krishnan, musician Taru Dalmia, Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), breaking the double bracelet of policemen around the congregation as we left.
“We needed this to happen now,” an acquaintance told me. “We needed to show them they can’t get away with this.”
I was there to meet the acute and resilient Shehla Rashid, former vice president of the JNU student union, who is writing a book on student politics in India from the frontlines. (Full disclosure: I commissioned it.) We had met the day after JNU president Kanhaiya Kumar and fellow student leaders were arrested for allegedly anti-national acts last February, and she had become the face of the opposition. In the middle of our work on the book, a JNU student went missing, almost too eerily—going on five months after 15 October, Najeeb Ahmed is still un-found, his disappearance unquestioned after a public altercation with the ABVP.
Shehla was among the many students, activists, student leaders and professors who had been attacked by ABVP goons last week. I wanted to see her and ensure she was alright. I was going to participate and stand up to what increasingly seems like state-abetted bullying; if the administration doesn’t speak up, it is hard to see this otherwise.
But I was going, also, to remember our old culture of protests; to see, perhaps, if I could feel the same way about something and show it, in my thirties. In the early noughties, I had participated in the resistance of organizations like Students for Free Tibet India and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a regular at dharnas, journeying to the Valley and facing a water cannon alongside Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. I’d always felt I never quite belonged; I had no jhola, no great grasp of the inner workings of leftist activism.
This week, I was one of the many who had joined. The jholas were still there, but there were also Woodstock women, baring navel and nosering. Here was organized, purposeful activity, orchestrated online and managed between tweets and Facebook posts, at the very heart of the campus that had left me somewhat unimpressed growing out of my teenage years. And the usual ironies of activism—‘I’m hungry, do you think it’d be odd to leave now?’ ‘He’s cute, is this the right time to…’
All the grungy reverberations of student protest, which every one of us who isn’t out on the streets would do well to remember today.
Rajni George is an editor and writer based in New Delhi.
Image credit: @feministflowercrown.
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