Indian universities, 2010-2020: A decade in protest
This week, Ashoka University students boycotted classes for two days, demanding changes in the functioning of the institution following the resignation of professors Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian. While the protests were limited to a private university in this case, it is the latest in a series of student-led protests in the country, indicating a ferment in universities over the past decade.
Here is a snapshot of the key moments in universities in the past decade, where students have expressed their disenchantment either due to issues specific to their university or on larger national issues, leading to a tussle with the administration, and in some cases, with the government of the day:
Anti-corruption movement, 2011
In August 2011, when social activist Anna Hazare launched a 15-day hunger strike in Delhi demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill to eradicate corruption, students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), DU, JMI, and Banaras Hindu University (BHU), among others, backed the movement. Students of DU, Jamia, and JNU also held a series of protests on campuses and parts of the national capital. A group of university students also waved black flags at then Union minister and Congress leader Kapil Sibal at New Delhi’s Constitution Club as he stood to address a meeting on Lokpal Bill. The larger protests prompted Parliament to pass a resolution accepting Hazare’s demand in August 27. Hazare called off his hunger strike the next day. More protests followed before the Lokpal Act was enacted in 2013.
Delhi gang-rape agitation, 2012
The gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi on December 16, 2012, sparked nationwide protests. Students from across the country participated in the demonstrations demanding strict laws to prevent crimes against women and speedy trial and prosecution of the accused. At Delhi’s India Gate, students from DU, JNU, Jamia, and other Delhi-based institutes held protracted protests demanding justice for the woman, who died on December 29, 2012. Students in other cities including Bengaluru and Mumbai also held protests.
Amid protests, the Centre formed a judicial committee and asked a former chief justice of India, J S Verma, to submit a report within 30 days suggesting amendments to criminal law to sternly deal with sexual assault cases. On February 3, 2013, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance was promulgated. The ordinance provided for a death penalty in cases of rape. On March 20, 2020, four adult convicts in the case were executed.
Delhi University protests, 2013-14
DU’s 2013 move to introduce a four-year programme to promote interdisciplinary learning and research at the undergraduate level triggered protests. Students and teachers said the programme was introduced without proper planning, consultations, resources, and course content. In June 2014, during the admission process, students held protests seeking a roll-back of the programme and prompted the newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to scrap it.
Jadavpur University protest, 2014-15
The hok kalorob (let there be uproar) movement at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University was one of the longest student protests in the country between September 2014 and January 2015. The protest was held against an alleged police attack on students while they were demanding an inquiry into the molestation of a student on the campus. The alleged attack also triggered a series of student protests in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
The students demanded resignation of vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti for allegedly calling the police to the campus. Final year students also boycotted the convocation ceremony and a student declined to accept her degree in the presence Chakrabarti. At least 10 students started an “indefinite hunger strike” on January 5, 2015, before Chakrabarti resigned.
Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) protests, 2015
In July 2015, FTII students launched an agitation questioning actor Gajendra Chauhan’s credentials for his nomination as the institute’s chairman. They alleged he was named as the FTII head because of his political affiliation. The protest lasted for 139 days as students boycotted classes and refused to take exams. Protests were held in other places as well in solidarity with FTII students. On August 15, 2015, police carried out a midnight raid on the campus and arrested five protesting students for allegedly confining the institute director to his cabin. Chauhan was replaced by actor Anupam Kher in October 2017 before his three-year term ended.
Protest over Rohith Vemula’s death, 2016
Dalit scholar Vemula’s death by suicide at Hyderabad University triggered nationwide protests over alleged discrimination on the campus. Vemula was found dead days he was among the five students, who were expelled from the university’s hostel and provided limited access to the campus for allegedly assaulting a student leader. Vemula also left behind a note blaming the “system” for his death.
JNU sedition row, 2016
In 2016, police complaints were filed alleging “anti-national” slogans were raised during a protest over Afzal Guru, who was hanged for his role in the Parliament attack. Three students, JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirbhan Bhattacharya, were arrested under sedition charges. The arrest sparked protests across the country. Students at universities including DU, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jadavpur, Punjab University, University of Kerala also held protests in support of JNU students.
The 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 in May 2016. After almost three years, the Delhi police in January 2019 filed a charge sheet against Kumar and nine others. In January this year, the Delhi government gave its nod to prosecute Kumar and others.
Banaras Hindu University protests, 2017
In September 2017, thousands of students, mostly women, protested when a BHU student was allegedly molested by three men on campus. The students alleged that instead of raising the matter with authorities, the hostel warden questioned the students for staying out till late. The students launched a protest outside the campus alleging lack of safety on the campus and “victim shaming” by the officials.
Three days after the protest was launched, Uttar Pradesh Police launched a crackdown and lathi-charged the students to end the protest. A video of woman students being beating up by policemen triggered outrage. The police detained several students and filed cases against over 1,000 protesting students.
Aligarh Muslim University’s Jinnah portrait controversy, 2018
An armed group of Hindu Yuva Vahini entered the AMU campus and clashed with the students in May 2018 after former BJP lawmaker Satish Gautam objected to a portrait of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah on the campus. AMU Students’ Union leader Maskoor Usmani was among those injured in the incident. AMU authorities insisted the portrait had been at its students’ union office since 1938 since Jinnah was a founding member of the University court-- the highest decision-making body. There are portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Dalai Lama, among others, in the same office. Many questioned why similar objections were not raised over Jinnah’s plaque at the Bombay high court museum.
The AMU students boycotted classes and began a sit-in on the campus seeking action and an inquiry into the attack on them. The protest continued for weeks and the university was forced to postpone exams.
Anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest, 2019-2020
A group of JMI students, locals, and teachers began a march towards the Parliament in protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and triggered protests across the country. Clashes broke out between the protesters and the police when they were stopped. As many as 50 students were detained as police used tear gas and lathis to disperse the protesters.
Another protest march was stopped on December 15, 2019 and several students were allegedly attacked by the police. The same evening, police stormed into Jamia’s central library and attacked students leaving many severely injured. The videos of policemen beating students, who were studying in the library triggered a nationwide uproar and international condemnation. Thousands of students gathered outside the police headquarters to protesting against the attack and demanding the release of the detained students. Students gathered at the university to protest against the CAA and police brutality. Locals also joined them for the next three months until the protest was called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.