Before he reached Class 9, Akshay Rathod knew almost nothing about the Indian Constitution or its architect, Bhimrao Ambedkar. Even though Rathod came from a Dalit family in Gujarat, there was little conversation about these topics, either at home or in his school in a village in Surendranagar district.

“I faced a lot of untouchability and discrimination from the Rajput students in school, and there was nothing about Ambedkar, the Constitution or secularism in our syllabus,” said Rathod. “Even on Republic Day, the speeches at school would be about the threat of Pakistan, not the Constitution.”

Now, as a 23-year-old Bachelor of Arts student at Ahmedabad’s HK Arts College, Rathod has been enthusiastically attending protest rallies against the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the government on December 12, 2019. He is clear that the law – which fast-tracks the citizenship process only for non-Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries – as well as the proposed National Register of Citizens, are unconstitutional, discriminatory towards Muslims and against the spirit of secularism.

This awakening, said Rathod, happened because he was lucky to have one tuition teacher and an uncle who began mentoring him when he was in Class 9. “They helped me recognise that I was experiencing casteism in school, and opened my mind to a lot of issues that I was clueless about,” said Rathod. At HK Arts College, which has had a history of promoting liberal education, he had an opportunity to engage with social justice causes further. When protests erupted across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Rathod did not think twice about joining in.

Across India, thousands of students like Rathod have been at the forefront of this movement against the CAA and NRC, particularly after brutal police attacks on students of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia in mid-December.

Like Rathod, however, many of the protesting students believe they would not have been speaking out today had they not made an effort to break away from their conservative schooling, open their minds and engage in critical thinking once they entered college.

“Where I come from, Hindus are taught to fear Muslims from a young age and Muslims are taught to fear Hindus,” said Rathod. “Even now, my classmates from school have very little awareness about these protests beyond what the mainstream media says. We will have to work to change this.”

A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi on December 19. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Symbolism matters

Not far from Rathod’s college, in Ahmedabad’s Gujarat Vidyapith, Anis Utpal believes at least half the students at his university have still not been able to unlearn deep-seated prejudices that were drilled into them by a largely biased education system.

“I grew up in Bihar’s Aurangabad district and my schooling there was fairly secular,” said Utpal, who is doing his PhD in journalism at Gujarat Vidyapith. “But things are different here in Gujarat, which has had a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government since the 1990s.”

Utpal has travelled to many parts of the state for research, and describes many public schools in rural Gujarat as “right-leaning”. “If you go to private convent schools, there will be symbols of all different religions on the walls. But in most rural public schools, all the symbolism is Hindu, from prayers to photos of gods,” said Utpal, who believes that such childhood socialisation plays a huge role in shaping people’s minds. “Gujarat also has some 250 hostels set up by different caste groups only for students of their own communities. So even when students get older and start going to college, their exposure is limited. They take longer to change their views.”

According to Utpal, upper caste and Other Backward Class students tend to be more prejudiced along religious and caste lines, and most of the students protesting against CAA from his university are Adivasis and Dalits.

Two kinds of people

While students from minority and marginalised communities have very direct reasons for turning out in large numbers to oppose the CAA and NRC, some, like law graduate Abhishek Khandelwal, believe that one’s demographic background is not the key factor determining how a person shapes their ideology.

“I think there are two kinds of individuals in our country – the ones who get swept away by any propaganda about things like a Hindu rashtra, and the ones who analyse history, think critically and understand the principles on which our Constitution is based,” said Khandelwal, 24, who finished his law degree from Ahmedabad’s Nirma University in 2019.

After several Nirma University students participated in an anti-CAA protest on December 17, the university administration forced the students to sign an undertaking stating that they would refrain from participating in more protests. Their parents were also sent messages claiming that the police and Information Bureau had taken details of the students from the university, and that the police would create a record against the students if they took part in more protests against the CAA.

While these students are now afraid to speak out, Khandelwal claims that there are many other students within Nirma University who support the government’s stance on the CAA. “It comes down to who you are as an individual – how inclined you are to use your reason,” he said.

A protest against the NRC and Citizenship Act at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, on December 19. Credit: Scroll staff

Subject matters

Unlike Khandelwal, however, several other protesting students believe that studying the humanities or coming from institutions known for liberal education has been a major factor in determining which type of student has been stepping out to protest.

“I did not study humanities in Class 11 and 12, so I was not really thinking critically about things that I wrote in my papers,” said Sashwat Raut, a 19-year-old arts student from Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, who believes most of the students he has seen leading protests in the city have been from colleges like his own, or the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “In college I came across people with multiple different ideologies. I am glad I have sociology as a subject so I can understand them and introspect.”

At Ashoka University in Haryana, 21-year-old Nachiket Vaidya also believes that the subject one is studying has a definite influence on how people think. “From what I see, the students participating in the protests are mostly studying social sciences, law or are from more liberal colleges like the IITs,” said Vaidya, a political science student.

Vaidya believes he himself would not be out on the streets if it was not for the subjects he is studying in college. “Because of my studies, I have been able to see the prejudices that my family members hold,” said Vaidya, who claims his family is easily influenced by government propaganda. “Their views did not affect me so much before this [the anti-CAA protests] but now I realise that they are four of them against me. They outnumber people like me, and their votes count.”

Vaidya points out that many protesting students have the same problem with their family members. But perhaps the most significant task that students have taken on to keep up the momentum of the protests is engaging with pro-CAA family members and friends on a one-to-one basis.

“Right now, students are doing a great job of explaining the nuances of CAA and NRC to people who don’t understand what is at stake,” said Vaidya.