The State and students must talk
To begin with, I must congratulate the thousands of young men and women who have come out to the streets to uphold our democracy. A healthy debate is the first and foremost sign of a healthy democracy. But unless these conflicting strands get reconciled, we invite chaos.
While I have great respect for the students’ movement, disagreement and anger, I would like to urge them not to take it so far that it affects their future. If our students, justifiably annoyed, do not attend classes, and do not let examinations take place, they will harm themselves and the future of young people of the country. Today’s generation may want to look back at some key moments in our history of protests.
It was in 1967 that the angrezi hatao! (remove English) movement started by Ram Manohar Lohia was at its peak. It was only two decades after we got Independence. The young were influenced by developments in France, Soviet Russia, Germany and even the United States, which was all in ferment. Back home, English was projected as the language of the oppressor, a language of discrimination that perpetuated inequality. The supporters of the movement argued that if many European countries had succeeded in achieving growth and development without English, why could India not do so? On Ram Manohar Lohia’s call, thousands of the students from the Hindi belt came out to the streets to protest. I remember in the civil lines area of Allahabad (now, Prayagraj), boards in English on the shops were painted overnight. Nameplates in English outside houses were smeared with black. The entrances and doors of many houses were damaged.
We were then in primary school. Our parents were inspired by the same sentiment. As a result, subsequently, people of my generation faced difficulties in our own country because of the lack of familiarity with English. Interestingly, Lohia’s colleagues and followers, who ousted the Congress from power in seven states in assembly elections in 1967, forgot all about the students’ movement in Tamil Nadu that had taken place just two years earlier. Why did this happen?
In 1965, that the Official Language Act, 1963, was implemented in Tamil Nadu. Under this law, learning Hindi was made mandatory. Students, joined by others, protested against this vehemently. Many students even lost their lives. The movement only ended when Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri assured the students that the government would honour Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise and Hindi would not be imposed on them. As a result of this movement, the Congress was wiped out in the state in 1967 and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam came to power.
Not even a decade had passed after this uproar when Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan became the face of a significant movement that altered national politics. Under his leadership, student agitations, which had started over a fee hike in Gujarat and Bihar ,took a new shape. At that time, the one slogan that reverberated in every household was: Sampurna kranti ab naara hai, bhavi itihas hamara hai (Total revolution is our slogan, history now belongs to us). Several of today’s leaders joined politics around that time. It took a new form of resistance as the Indira Gandhi government imposed Emergency.
At the end of the 1970s, a new students’ movement began in Assam. This movement focused on the Assamese language and identity, and it rocked the foundation of the political power in the state. In the next assembly election, the Asom Gana Parishad, which was formed under the leadership of students, won a majority and came to power. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was the first person who reached the chief minister’s residence straight from the students’ hostel. When in power, he realised that the issues that shaped his struggle were driven largely by emotion. They had no real legislative impact.
There are various other examples that I can give to young people today, but here is a piece of advice to them instead. They should never forget the reality that politics is ultimately all about securing power, and this often excludes human sentiments. For it is not just people who accumulate resources through illegal means who are corrupt. Those who compromise on their principles and ideology are even more dangerous. In this intensely competitive world of today, our young will have to establish greater harmony between their struggle and their aim.
I must add an appeal to the government too. The feelings of the youth cannot be suppressed by using force only. Securing an agreement with them is not only the ruling government’s responsibility, but is also the biggest necessity of our times. It would be in the interest of all concerned if this fire is contained before it spreads further.