Our universities are institutions of change

Nazarul Islam | Published at 12:00am on January 13, 2020


A protester holds a placard at a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law and against an attack on the students and teachers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi on January 9. — Agence France-Presse/Sajjad Hussain

HISTORICALLY, students have played valiant roles in their nation’s watershed moments — political movements, calamities, wars or liberation struggles. Bangladesh and India may be quoted as two excellent examples of nations which rose up to the occasion. To immerse into shining examples, we need to look back at the role of students in India’s freedom struggle. When Viceroy Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal in 1905 for the first time, shocked Indian students gathered together in large numbers to reinforce their nation’s freedom movement.

We also need to have a look at the independence movement in Tunisia during the French colonial rule — from a perspective, largely neglected by scholars: the voice of the students who were major participants. The experience of Tunisia’s students lends to a better comprehension of the relationship between western education and the inception and development of a nationalist movement.

Student activism and campus activism have both included efforts made by students to cause political, environmental, economic, or social change. Although often focused on schools, curriculum, and educational funding, student groups have influenced greater political events.

My days of passion and youth followed the sharp turns of history, post 1969, to lure me and hear what Dhaka University student leaders voiced under grave turbulence. Tofail Ahmed and Shahjahan Siraj impressed me the most as future leaders and harbingers of a new revolution taking shape in Dhaka.

Youths had mainly been behind the Indian National Congress, during India’s March for freedom. When the Congress was split in its Lahore session in 1907, students also got distributed between groups. They rallied around the leadership of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and, later on, of Mahatma Gandhi.

Under the leadership and guidance of Gandhi, the students had became a formidable force in India. When Gandhi launched his campaign against the Rowlatt Act 1919 and the Jallianwalla Bagh atrocities, students participated in huge numbers.

Gandhi called on the students to withdraw from schools and colleges and students from all over the country responded promptly and boycotted schools and colleges. For the first time, student force was organised and mobilised against the British rule. Again, in 1920, the first All-India Students’ Conference was held in Nagpur under the presidency of Lala Lajpat Rai. Students could now get the support and guidance of leaders such as Subhas Chandra Bose and others.

Students also played a vital role in various campaigns launched by Gandhi against the British such as the ‘no tax’ campaign of 1921, the civil disobedience movement, the Dandi Satyagraha of 1930, etc.

India’s focused students have not hesitated to participate in movements such as the removal of untouchability and casteism, adult education, popularising ‘Swadeshi’’ articles and the use of khadi, cleaning of the villages, promotion of communal harmony and so on. In 1936, he All-India Students’ Federation, the first student organisation of India, was born in order to support the Indian National Congress in its struggles.

The All India Students’ Federation was divided into two factions in 1938 — the All-Indian Youth Congress and the All-India Students’ Federation.

Students of the bygone era had an active role in the ‘Quit India’ movement, launched by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Gandhi. It was then almost the climax of the youth movement. They boycotted schools and colleges in large numbers. They organised mass processions and rallies in the towns and cities all over the country.

A few sections of students took to some violent actions to paralyse the British administration by cutting telephone wires, blocking transport routes, destroying public property, disturbing postal, police, banking and other services. Thereby, they brought the government machinery to a standstill.

Several students were imprisoned and several faced physical harassment and many of them died in police firing.

According to Professor Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, director, Centre for Genocide Studies, Dhaka University: ‘Targeting a university and killing its students and teachers is unprecedented in the history of human conflict. It’s a textbook example of genocide. Pakistan army tried to erase Bengali nationhood by annihilating Dhaka University and its teachers and students, as Dhaka University is the birthplace of Bangladesh’s struggle for emancipation.’

After nearly nine months of atrocious war, the Pakistan army surrendered to the allied force — Bangladesh and Indian joint command — and Bangladesh was born. The instrument of surrender was signed in Suhrawardiy Udyan, the then Ramna Race Course, located inside the Dhaka University premises.

India’s Lieutenant General JFR Jacob, then major general, wrote in his book, Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation — ‘When he (Lieutenant General AAK Niazi) agreed to surrender, he wanted the ceremony to take place inside the cantonment. We wanted it at the Race Course where the nation’s father had given his revered March 7 (1971) speech, nine months and nine days earlier.’

There are hundreds of places in Dhaka University which have immense significance for their connection with Bangladesh’s history. In fact, the entire university campus can be considered as a museum of the liberation war of 1971.

This was the argument presented by Professor Dr Imtiaz Ahmed. However, the unfortunate truth is that a very few students of Dhaka University even know about the sacrifice of their institution’s teachers and students during the liberation war of 1971.

A forgotten trail of history? Perhaps, not.

In our contemporary times, if certain defining moments and images were needed to be picked out to thread together the saga of the protests on India’s campuses, streets and specific ‘localities or mohallas’, these are likely to include the state of Assam’s detention camps where inmates stare out of eyes that resemble hollowed out caverns, the girls of Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi who braved police blows to shield a male student from being brutally manhandled. The women and children of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh who reportedly sat there in the open unmindful of the toll a cruel winter can extract physically and the danger of an ambush and of Aishe Ghosh, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union, with the head swathed in a bandage and resolve unbroken.

Protests and demonstrations have shown no sign of tapering off in Delhi, where the central issue that sparked them off, was the centre’s Citizenship Amendment Act. Together with the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, the CAA makes for a package which throws the onus on Muslims to ‘prove’ their ‘bona fide’ as Indian citizens. No matter what the government or the BJP’s ex post facto explanations might contend, the CAA and the instrumentalities to execute this are dangerous, divisive and communal.

The agitation originated in Assam where demography is distinct but as it had spread across the country, it was clear that Muslims who feared they would be disenfranchised and reduced to being second-class citizens picked up the baton as sections of civil society and rights activists shored up the protests.

Interestingly, barring the left and fringe Dalit groups, not a single ‘mainstream’ party came out in support except to tweet. Their inability showed the extent to which the polity has got polarised since 2014 so much that the non-BJP spectrum, barring parties like the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Assam’s All-India United Democratic Front, looked over its shoulders before speaking its mind out. The AIMIM and the AIUDF make no bones that they stand for minority rights and interests.

If the CAA was the political underpinning, as the protests coursed through, other issues coalesced with it to enlarge the context and transform into a broader rally against the centre’s obvious endeavour to first target the minorities (lynching, cattle vigilantism, the act to end triple ‘talaq’ and the abrogation of Article 370 were the other modalities) and then the larger constituency of ‘ideological’ dissenters.

In victimising the latter segment, the labels ‘tukde, tukde gang’ and ‘urban Naxals’ were useful in imagining and imaging adversaries who were ‘anti-national’ and ‘secessionist’ and, therefore, enemies of the state. Hence, the JNU, hat has a history of challenging any establishment and is remarkably diverse, economically, socially and politically, was the ground zero.

As long as the state’s repression and brutalities were directed against Jamia, the Aligarh Muslim University and Lucknow’s Nadwa College and the Integral University, a private university run by a Muslim trust, the centre and the BJP managed to cope with and even cash in on the fallout.

Unfortunately, these institutions were also portrayed as the ‘hotbeds of separatism and jihadism’ although Jamia and AMU have a considerable number of non-Muslim students co-existing peacefully with others. In Uttar Pradesh, the police crackdown on Muslims was applauded by many Hindus who felt the ‘insurrectionists had to be shown their places.’

If the protests, spearheaded largely by Muslims in response to police suppression, and abetted by local BJP leaders and workers, with a nod from the government’s brass, did not trigger conflicts with Hindus, it was primarily because many Hindus believed that the police did the job for them.

However, in piling in on the JNU, the centre-BJP might have erred tactically. The alibi of pulverising the ‘urban Naxals’ has not found a larger currency. The JNU is not an island in the national capital unlike some of the colleges on the Delhi University campus. It draws students subscribing to disparate ideologies — which explains why the RSS student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, secured a toehold — like the student organisations representing the Bahujan Samaj, especially from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and the north-east that have less-than-par educational resources.

The fee structures and facilities have made the JNU amenable to the less well-off. The students are always game for a debate on the day’s topics and most of them are intensely political till they live on the campus.

Privately, some BJP leaders expressed regret over the assault, calling it simply ‘unwarranted’. They admitted that the student unions in the JNU has an enormous capacity to mobilise dissenters and that could show up in the forthcoming Delhi assembly elections. Admitting that the ABVP’s role in the violence could not be denied, they have censured the outfit for resorting to ‘extra-constitutional means’ to register its presence on the JNU.

I have every reason to believe that the JNU in Delhi will present itself as a glorifying example an institution that restored back India’s pride in its values of secularism and faith in the journey ahead.

We are proud of this institution that has committed itself to positive ‘change.’


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.