On March 12, fresh the Bharatiya Janata Party’s astonishing electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a jubilant crowd at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi about his dream of building a New India. The signs he saw around him made him confident that he could achieve his mission by 2022, Modi said. He mentioned two of the signs: “A New India that fulfils aspirations of its nari shakti [women’s power] is taking place...A new India of the dreams of its yuva shakti [youth power] is taking place.”

Modi’s assertion that a New India is already taking shape sounds a little shallow given the outbreak of protests in universities across the country over the last three years. Perhaps Modi’s conception of New India has not included the concerns of protesting youth.

When protests broke out at Hyderabad Central University in January 2016 and Jawaharlal Nehru University shortly after, the BJP sought to dismiss them as the work of people who either subscribe to outdated ideologies or who do not love India enough. They are, in other words, either communists or anti-nationals.

This was also the gloss Banaras Hindu University Vice Chancellor GC Tripathi sought to give the protest on his campus last month. He variously described the agitation as the handiwork of outsiders, anti-social elements and, yes, anti-nationals. But Tripathi’s spin did not gain much traction, largely because there was near-unanimity about the events that had roiled the emotions of the students.

As has been widely reported, when a woman student of the university complained to a hostel warden on September 21 that she had been molested, he reprimanded her for being on the streets after sunset. Enraged at this victim shaming, hundreds of students sat on dharna. They were dispersed by a police lathicharge and subsequently compelled to vacate their hostels.

One reason Vice Chancellor Tripathi’s spin did not gain ground was because of Banaras Hindu University’s image – it is not a bastion of Left politics nor a place where students habitually rage against Hindutva. Shortly after the BJP came to power in 2014, it bestowed a posthumous Bharat Ratna on the university’s founder, Madan Mohan Malaviya. The university was an essential element in Modi’s election campaign of 2014 in Varanasi, which he represents in the Lok Sabha.

Indeed, the protest in Banaras Hindu University is significant not only because the students have rallied against sexual harassment and opposed gender discriminatory rules, but also because it has given lie to the BJP’s attempt to portray every university agitation as the work of anti-nationals. If anything, upper-caste prejudices played a role in stoking the anger on the Banaras Hindu University campus, as this article by a student noted.

To find understand what the kind of India its young citizens want, Modi and the BJP should attempt to decode the protests.

The BJP has been dismissive of student protests like in Jawaharlal Nehru University last year, dubbing them the handiwork of anti-nationals. Photo credit: Reuters

Contesting ideas

Universities have been in ferment because the students implicitly believe the social context in which they live and study does not reflect the India of their aspirations. To transform India, they must change their context – or, to invoke Modi, they must build a New India. But their quest for change is being thwarted by university authorities, either on the orders of the central government or because officials are Hindutva sympathisers or because they do not want to displease the government.

From this perspective, the disproportionate reaction of the authorities isn’t just an attempt to maintain discipline on campus. It actually represents a clash of two world views.

The recent protests at Banaras Hindu University, Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University represent three issues about which the BJP has been deeply conflicted – gender, caste and the meaning of nationalism, all three threaded together by the notion that change will not be possible unless it is debated and the status quo interrogated.

To begin with, consider the dynamics at Banaras Hindu University. People with patriarchal mindsets believe that the university’s women students should feel extremely fortunate to have access to quality education. In return for this privilege, though, the women are expected to conform to prescribed forms of social behaviour and accept that they cannot have all the rights enjoyed by their male counterparts. For instance, in the evening, they must return to their hostels before male students do and realise that they cannot wear shorts. The logic underlying these discriminatory rules is that women should sacrifice their freedom for their own safety.

The denial is justified on the grounds that their choices are not in consonance with the values of Indian culture, which extols the child-bearing responsibilities of women, her role as wife and mother.

With their protest, the Banaras Hindu University women students have challenged this world view. They have issued a profound challenge to the attempts to deny them the autonomy to dress the way they wish, to keep the male company they want, to follow the lifestyles they choose to adopt.

There has always been a strong conservative streak in Indian society. But using coercion to seek compliance in the public arena has decidedly been on the upswing ever since Hindutva began to rise in the early 1990s. Claim that their efforts are aimed at protecting women from being sexually tormented, Hindutva groups have sought to regulate women’s participation in the public arena through norms laid out by men. In other words, women’s power is deemed to flower best under male patronage.

Such ideas stand challenged at Banaras Hindu University, where women students, through their protest, have claimed the same rights as men. For them, building a New India is not just about having access to quality education, but having rules and norms that do not discriminate on the basis of gender.

When Rohit Vemula committed suicide, the BJP set out to prove he wasn’t a Dalit as if that would have normalised his death. Photo credit: PTI

Pushing back

At Hyderabad Central University, unrest began in July 2015 and intensified with the suicide in January 2016 of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student. The unrest was triggered by the opposition of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, to a seminar on campus about the hanging of Yakub Memon for his role in the 1993 Mumbai bombings. The seminar was held under the banner of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, which draws its inspiration from the life and work of the Dalit icon BR Ambedkar.

An alleged scuffle between Ambekarite students and a leader of the ABVP prompted the university’s administration to take punitive action: five Dalit students, including Vemula, were debarred from their hostel for six months. The punishment was perceived as unjust because the ABVP members involved in the fracas were not similarly punished. When Vemula committed suicide, a vast section of the BJP, including central ministers, set out to prove he wasn’t a Dalit but was a member of another marginal caste – as if that could have justified his death.

The Hyderabad Central University agitation symbolises Hindutva’s conflicting attitude to caste. Hindutva strives to bring Dalits under its umbrella, as is evident from Prime Minister Narendra Modi lavishing praise on Ambedkar and BJP president Amit Shah partaking of meals in Dalit households. But the precondition for this attention is that Dalits must eschew radicalism and avoid questions about the social structures that render them marginal.

From this perspective, Vemula and his friends were punished to silence them, because they, like the women in Banaras Hindu University, should have felt privileged to be allowed access to education and mobility that would come with it. In return, of course, they were expected forego their quest for equality, shun politics and refrain from undermining the existing social order of upper-caste dominance.

Certainly, that is not the New India that the students of Hyderabad Central University want. That was evident when the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s failed to win even one seat seat in the student union election held last month.

JNU stir

As far as Jawaharlal Nehru University goes, the protest there was more a pushback against Hindutva’s provocations and its attempt to capture what it thought was the last frontier for establishing ideological supremacy. For long, the university has been a place where unpopular causes are supported – the struggle against the oppression of the Adivasis and the Dalits, opposition to the Indian state’s violation of human rights, support for Maoism and the right to self-determination. Radicalism has been the university’s cherished tradition, as has been the indulgence of students by the university authorities.

It was this tradition that Hindutva sought to destroy in February 2016. A protest meet was organised by a few students against the execution of Afzal Guru for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament and in support of the right to self-determination in Kashmir. In another time, the protest could have passed without a blip. But the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protested, a confrontation ensued, and the university was painted to be the breeding ground of anti-nationals.

The BJP government thought it could scare away the students with arrests and charges of sedition against their leaders. Quite the contrary happened. The student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was pitchforked into the limelight, becoming a household name when he delivered an eloquent speech criticising the prime minister. More significantly, it sparked a furious debate on the meaning of nationalism: does it entail supporting the state when it acts against its own people, crushing and even killing them? Or does it mean pressuring the state to provide justice, equality and dignity to the people who constitute the nation?

It is difficult to tell whether Modi’s conception of New India includes the issues symbolised by protests in the three universities. But, certainly, the young, including the women among them, do not seem to think a New India of their dreams is taking shape. They would not have protested otherwise. Nor would they have voted against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in successive student union elections. The ABVP failed to win any seats in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University or the top two posts in Delhi University, where it has been traditionally strong. It has also faced reverses in Rajasthan, where the BJP is in power. To build a New India of the aspirations and dreams of the young, Modi should first learn to listen to them.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.