The students may appear to be protesting against a fee hike. What they are actually protesting against is a brutal, uncaring system that continues to ignore them
When I was a young man in college, the Naxalbari movement had just started. Many of my classmates quietly disappeared. I heard they had gone to the villages to fight for farmers and landless labour. Some never came back. Some, we heard, died during the years of struggle, killed by rich landlords or the local police at their behest. Others did return, years later, and were quickly smuggled out of the country by their anxious parents – hoping they would continue their studies abroad and settle down to a safe if comparatively boring life as doctors or engineers, lawyers or accountants, the jobs parents dreamt of for their children in those days.
Most of these young men who went to Naxalbari were from reasonably welloff families. They were tired of their rich, privileged parentage and the kind of comfortable life they were being pushed into. They were looking for a way out, a cause that could inspire them, that could redeem their dreary, everyday lives as students – even though we had some truly amazing teachers at the time, including the recent Nobel Prize winner’s father who taught us economics. But education was not what most young men of my time were looking for. They were looking for relevance, for moral adventure – to try and change the iniquitous world around them.
What inspired them was the poetry of that time, the theatre, movies, the amazing stories people were writing, the little magazines all around them. Everyone was looking to challenge the status quo. So were they. In fact, they took it a step further and tried to translate their dreams into verifiable political action. Contrary to what you may hear today, no one supported them. Not the Congress, which had institutionalised the status quo. Nor the Communists who found them too anarchist for their liking. Even the common middle-class people of Bengal who may have initially admired their daring, their idealism, found it too risky to back a political struggle so steeped in bloody violence.
The middle class everywhere loves the idea of a more just society but lacks the stomach for violence. It scares them. In Bengal, they were the first to let the students down. Their argument was predictable: Students are meant to study, not do politics. Changing the world was the prerogative of politicians. But students all over the world had changed by then. France was in turmoil. So was Germany. The whole of Western Europe in fact. The new heroes were Tariq Ali, Rudi Dutschke, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (better known as Dany le Rouge) – student leaders who had created an exciting witch’s brew of Marxism, sexual freedom and anarchist ideas. The May 1968 revolt by the students and workers against de Gaulle was a culmination of many such protests.
Cohn-Bendit’s book Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative says it all in the title itself. It was a scathing critique of Stalinism, Communism, the trade union establishment. That was also when Bob Dylan was singing The Times They Are a’Changin and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl had already redefined the future of poetry. Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums was cult. And students in Bengal were chanting Tomar Naam Amar Naam Vietnam. Only idiots saw Ho Chi Minh as a Communist. For students everywhere, particularly in the US, which was fighting a war against Vietnam, he was a nationalist, a hero.
But why am I talking about the sixties here? Simple. Every time JNU comes up in the conversation, I hear the government say that students are students; they must study, not do politics. Student leaders are often described as the tukde tukde gang and accused of sedition – for singing songs of protest. If students do not protest, who will? When students in the US protested against Vietnam, they were not called out for sedition. When students in Britain protest against Brexit, they are not called anti-nationals. During the May Uprising in Europe, no nation called their students traitors. They were just rebels. All students are rebels. They rebel against the imperfect world they find themselves in.
The JNU rebellion is not against the rise in hostel fees. It is not against the silly regulations that forbid them to stay out late. It is not against the closure of cafés by 11 pm. The rebellion is actually against the world they find themselves in. A world that tests their innocence, spurns their restlessness. A world that answers their questions with only stupid clichés. It is their protest against an imperfect, immoral world they have inherited, a corrupt and uncaring political system they have no faith in. Later, as life moves on, like the rest of us, they will eventually adjust, fall in line with all the stupid rules, give up their dreams and become the good, mindless, tax-paying citizens we are today. Life tames us all.
Till then, let them be what they are. Proud and innocent, brave and idealistic young people challenging the might of a brute system and dreaming of change, change that may make for a better world. We must stop trying to bully them, discipline them. Discipline is the enemy of creativity and change. Let them remain free and fearless. For freedom alone can redefine their tomorrows.
courtesy Mumbai Mirror
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