Ramjas College and beyond: Precarious lives and structures of violence

The protest had turned violent on January 23 when police dispersed the agitators, two days after the state promulgated an ordinance for allowing the sport. Photograph:( AFP )

WION Delhi, India Feb 27, 2017, 08.31 AM (IST) Mallarika Sinha Roy

Recent incidents of violence by the student wing of Bharatiya Janata Party– Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad– to silence freedom of speech in Ramjas College, Delhi University, indicates the recursivity of intolerance that began with Hyderabad Central University and JNU, in the last couple of years. Several print and audiovisual media have chosen to call the incidents of 21st and 22nd February as ‘clashes’ between two student organisations, but it is difficult to imagine how such ‘clashes’ resulted in beating up of a university professor and several college professors, when they were present in solidarity, to a call for protest against violence. 

There is hardly any ambiguity in the unprovoked violence perpetrated by the defenders of intolerant nationalism, for whom uttering rape-threats to women protesters is as equally permissible as uttering glory for the mother nation. The politics of violence– using violence as a means to an end– has, consequently, become political violence– when violence becomes part of the expressed ideology of a political organisation. Without going into the debate on ‘just’ violence and ‘unjust’ violence, we can safely assume that the resistance to violence has to ascertain, as its first responsibility, refusal to fear such violence. The larger student movement in India, at this point of time, is thus poised at a critical juncture.

The politics of violence– using violence as a means to an end– has, consequently, become political violence– when violence becomes part of the expressed ideology of a political organisation.
×

We may take heart in the fact that in the last five years, students have led several mobilisations around citizens’ issues. It usually ranges from violence against women, caste atrocities, right to education, to one of the most important concerns in the contemporary times– the right to free speech and freedom of expression. Beginning with the mobilisations against Delhi Gang Rape in 2012, students from many university campuses across the country started with demanding accountability from the established political order. Use of social media along with large masses of protesting bodies on the street, shouting sarcastic slogans along with hand-painted cartoons on placards, chanting emotional appeals for freedom along with creating new heroes and a new iconography– all of them have been hallmarks of contemporary student and youth mobilisations. 

In reply, diktats have been handed down by different agencies of the state, especially the law enforcement and bureaucracy. The diktats have frequently been implemented through violence– from denial of legitimate demands and violation of constitutional rights, to water cannons and lathi charges.

We must also remember that in all these forms of violence, student and youth wings of the party in power have repeatedly colluded with the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies, in the name of defending nationalism. Quite clearly, the boundaries have been drawn by an intolerant definition of nationalism that refuses to understand diversity within the nation.  They have been making efforts to forcibly silence what the larger student population has been articulating through debates and dissent. 

The vulnerability of students and youth is defined by social scientists as ‘precarity’. The complexity of ‘precariousness’ of this global generation is circumscribed by the economic and social policies of the countries they inhabit, as well as the cultural environment in which they exist.
×

A large section of university and college teachers have stood in the past couple of years in support of students’ resistance against forced silence. Violence meted out to those teachers are also intensifying at various levels: from covert and overt bureaucratic intimidation like serving notices for ostensibly violating university rules, suspension from service on trumped-up charges to beating them up in public spaces like law courts and streets. It is, therefore, extremely vital for people who exist at the receiving end of acts and threats of violence, to understand the larger context within which the student and youth of contemporary India is placed.

Social scientists have argued that the post 2010 mobilisations across the world – some of them in Tunisia, Egypt, Paris, New York, Belgium, Poland, and Germany – are revolts of the ‘precarious generation’. Having grown up in a neoliberal environment of income insecurity, the contemporary generation of college and university students has little expectation from the state-sponsored safety nets. There is almost no assurance of work or public services and the chances have now worsened with the global financial crisis. 

The vulnerability of students and youth is defined by social scientists as ‘precarity’. The complexity of ‘precariousness’ of this global generation is circumscribed by the economic and social policies of the countries they inhabit, as well as the cultural environment in which they exist. In India, with a decline in agriculture and high levels of farmers’ suicide--the vulnerability of the urban migrant labour, which is often largely a young male population--and the politicisation of caste or class configurations in urban pockets of metropolises, have contributed to this ‘precariousness’ experienced by different sections of the youth. 

After 17th January 2016 when Rohith Vemula, a PhD student in Hyderabad Central University committed suicide owing to repeated harassment by the university authority, the nature of political violence has taken a new turn. The scope and character of the youth mobilisation widened as Vemula’s poignant suicide note struck a somber, deeper note of sorrow alongside anger and anxiety. The disappearance of Najib, a student of JNU, under suspicious circumstances has now intensified the ‘precariousness’ of university students. University campuses across India are slow-burning with anxiety and desperation, as significant cuts in funding the public university system in the last five years has begun to affect the future of the aspiring youth.

Education, especially higher education, had been an accepted mode of upward mobility in India for a long time. The implementation of corrective policies in the university system and the required rigorous follow up, have suffered a great deal due to the confusing orders emerging from the governing bodies of public universities. If India wants to stand behind its new generation of political activists, who are battling to save basic democratic values, she must understand how and why they have been pushed into such precarious conditions of existence, she must recognise that glory and threats of rape cannot be uttered in the same breath.

Mallarika Sinha Roy

Mallarika Sinha Roy is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is an expert on social movement, political violence and gender studies