Philip Altbach, in 1968, published his study of students’ movements in various parts of the world. His study was based on a limited approach to study various students’ movements in Latin America, the United States and India. What is evident is that students, as a political entity, have always focused on issues of normative concern for students. Students’ movements, however, at various times have also touched upon broader societal and national issues. They have been key stakeholders in matters that fall in the national domain, and have, in many instances, been facilitators to a nation’s march in a particular direction.
Latin American students’ movements grew out of an anti-imperialist agenda. The grievances that the students felt were common to many countries, and hence these movements transcended national barriers. In Argentina as well as other former Spanish colonies, students resented the over-dependence of curricula on Spain at the expense of focus on indigenous issues and policies. Additionally, they also fought for a greater say in academic affairs. The intent of establishing a progressive academic environment was clearly visible in the early days, and this united students like never before.
They were able to earn many early victories which made them plunge into broader issues of national interest. With the passage of time, they evolved as a strong anti-establishment group. However, the emergence of party politics destroyed their oneness of purpose. The rise of political affiliations ensured that only people with a particular point of view gained in power, while the silent majority stood crushed. The unity that was evident for issues of academic interest and issues of normative concern slowly faded away into oblivion.
In contrast, student activism in the USA gained ground on an anti-imperial agenda by left wing groups who were opposed to the war against Vietnam. However, with declining employment in North America in the 1970s, such activism dwindled with the fear that it might cost them prospective jobs. However, a more evident reason was the shifting of focus from areas like social sciences and humanities, to areas like computers, technology, and industry. These areas were too structured in contrast to areas like humanities which concurred with areas of political and social interest. Despite a sudden spike in student activism during the apartheid protests in the 1980s, this kind of activism has been missing from US campuses for the last two decades or so.
A new generation of students have, on the other hand, started actively engaging with legislators and bureaucrats, and almost acting as lobbies in many cases. There are organizations which have played a significant role in this direction. Student Association of the State University (SASU) of the University of New York system is one of them. Some of these groups are quite important stakeholders as far as state policy is concerned, and also play constructive roles in respective domains. Hence, they hardly play the role of obstructionists.
Student movements in India started like the way they did in Latin America, with the feeling of nationalism and anti-imperialism gaining momentum before independence. The All India Students’ Federation was founded in 1936 as a unifying force, but it did not take it long for it to break up into two when the radical All India Muslim Students’ Federation which supported creation of a separate Pakistan for Muslims broke out.
The next split came when Communists formed the All India Students’ Federation because they supported Russia’s decision to go for war, and were vehemently opposed by Gandhian Socialists who refused to support it. The Gandhians founded the All India Students’ Congress. Right wing students’ organizations also came up after Independence, in the form of Hindu Students’ Federation and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Then came organizations like National Union of Students and NSUI, affiliated to the Congress. More and more organizations affiliated to the Left have also come up in this period.
Indian student movements, however, are now in a state where we see a strange dichotomy. Institutions whose main focus is on traditional education as well as humanities are charting a different course with respect to those whose main focus is in the fields of technology, industry and commerce. Just look at the manner in which elections are held in educational institutes in India. Many technical universities do not even hold elections. Students however work together on minimal issues regarding the campus, and very few issues of local social concern. Some hold elections which are hardly based on broader national issues, but based on basic normative issues and events. Issues like regional sentiments and alliances do creep in, but one will not find anyone praising any national leader, nor making an issue out of him for votes. Student organizations which are affiliated do not even participate in many of these elections.
In contrast, in many Universities which have clung to a traditional structure as far as student politics is concerned, we have active political debates and preferences on issues on which they can hardly make any direct impact. Their political affiliations make these elections colourful, nonetheless. They are more inclined to the old tradition of political alignments and one-upmanship. It is here that active political careers are built, and future politburos are decided.
One can see one group charting the path of Latin American countries, and another charting the way of developed countries in the West. It is true that the intellectual movement in India has travelled more steps to the left than to the right, but economic liberalization has created a new group of young Indians which is treading a new path, and does not view the market as an evil entity.
Many young Indians who foresee prosperity in this direction are also shifting to newer fields of education. Their ideas have led to a new class among the youth, who are largely politically unaffiliated, but are slowly rising up and getting ready to raise their voices on issues of national and public policy. This phenomenon is gaining ground and many of this class do not muddle up issues of local concern with issues of national concern.
Although, the traditional right is active in many student bodies in India, (ABVP claims to be the largest students’ organization in the world), the new neutral unaffiliated class is a new threat to left-wing intellectual movement. Leftists might call it a capitalist class as opposed to the Hindutva class which they are used to fighting in Universities across India. This class combines liberal social values with less emphasis on activism or political affiliation, combined with a positive approach towards a free market. Although the Left lobby is still very strong in intellectual circles, it will face a strong reaction from this new class of students, whose ideas are now not confined to an unattainable utopia promised by Communism.
Take, for example a recent instance. When Narendra Modi visited SRCC, this strange phenomenon seemed evident. Those who queued up to listen to the man were not Hindutva activists alone, who flocked there merely because they were impressed with the man’s image as a Hindutva poster-boy.
Many of them were men and women who bore little sympathy to an ultra-conservative idea of India, but wanted to listen to a man who concurred with their principle of a relatively free market, and promised relief from long doses of socialism. The Left might call these new Modi fans the neo-capitalist class, who are seen as eternally conspiring with conservatives and fundamentalists. The rationality of this group, however, defies pre-defined stereotypes. That intent in putting people into clearly defined ideological boxes will be unable to grasp this unique phenomenon.
It is not true that the entire non-affiliated class is inclined to Modi. Some have migrated to the anarchist policies of Arvind Kejriwal, Many of them are still leading little, but very effective fights against corruption. Some still buy the socialist vision, largely along the lines of the Congress party.
Coming back to SRCC, a large caravan of protestors too arrived, many of them from a nearby University which is supposed to be a bastion of the Left. They were ably supported by a few journalists and intellectuals from the Left, who by their own definition, are the only human beings left in India. They stood there, protesting, whereas those whom they perceive to be machines turned up to listen to the Gujarat Chief Minister. These machines were not chanting, Jai Shree Ram, not even to pay tribute to the founder of the college. They were listening to a person who presented before them a new economic alternative which promises them a vibrant and prosperous India. Only time will answer whether this idea will be tested in the future, and whether the idea will stand the test of time. But, this unaffiliated ambitious class has started looking for an alternative.
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