Sedition and conspiracy charges have been filed against three former students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and seven others. If these charges are established, 10 young Indians could be sentenced to life-term imprisonment. A great deal has been said and written about the need to banish a 19th century law, introduced by Lord Macaulay, from the statute books. It may be time to ask another question: what kind of a government wages war on its own students? History tells us that short-sighted governments do precisely this.
In May 1968, students in universities across France rose in revolt against hide-bound, patriarchal and class-governed structures, from the family, the capitalist market, to the government ruled by the conservative President Charles de Gaulle. In early 1968, students at the campus of the University of Paris at Nanterre, located on the outskirts of the capital city, had launched a protest. They campaigned against the involvement of Western governments in the Vietnam War, against sexual unfreedom, and for the realisation of liberty that the French had, less than 200 years ago, fought for. In May, students at the Sorbonne expressed solidarity with their fellow students, and revolted.
Young women and men took to the streets, and as a result were beaten up by the police. Hundreds of them were arrested. This led to the closing down of the prestigious university. Ironically, police brutality incited even more students to join the movement. The police assaulted young people with tear gas and swinging batons. But students were determined to re-enact the spectacular 1789 revolution that had been left unfinished in some respects. They constructed hundreds of barricades in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The slogan that inspired them to defy the police was: politics is the art of the impossible.
On May 13, workers from the Renault factory joined the protests and struck work. Factories were closed, trains ground to a halt, and the French government came to a standstill. De Gaulle had not taken student demonstrations seriously; he had to pay for this serious lapse of judgment. He dissolved Parliament and mobilised hundreds of supporters to counter the protest. His party came back to power after the elections, but in the following April he resigned after his government lost a referendum. He had thought the results would demonstrate his acceptability to the people of France. The French did not forgive him for going to war against his own students.
Fifty years later, May 1968 is remembered as the month and the year when university students launched a political, cultural and sexual revolution. And the world recollected the words of the English poet William Wordsworth, who in The Prelude wrote of the 1789 French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! O times…When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights.” Wordsworth was perceptive. The vision, the energy and the language invented by rebellious young people inject a breath of fresh air into our jaded and bankrupt political discourses. If the young do not struggle for emancipation, who will?
Students assembled on the grounds of JNU more than three years ago spoke of liberation from a caste-ridden and inegalitarian society. They reiterated the need to abolish capital punishment, which many fine legal minds have also condemned. They pointed out that the government should address escalating tensions in the Kashmir Valley. Some elements, reportedly outsiders, shouted anti-India slogans. This is hardly sedition. Will our great country and ancient civilisation collapse because of some idiotic slogans? We ought to have confidence in the capacity of India to endure youthful indiscretions, the country has survived infinitely more serious attacks on its territorial integrity. It is ridiculous to charge students with sedition when all that they were asking for was the breaking of shackles.
There was no violence, no call to use force or grind the capital city of Delhi to a halt, no suggestion that the gathering lay siege to official institutions, or ask for the resignation of the government. The conversation was in perfect conformity with the spirit of public universities. The public university is not a teaching shop. Within the metaphorical walls of the university we find classrooms and libraries. We also find open spaces where students assemble and discuss political predicaments, cafes and dhabas where they interact with co-students who come from different regions of the country, and statues of leaders that form a rallying point for protests. The Vivekananda statue outside the main library in the North Campus in Delhi University has been a fulcrum of student politics since my student days.
Through these activities, students become familiar with the notion of citizenship. They connect with others, they learn that they have the constitutional right to challenge the power of elected representatives. It is in the university that they absorb the virtue of solidarity. It is here that they learn that in a democracy they have the right to make their own histories, even if they make these histories badly.
University students have the right to acquaint the public and the government with depressing tales of how lives are led in an inegalitarian society. In a representative democracy we are supposed to communicate opinions and demands through elected representatives. But representatives, we have found, are too busy manipulating public opinion to get power. Fairly early in the biography of representative democracy, citizens realised that they would have to put forth their needs, their interests, and their aspirations into the public domain through networks of associations. The intent is not to contest elections or take over the state — the idea is to raise issues, and provoke debates on what the good society is, and how it can be brought into existence.
This is precisely what young people were doing some years ago, and more of them should be discussing problems that have been left unresolved by unresponsive governments all this while. People in power should recognise the importance of political debate in civil society, they should learn to heed demands catapulted into the public domain by student associations. If some hotheads shout objectionable slogans, ignore them as long as these do not lead to harm. This is how mature democracies behave.
The age when young people were infatuated with the politics of the impossible, 1968, ended, but it threw up several movements that changed the world. They re-cast gender relations, emphasised civil liberties, empowered alternative sexualities, and familiarised us with the tyrannies of power. That was fifty years ago. Once again, the young need to experience the “blissful dawn” and call for the overthrow of caste discrimination, inequality, patriarchy and other remnants of an oppressive order in India. This will complete the objectives of our freedom struggle, for political equality is inadequate without social and economic equality.
To call for the overthrow of a stale and fearful social system is not sedition. We call it democracy. We fight for democracy not, in Wordsworth’s words, “in Utopia, subterranean fields, Or some secreted island…But in the very world, which is the world/ Of all of us, the place where in the end/ We find our happiness, or not at all.”