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Waking up to activism

mumbai Updated: May 16, 2011 02:53 IST
Nikita Sonavane
Nikita Sonavane
Hindustan Times
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When environment minister Jairam Ramesh walked into the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) for the convocation ceremony on May 11, he asked for final-year student Pranab Doley.

Ramesh said he had read in a newspaper that Doley and 30 other students had decided not to accept their degrees from him in protest of the Centre’s stand on the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant in southern Maharashtra and the POSCO steel project in Orissa. Ramesh then teased the students that they had ‘made news’ even before doing anything.

The minister’s ribbing was light-hearted, but the city’s students are learning the merits of social activism. Often labelled ‘inert’ in comparison to their Delhi counterparts, city students seem to be shedding their inhibitions and taking a stand on issues.

Three months before social activist Anna Hazare launched his fast against corruption, a handful of students had gotten together to fight corruption. “We read about the CommonWealth Games scam and then the 2G scam. Corruption corrodes the nation,” said Shalaka Thakur, a Ramnarain Ruia College student, who garnered support through Facebook and campus campaigns.

“Initially, when we went to colleges, students treated us like salespersons selling a product. Slowly, more people were convinced to join the cause,” said Nandita Kotwal, a Ramnarain Ruia College student. With a thrust from Hazare’s India Against Corruption campaign, the students’ movement culminated in the massive peace march at the Gateway of India on April 5.

But the path wasn’t easy. During a rasta roko protest, the students were stopped by the police outside Azad Maidan.

“As the police surrounded us, one of the volunteers started singing the national anthem and we all joined in. Recalling that incident still gives me goose bumps,” said Yashna Shetty, an engineering student of DJ Sanghvi College.

When rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment last December, a group of students inspired by a talk given by social activist Himanshu Kumar, filed an online petition against the ‘injustice’.

“If youngsters, who are otherwise politically inert, are included in such movements they can become catalysts for change,” said Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a lawyer and social activist.

The internet and social networking sites have made the task of organising support simpler. Taking up the cause of the Right to Food Bill, which is pending in the Parliament, some students have created a Google group to exchange information on food security. They feed the data to MLAs in Maharashtra. “Our aim is to help our elected representatives make an informed choice when they vote in Parliament,” said Kshiti Gala, a third-year student at St Xavier’s College.

But the activism is not widespread. When Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such A Long Journey, was removed from the university syllabus, only a handful of students voiced their protest.

Neil Maheshwari, a third -year arts student at St Xavier’s College, and his friends created an online petition seeking reinstatement of the book. The petition was signed by a mere 2,000 students.