A brief history of student protests in India

Updated on Dec 18, 2019 02:44 AM IST

The first students’ strike in undivided India took place in 1920 in King Edward Medical College, Lahore, against academic discrimination between Indian and English pupils.

Students affiliated to Savitribai Phule Pune University protest against NRC and CAA at Fergusson College main gate. The protest was organised by NRC Virodhi Kruti Sangharsh Samiti in Pune, India, on Tuesday, December 17, 2019.(Sanket Wankhade/HT PHOTO)
Students affiliated to Savitribai Phule Pune University protest against NRC and CAA at Fergusson College main gate. The protest was organised by NRC Virodhi Kruti Sangharsh Samiti in Pune, India, on Tuesday, December 17, 2019.(Sanket Wankhade/HT PHOTO)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent

The roots of a student movement in India could be traced back to nearly 200 years ago with the formation of the Academic Association in undivided Bengal’s Hindu College under the guidance of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, a teacher there and a reformer, in 1828. His disciples, who formed the Young India group of free thinkers, played a part in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century.

In subsequent years, several more debating societies came up across educational institutions, namely the Marathi Literary Society in Bombay College and Gujarati Dramatic Group in Gujarat University, among others.

In 1905, students of Eden College in Calcutta (now Kolkata) burned down the then viceroy Lord Curzon’s effigy to protest the partition of Bengal, one of the first documented instances of students’ protest.

The first students’ strike in undivided India took place in 1920 in King Edward Medical College, Lahore, against academic discrimination between Indian and English pupils.

Students and their organisations participated in the freedom struggle across the country.

After Independence, almost all major political parties started their student wings and several independent student groups catering to socially and economically deprived sections also came up. Post-independent India have seen several students’ movements that have been etched into the memory of the nation.

Anti-Hindi movement in Tamil Nadu, 1965

Although the protest against Hindi had been going on for decades in Tamil Nadu, it became a flashpoint when a large number of students across the state launched a stir against the Official Languages Act of 1963, which made Hindi an official language along with English. Despite protests by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Parliament, the law was passed. But then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru assured that English will continue to be official language. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the Congress government in the state introduced a three-language formula in the state assembly, leading to students taking to the streets. There were self-immolations by several students, and about 70 people died in the ensuing violence. The agitation ended when then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri assured that Nehru’s promise would be kept. The Congress was routed in the 1965 elections and the DMK came to power.

Nav Nirman Andolan (Reconstruction Movement), 1974

On December 20, 1973, students of an engineering college in Ahmedabad launched an agitation against 20% fee hike in hostel food. A similar strike on January 3, 1974, at Gujarat University saw clashes between the police and students. The protesters demanded the resignation of then chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. A statewide strike was organised on January 25, which ended with another round of clash between the police and protesters. A curfew was imposed in 44 towns and the army was called in to restore peace in Ahmedabad. The Indira Gandhi government at the Centre asked Patel to resign. The agitation led to the dissolution of the state government.

Bihar student movement, 1974 (also called JP movement)

The Chatra Sangarsh Samiti led by Jai Prakash Narayan focused on corruption, nepotism, electoral reforms, subsidised food and education reforms. It was a non-violent protest, which started from Patna University and spread to several other educational institutes in Hindi-speaking states of northern India. Nitish Kumar, now the Bihar chief minister; Lalu Prasad, a former Bihar CM; and Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former UP CM, were some of the prominent youth leaders who participated in the JP movement that promoted the idea of socialism.

Student movement in Emergency, 1975

In several universities and academic institutions across India, students and faculty members organised underground protests, using pamphlets and leaflets to protest against the imposition of Emergency. Over 300 student union leaders, including then Delhi University Students Union president Arun Jaitley and Jai Prakash Narayan, who headed the Chatra Sangarsh Samiti, were sent to jail.

Assam Agitation (1979 to 1985)

The agitation in Assam against illegal migrants was launched by the All Assam Students Union, which is now spearheading protests against the amended citizenship act. It was an agitation to protect the identity of Assamese people in wake of influx of people from Bangladesh following 1971’s War of Liberation. People from different walks of life joined the students’ protests, and it ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord. Student leader Prafulla Mahanta, who then headed the Asom Gana Parishad, became the chief minister in 1985 at an age of 35.

Anti-Mandal agitation, 1990

On August 1990, students from across India started a protest against the introduction of 27% reservation in government jobs for people from the Other Backward Classes. The government, led by VP Singh, implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations submitted to the government in 1980. Although the protest began in Delhi University, it spread to several educational institutes across the country, leading to violent protests in many parts of the country. Students in several places boycotted exams. The agitation ended when Singh resigned on November 7, 1990, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) withdrew support to his Janata Dal government.

Anti-reservation protests, 2006

It was a second major protest against the reservation system. In 2006, widespread protests took place in educational institutes oppose the decision of Congress-led United Progressive Allianace government to implement reservations for OBCs in both central and private higher education institutes. Students and doctors belonging to upper castes called the move discriminatory. There were counter-protests in favour of the decision by OBC student groups.

FTII agitation, 2015

In July 2015, the students of Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, launched a stir against the nomination of actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the prestigious institute. In the 140-day protest, students boycotted classes and refused to take exams, claiming Chauhan was not eligible to head FTII. Symbolic protests were held in several other places in solidarity with FTII students.

Jadavpur University , 2014

The “hok kalorob (let there be uproar)” movement at Jadavpur University was against alleged police attack on unarmed students. The students were demanding a fair inquiry into the alleged molestation of a student inside the campus. The week-long protest led to the removal of vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty, who had allegedly allowed police to enter the campus.

Protest over Rohith Vemula’s death, 2016

The suicide of a Dalit scholar of Hyderabad University, Rohith Vermula, triggered a nationwide outrage against the university administration over alleged failure to prevent his suicide. The suicide took place days after the university’s executive council expelled five Dalit students, including Vemula, from the hostel and limited their access to the campus for allegedly assaulting an ABVP student leader. Hundreds of students from universities across India participated in protest rallies.

JNU protest, 2016

On February 9, 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) erupted in protests over the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of conspiring in an attack on Parliament 16 years ago. Many human rights groups felt was flawed. The a demonstration witnessed clashes between different student groups. Four days after the event, then JNU students’ uniomn president Kahhaiya Kumar was arrested by Delhi Police and booked for sedition. Two other students, including Umar Khalid, were arrested later. JNU authorities conducted an inquiry and took action against 21 students. The action ranged from rustication to fines. In response, students went on an indefinite strike. The Delhi High Court suspended the university action on the condition that students end their strike.

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