Eighteen-year-old Ujjwal Parashar, a first year student at Delhi’s Hansraj College, attended his first protest march on Tuesday morning. He wasn’t a member of a student organisation, he said, nor does he know much about political ideologies. But he said he had a compelling reason to join thousands of other students on a march through Delhi University’s North Campus to register their protest against the violence last week of the Right-wing students group, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Parashar had been at Ramjas College on February 21 to attend a seminar, when he “saw the lynch mob gather outside and get violent”. The agitators from the ABVP, a students organisation that belongs to the same ideological family as the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, disrupted the event because one of the sessions was to feature Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid, who has been accused of sedition.

Said Parashar, “... I do not support an assault on freedom of speech and my freedom to listen which, as a citizen of a democracy, I think I have.” His batchmate, 19-year-old Avishek Ghosh, was on his first march too. He said, “These people have made even an introvert like me come out of my shell and protest.”

As it turns out, a sizable section of the thousands of students who participated in the march on Tuesday, were demonstrating for the first time. Among the protests were a great many students in their first or second year of college, teenagers barely out of school – and some still in school.

Neither Right, nor Left

It wasn’t just the ABVP’s actions at the Ramjas event that upset the marchers. The day after the seminar, ABVP members allegedly assaulted students marching from Ramjas College to the Maurice Nagar police station to protest the Feburary 21 disruption. Then, over the weekend, Lady Shri Ram College student Gurmehar Kaur, who started a social media campaign criticising the ABVP, was relentlessly hounded – with even Union minister Kiren Rijiju joining in to claim that her mind had been “polluted by Leftists”.

That, said 18-year-old Miranda House student Pranjal Asha, “made it personal”. She explained, “Gurmehar is a close friend and she had texted me her idea about her campaign and asked me to propagate it. A lot of my friends were at Ramjas too and got hurt. This is personal.”

Though members of student groups such as the All India Students’ Association, Students’ Federation of India and Krantikari Yuva Sangathan were present, some Delhi University’s undergraduates were uncomfortable with the idea of being clubbed with the Left. Some of them held up hastily-made placards declaring that they were with neither the All India Students’ Association nor the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

“We do not like the political hijacking of the protest by any political party,” said a student from Miranda House. “We just want to send out a message of solidarity with all students.”

(Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)
(Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

Novel slogans

The slogans were not all drawn from the standard repertory of the Left either. “ABVP, why so creepy?” was a clear favourite. There were songs that had not been heard at the marches for JNU last February: Hum Honge Kamyaab, the Hindi version of We Shall Overcome and Roobaroo Roshani from the 2006 film, Rang De Basanti. There was even a placard with a Harry Potter reference saying: “Even Dumbledore is tired of this sh*t.”

There were students from Delhi University’s post-graduate departments, dozens of colleges from across campuses, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ambedkar University-Delhi and Jamia Millia Islamia University. It was peaceful for the most part except for relatively minor fight between AISA and ABVP members in the evening. Members of ABVP were spotted holding placards while perched on trees on the Ramjas College premises and, later, also at the Law Faculty.

‘We must vote’

“I have friends who faced threats,” said Muskan Nagpal, 18 and a second year student at Hansraj College. “I have a junior who faced threats and who did not come today because the ABVP members came to his class looking for him.” Taking a breather at the Faculty of Arts after the march, she and her collegemates regretted not participating in the Delhi University Students’ Union elections.

As a clear indication of how Delhi University students really feel about campus politics and the options available to them, they debated the merits of hitting “none of the above” on the electronic voting machines. “I am also at fault because I did not show up for the Delhi University elections in the first place,” continued Nagpal. “I think it is our primary responsibility to cast our vote. The protest at the Delhi Police Headquarters [last week] was my first. I became active after this Ramjas issue.”

At just 36.2% – a little over 1.23 lakh votes – voter turnout in the last round, held in September 2016, was abysmally low. The turnout at JNU was 59.6%.

(Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)
(Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

‘School students feel strongly’

Even in this very young group, Bluebells International School student, Aditi Ghosh, stood out. At 17, she was supposed to be home studying for the board exams. Instead, she was at North Campus getting ready to march for a university she does not yet know. “School students feel as strongly about this as college students do,” she said. “During boards people tell me I am not supposed to be here but being a humanities student, [I do not think] my part is just to mug up theory and get marks but [also to be] an active citizen.” There is another, more practical reason. Next year, if she “end[s] up in DU”, she would want “a space that is right for [her]”.

Protests held in the wake of the violence at Ramjas have seen other high-schoolers show up too. Quoting from the Indian Constitution and sections of the Delhi Police Act 1978 to argue why Delhi Police’s alleged inaction at Ramjas was actually “violation of law” at the Police Headquarter’s protest, also last week, was twelfth-grader Agastya Sen. He had a strong view on slogans the ABVP believes are anti-national. “I do not think there is anything wrong in those slogans,” he had said at the Police Headquarters. “Freedom of speech must be allowed in an absolute manner or not at all.”