Up against the establishment: ‘Students Won’t Be Quiet’ documents student struggles

This collection shines a light on how students fight myriad forms of injustice on and off campus.

Published : Jan 24, 2023 18:20 IST

Students Won’t Be Quiet, a collection of essays on student-led struggles from LeftWord, is a well-timed volume that comes at a time when the space for democratic dialogue is shrinking in our universities, cultural and political histories are vanishing from textbooks, fundamental objectives of education are undergoing alterations, and the very idea of scholarship is being usurped by a post-truth-powered information glut.

Students Won’t Be Quiet
Edited by Satarupa Chakraborty and Pindiga Ambedkar
LeftWord Books
Pages: 354
Price: Rs.525

This collection of first-person accounts is a documentation of student-led struggles primarily during the 2014-2019 period, the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when the privatisation of education got unprecedented momentum and an assault on critical thinking culture began.

Edited by Satarupa Chakraborty and Pindiga Ambedkar, the book is divided into four sections devoted to struggles for equality; against authoritarianism; for education as a right; and against neoliberal assaults on education. Each section has stories of collective efforts led by students at regional and national levels to safeguard the essence of education and to protect access to it.

“In a polarised country ruled by the politics of hatred, no campuses are immune or protected,” writes Subhankar Chakraborty in “Dialogue, Dissent, Struggles: Chronicles from the Indian Institute of Science (IISC)”. He talks about how Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation attempted to make inroads into IISC through its network of followers on campus. The Students’ Council at IISC passed a resolution in 2014 to not endorse the foundation’s functioning inside the campus and subsequently, the administration banned the foundation from using its facilities.

In 2019, however, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar  was invited to the campus. But pressure and criticism from students, researchers, and alumni, forced the institute to distance itself from the event. On November 24, 2022, the University Grants Commission in a circular directed institutions of higher education to follow the meditation technique developed by the foundation and organise sessions for teachers and students.

No room for debate

While assaults on scientific institutions have become widespread, right-wing forces are also averse to intellectual debates taking place inside colleges. After the BJP came to power in 2014, several lectures, seminars, exhibitions, movie screenings, plays, and protests themed around casteism, religious intolerance, gender inequality, and liberalisation faced the axe at many institutions.

The book talks about how the BJP’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) carries out this agenda in college campuses. For instance, in “Fight back against right-wing onslaughts: Some experiences from Delhi University”, Vikas Bhadauria writes how the ABVP disrupted a seminar on “Ambedkar on Caste and Social Justice” at Deshbandhu College in Delhi in 2016, and how, in 2019, it coerced four departments of Delhi University to modify the syllabi of under-graduate programmes to advance its political interests.

For justice

In the chapter, “A fight for gender justice: Paving the path for progressive politics at Pondicherry University”, E.N. Jishnu narrates the story of two female students and their struggle for justice against a few male students who reportedly verbally abused them and threatened them with death and rape. The story also highlights how the two did not get any support from their own Vice Chancellor, who actually blamed them for bringing a “bad reputation” to the institution. The complainants were even suspended. The issue set off massive protests on campus and the struggle culminated in a historic judgement from the Madras High Court in 2014, which stayed the suspension.

As Jishnu rightly notes, the student demonstrators who took on patriarchy and power were not activists, but they had the “consciousness to fight injustice”.

Echoing a similar sentiment in the chapter “Only when a daughter is safe, she will be able to study”, Mineshi Mishra, who protested against gender violence at Banaras Hindu University, writes: “I have become politicised in peoples’ minds. I have become a leftist for some people because I am definitely not a rightist. And because I am not a rightist, I am a leftist. This is the lens through which most people view me. However, I see myself as being pro-Constitution and pro-people.”

The chapter “Justice for Rohith Vemula” provides an in-depth view of the issues prevalent in the University of Hyderabad, what transpired in the days preceding Vemula’s suicide, and the importance of student groups.

Dontha Prashanth, one of the five doctoral students who were suspended along with Vemula, highlights the poor implementation of reservation policies in student admissions at the university. Even though Vemula’s death sparked various student-led protests across the country, the condition of Dalit students has hardly improved in educational institutions.

No struggle is easy

This volume is a stark reminder that no struggle is easily carried out or won—especially for students keen on preserving the idea of India and the ideals of democracy, pluralism, secularism, and socialism. The struggles come with a heavy cost: starting from time lost for studies and the sacrifice of dreams and aspirations, to harsh penalties in the form of police atrocities and prison terms.

The essays also remind us that the anomalies in today’s student politics are not because the students have become politically passive or that support for democracy is on the decline on campus; they are but a reflection of the educational policies that have been in the past decade.

This is where student struggles matter. Students Won’t Be Quiet sums it up aptly: “In the absence of an organised students’ movement, the democratic discourse often takes a backseat except during a period of reaction or when the issues affect students more intimately.”

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