On Thursday night, as I watched a young student leader smash his way into political consciousness through a witty and politically sharp speech delivered on the steps of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, I was reminded of a day, nearly 26 years ago, when I had my first brush with India’s student politics.

It was a pleasant day in September 1990 when we heard rumours that “something big” would happen near Deshbandhu College, Kalkaji, a Punjabi-dominated area of south Delhi. I was still in school and all around us college students were out on the streets, protesting against the implementation of the Mandal Commission report that recommended reservations for other backward classes in government jobs.

As parents stepped out to openly support and encourage their wards, we were fired up to support the elder bhaiyas and didis (brothers and sisters) who had dared to stand up to authority. We loved them and we wanted to emulate them. Those of us lucky enough to have a cousin senior enough to attend college were passports to see an agitation first hand.

Those of us in school didn’t really grasp what we were protesting against. Years later, after coming to understand caste realities better, I would throw in my lot with those who supported reservations. But in 1990, unaware of the complexities of caste, it was fun making faces at hapless police constables who stood and watched us shout slogans that we barely understood. All that mattered for us was the camaraderie of fellow students, and challenging authority in any shape or form, standing across the road from us.

As we walked to Deshbandhu College, a couple of kilometres from my house, we could see students gathering on the roads. I forget the exact time, but there was a rush as students standing across the main road from the college when a thin young man rushed in, splashed some liquid on himself and set himself on fire. For a few seconds everyone on the street froze at the sight of a man willingly set himself on fire. As the seconds passed, his screams began to ring through the air. A Sikh police officer standing nearby jumped into the melee and tried his best to douse the fire using his bare hands as the rest of us stood aside, stunned. That young man was Rajiv Goswami, a commerce student of the college who had planned this act of protest that would engulf the VP Singh government and eventually lead to its downfall.

Political fallout

Singh had won a remarkable victory just a year ago, humbling Rajiv Gandhi’s majority government in the elections, riding the protests centred around the Bofors scandal. While Singh had emerged as a hero of the masses, sickened by the Congress’ corruption, no one could have imagined that the tide would turn against him so quickly. The Delhi University’s North Campus became the battleground where students began protests against his government and as the fire quickly spread across the city, it became clear that Singh was fighting a losing battle.

That is where my memories fade, except for that singular image of Goswami screaming in agony as the fire leapt around his face. Much later, we heard unconfirmed rumours that Goswami had only planned to set fire to his ankles, but others had sprinkled more petrol on him than what was originally planned. The immolation sounded the death knell for the VP Singh government, ousted with glee as his coalition fell apart two months later.

A new rebel with a cause

On Thursday, as Kanahiya Kumar spoke with passion and took on the government of the day, I wondered about Goswami and his legacy long into the night. He died on February 24, 2004, forgotten by everyone, except for a few brief newspaper reports that noted his passing. His tryst with politics was brief and he was soon set aside as other events overtook the country’s politics.

Will Kanahiya meet the same fate? I wonder. A few months from now, as a new outrage breaks out, will people still remember this night and the speech that has won the young man many admirers and a few enemies?

It is possible that he will be forgotten in course of time, and this night will soon become a distant memory. Or perhaps, because of the internet, unlike that day in 1990, when a handful of newspapers and one notable magazine were the only record-keepers of contemporary Indian history, perhaps today the internet will ensure that this moment is not forgotten.

Somewhere, a YouTube video, a meme, a tweet or a Facebook post will ensure that people remember the moment for years to come. Perhaps, it will continue to serve as an important reminder that every time the notions of freedom are challenged or attempts are made to suppress it, it is the universities and students who give a clarion call to defend and uphold these freedoms.

Lessons From History

Few today remember the Prague uprising of 1968 that led to the first popular challenge to the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. In October 1967 students rose up in revolt against the Antonin Novotony, the communist party leader who was ruling Czechoslovakia at that time with the backing of the Soviet Union. The Czech had taken a leaf out of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, when students had taken to the streets of Budapest to stand up against their communist rulers, issuing a 16-point agenda that sought greater political freedom. In the spring of 1989, half way across the world, it was again the students who stood on the frontlines of Tiananmen Square standing up to the Chinese leadership, refusing to accept the denial of their freedoms. Through the ages, students have led the way to challenge regimes, as soon as they felt their freedoms were under threat, and their future was in peril.

A Legacy of Protest

In the late 1960s, students in campuses in America stood up against their government to challenge the draft, which forced them to sign up for the military and be shipped to Vietnam to fight a war they didn’t understand. Like their counterparts in Eastern Europe they stood up as motley groups to challenge authority, only to be pushed back and crushed by the might of the state. But across the world, even as the events faded, the spirit of youth and rebellion continued to serve as the first urges of change.

In India, in many ways, the students in campuses across India had voted in large numbers for the hope that Narendra Modi represented. In him they saw a man who could deliver them from the past and decisively usher in a new era that promised them a future. To them, the Gujarat riots of 2002 did not matter anymore, as a future full of promise beckoned. To see that hope change to despair in less than two years is a reality that few could have anticipated in May 2014.

The suicide of an erudite and passionate young man like Rohith Vemula had already created unrest on campuses. But the arrest of a popular student leader on drummed up charges of sedition has now lit a new fire that will be difficult to douse in the coming days. Many among them will question if this is what they had signed up for as they helped usher in a majority government in India after two decades.

After all, stability is not the hallmark of youth, but challenging status quo is. Kanahiya Kumar the new political star may dim soon, but the spirit of rebellion will continue to rage.

Saikat Datta is a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. All views expressed are personal.