People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 03, 2006
Seventy Years Of Organised Student Movement
R Arun Kumar
ORGANISED student movement is seventy years old. It was in 1936 that the efforts to form an all India student organisation bore fruit, along with the All India Kisan Congress (later renamed as All India Kisan Sabha) and the Progressive Writers’ Association.
These organisations emerged out of the quest of the people for means to put an end to the British rule in India. The suspension of the civil disobedience movement and the situation thereafter, the influence of the ideas of Bhagat Singh and his comrades propagated widely through their arguments in the court, their subsequent martyrdom, the influence of the developments taking place at the international level –– rapid progress of the USSR through planned economy, anti-colonial struggles across the world, had all contributed to the formation of organisations to mobilise different sections of the people in the freedom struggle.
The programme of the AISF had combined the aim of achieving freedom and other social problems with the problems faced by the students. A call was given to observe November 20 as all India students’ day to propagate the programme of the organisation along with a charter of demands. The first conference of the AISF held in Lucknow adopted 25 resolutions and a 23-point charter of demands. The very first resolution adopted at the conference on what necessitated the formation of a student organisation states: “It has been resolved that a permanent all-India organisation of students be formed with a view (a) to encourage cultural and intellectual cooperation on equal terms between the students of various provinces and Indian states (b) to suggest improvements in the present educational systems (c) to safeguard the rights of the student community and (d) to prepare the students for citizenship in order to take their due share in the struggle for complete national freedom by arousing their social, political and economic consciousness.” The conference also decided to start an official organ, The Students’ Tribune, to propagate its views.
Apart from the resolutions concerned with education system like demanding the reduction of fee, changes in the examination system, democratisation of education system, language policy etc, the conference also passed resolutions concerned with the economic, social and political situation of the country. It appealed to the students “to acquaint themselves with the problems of Indian masses, to study their coming problems and come in contact with rural and industrial India.” Through its resolutions the conference drew the attention of the students to the economic hardships of the Indian masses, unemployment, poverty and starvation.
All these show that the pioneers of Indian student movement never visualised the student movement as a strand by itself and cut-off from the concerns of the society at large. They sought to integrate the students in the national movement by organising them first on the issues that are of immediate concern to them and then slowly developing their political consciousness. They were driven by an indomitable urge to free the country from all kinds of shackles and not just the foreign rule.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the president of Congress, who had inaugurated the conference, spoke at length about the merits of socialism. He had urged upon the students to view the Indian struggle for independence as a part of the struggle against colonialism taking place throughout the world. Nehru had specifically brought the Palestinian liberation struggle and the fight against fascism in Spain to the notice of the conference. The maturity and sensitivity of the student movement organisers of those times, their keen observation of the international developments can be understood from another resolution that the conference passed on the growth of fascist forces.
STUDENTS & POLITICS
It is all the more imperative and necessary to remember all these ideas in today’s neo-liberal era when there is an attack on students’ involvement in politics. The proponents of neo-liberal policies and the ruling classes preach that students should not bother themselves with the problems of the society. Even the courts these days are sermonising against student politics. It may be important to note that Lala Lajpat Rai emphatically answered this question. In his presidential address to the first All India Students’ Conference, held in December 1920 (precursor to the formation of AISF) he had said, “I am not one of those who believe that students ought not to meddle in politics. I think it is a most stupid theory and an impossible theory too. It is the creation not of confused brains but of dishonest brains.” Dishonest because they want to monopolise the political domain and thus continue with their loot. They do not want the students, who have the advantage of access to knowledge, to understand this, educate and mobilise the people against them.
There is another section that resists the entry of students into politics out of “genuine concern for the future of the students”. They think that instead of bothering about the problems of the society, students should utilise their time for studies and concentrate on their career. In their love for their children and students they forget that an individual cannot live unaffected by the policies pursued by the government. As Nehru had put it “Is the examination hall or the counting house dearer to you than India’s freedom…what shall it profit you to get your empty degrees if the millions starve and your motherland continues in bondage! Who lives if India dies? Who dies if India lives?” Some counter this by arguing that those were the days of freedom struggle when India was under colonial yoke and that now we are living in a free and independent country that does not necessitate the participation of students in the political arena. It is true that we have achieved political independence but we are still not economically independent. The grand visions and dreams that our freedom fighters had fought for, suffered and gave their lives for are yet to be achieved.
In the 23-point charter of demands that the formative conference of AISF had adopted, many are still pending even in independent India. Let us evaluate a few of them.
The first point in the charter underlines the need for ‘considerably reducing the general cost of education’. Instead of reducing the cost of education today we have commercialised education to such an extent that according to the government appointed CABE committee report India is one of the few countries where the fee collected is the highest, more than what is collected in developed countries. Many children are left out of the education system as the high cost of education is acting as a deterrent in parents sending their children to even a government school that is supposed to provide ‘free’ education.
The second demand in the charter was ‘provision of free and compulsory primary education’. We are approaching sixtieth year of our independence, committed ourselves in many national and international forums to achieve this target. The goal posts of the timeframe have shifted but the target is still eluding us forcing the UN to comment that the gender disparity in education is so high that India will be a defaulter of this millennium development goal. Even today the government is dillydallying on the introduction of the right to education bill in the parliament as they feel the money that needs to be invested in granting such a right would be a burden on the exchequer.
The third demand was ‘the textbooks shall be so chosen that they are free from anti-national or anti-democratic ideas’. The communalised and plagiarised textbooks of the NDA era, not to forget about the fate of the textbooks in the BJP-ruled states depict the glaring failure in achieving this demand till date. To top it all the present Jharkhand government led by the BJP is refusing to supply history textbooks that the present UPA government has prepared by correcting the distortions created by the previous central government. This shows to what extent these inherently anti-national and anti-democratic communal forces can go in this matter.
The fourth demand was ‘there shall be complete freedom of speech and organisation to the students within the schools and colleges as well as outside’ and related to this was another demand ‘the universities shall recognise student unions and allow their representatives the right to submit their demands and grievances to the authorities’. Another demand was ‘no student shall be victimised for taking part in politics’. In many states in our country there are no student unions in the campuses and in many of the private institutions they are not even allowed to enter the premises. This is true even in some of the so-called ‘elite centres of excellence’ run by the government. Victimisation of the students who question the injustices in the education system is a common phenomenon in many education institutes. The vice-chancellor of Punjabi University in Patiala who has expelled many students for this very reason and is acting as a dictator in the campus is a recent example. The same was and is the experience in Benaras Hindu University, Andhra University and many other universities, not to speak of the private education institutes.
CONCERN FOR SOCIETY
The same is the case about the situation of unemployment that the freedom fighters wanted to eradicate. In spite of the economic growth and boom, large sections of our youth are unemployed and under employed. It took these many years to guarantee employment for the youth and even that too has been limited to only 200 districts in rural areas alone. Reports of starvation deaths, farmers’ suicides have become daily news – news for statistics but not humanitarian concern. People are asked not to bother much about the malnutrition deaths but see the ‘prosperity’ in the growing number of malls. This only shows that the rich are enjoying the fruits of labour while the poor are going down the economic ladder. Even internationally, Palestine is still fighting the Israeli aggression that is openly supported by the imperialist powers. The imperialist wars are continuing in another form. The attack on Afghanistan, Iraq and now Israel’s attack on Lebanon are all wars of aggression and crimes on humanity. Innocent children in our country and across the world are dying for no fault of theirs. Wars, hunger, famines, poverty, destitution, unemployment surround us. Doesn’t all this appeal to our sensitivities? Is it not our responsibility to address these concerns? If addressing these issues is what politics is all about should we shy away from politics? We should remember that it is not a messiah who has brought us freedom nor was it a gift of benevolence by the colonial rulers. It is the struggle carried out by multitudes of students and the masses that were inspired by a vision of free India bereft of socio-economic injustices that brought us independence.
The time has come for the students and youth of our country to question whether the dreams of our freedom fighters are realised. Is it not our duty to accomplish their unfinished agenda and realise their dreams. If the students and the youth of our country who constitute nearly 54 per cent of the population limit themselves to just paying lip service to the freedom fighters and ‘ceremoniously’ observe the red-letter days in our history, who will act for the deprived masses? It is time for us to introspect who our idols are. Real inheritors of the legacy of the freedom struggle will join their hands in changing the education system in our country, rooting out unemployment, eradicating social evils like untouchability, caste discrimination, wiping out poverty from the face of the earth, work for a longing peace and only then can we ‘wipe the tears from the face of the poorest of the poor’. For this let us read what Nehru had to say:
“I am convinced that the only key to the solution of the world’s problems and of India’s problems lies in socialism and when I use this word I do so not in a vague humanitarian way but in the scientific, economic sense…I see no way of ending the poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation, and the subjection of the Indian people except through socialism. That involves vast and revolutionary changes in our political and social structure…That means the ending of private property, except in a restricted sense, and the replacement of the present profit system by a higher ideal of cooperative service.” - presidential address of Nehru to Lucknow session of Congress; April 1936.