Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Student Anger – The roots of discontent

Navtej Sarna

The Delhi University campus presented a strange sight on a September day last year. Scores of DTC buses stood paralysed while their drivers watched in bewilderment. Many a tired student searched for a way home but in vain. A minor incident had led to this large-scale hold up disrupting the transport system of the Capital. All over the city, commuters waited in serpentine queues. Student unrest had raised its ugly head again.

Most researchers on the subject of student violence think that its root-cause is the eternal conflict between generations and their values. Students feel that the authorities do not know how to manage their affairs. The authorities feel that the students are hardly the people to tell them so. A study of various reports reveals certain trends.

The universities of Dibrugarh, Nagpur and Poona have been long troubled with student unrest. A study revealed that 45 per cent of the respondents considered ‘untactful handling of student problems by the authorities’ as the prime cause. They thought that no serious attempt was made to understand the students’ needs and as a result mistrust and tension developed.

In the same study, 20 per cent of the respondents thought that the main culprits were ‘interested political parties’. These parties instigated, encouraged and nourished student revolt to further their interests. Another 19 per cent considered ‘general frustration of youth’ to be the chief cause of unrest. This ‘general frustration’ arose from changing values, binding traditions and lack of a secure future.

The possible causes of student unrest were outlined way back in 1954 by Jawaharlal Nehru. In one of his fortnightly letters to a Chief Minister, Nehru listed the causes as (a) party factions and political intrigues which disfigure academic life (2) lack of esteem for teachers at different levels and (3) undue importance given to final examinations.

Yet another list of possible causes has been outlined by Prof. Humayun Kabir. According to this list, the causes in order of their importance re:

Lack of leadership by teachers – they seem to have become alienated from the students and no longer play a pivotal role in personally moulding the ideas of students.

Economic difficulties – prime among them is the lack of job opportunities

Defects in the system – The present education system offers little scope for initiative and active participation. It is too literary and academic and does not offer the attraction of practical worth.

General lack of idealism – The spreading of materialist ideology has led to decadence of ideals and cherished values. The ends have assumed an overwhelming importance and justify all means.

From this maze of causes and reasons, a certain trend might well be perceived.

A basic psychological cause pointed out is insecurity – the ever lengthening shadow of unemployment. And even if jobs are available, they are not what the student feels he deserves. For instance, a medical student work incessantly for seven to eight years for a post graduate degree. He is not certain whether he will be allowed to go abroad or he will get even a low-paid job in some hospital.

The second major cause is the growing gap between the teacher and the taught. Due to increasing numbers, teachers fail to establish personal rapport with their students. A class in college might have over 50 students and the teacher usually does not know the names of more than ten. Some universities have attempted to solve this problem through the system of tutorials but in most colleges and departments, the idea is still in its inceptive stages.

Some psychologists even say that the ‘sexual vacuum’ between puberty and marriage is partly responsible for frustrations which must find a way out. The segregation of sexes, for better or for worse, is still an accepted norm in most universities and a meaningful relationship between the sexes is rarely allowed to develop. However, these causes are merely contributory in nature. The spark, the immediate impetus, is politics and politicians.

Students were involved in revivalist, politically-oriented movements during the freedom struggle. Most of our political leaders came from the universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and later from Allahabad and Punjab. The earliest report of a student protest is probably that of the Eden Hindu Hostel in 1905. The students protested against the much-hated partition of Bengal by burning an effigy of Lord Curzon and boycotting their examinations.

But instead of the single national goal that existed then, we now have petty party politics and personality clashes. The Delhi University, for instance, has got two major parties – the Akhil bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the National Students Union of India (NSUI). Most agitations in the campus are a result of their mutual bickerings.

The main student agitation in Delhi in the last academic year was for installing an enquiry committee to look into the ‘emergency excesses’ committed by the V-C and his ‘caucus’. And while this was being done, political capital was reaped by locking the office of the V-C and thereby reaching the front pages of the newspapers.

The Delhi University was closed sine die in December last year. This was the V-C’s arbitrary decision after the karamchari strike. This strike had caused genuine difficulties to the innocent hostetlier with the deprivation of essential services. The students spent cold nights on the gardens of the V-C’s house chanting slogans and drumming buckets. But this agitation fizzled out as soon as it became politicized. Infighting ensued and the agitation was dismissed contemptuously by the Principal of a leading college as ‘high-spirited pranks of misguided youth’.

Another incident with political overtones was the anti-Shah agitation. Students showed their antipathy for the ‘repressive’ regime of the Shah of Iran by demonstration in large numbers in front of the PM’s office and demanding release of the 17 arrested Iranian students.

All this leads to one conclusion – that politics has become the marrow in the bones of the student community. The people responsible for causing unrest are a few elements, politically backed and personally interested. They care little about the employment scene, even less for the teacher-taught relationship.

In a study conducted on 4 colleges of the Raipur campus (one of the most troubled campuses) it was found that the students involved were usually of mediocre academic standard and their pursuit of education lacked any particular purpose.

The issues involved in many agitations are usually minor and inconsequential. The students of Berkeley and Columbia protested against the US involvement in the Vietnam War. But Delhi has seen agitations over the price of coffee or the behaviour of a clerk. Prof. V.V. John, the noted educationist, laments in one of his essays that it is indeed a pity that students do not agitate for things that matter in education. For instance, we rarely see an agitation for a more challenging curricula, better libraries or labs or faculties of an internationally acceptable standard.