The protests against a hike in hostel fees at the Jawaharlal Nehru University has brought a host of concerns to the fore, ranging from the inclusivity of higher education to the fate of our publicly funded universities and the debate over our higher education policy. But what has been ignored in this debate is the fact of how we treat and look at students. Do we consider them to be equal citizens?

The JNU protests have been primarily seen as a question of ensuring access to quality higher education, especially for those who are from deprived or economically weaker backgrounds. As someone who has researched student politics in Punjab in the early 20th century, examining the relationship between student politics and Indian nationalism, this incident raises some larger questions. How does a free and independent nation-state look at and treat its students? How does it treat their claims and contestations as democratic citizens? What kind of expectations does it have of its students?

In order to answer these questions, it would probably be profitable for us to go back in history. Students are a neglected lot in South Asian history and their contribution to the freedom movement has not been adequately appreciated. The protesting student is a marginalised figure and rarely finds mention in the annals of nationalism.

Moreover, nationalist history seeks to marginalise and suppress students and their struggles and worse still, in some accounts such as the one by Pandit Pearay Mohan, students are seen as collaborators of the Raj. More often than not, students have been seen as minor figures or passive participants in the epic story of nationalism. They are not seen as legitimate historical actors and agents in their own right.

For students, participating in the national movement meant sacrificing their careers. My own great-grandfather Lala Chuni Lal Nayar, who inspired my research, was blacklisted for the Indian Civil Service for his participation in the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919. He was a student of Government College of Lahore back then. During the course of my research, I came across hundreds of students like my great-grandfather who sacrificed their careers and lives for the national movement.

The likes of Nanak Chand Kapur, Pran Nath, Shamsher Singh, Fahur-ud-din, Bhagwan Das, Dina Nath, Sher Singh, Manzur Hasan Khan, Durga Dutt, Din Dayal, Des Raj and others were either suspended or expelled from their colleges or had heavy fines imposed on them. Some were even banned permanently from seeking readmission. In some instances, under martial law, authorities in Punjab also ordered the flogging of so-called seditious students.

‘Subjects, not citizens’

The attitude of the colonial state towards students is strikingly similar to how they are treated in free and independent India. In the postcolonial context too, it seems the state has inherited colonial attitudes and prejudices as far as students are concerned. This is evident from the manner in which JNU students were brutally lathicharged by the Delhi police. Both the colonial state and the nation-state look upon students as nuisance creators.

Then, as in now, the protesting student is thought of as someone who needs to be dealt with firmly or disciplined using the iron hand of the state. Protesting or rebellious students are not only treated with contempt, they are more often than not considered to be little more than anarchist, seditious, or even worse, anti-national elements. Protesting students are seen as prone to violence and creating chaos and anarchy, not as citizens capable of reasoned debate and dialogue.

If both the history of nationalism as well as nationalist history have ignored students, the nation-state has not given them their due either. Though they are seen as resources for the nations’ future, they are not seen as active participants/stakeholders in shaping that future. Our higher education policy too neglects the concerns of students, who are subject to institutional apathy. Often treated with contempt by members of faculty or university administration and authorities, students are not seen as democratic citizens worthy of respect.

Much like the colonial state, the nation-state continues to look at students more as subjects than citizens. Subjects who should be loyal and are meant to be punished at the slightest display of disobedience. More often than not, what is meant by a “good student” is the one who assiduously stays away from politics and confines himself to his studies. The expectation is that students should be de-politicised beings.

[Left to right] Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya are among the student leaders of JNU who were pitchforked to the national spotlight in 2016 after some of them were charged for sedition. Photo: PTI

Probably the first step towards treating students as equal stakeholders in a democracy or recognising their claims as democratic citizens is to acknowledge them as political and historical beings. What we often forget is that students also happen to be citizens who have the right to ask questions about how they are governed and the decisions that affect them. They too are stakeholders in the political process.

Adopting merely a utilitarian approach or attitude towards them as future productive citizens of the nation-state denies them their distinct political imagination and a voice in shaping the nation. That the voices and contribution of students in the making of the nation have been marginalised has meant that students have got a raw deal from the nation-state. We must recognize them as historical actors to see them as democratic citizens.

Perhaps the students at JNU too can learn a thing or two from students in Punjab who took part in the Non-Cooperation movement. Protesting against the Raj, they adopted novel and creative techniques of resistance. At the peak of the Non-Cooperation movement, students of Khalsa College Amritsar dressed up a donkey, hung a board around his neck saying, “He too wants to appear for the exam”, and took him to every classroom.

It was a novel way of mocking the stubbornness of the Raj. Though separated by nearly a century, the students protesting today may learn from their predecessors, and like them sing in the indomitable spirit that the students of Punjab sang, “Asi nahin harna bhaven saddi jan jaye” – we shall not accept defeat, even if we lose our life.

The author wrote his dissertation on student protest and resistance in colonial Amritsar and Lahore, 1918-22, while studying for a masters degree in Modern South Asian History at SOAS University of London.