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Civil Rights, Nationalism And The Power Of Students' Movements

11/03/2016 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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DIBYANGSHU SARKAR via Getty Images
Indian Leftist student activists carry torches and shout slogans against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led union government during a protest near Jadavpur Unversity on February 23, 2016. A bitter row over a student's arrest for sedition at a prestigious Indian university has exposed deep divisions between liberal intellectuals and the nationalist government in the world's biggest democracy. Student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar is accused of shouting 'anti-India slogans' during a rally at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi to mark the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri separatist leader. Thousands of students and teachers have since protested around the country against his arrest, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government of misusing the British-era sedition law to stifle dissent. AFP PHOTO / Dibyangshu SARKAR / AFP / DIBYANGSHU SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Three students disappeared in June 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were three young civil rights activists who were travelling together to promote racial equality. They were kidnapped by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, murdered and then hastily buried in a dam. Amongst the lynch mob that killed them were members of local law enforcement. Shortly before their murders, white supremacist Samuel Bowers, an ex-navy man and a White Knights Imperial Wizard, made a speech warning about the impending "nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi" and advocating that a group of armed members should be ready for swift and violent action.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan began his campaign with an infamous speech in Neshoba County in which he clarified that he was for "states' rights". Controversy raged about whether the use of these code words was a tacit appeal to the Southern White vote but as analysts have written everyone knew exactly what Reagan meant. Indeed, it is perhaps not a coincidence that today one of Trump's core constituencies is the Southern White vote.

Although the three Indian students, unlike their American counterparts, are alive, there has been no shortage of [elected politicians] calling for them to be killed...

Now, more than 50 years after the murder of the three students/civil rights activists in Neshoba, three Indian students have also been the victims of a politics that is increasingly based on prejudice and that pivots on religious and political polarization. Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested last month and booked for sedition for purportedly raising anti-national slogans.

Although the three Indian students, unlike their American counterparts, are alive, there has been no shortage of elected members of state legislatures and Parliament calling for them to be killed in all kinds of brutal ways. While one youth leader of the ruling BJP, now expelled from the party, offered a bounty of half a million rupees to anyone who cuts off Kanhaiya's tongue, others from the RSS called him a rat and yet others put a price on his head. Indeed, on his way to court, lawyers beat up Kanhaiya in the name of nationalism. Since this controversy erupted, other statements, eerily similar to Bowers' threats, are being made, warning of the dangers that the Left and various religious minorities pose to the future of India.

kanhaiya kumar

Although Kanhaiya, president of his university's student union, is ideologically associated with the Left, the fact remains that many of the issues he raised in his speech are those of social justice and indeed civil rights. The grave problem of farmer's suicides, the promotion of an exclusionary and caustic nationalism, the rights and security of minorities and a whole host of other problems are not issues that ideologically belong to the Left. Indeed, it is precisely because these points resonate with people across the political spectrum that diversionary tactics are being used. Religious nationalism is being deployed to deflect people's attention from a stagnant economy by invoking the spectre of communism or by highlighting the threat of terrorism.

Students' involvement in politics and indeed the intensity of student movements are often a good barometer for gauging political volatility in a country.

As important elections loom in America and India, people in both countries have been worried about the rise of this increasingly divisive and antagonistic kind of politics. Trump's statements are objects of ridicule but beyond jokes about his vulgarity and hair, what should be of increasing concern is the popularity of what he is saying. Similarly in India, although Prime Minister Modi is silent, his party members and indeed colleagues in government are making statements that not only openly advocate the murder of members of the opposition but indeed brazenly call for all out war against Muslims. Many argue that these are the views of a fringe, but it is worth remembering that elected representatives cannot constitute a fringe.

The existence of such voices in a democracy is not as troubling as the fact that these views are clearly resonating with parts of the population. In one sense the situation today is better than the dog-whistle politics of Reagan where code-words and allusions were being deployed to consolidate the White vote. Whereas the pitch of the dog-whistle would masquerade as rhetoric and only be heard by those who it sought to address, today the statements being made both in America and in India are unashamedly and openly bigoted. However, while the politics of the two countries share many aspects, there are also similarities in the movements that have sprung up to oppose these divisive tendencies.

Chief among these is a mobilization amongst students in higher education. In America the history of the civil rights movement and the current success of the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrate the power of student movements. Meanwhile in India, the history of the independence movement, the opposition of the draconian period of the Emergency and agitations against the Mandal Commission opposing the reservation of government jobs on the basis of caste, all bear testimony to the importance of student movements in political mobilization. Today, across the country, student organizations of various hues are mobilising in order to highlight a number of issues. Following the recent suicide of the Dalit PhD scholar PhD Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad University, chief amongst these has been the problem of private and public sector discrimination against the lower castes.

[S]tudents have the opportunity to be idealistic and therefore should have the intellectual and physical space to question and critique existing norms.

Students' involvement in politics and indeed the intensity of student movements are often a good barometer for gauging political volatility in a country. The massive unrest in France in the 1960s began with student protests. In 1979 students were at the forefront of the Iranian revolution and indeed were some of the first victims of Savak, the Shah's infamous secret police. More recently, the last decade has witnessed massive student demonstrations in Chile demanding reforms in the university system as well as protesting against rising social inequality.

Perhaps one of the reasons that students are able to be more critical of politics 'outside the campus' is because ideally the university provides a physical space in which, for a limited time, they are free from existing structures in society that often bind people to their narrow self-interests. In other words students have the opportunity to be idealistic and therefore should have the intellectual and physical space to question and critique existing norms. Of course, the ideal university, much like the ideal society, does not exist but nonetheless it is something that people should strive towards.

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