Is Campus Activism Losing Its Sting?

STUDENTS OF THE late 1960s and 1970s had a lot to protest about, and they did. In the process, many of them acquired a halo. Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Tariq Ali were some of them. Some others did not become famous student leaders, but they, too, were seen as part of a generation that became synonymous with campus activism that overflowed on to international politics. Nobody else may have described that generation more aptly than Gabriel García Márquez did shortly after meeting the 49-year-old US President Bill Clinton, a student in the turbulent late 1960s. It didn’t matter whether a book claimed later that Clinton was a CIA informer during those days, but what Márquez felt at his meeting was that Clinton had the external attributes of those fiery protesters of the crucial post-war period who were undaunted by uncertainty and state retribution: “He looked like an exuberant survivor of the generation of ’68, who had smoked marijuana, knew The Beatles by heart and had demonstrated against the Vietnam War.”

The Baby Boomers, who have left a great impact in politics of both the second half of the 20th century and this century, saw being rebellious as their birthright. They were angry and attracted widespread sympathy for that anger. Which was why in May 1968 in Paris, no less a person than Jean-Paul Sartre went to meet the multi-ethnic, 22-year-old student leader with red hair, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, to interview him about the success of an agitation that started as a demand for better college facilities—that created a chain reaction of popular unrest against the Charles de Gaulle government.

Cohn-Bendit was a non-entity until the protests catapulted him to global fame following which the French government expelled him from the country although he had a valid passport to study there. In the interview originally published in French and later translated, Sartre asked Cohn-Bendit: “Within a few days, although no-one called for a general strike, France has been practically paralysed by work stoppages and factory occupations. And all because the students took control of the streets in the Latin Quarter. What is your analysis of the movement you have unleashed? How far can it go?”

Cohn-Bendit, a German-origin student at the University of Paris at Nanterre, responded with an air of professionalism, “It has grown much larger than we could have foreseen at the start. The aim is now the overthrow of the regime. But it is not up to us whether or not this is achieved. If the Communist Party… and the other union headquarters shared it there would be no problem; the regime would fall within a fortnight, as it has no counter-thrust against a trial of strength supported by all working-class forces.”

Tariq Ali, who had mobilised many student marches in Pakistan and Europe and elsewhere and attracted several celebrities to the cause, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, writes about the immediate aftermath of the Paris rebellion in his stellar work, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, ‘The student upheaval developed into a revolt against French capitalism and its values. The Odeon Theatre was occupied by the Parisian intelligentsia and became a place of daily debates and discussions. Jean Genet mocked from outside that it was all a drama. He wanted the state to be confronted and felt it could not be done via the Odeon. The students responded with the slogan, ‘When the General Assembly becomes a bourgeois theatre, bourgeois theatres into a General Assembly’.’

In 1970, students across several American universities held marches and clashed with forces in protest against the Vietnam War, and later, against the US invasion of Cambodia. Anti-war protests deepened as students sprang into action every time news of more casualties of American soldiers came in. On Labour Day, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were killed in the clashes with armed policemen who opened fire. The incident led to a largescale outcry with over 4 million students across the country joining angry demonstrations, mostly blaming the then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger for his insensitivity and war-mongering demeanour.

IT IS NOT that the romance of revolution was confined to universities in the West where even Black students and unemployed youths began to organise themselves. The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966, continued to be active for years in the face of a no-holds-barred offensive from the J Edgar Hoover-led Federal Bureau of Investigation. In fact, parts of Eastern Europe, too, were buffeted by the storm despite the Iron Curtain that had descended across the continent after World War II. In Prague, 19-year-old Jan Zajic burnt himself to death as a mark of political protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The same year, students in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, launched a rebellion against government forces that led to the exit of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The global upswing in campus activism and youth agitations had its echoes in most continents, especially in Europe, Asia and South America.

In India, one of the first developments that shook Indira Gandhi’s confidence following her heroic victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh was the Navnirman Andolan of 1974, held in the run-up to students’ struggles in Bihar under the guidance of Jayaprakash Narayan. The war had left a dent in the Indian economy and then the students of Gujarat launched a strike in 1973 against a hike in their fees—quite similar to the current demand by the students of JNU. After the strike gained in popularity, it transformed into what we now know as Navnirman Andolan against corruption, leading to the resignation of Chimanbhai Patel as state chief minister. This movement helped Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS’ student wing which was formed in 1949 to fight communist influence on campuses, to establish a presence in Gujarat politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a product of the agitation.

In Bihar, the student movement produced leaders who would later become state chief ministers—the likes of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. The student uprising of the 1970s against state and Central governments in India had far-reaching consequences in national politics too. It was the clamping down of Emergency by Indira Gandhi following a raft of such protests that finally contributed to a resounding drubbing for the ruling Congress party for the first time at the Centre, two years afterwards, when the Emergency was lifted in 1977 and elections held. It was in the new non-Congress federal dispensation that Hindutva parties came to power for the first time. The association with the non-Congress, socialist coalition gave them political legitimacy and the next decades saw them rise to prominence thanks to their not letting go of any opportunity that struck. But then, it all started with the student protests of Gujarat.

Throughout the world, there have been clashes between left and right-wing students, even on campuses like Oxford, or closer home across noth Indian capuses duringthe Mandal agitation of the ealry ’90s. It was right-wing student groups that in Indonesia appealed for a massive witch-hunt on communists, eventually resulting in massacres of communists after military ruler Suharto replaced Sukarno as head of state.

The late 1970s also saw students at the forefront of anti-colonial and anti-secular movements in several countries, from Iran in the Middle East to South Africa. For me personally, it was an evocative moment when on a visit to Soweto in 2010, I had the chance to visit the museum erected in memory of the 13-year-old Black student who was shot dead by forces when Black school children marched the streets on June 16th, 1976, protesting against compulsory learning of the Afrikaans language. The photo of a badly wounded Hector Pieterson — being carried in his arms by an older boy as Pieterson’s wailing sister ran alongside — by photographer Sam Nzima became one of the most enduring images symbolic of the atrocities committed by the apartheid government. Around this time, globally, students were again reasserting themselves and speaking truth to power across continents.

The most striking event of the next decade was the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square agitation, led primarily by students who held large demonstrations for two months demanding more civil liberties. Those marches were held in the backdrop of Mikhail Gorbachev announcing sweeping changes in the Soviet Union in a bid to overcome a debilitating economic crisis. But contrary to expectations, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led government used brute force and suppressed the movement.

As Andrew J Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, notes in a 2009 interview to Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations, “The impact of Tiananmen has been paradoxical. Instead of marking the beginning of the end of authoritarianism in China, through a series of direct and indirect [sic] Tiananmen led to the strengthening of authoritarianism in China—what I have called ‘resilient authoritarianism’ in an article in the Journal of Democracy in 2003.” His reasoning is that “the events impressed upon the CCP leadership the necessity to stay united, and that lesson has been so strong that the ruling party managed the power transition with few public signs of power struggle.” Nathan, who is an expert on Chinese politics, also says that Tiananmen Square incidents taught the party to revitalise its repressive apparatus.

In India, though, where students have been a quintessential part of the nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi against the British colonial power, demonstrations and marches have been allowed in free India without much state repression. Even in the height of Emergency, Indira Gandhi was patient enough to hear out complaints by students of JNU.

For his part, Gaurav J Pathania, Adjunct Professor, Department of Sociology, Georgetown University, feels that one cannot view student movements now the way one thought of it in the last century. “The changing nature of higher education doesn’t leave any scope/space for students’ freedom and is forcing a university to be a cog in the wheel of our industrial system,” he explains. He regrets that universities are not what they were meant to be: a site for imagination about an egalitarian society.

“It’s [a university] not about those who can pay the fees but it’s about fighting for those who cannot afford to reach to such places. Now with the mushrooming of private universities, a lower or lower middle class family cannot even think of sending their children to university.” Pathania is the author of the book The University as a Site of Resistance: Identity and Student Politics, an ethnographic account of Osmania University, which has seen successful marathon student protests demanding new statehood for the Telangana region.

Professor Rita Kothari of Ashoka University says the problem is that the idealism that marked student protests of the past seems to have ebbed over time. The hiccups she sees with most student demonstrations are that they do not often arrive at a meaningful conclusion, with the probable exception of a few (JNU, she says, is one such university). Her argument is that in this competitive world, all the stakeholders in a campus protest, members of the faculty, students and parents, have a lot at stake if the protests persist for long. “Risk appetite is on the wane,” she notes, adding that without support from members of the faculty and approval from parents, most students cannot be part of an idealistic protest.

Kothari, a multilingual scholar and translator whose range of work covers literature, cultures studies, anthropology, sociology and history, avers that unlike in the past, governments are now harsher on protesters. And it is such governmental action that hurts the longevity of student strikes, and therefore its positive outcomes. Even for members of the faculty, there is great anxiety about getting a new job in case something goes wrong, she points out, emphasising that “one can only imagine the anxieties that parents then go through.” It is common sense that many students wouldn’t want to imperil their careers and would shy away from fighting for their rights and stop questioning injustice by authorities, she asserts.

Notwithstanding the contrived, yet effective, argument that students are the biggest victims of student politics, from Iraq to Hong Kong to countries in Latin America beset with largescale unemployment, discrimination against women and corruption, the voices of students trashing hypocrisy and calling out falsehoods are still the loudest. Even in China, things are set to change, forecasts historian and China expert, Edward Luttwak.

He tells Open, “There is cultural change in the offing there. The future of China is not about masses being obedient to Xi [Jinping].” He feels that the future in China is for a government that responds to elementary demands for freedom. “As it is, the Beijing elite is disaffected, which explains the recent leaks of [highly sensitive] Politburo documents,” he states. Many political experts have also indicated a rapid slide in gender bias in universities across the world.

Clearly, the romanticism of campus activism of the last century may have faded, but protesting students, anywhere in the world, don’t seem to be on the wrong side of history.

First published in Open

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