openIndia: Opinion

India’s students risk playing into Modi’s hands

The protest movement is getting drawn into the ruling party’s divisive culture war.

Aniruddha Saha
3 March 2020
Students protest a rally in Kolkata at which Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah spoke on 1 March, 2020.
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PA Images

Over the last three months, India’s universities have turned into a battleground between two contrasting belief systems, principles and ideals. Young demonstrators have accused the government of pushing an anti-Muslim agenda and systematically destroying the country’s secular, multicultural and multilingual founding values. In turn, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has branded protesting students “anti-national”, a label that is increasingly being used to silence critics of the government. 

India’s liberal student body has long been a thorn in the side of the Hindu nationalist BJP. After taking power in 2014, the government moved to cut funding for research centres and exorbitantly increased tuition and hostel fees, while it's emboldened student wing has led physical attacks on students and faculty members. When, in December, students joined nationwide protests against a contentious new law which extends citizenship to refugees of all faiths except Muslims – it was the final straw.

The demonstrations have presented a challenge to Modi’s party decades-long project of transforming India into a Hindu-centric nation, and the government has responded with force against protesters. Armed police have attacked students on university campuses, emergency laws banning demonstrations have been imposed and internet access has been restricted. In January, a masked mob armed with clubs assaulted students and faculty at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Weeks later, a man opened fire at a crowd of student protesters days after a BJP minister called for “traitors” to be shot at a rally.

While the student movement shows no signs of waning, its goals, however, remain unclear. There is a risk too that its strategic missteps might exacerbate the polarisation of Indian society. Take, for instance, the JNU’s boycott of pro-government television channels. Such decisions are essentially impulsive and dangerous in nature as a large part of the Indian population still relies on television as its dominant source of information. Even though social media is saturated with content on the police crackdown of student protestors, the internet penetration rate is merely 36% compared to 66% for television. It is essential that protesters appear on television if they are to raise awareness about the BJP-led Indian government’s repressive response to protests. Refusing media appearances only allows pro-government television anchors and news programmes to push the BJP’s agenda unchallenged.

Secondly, the students have been drawn into using the polarising language that has gained ground since the protests began. Modi supporters have been branded “bhakts” (or fanatics) by opponents of the government, while they in turn have been labelled as “pseudo-intellectuals” and “pseudo-liberals” by Modi supporters. Not only does this rhetoric succeed in delegitimising one side against the other, it also makes dialogue between the two more difficult. Furthermore, it risks alienating a plethora of groups and observers who do not identify with either side. For example, Modi voters that disagree with his party’s religious agenda – the current Indian political climate fails to represent these people. 

Civil discourse is vital to democratic debate, but it is in increasingly short supply in India.

Political dialogue is also being undermined by an increasing amount of hatred and intolerance among all parties. This is particularly evident in the scathing personal attacks between high-profile anti-Modi and pro-Modi figures on television news programmes and social media. For example, in a debate held by India Today in January, a representative of the BJP stated that Kanhaiya Kumar (former president of the JNU Student Union) was young and irrational. Kumar responded by mocking the spokesperson’s weight. Civil discourse is vital to democratic debate, but it is in increasingly short supply in India. 

Finally, the student movement has not been successful in offering any concrete and long-time solutions to India’s democratic crisis. Even though prominent Indian intellectuals including the likes of Arundhati Roy and Ramachandra Guha have backed the protests, there is currently no strong political alternative to the BJP, which is the largest political party in the world. Roy has advised the masses to lie to government officials about their details to disrupt attempts to create a controversial national register of citizens. 

While challenging the government through disruption and shocks remain essential to sustain the democratic fabric of a country, prolonging such a situation without any concrete solutions also threatens to destabilise public order though mob tyranny. The protests have therefore become an Achilles' heel in the ability of the educated classes to serve as an effective buffer to doll out alternate legislative measures to the ones being proposed by the government.

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