Baptism of fire. That’s how it used to be. College and university students’ unions became the melting pots of political ideology, where one came of age. One started reading, arguing and questioning. The Sixties. Youth were taking the plunge into politics inspired by the liberal concepts of JS Mill, inflamed by the radical Marxism of Marx.
A country’s youth is the most mobile and dynamic segment of society. Youth have long played a vital role in liberating people from foreign rule, overthrowing dictatorial regimes and mounting crusades against social injustice and economic exploitation.
Understandably, given the problems of underdevelopment and colonialism, youth movements have made their notable contribution in Third World countries of South and South-east Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Indonesia, and South Vietnam were overthrown by youth. In Thailand, South Korea, Turkey and Iran, youth successfully led national movements against authoritarian regimes. Youth played a significant role in mounting agitations in 19th century Czarist Russia and formed the backbone of the revolutionary movement in China in the 1920s and 30s, and in Cuba in the Fifties.
Protesting the Soviet -supported Czechoslovakian authoritarian rule following the brutal ouster of Alexander Dubcek, a teen student, Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1959. In 1956, anti-Stalinist revolts in Budapest and Warsaw were sparked off by youth protests. And the pro-democracy youth agitation which led to the massacre in Tiananmen square in China is too fresh to need any comment. Youth participation in protests against the King of Nepal brought him to his knees.Back home, youth movements have a long and impressive history. Perhaps the first youth protest was mounted in the 1880s for holding ICS examinations in India. Later, the highly emotive issue of the proposed partition of Bengal in the beginning of the 20th century sparked off violent youth agitations, and some members of a student’s terrorist organization made an attempt on the Governor General’s life. So sustained was this movement that of the 186 persons arrested in Bengal between 1907-1917 for revolutionary crimes, 68 were students.
But it was Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience movement in 1920 which led to youths’ countrywide political mobilization. By the time the second Civil Disobedience movement was launched in 1930, youth militancy hadbecome an important component of the freedom struggle. Even in 1930 many youths had left colleges and taken up organizational work on behalf of the Indian National Congress. The first all-India College Students Conference was held in Nagpur in 1920.One of the major agitational campaigns organized during this period was a series of demonstrations against the Simon Commission (1928). Many youth leaders took up the task of organising industrial labour and became deeply involved in trade union activities.
With the intensification of the political struggle in the 1930s, the youth movement acquired not only greater momentum, but also spread to wider sections of the campus. In response to Gandhi’s call fornon-cooperation, youth not only left their studies and gave a fillip to the boycott movement, but they also cut telephone lines and indulged in other acts of sabotage. It is an index of the political awareness and social commitment of the youth of that era that when agitational activities were at a low ebb, the youth activists occupied themselves with social service like holding adult literacy classes and spreading nationalist ideas amongst the masses.
It was the Quit India call in 1942 that saw the youth movement enter its most militant phase. Educational institutions all over the country were closed, youth took a very active part in acts of sabotage, disrupted civil administration, and helped to maintain liaison with underground leaders to keep the agitation going. Thousands were jailed, hundreds were rusticated. And this tempo was maintained till the end of the freedom struggle.After Independence, the youth movement lost much of its ideological elan, and protests were mostly confirmed to the redressal of local grievances like lowering of tuition fees, improvement of teaching and hostel facilities, postponement of examinations etc. But there are several notable exceptions, and when the provocation was sufficiently grave, youth mounted vigorous agitations with decisive results.
Incidentally, the massive youth turbulence in West Germany, France, and the USA in the mid-1960s witnessed a spate of youth demonstrations in India also. In the late 1950s, youth expressed solidarity with political parties to demand a better pay scale for teachers. In 1962, many students faced lathi charge and died in the subsequent firing while protesting the government’s efforts to allow big landowners to hoard food grain. The Students’ Health Home was set up largely due to the efforts of the beneficiaries – students themselves.
Following a series of youth agitations against corruption, the Orissa government was forced to resign in 1964. Violent youth in south India forced the Central Government in 1965 to reconsider its Hindi policy. Youth power was manifested again in the 1967 elections when Kamaraj, the Congress president, was defeated. Again, in 1974 the corrupt government of Chimmanbhai Patel in Gujarat was ousted in the wake of the Nav Nirman movement. Youth had backed Jaiprakash Narayan’s crusade leading to the collapse of the Bihar administration. In Punjab, extremists relied heavily on youth for their cadres. The youth movement was sufficiently strong in Assam to ultimately form a government of student leaders in the state. More recently, the UPSC had to succumb to the pressure of students regarding its Civil Services Preliminary Examination question papers.In West Bengal, though youth supported the democratic mass movement pioneered by the SFI in the 1980s, the growing unemployment problem in the state and the withdrawal of English from the primary school level caused bitter resentment, especially among youth in the city.
This is an impressive record of youth activism. Youth movements not only seemed to be drawing sustenance from the freedom struggle, but they also lent vital support to it at critical junctures.
Youth the world over has influenced change through action fueled by awareness. But sadly – into the 1990s – matters came to such a pass that youth began forming independent unions. For most students, campus politics seemed to be synonymous with rowdyism. Values, ideologies, and morals took a backseat for them even as a prime minister featured prominently in a big scam. The tremendous media uproar against corrupt politicians and criminalisation of politics as well seemed to have compelled youth into believing that politics is nothing but a dirty game.The disintegration of the Soviet Union spelt the death of Communism for most political pundits. The youth began to talk about “a new world order”, but in vain. The commitment of the youth to the Centrist course and their ready response to “mainline political opportunities” seemed to point to an element of moderation and sobriety that we do not normally associate with the spirit of youth.
Whereas during the freedom struggle the single point agenda of freeing the country provided the focus for all protest movements, after 1947 one expected the students to play a larger role in national affairs. After all, students have the greatest stake in the country’s future, and any damage to the polity should hurt them most. But whether it is the criminalisation of politics, or the spread of corruption, or the spread of the cult of communalism or plain dismantling of our social institutions, the youth seemed to be passive observers. In fact, when a great blow was delivered to our system by the declaration of Emergency in 1975, youth activism seemed to be on the wane. Moreover, youth and student leaders have too frequently allowed themselves to be readily used for factional and partisan ends.
There was a resurgence of youth power when the young took to the streets after the publication of Mandal Commission reports. Now, once again, youth power is on display over recruitment to military services. But the establishment will take hope from the fact that no leader of substance has come to the fore, to shepherd the movement.