From 1905 Eden College Calcutta to 2019 Jamia, students’ voice remains ‘iron backbone’ of democracy

The first students’ strike took place in 1920 in King Edward Medical College, Lahore (now in Pakistan), against the academic discrimination between Indian and English pupils.

From 1905 Eden College Calcutta to 2019 Jamia, students’ voice remains ‘iron backbone’ of democracy

The student wings of political parties have been a very vital organ of the democracy in giving birth to many prominent leaders in the country. (Photo: IANS)

With the Citizenship Amendment Bill passed in both the Houses of Parliament and getting the President’s assent to become an Act, nationwide protests have broken out against the controversial law which allegedly is anti-Muslim in a secular country like India.

Amidst the protests, a sacrosanct community in the democracy — students — emerged holding the banner and acting as a barrier for the implementation of the Act, raising a strong voice against the government. This is not the first time that this community has come out against the government. In fact, it has been active for the last 200 years, playing a crucial role in India’s struggle for independence with revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh himself as the prime face of the community.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which has been the think-tank of India, has come to the fore with fresh protests after a group of masked individuals entered the campus holding sticks and iron rods and attacked a specific group of students and teachers in which the JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh also suffered a serious injury on her head.


The attack was condemned nationwide by almost every section of people, be it film industry, with actor Deepika Padukone visiting the campus to stand in solidarity with the students or the politicians who came out attacking the ruling BJP over the incident.

Another violent and horrible attack on the students was unleashed in the national capital itself last month as dusk fell on December 15, when police personnel, tracking the protesters against CAA, smashed their way into the main library of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, firing tear gas shells. Being horrified by the police move, many students hid inside bathrooms, where too, they were targeted.

However, in both the incidents, the reason behind the protest was different. As for Jamia, the protest was against CAA while in JNU it was against fee hike. The attackers were also different. In Jamia, it was the police while in JNU, it was a specific section of students as well as outsiders.

But in both cases, the Police and the Central Government were in question. Ironically, in JNU, police were not able to take action as it didn’t have permission from the authority and later in a press briefing, Delhi Police PRO also said that the police deployment was not in the area where the violence broke out. However, in Jamia, the protocol ironically seems to be different as the police didn’t worry about the varsity’s permission and entered the campus and launched a hunt in the library, leaving it vandalised.

The national capital was not the only spot for the protests as Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, Jadavpur University in Kolkata and Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, among others came forward with its students coming out with strong voice against the Act as well attack on their counterparts in Delhi.

India has had a strong history and a significant background in students’ protests; whether it was in independent India or for the independence of India.

The roots of students’ protest could be traced back as far as 1905 when the students of Eden College in Calcutta burned down the effigy of the then Viceroy Lord Curzon in protest against the decision of partition of Bengal.

However, the first students’ strike took place in 1920 in King Edward Medical College, Lahore (now in Pakistan), against the academic discrimination between Indian and English pupils.

After independence, students became a very significant and structured part of Indian politics as every political party launched its students’ wing functioning in different universities across the country.

The student wings have played a very vital role in democracy in giving birth to many prominent leaders in the country.

JP Movement: Bihar Student movement 1974

It started on a small scale in Patna University but resulted in a major landmark protest which turned the course of independent India.

The Chatra Sangarsh Samiti led by Jai Prakash Narayan focused on nepotism, corruption, electoral reforms, subsidised food and education reforms in the state. The non-violent protest later spread to several other educational institutions as well.

When the students’ agitation spread rapidly in the country, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in a sense of fear for her government.

It’s been almost half a century since the protest broke out, but today also, Bihar’s politics is influenced by the movement. The triumvirate of Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad and BJP state chief Sushil Kumar Modi are the products of the students’ movement.

Student movement in Emergency, 1975: A landmark students’ protest in independent India

Later, in the year 1975, a nationwide emergency was proclaimed by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government. During the Emergency, the Fundamental Rights of citizens were curbed and massive arrests were also made during the period.

One of the prominent and most discussed students’ agitations in independent India is during this period.

Due to restrictions on press and revocation of Article 19 of Constitution, which provides for freedom of speech and expression, students had to organise underground protests in the country.

Over 300 student union leaders, including Delhi University Students Union president late Arun Jaitley, who headed the Union Cabinet in Narendra Modi-led government during 2014-2019, and Jai Prakash Narayan among other prominent leaders, were sent to jail.

Assam Agitation (1975 to 1985): The igniting force of Assam NRC

Assam Accord, which was signed in 1985, was a result of the pollination by the protesting students in Assam against illegal migrants.

After the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the issue of illegal migrants was at its peak in Assam. There was a major influx in the state before the formation of Bangladesh due to persecution in the then East Pakistan. This influx was not restricted to a particular community. In fact, Sunni Muslims had also faced persecution in the Islamic country.

In 1947 after Independence, three geographical entities emerged — India, East Pakistan (Punjab side) and West Pakistan (Bengal side). But there were dissimilarities in East Pakistan and West Pakistan. The regulations in East Pakistan was governed by the secular and ecumenical authorities of West Pakistan. East Pakistan considered the West Pakistanis (Bengalis) to be insufficiently religious and far too culturally distinct.

The authorities later initiated a program of cultural and linguistic assimilation for the East Pakistanis. The reason for the launch of a major agitation in East Pakistan, that resulted in the formation of a new country, was the declaration of Urdu as a national language. It was an unwelcomed decision for the East Pakistanis as they were Bengali speaking people, distant from Urdu.

These policies led the Bengali Language Movement and the founding of Awami League in East Pakistan. Awami League further took the agitation forward to the formation of a separate country named Bangladesh in 1971.

In the meantime, India faced a major influx of migrants illegally entering its territory, specifically in Assam and West Bengal. It was also one of the reasons why the Indian government supported the Awami League Movement and helped in the formation of Bangladesh.

People in Assam agitated against the stay of illegal migrants in the state even after the formation of a Bangla dominating country.

The agitation was ignited in 1978 when the students took the flag of protest and it resulted in the signing of the famous Assam Accord in 1985 – a major topic of discussion in the present after the CAA came into force.

Like the other students’ agitations, the Assam agitation also gave a key leader to the country. Prafulla Mahanta, a student leader, who headed the Asom Gana Parishad, became the chief minister of Assam at a young age of 35.

Mandal Commission agitation, 1990: This time students’ were in a direct attack 

Students from across the nation, no matter of their political affiliation, stood shoulder to shoulder against the introduction of 27 per cent reservation in government jobs for the Other Backward Class (OBC) people.

In January 1979, a Mandal Commission was set up by the Morarji Desai government, chaired by BP Mandal to identify the socially or educationally backward classes to consider the question of seat reservation and quota for people to redress caste discrimination. The commission submitted its report to the President on December 30, 1980.

In August 1990, the VP Singh-led Janata Dal government implemented the recommendations of Mandal Commission of 1980 for the introduction of 27 per cent reservation for the Backward Class people in government jobs.

Opposing the decision, the students raised their voice which started from the University of Delhi and later spread across the country. The protests by the students turned violent in many parts of the country and in several parts, the students even boycotted exams.

The agitation took a very horrific turn when Rajiv Goswami, a student of Deshbandhu college of Delhi University tried self-immolation on September 19, 1990.

The agitation ended with the resignation of VP Singh on November 7, 1990, after the BJP withdrew its support from the government.

Anti-reservation protests, 2006

This time, the students took to the streets against the reservation system in educational institutes. In 2006, the Congress government introduced reservations for OBCs in both central and private higher education institutes, a move which the students termed as discriminatory. The protests were majorly staged by students and doctors across the nation.

However, there were some counter-protests in favour of the government’s decision.

Protesters claimed that reservation in premier institutes of the country like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and other higher level institutions, where it is already a challenge for the students to grab a seat, reservation for OBC students will lessen the chances of General category students and make it more difficult for them.

It is evident from the history of India, that students are the iron backbone of the country. It was attacked multiple times but remained unruptured and supported the democratic system of the country very well.

Students do not remain to be an entity which get a concession-pass to travel in government-run buses or for other government facilities, but it is the one which has a free voice in the functioning of government that should not be muted through sticks or iron rods.

Whether it was the 1905 Eden College Calcutta students’ protest or the 2019 Jamia Millia Islamia students’ protest, students have remained a vibrant voice of democracy.