1. In the face of a deepening economic and social crisis and rapidly declining credibility and legitimacy of the ruling elite, we are once again witnessing very encouraging signs of a powerful student-youth movement across the country. The wind that started blowing in 2011 against corruption, corporate loot and growing collusion between big corporations and the ruling elite became a veritable storm by December 2012, erupting right in the national capital over the issue of justice for the 23-year-old paramedical student who was gang-raped and brutalised in a moving bus in Delhi and who died subsequently in a Singapore hospital. AISA and RYA, the flagship platforms of revolutionary democracy in the student-youth movement, have been playing a key role in mobilising the student-youth community in the ongoing struggles against corporate plunder and sexual violence and for the freedom of women.
2. The youth upsurge in Delhi (which soon spread to other parts of the country) which saw equal participation of both young women and men was the first instance of its kind when the issue of gender violence occupied the centre-stage of a massive and sustained campaign braving water cannons, tear gas and barbaric lathicharge. At a time when the ruling elite is waxing eloquent about the youth and its aspirations and reactionary political forces are desperately seeking to use the youth to serve their sectarian and anti-democratic political agenda, the independent assertion of youth power around key questions of democracy is a development of great revolutionary significance.
3. From Latin America to Europe, and from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, from Tahrir Square to the Shahabag protests, there is a powerful imprint of the youth on what can be termed a global awakening against neo-liberalism, imperialism and tyranny. Viewed against this international backdrop, the growing democratic assertion of the youth in India has delivered a big blow to the imperialist lie that the days of youth revolt were over and that bourgeois consumerism was the ultimate answer to the aspirations and dreams of the youth.
4. Naxalbari marked the first youth revolt in independent India rising in support of the peasant rebellion and propelled by the revolutionary dream of building a new democratic India. Just when the ruling classes thought they had crushed it, there came the second wave of youth upsurge in the form of the 1974 movement against corruption and autocracy. The ongoing student-youth awakening may well be termed the third major milestone in this series. Even though it may not yet have any explicit agenda of radical social transformation or political change, it certainly has the potential to grow into a powerful upsurge against feudal-patriarchal fetters, corporate-imperialist plunder and authoritarianism and state repression.
5. All these youth revolts highlight the essential features of any vibrant youth movement – (i) the sensitivity of the youth to larger social and political questions, especially to the key agenda of democracy, freedom, justice and social transformation, (ii) the ability of the youth to forge a fighting unity transcending the barriers of caste, creed, language, culture and social status or background, and (iii) the indomitable spirit of resistance and refusal to bow to any unreasonable and repressive authority. While recognising the specific conditions and needs and aspirations of the youth faced with vastly different circumstances, we must never lose sight of the broader character of the youth movement.
6. In India’s official discourse the youth is invoked only as a demographic category. There is enough empty talk about India reaping demographic dividends thanks to her growing contingent of young people without ever really recognising the basic needs, aspirations and rights of the youth. The fact that half of India’s population is below 25 years of age and two-thirds of Indian people are less than 35 years and that consequently India has the world’s biggest contingent of youth cannot be treated as a statistical record to marvel at. The real question is how much is the country investing in its youth and what kind of opportunities are the youth getting to explore, express and develop their talent and enormous capacity.
7. The agenda of education, health, employment, adequate availability of opportunities in diverse fields of life, affirmative action for students and youth from remote areas and disadvantaged social, cultural and economic backgrounds, and freedom of choice and freedom from fear is central to the healthy and balanced development of India’s children and young people. Yet these are the most neglected aspects in India’s corporate-driven imperialist-dictated development strategy. The result is a huge reserve army of unemployed people, abundant supply of cheap labour in the Indian labour market and constant assured flow of skilled labour and professionals to foreign countries to fulfil the needs of global capital (brain drain).
8. Instead of ensuring universal quality education for all, and using education as a tool for rapid and comprehensive human development, the ruling classes are using education as a tool to reinforce and reproduce inequality in the society by all possible means. Whether we talk of quality primary education or higher education, especially in specialised areas like medical sciences and various avenues of technology, commercialisation and privatisation of education is the order of the day. While anarchy is allowed to prevail in most government-run educational institutions where teachers and educational facilities are always in short supply, private coaching centres are mushrooming across the country. The entry of foreign universities in India will further strengthen this trend of commercialisation and privatisation, turning higher education into an elitist preserve.
9. The so-called Right to Education Act passed by the UPA Government has in fact institutionalized the trend of privatization of education that makes good quality schooling unaffordable for poor students. In higher education also, the UPA Government has introduced a set of Bills that attempt to facilitate corporate takeover of higher education, freeing private and foreign players of regulatory frameworks and any obligations towards social justice. State governments have also begun to legislate laws for the setting up of private universities. The Four Year Undergraduate Programme being imposed in Delhi University in the face of resistance by educators and students alike, is another indicator of the ruling class agenda of integrating India’s higher education with the American model, while institutionalising the tendency of economically and socially deprived students to drop-out of higher education.
The student-youth movement will have to fight hard for the reversal of the policy of privatisation and to secure universal right to affordable quality education through a common school system and to keep higher education within the reach of students from rural, working class or lower-middle class backgrounds. Parents and general people should also be involved in struggles against hikes in fees of private schools and highly inadequate quota for poor students. In colleges and universities, struggles should be intensified against fee hikes and for facilities like hostels, libraries and laboratories.
10. The systematic policy of communalising and saffronising education poses a serious challenge to the student movement, especially in BJP-NDA ruled states. Moreover, even in universities in the metropolises, the communal outfits have, through violent protests, succeeded in censoring the syllabus, thanks to the shameful surrender by educational establishments and non-BJP Governments. Prominent instances include the withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from the Mumbai University syllabus and withdrawal of AK Ramanujam’s seminal essay Three Hundred Ramayanas from the Delhi University syllabus following violence by the Shiv Sena’s youth wing and the ABVP. The student movement must offer robust resistance to every attempt at saffronisation and censorship, whether by Governments or communal outfits. In addition, the student movement must also struggle to ensure that syllabi and pedagogic practices, as well as the ethos of schools and higher education institutions, are socio-culturally and linguistically inclusive. The student movement must also strive to uproot deeply-entrenched class, caste, and gender discrimination in the educational structures.
11. While trying to keep large numbers of students away from higher education, the ruling classes are also trying their best to curb campus democracy and deny students their basic democratic right to elect their unions and have their say. Regular elections are not held in many universities – for example, elections were held recently in Patna University after a gap of nearly three decades. Even in a campus like Jawaharlal Nehru University known for its democratic environment, elections could not be held for four years thanks to the unreasonable and undemocratic restrictions imposed by the Lyngdoh Committee. AISA has been in the forefront of the student movement for restoration and expansion of campus democracy.
12. The right to work remains conspicuously absent in our constitutional charter of fundamental rights. The much trumpeted MNREGA, touted as the world’s biggest employment guarantee programme, makes a mockery of the concept of employment guarantee. Unemployment allowance is used as a paltry occasional dole to win elections in a state or two, and the growing army of the unemployed has absolutely no provision of social security. The fight for securing the fundamental right to dignified employment and adequate unemployment allowance for periods without employment therefore remains a key task of the youth movement.
13. With higher education or professional training courses becoming increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible, millions of young people have to go in for whatever jobs are available. These jobs are mostly contractual, involving heavy work-loads and long hours of work in lieu of extremely insufficient income. Regularisation of employment and improvement in wages and working conditions remains the central concern for these young workers. The youth movement must address this central concern in close cooperation with concerned trade unions.
14. Issues like mass education, public health and sanitation, civic amenities, energy, public transport, environmental justice and disaster management must also figure prominently as important concerns of the student-youth movement. We are passing through a paradoxical situation in which urbanisation is going on in an unplanned manner without adequate and appropriate infrastructure or minimal civic amenities. Instead of taking responsibility for filling these gaps, the neo-liberal state is busy privatising every essential service. Rural areas are of course far more neglected in terms of infrastructure, basic services and civic amenities. The fight for basic amenities, affordable housing and functional services has therefore assumed paramount importance and the youth movement must respond accordingly.
15. The student-youth movement inspired by the Naxalbari tradition has always been driven by the dream of radical social transformation. Integration with the working people and their struggles, especially with the rural poor, has therefore been a cardinal principle for revolutionary youth vanguards. While taking up the whole range of immediate and key issues concerning the overwhelming majority of students and youth, and trying to broaden the base of the movement, vanguard activists must continue to uphold and practise this basic revolutionary principle. In the present phase, the student-youth movement must boldly stand by the peasant-adivasi resistance to corporate land-grab and mining loot and the working class movement for industrial democracy and trade union rights.
16. Afraid of the huge potential of united assertion of the youth, the ruling classes constantly try to divide the youth along caste, communal, linguistic and regional lines. Maharashtra has seen the ugliest kind of chauvinistic politics systematically targeting and attacking young job-seekers and migrant workers from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
The sinister SMS-campaign in the wake of the Kokrajhar violence in Assam and the resultant panic has revealed the vulnerability and insecurity experienced by students and young migrant workers from the North-eastern region.
17. In many parts of the country students and youth from oppressed castes continue to face feudal violence and social discrimination and humiliation. The miserable conditions prevailing in hostels meant for dalit and adivasi students, shocking reports of systematic sexual exploitation of young tribal girls in some states, the inhuman ragging often faced by dalit-adivasi students in engineering colleges, and the recent attacks on dalit student hostels in Bihar in the wake of the killing of the Ranveer Sena chief give us an idea of the kind of plight and prejudices that students from disadvantaged social background have to experience within the education system and the larger society. Young people, especially Dalit youth, who marry in defiance of caste norms, have been at the receiving end
of violence at the hands of khap panchayats and regressive forces. The freedom of young people, especially young women, has been under attack from the Sangh Parivar and various fundamentalist outfits. The revolutionary student-youth movement must stand up boldly against feudal, casteist, communal, chauvinistic, patriarchal and sectarian violence in any part of the country.
18. SC/ST reservations in jobs often routinely go unfulfilled; and in the era of liberalisation, there are systematic attempts to undermine SC/ST and OBC reservations in jobs and education. AISA has led some significant and successful struggles against such attempts. AISA’s movement which led to a landmark verdict against the subversion of OBC quotas in universities was of national significance. The student movement must defend SC/ST and OBC reservations against the ideological assaults in the name of ‘merit’ as well as against the attempts to subvert such quotas.
19. In many parts of the country, Muslim and tribal youth find themselves at the receiving end of a relentless state-led witch-hunt campaign. Branded respectively as terrorists and Maoists, many innocent Muslim and adivasi youth have been implicated in false cases and are languishing in jail, while some have fallen prey to staged encounter killings or even custodial death. In Kashmir, Manipur and certain other areas where the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in operation, or in areas under the repressive Operation Greenhunt, large sections of the youth face a veritable war-like situation. The long arm of state repression also seeks to crush fundamental rights of citizens by slapping sedition charges or various clauses of the criminal law as has been seen in several recent cases. Students at the forefront of mass movements – such as for a separate Telangana and for justice for the Tamil victims of genocide in Sri Lanka – have been met with state repression. The question of defending liberty and democracy must therefore continue to be high on the agenda of the student-youth movement.
20. The massive participation of young men alongside young women in the recent upsurge against the Delhi gang-rape case has highlighted the need to recognise the question of resisting sexual assault and patriarchal violence as a key agenda of the youth movement. The point is not to merely seek exemplary punishment for a few rapists or to inculcate the spirit of chivalry among young men to protect the dignity of women, but to reject the patriarchal baggage lock, stock and barrel. This calls for a veritable revolt against the feudal-patriarchal order that continues to dominate the mass mindscape and mainstream social values and a major attitudinal change that can enable men to treat women as equal human beings in every sphere. The struggle between the rotten old system and our cherished values and dreams of democracy, freedom and equality manifests itself most sharply and with great intensity on the whole set of issues that are often loosely described as the women’s question. The student-youth movement must treat the question of women’s freedom and rights as a central part of the youth agenda, boldly uphold progressive democratic values, reject retrograde views and practices and resist moral policing or caste/community threats in matters of individual freedom.
21. A powerful student-youth movement necessarily calls for powerful mass-based revolutionary organisations among students and youths. In this regard, both AISA and RYA have achieved a degree of stable and organised expansion in recent years, but if we are to do real justice to the potential of the present situation we need a much bigger breakthrough. The student-youth awakening and assertion we are currently witnessing in the country is a much larger, truly national, phenomenon. Our own experience also highlights the huge potential and there is need to spread the organisational network of AISA and RYA to smaller towns and semi-urban panchayat areas.
22. To conclude, let us recall the clarion call of Comrade Vinod Mishra that is particularly relevant for today’s youth movement: “Key questions of social and political importance are never settled within the four walls of State Assemblies or Parliament. All such major questions are always clinched through the movement on the street, beyond the boundaries of parliament, and at times even bombarding the unresponsive institutions. This is the way every major movement has advanced in history. The power of the student-youth movement must make every corrupt minister and official (and, we may add, those who are guilty of feudal-communal atrocities and violence against women) shiver in terror.”