Student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad Central University have been ridiculed by a section of Indian public opinion. The complaints range from the dramatic – “they are anti-national” to the ridiculous – “they should study, not protest”. The point was to make the students feel under fire. It was to scare the students into submission. Red-hot outrage was directed at students regardless of what had raised them to moral protest – whether it was Kashmir or Dalits, conditions on campus or scholarship reductions. The issues mattered surely, but the indignation targeted the student protest itself.

It came as a surprise to me, therefore, to find that the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty – a man of the Left, it seemed to me – had joined the chorus against the students. He spoke at an event at Kolkata’s Presidency College, where two newspapers – Anandabazaar (Bangla) and The Telegraph (English) – said that he advised students to study and not to mess about with politics. Political work during college years, he is alleged to have said, is a distraction. Senior political leaders use college students to further their own careers, not those of the students themselves. This was terribly cynical stuff. It ricocheted about social media with those who supported the students pillorying Chakrabarty and those who hated the students joining with his words.


Chakrabarty, however, neither attacked the student protests nor the students themselves. In an interview conducted a few days after the news fracas, Chakrabarty told me that he “had been misquoted”. When I asked him what he meant about students being lost after political involvement, he said:

"Who can deny that experiences of student politics enrich life if you survive them? I spoke of a couple of good friends in my Physics and Maths classes at Presidency College, one of whom took to drugs and committed suicide and the other – now a successful lawyer and businessman – suffered for a long time not knowing what to do after they dropped out of the Naxalite movement after a few years of intense involvement. And there were many such cases that happened in the course of the nationalist movement too, some of them in my own family. Even today, I find some of the leading lights of the student movements of our times, profoundly lost. Not everyone, but some. But that does not necessarily mean that the experience did not enrich their lives."    

Undeniably, the pressure of both study and struggle takes its toll on students, particularly when the administration targets these students. Rohit Vemula is a case of such pressure.

Chakrabarty had told the students at Presidency that it was important to pursue scholarship. The quote in the paper was not clear. One of the problems with the neo-liberal thrust into the academy is to make the case that the university should be devoid of politics. Students should engage in their studies as a prelude to their careers. Everything else is a waste of time. I asked Chakrabarty about the neo-liberal attempt to produce amongst students an anti-political careerism. He said:

"I did not speak of careers in any narrow sense – like getting jobs and promotions, though I only have to look around to see how important these things are to most academics. I was speaking of life including scholarship as a form of life. I said that the pursuit of excellence in any field – such as in the case of becoming a world-class violinist – takes years of practice and concentration and one has to begin early. High-level scholarship in the humanities requires, for instance, long-term training in research languages. It is not unusual to find European scholars who can easily manage sources in five or six or more ancient and modern languages. All this takes time, patience, and concentration. 

But the Indian situation is different. There are too many social problems for students not to be affected by them, and also a political context where all major political parties want to recruit students as their activists-members. Under such circumstance, I said, it does not make any sense to advise students not to engage in politics. Campuses are often on the boil, and sometimes, as in the case of JNU and HCU, because the ruling political parties want to interfere in student politics and campus life. But time is finite: The time you give to active politics is time you cannot spend studying or working in labs, hospitals for practical training. This has a real impact. 

How you think of that impact is a question of values and subjective judgment. I agree with you that education is about far more than building of successful careers. But as I said, career was not what I was speaking of though it is possible that when you speak in India of scholarship as a form of life many think you are speaking of careers."    

Chakrabarty’s suggestions come out of concern for the students. But there is a conceptual distinction here that he does not make – between learning skills and developing a framework for understanding the dynamics of the world. Chakrabarty’s examples (laboratory work and language training) are in the realm of skills. Such learning takes time, but it is not sufficient. It is equally, if not more, important for students to develop new frameworks to grasp the world. My own experience shows that the classroom did not help me craft an ethical and theoretical view of the world. That took place through struggle and practical work. Study is essential, of course, but – for this ethical work – struggle is equally imperative.

Study and struggle

The point about study and struggle roots the world-view of the students groups of the Left. Both the Students’ Federation of India and All-India Student Federation share a motto – Study and Struggle. While SFI’s constitution lays out the reasons why students must study and struggle – for instance, to establish a “democratic, scientific and progressive education system”, to achieve “the democratic rights of the student community,” to fight for the “right to work as a constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right” and of course to battle discrimination of all forms.

The All India Student Association’s constitution calls upon students to wage “a relentless struggle against reactionary ideologies and cultural values”, which – in other words – are antithetical to a modern education. Everything these students of SFI, AISF and AISA fight for should be the goal not only of all students but also of every progressive person. How could students be expected to study if their aspirations are curtailed and their curriculum is anachronistic and offensive?

The storm of criticism against student protests mirrors Lord Curzon’s Universities Bill of 1904. Viceroy Curzon wanted students to pursue their academics and abjure the field of nationalist politics. A circular went out from the Viceregal office asking universities to stop students from “boycotting, picketing, and other abuses associated with the so-called Swadesh movement”. Penalty for not being able to stop student protests would include an end to grants-in-aid and scholarship money from the government. The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi wants to continue Curzon’s educational agenda. Its supporters want to beat down the students with Curzon’s logic. Theirs is a patriotism that inherits its arguments from the imperialists. Students stand firmly in the camp of Indian nationalism. They want to make their world a better place – both by study and by struggle.

Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. His most recent book is No Free Left: the Futures of Indian Communism. He is a columnist for Frontline.