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The anatomy of student protests

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In the good old days, newspaper headlines carried opinions and protests carried out by opposition leaders. These have now been replaced by slogans and demonstrations by hitherto unknown Student Union leaders and before we can memorize the name of even one of them, a new one crops up. To understand this tectonic shift in Indian polity, it is important to understand two concepts- the history of student politics and the meaning of the term “ecosystem”.

One of the first student unions and organized social movements was started by Dada Bhai Nowrojee in the year 1848. Student organizations played an important part in Non Co-operation and Quit India movements as well. Dale Carnegie, in his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” writes that the key to impress people is genuineness, which was the characteristic of pre independence student protests. Students were ideal as soldiers of the independence movement because, compared to the general masses; they were more qualified to understand British exploitation making them more receptive to the nationalist message. Almost all protests were nationalist in nature and not centered on an individual leader. Post-independence, student unions started having political affliations, with a purpose to provide youth muscle and new talent to the parties. Most of the student protests were localised in nature like the Naxalite movement or the Chippko movement. Anti-Mandal protests remain one of the few pan national movements. Things changed significantly with the onset of the new millennium.

An ecosystem is essentially a social system that replenishes and nourishes elements of society conducive to a particular ideology. Mythologically it could be explained by 2 examples. First is the famous “Gurukul” system, wherein an individual had to go through the rigors of training which helped him achieve his maximum potential and made him ready to lead the society. This system required lots of investment, produced one or few leaders at a time and took years of perseverance. On the flipside, the leaders produced like Arjuna are of superior quality- highly respectable and worthy.

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The second example of an ecosystem is a famous story of the demon “Rakhtabeej”. The legend goes that he had a boon, by which he could clone a copy of himself from every drop of his blood that would be shed on the ground. This made him near invincible, because whenever he was close to being killed he would simply flood the battlefield with copies of himself duplicated from drop of his blood. Such an ecosystem can simply create any number of leaders out of nowhere to help itself survive. This requires minimal effort by the ecosystem, the leaders produced are expendable (since new ones can be readily created), and it can frustrate the enemy purely by numbers. However, there is a compromise on quality and leaders fail to garner respect and affection of society at large. In modern times, organizations like RSS constitute the former, while Media is representative of the later.

Ecosystem has always nurtured student politics and this took a new turn in 2012 when the Anna Movement rocked the nation. Many educated people and students joined the agitation against corruption of UPA II. This movement had the proverbial Dale Carnegie “Genuineness” to it, till it took a political turn later. In UPA II, the Gandhi family had weakened and become vulnerable, Rahul Gandhi and his famed capability had become well known. The fall of the original leader, thus, pushed media into an overdrive to generate newer leaders and opposition. Success of Anna agitation further emboldened the ecosystem and soon, opposition leaders gave way to student leaders of a select few universities; campus agitations replaced parliamentary debates. They made it student vs Modi, so that inefficiency of the opposition could be camouflaged. Now people talk more about campus slogans, than about the inability of Rahul Gandhi to counter PM Modi on any front. Over the past few years, Media created Hardik Patel, Kanhaiyya, Umar Khalid and many more, reminding us of Rakhtabeej.

Most of the student leaders have WhatsApp groups of media persons and all they need to do is write one message that suits the opposition agenda, and in no time, will it be broadcasted across all media platforms and the said student leader shall occupy news space for few hours to days. The publicity granted depends on how much the student leader is willing to bend as per the media’s agenda.

Now, unlike previous protests, these protests are failing. Firstly, they lack genuineness or sometimes even a rational reason. Hence, we often see the protest shifting from Anti NRC to Anti 370 or Azaadi. Second is the inherent defect in “Rakhtabeej” ecosystem -lack of quality of leadership. Neither Hardik Patel nor Kanhaiyya has ever spelt out their economic vision for the country, their plans on improving banking sector etc. Thirdly, their appeal is urbanized and limited to same couple of universities. Unlike, Chipko or Naxalite movement which dealt more with rural and real issues, their demands of “azaadi” are too abstract and irrelevant for major part of our society. They have never provided any real solutions which the rural folks can connect with. Fourthly, the issues and the leaders change so rapidly, that they fail to hold attention. Moreover, he ecosystem cannot afford to continue with one topic for long, since too many leaders are being created and all need to be accommodated. Lastly, the protests are largely discredited, due to their association with the “Tukde Tukde” gang and support from across the border.

Having been a part of and even led quite a few Resident Doctors’ protests, I realized that media provides coverage as long as an anti-government protest is going on. The movement the protest ends, no media tries to cover the aftermath or result of government promises. It is quite notable that Central Trade Unions’ nationwide strike on the 8th of Jan, was completely overshadowed by a campus fight in JNU.

We must remember that Taliban movement in Afghanistan too started as a student movement. In the final fight with Rakhtabeej, Goddess Kali ensured that he is killed without a drop falling on the ground. Can today’s Demons be tackled similarly? Can there be a Kali today?

The solution is complex and requires a deeper understanding. There are five players in these game- common voters, ruling government, opposition, Media and attention hungry student leaders. The first three players are bounded by democracy and electoral compulsions. If voters are convinced about cause of the protests, they would vote for the opposition; if they are not, they continue voting for the ruling BJP. In a marketing sense, voters are the consumers here. Media and student leaders are not dependent on voters; rather they are inter-dependent on each other.

Media makes an unknown student leader famous and in return gets TRP. Here is where problem gets complex. Although the target of their masters is voters, they have nothing to do with the popular opinion and can continue their exercise, even if voters keep punishing the opposition. In the current scenario, a demoralized and demotivated opposition has little to lose with these protests and are better off hoping that somehow it could change its current political predicament.

Job of the government is to ensure that law and order is maintained, come what may. So, the buck stops with the common folks to transform into Kali and ensure that publicity, which is their “Drop of Blood” is cut off. We must stop reacting and trending them on social media, avoid watching the media houses which exclusively support them, avoid indulging in online debates with anarchists and instead, try debating them more face to face. The Government should curb financial irregularities, if any, carried out by the owners and promoters of media houses. University administrations must ensure that campus rules are not breached and strict disciplinary action is initiated against the miscreants.

Lastly, we need to understand this new political warfare involving our college campuses (whose primary purpose was education). Nationalist individuals within these campuses should take initiative and counter this propaganda on every platform available within and outside the campuses. We must always remember that the darkness of propaganda is always defeated by the light of truth.

Dr Viraj Nevrekar
MD Medicine (AIIMS, New Delhi)
DM Medical Oncology (AIIMS, New Delhi)
Ex General Secretary RDA ( Resident Doctor Assosciation) AIIMS, New Delhi (2018-2019)
Currently residing and working in Mumbai
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