Students and Youth in India are Under Severe State Repression
There has been persistent repression of voices of protesting students and youth throughout the country in recent years, occurring against the backdrop of massive youth unemployment, exclusion of many students from education and the emergence of a subversive system of education under the agenda of saffronisation.
The New Education Policy (NEP), introduced during the pandemic, attempts not to recognise the Right to Education (RtE). The objective of universalisation of education itself is under attack under the NEP, with privatisation as the pivot. The number of colleges is getting restricted; moreover, cuts in state spending on education and profiteering motives have already cornered the students' access to educational resources.
Saffronisation of curricula, communal attacks and hate speeches have entered educational campuses, where students have been major targets. The recent attack on students in a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) hostel over non-vegetarian food during Ramnavami aptly depicts the environment prevailing on the campuses.
The unemployment rate in the country was at its higher in 40 years before the pandemic. The COVID-19 lockdowns have only worsened the employment situation. According to data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), graduates had the highest unemployment rate in India in 2021- at 19.4%. Budgetary data also tells that only 26% of graduates are getting hired. Joblessness among youth is at 26% in the first quarter of 2022. The future of students and youth is getting bleak and uncertain in terms of jobs.
This situation is coupled with falling public spending on education, leading to a severe lack of infrastructure in colleges and universities. NEP hardly addressed the gaps pointed out by thousands of teachers, students and civil society organisations in the initial draft.
More than 65% of the population is below the age of 35. Students and young people, in general, will shape India's future. Public investment in education and the provision of jobs to youth should be the highest priority of the Indian state. But, these measures have been ignored for short-term private gains in the interest of crony capitalism.
The grim situation in educational institutions is also visible in the unprecedented scale of police atrocities and state-sponsored on students and the youth. In recent years, students' protests have been met with brute force. These incidents, be it the provoked suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in 2016 or the murder of Anis Khan in West Bengal in 2022, have been on an upward trajectory.
"My birth is a fatal accident," Vemula wrote in his suicide note. Is the birth of a dalit student an accident in this country? Is the birth of all underprivileged Indian youth accident? Were they not to be born? This was an incident of dalit hatred by the Indian state unmasked long after the Indian constitution was framed and adopted. This was never envisaged.
The incident was followed by protests and demonstrations by teachers and students at the University of Hyderabad and other major universities.
In one incident, the ban on the student group, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, instigated protests across the country, which were met with repression. Indian students are playing this historic role in the phase of aggression of crony capitalism combined with the flavour of Hindutva.
In 2017, hundreds of girl students at Benaras Hindu University (BHU) protested after a girl student was molested, demanding safety on the campus but were met with police lathicharge.
In all these cases, the protesters were termed "anti-national".
As per Dipshita Dhar, a student leader with the Students' Federation of India (SFI), "The student movement against institutional harassment and discrimination became pan-Indian. The state is always using police force to silence the voices. But the movement gained strength in most of the states in the country."
Dhar also referred to the unified movement of the students in 2015, which questioned public funding of education in the Occupy-UGC movement when the government stopped fellowships to non-NET research fellows. While UGC raised the sitting fee of its members, the fund crunch was pushed on students. This was an incident where students started protesting against the commercialisation and privatisation of education.
In February 2016, weeks after Vemula's death due to suicide, several JNU students, including Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, were charged with sedition. The state doubled down on the students with the help of a compliant media that objected to using the word 'Azadi' in the slogans. The resultant 'Save JNU' movement witnessed widespread countrywide support across campuses.
Dhar, along with Parichay from Pondicherry University (PU), spoke about the consolidation of the left politics around the issues raised by the student movement.
PU Students were protesting against a fee hike in 2020. This was a movement against the commercialisation of education. At the time, JNU and Ambedkar University students were also involved in similar movements against fee hikes. In both JNU and PU, students faced penalising measures in the form of rustication and suspension. In JNU, the repression was worse as alleged ABVP goons attacked the protesting students, brutally injuring the then JNU students' union president, Aishe Ghosh.
"The issues were all pointing towards commercialisation and corporatisation of public education in India. Students in all the campuses were protesting on similar demands," Parichay said. "Every student in the country has the right to public education in India, and denial of this right will be protested," he further elaborated.
Many student activists have been imprisoned by the state in these movements, with some facing charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Student activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, from the Pinjra Tod organisation, were arrested in 2020 in a northeast Delhi riots case. They received bail in 2021 after spending months in jail.
A protest by the Jamia Milia Islamia University students in 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was met with a brute police force, leaving many injured in the process. Soon after, campuses across the country saw colossal anti-CAA and anti-NRC student movements. In multiple places, the level of police action was unprecedented.
In a recent case, Anis Khan, a student leader at Allah University in West Bengal, was murdered in his home allegedly with police connivance in February 2022. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in the state is yet to complete the investigation in the case. Anis Khan, who had sought police protection alleging threats from local goons, was beaten up in his home and succumbed to injuries after being thrown from his three-storey house. Salem Khan, Anis Khan's father, later said that one of the four people involved in the incident was in a police uniform.
West Bengal also witnessed severe police atrocity against a procession of students and youth demanding employment in Kolkata in 2021. One student, Moidul Midya, was killed in the police action. The campus environment has become vindictive, and students are the primary victims.
The state has nothing to give students and youth regarding education and jobs. On top of that, when students mobilise to protest, they are met with aggressive political vendetta and police atrocities.
The writer is a Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Calcutta. All views are personal.
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