Diya Gupta


Dissent itself is memorable: Student protests in India and the UK

Written by Diya Gupta
Date of Publication: Tuesday, 19th July, 2011
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I attended my first demonstration at the grand old age of 30. It was very civilised. We stood under umbrellas outside the Senate House in Cambridge University in the rain, and maintained silence. This marked our protest against the precipitous rise in UK student tuition fees for universities, tripled from 2012 onwards for British students, and leading to an estimated average student debt of £50,000 (about 35.5 lakh) for a three-year course. Elsewhere, demonstrations against this increase had been rocking the country. On 10 November last year, 52,000 students took to the streets of London in protest against the education policies of the UK Conservative-led coalition government, followed by protests in every major city across the country. As I stood there, forming part of a quiet, collective dissent, I wondered why I had never done this before, especially when I was a university student in India. Had the causes not interested me or had protesting itself not seemed effective?

Naini Singh, a student at the Jindal Global Law School, Delhi, and a frequent participant in demonstrations, believes that protesting reinforces social bonds. Joining a rally against the Women’s Reservation Bill, supporting the Delhi Queer Pride Parade and petitioning to free formerly imprisoned Indian activist Binayak Sen, Naini met new people with similar beliefs and witnessed first hand how many others too found this shared participation valuable.

“A student protest is an act that brings people together,” agrees Safdar Rahman, a student of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, which has a politically active student body. “Protesting cuts across a swathe of differences. People who would otherwise group themselves into a thousand dissimilar categories realise that they belong to one generation, and that can only serve the general interest of a student populace.”

Cross-border political activism is a growing phenomenon among Indian students. Rohit Dasgupta, currently reading for an MA at the University of Westminster, UK, was a union representative while at Jadavpur University and demonstrated against the imprisonment of Binayak Sen and government-instigated violence at Nandigram. He took gay activism overseas, representing India at summits in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Liverpool, and joined in the UK student protests. “As an international student and scholarship recipient, the proposed rise in tuition fees did not affect me directly,” he explains. “But having participated in student and youth protest movements in India, I felt the need to support British students and be part of a collective voice.”

The UK protests then forged a new identity -- not one determined by nationality or race or remaining confined to those on whom this change in policy will have a direct effect. It created solidarity among people from across the UK, who felt that imposing such a financial burden on students was unfair.

Mo Saqib of Manchester University’s student union was amazed to witness the sheer number of protesters at the London demonstration in November last year. “Not only were there people in the thousands, but they represented a huge diversity of backgrounds -- old and young, black and white, mature students and high school pupils.” Mo has no doubts about the reasons behind this recent galvanisation of the British student body. “Tuition fee levels of up to £9,000 (about 6.4 lakh) a year are ridiculously high. Students wanting to go to university will now make their decision based on how much debt they will accrue rather than on where their interests and passions lie. This is a clear marketisation of our universities sector by the government.”

And Rahul Mansigani, president of the Cambridge University Students’ Union, who took a leading role in several of the UK protests, affirms, “These protests have mobilised student opinion and increased general student interest in politics. The act of protesting is important -- indeed, a fundamental part of any modern democracy -- and it is vital that students can express their opposition to plans they disagree with.”

But are protests the most effective way to register our discontent? In the UK, attention from the issues driving the protests was hijacked by violence towards physical property and police, with demonstrators storming Millbank Tower -- the Conservative Party headquarters at Westminster -- and defacing public monuments, resulting in arrests and injuries. Police in riot gear and their mounted counterparts, widely present at the London protests in December, were accused of heavy-handed kettling tactics that trapped thousands in the freezing cold -- events which saw Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student from Middlesex University, undergo three hours of emergency surgery after he was beaten with a police baton. A BBC report highlights the case of Charlie Gilmour, son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who has been imprisoned for 16 months following a violent rampage at the December student fees protest in central London.

In India, police brutality at demonstrations is well documented, with the firing of rubber bullets and cane-charging a common occurrence. In June this year, students of Delhi University and Jawaharlal University protested against the violence unleashed by the Delhi police on sleeping supporters in the yoga camp of Ramdev at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi. More recently, the Osmania University campus in Hyderabad has become the nerve centre for agitations over the creation of a new state of Telengana. The July demonstrations saw police firing teargas shells at hundreds of students to quell protests. Arrests were made and the university was under siege as police attempted to foil the students’ indefinite fast.

This tendency of protests to snowball into violence could be a reason why Indian students in private colleges rarely organise themselves into movements of any sort. They are also often not allowed to do so by the authorities, with pamphlets and posters being frowned upon and no student elections taking place. “Organised student movements mainly arise from the political factions existing in the student body in government-run higher education institutions, and are therefore created along political party lines,” says Vikrant Dadawala, a student of English at Jadavpur University. This could explain the disillusionment that many Indian students feel in being part of activism: student political movements are seen as petty political wrangling between parties played out on a smaller scale. Student protests at Ashutosh College in Kolkata, for example, are rarely peaceful, frequently escalating into armed clashes between Trinamul Congress and CPI(M) youth wings. Many students do not wish to toe the inevitable jingoism and sloganeering of any party line or enter the often murky waters of campus politics.

Yet there is room for democratic assertions in Indian student life, with significant victories achieved. Aritra Banerjee of Presidency University, Kolkata, and a member of the Students’ Federation of India, explains that he participated in protests to make a case for developing the former college into an improved place for study, with fully equipped libraries and laboratories, better research careers and campus placements. “The protests became fruitful when the institution was granted university status at the West Bengal assembly,” he explains. “We hope that this will result in Presidency University remaining a premier institute for liberal arts and sciences in India.” He also recalls a recent peaceful protest by Presidencians demanding an upgrade of the security system within the campus after a first-year student was severely beaten by drunken older students. “There was heavy police surveillance on us, but our protest was against violence and we were determined to remain calm,” he clarifies. “Authorities on campus are now much more vigilant.”

A concerted student protest from the Faculties of Arts, Science and Engineering against the imposition of a “code of conduct” within Jadavpur University was widely reported by the media last year. This would have banned street plays and the use of the university’s open-air theatre, asked for identity cards before students could enter the campus and restricted political activity in general. Now, after the protest, the authorities are ready to negotiate such issues with students. “It was a 52-hour demonstration and the experience was inspiring,” asserts Soham Kar, a student of Economics at the university.

But is protesting futile or merely tokenistic if the demonstrators' demands are not met? In the UK, the student marches did not achieve their immediate aim. The vote for higher tuition fees was passed by MPs by a narrow margin, and most universities will be charging £9,000 per year from 2012. Rahul Mansigani, however, thinks that the protests were effective: they mobilised student opinion and helped the campaign at Cambridge University to save student bursaries. Mo Saqib feels that the long-term effects of the protests will continue to reverberate in British society. “With an entire generation of students being betrayed, these students will voice their discontent where it matters most to politicians – at the general election ballot box, come 2015.”

Student protests negotiate uncomfortable, often troubled waters. They forge new identities and express solidarity across groups, but these combined voices do not have a peaceful origin. Students unite to protest because they are angry; a demonstration is a physical manifestation of collective dissent. And the act of dissent, as Naini Singh says, is itself memorable. More student protests are being planned for autumn 2011 in the UK; the dispute over Telengana in India is far from over yet.

Controversial in their struggle with authorities and yet a fundamental democratic right in both the UK and India, the world of student protests looks set to stay.
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