The Dynamics of Student Protest

M.L. Sondhi

Motherland, Nagpur Times, Amrita Bazar Patrika,
Assam Tribune, Navbharat Times
April 12, 1974

The Gujarat students have drawn national attention to the primary factors which have created an environment of frustration and bitterness in India in the mid-seventies.  Their activities throughout the length and breadth of Gujarat in the nation’s capital provided examples of a political culture reminiscent of the best days of the nationalist struggle.

For gauging the effectiveness of the means adopted by the Nav Nirman Samiti it is not enough to view them in the context of the populist attitudes which have been foremost in the minds of the power wielders in India in the last few years.  In a sense, the Nav Nirman Samiti had no “stock in trade” of symbols and rituals of the various varieties of Indian progressives.  Their political activism succeeded in making visible the matrix of events in pre-independent India when a creative consensus of beliefs was achieved through personal and social communication.

No Squabbling

When some of the Central leaders dubbed them as Fascists, they had the “revolutionary” vision to make a more sophisticated endeavour to translate the needs of the entire community rather than stumble upon the ideological rationalisations of the “crackpot realists” in the ruling party.  The magnetic field of Gandhian ideas helped the Gujarat students protest movement to shift the foci of the statewide agitation away from sterile ideologies to political and social experimentation free of political squabbling.

The repeated use of the Border Security Force and the Special Police enabled the “collective leadership” of the Nav Nirman Samiti to challenge the “Garibi Hatao” slogan of the ruling party with the demonstrable use of “self sacrifice” and “moral outrage” of the Gujarati student community.  While the Nav Nirman Samiti focussed on the national issues in Gandhian terms, the Central leadership’s parameters were sheer dogmatisms which were presented through the mass media with the help of half truths.

As the Centre drew closer to the crucial decisions on Gujarat it was clearly evident that the leadership in New Delhi was yet to develop a capacity for communication with the youth.  The meetings of the Nav Nirman Samiti with the Central leaders did not produce much substance primarily because the Gujarat students were refusing to accept the semantics of both political clichés and party labels.  The official attention was riveted on the question of the “upper-middle class” leadership of the student movement and ignored the salient features of the political strategists.  Thus it failed to perceive that the movement was not focussed on some outlandish issues; its impetus came from a total rejection of the substantial inroads which money-power and corruption had made in the guise of the “Garibi Hatao” programme.

The student representatives in the Court of Gujarat University were in a position to examine the broad spectrum of official attitudes in the light of public proclamations.  They expressed their demands and indignation not in the context of vague ideological positions but on the basis of their own cumulative experience of important individuals and groups openly bent upon bypassing the legal rules and regulations.  By the time they led the famous procession of goats with cartoons of the political leaders, the student representatives were fully aware of the deep scars on the surface of Gujarat’s political and administrative life caused by men who had earned high political dividends by radical slogans.  The force and falsehood used by the government was of no avail in subverting the moral force of a struggle against corruption and high prices not in the interests of a segment of society but for protesting the largest and most vulnerable sections of the population of Gujarat. 

Nav Nirman Statement

Thus one of the pronunciamentos of the Nav Nirman notes: “The people, for the first time experienced the mighty wave of youth-power drawn to the surface.  With childlike curiosity the people witnessed this drama of energy and recognised that the youthful community for the first time, instead of being swept away meekly by the time-worn social current had determined to express the voice of their conscience by using their own talents and their decision expressed and was in tune with the predictions given out by the leaders of old”.(sic)

The statement goes on to list the contradictions and conflicts generated by the student activism in Gujarat (a) the Authorities used systematic and cruel methods to crush the movement (b) the mass communication channels played an irresponsible role (c) people previously involved in corruption began to fear the popular agitation (d) profiteers worked against the youth (e) those frightened by the movement included people whose status and image was in jeopardy (f) anti-social elements (g) opportunists who misguide the people violated the rules of the movement and exploited the situation (h) the violent incidents were not caused by student hostility; these were the acts of “agent provocateurs” and (i) reliance on the inhuman excesses of the police and the Special Reserve Police on innocent citizens exposed the weakness of the Government.


It was the social commitment of the Nav Nirman Samiti which helped them communicate with each other and also shape the contemporary consciousness of Gujarati society cutting across all classes.  It is significant that the charges against the students becoming “tools” of reactionary forces are not taken seriously in Gujarat.  On the other hand a number of generalisations are accepted even by those who have a natural apprehension against student movements:  (i) The Gujarat students played an important back stage role in fostering communal unity in the State and there has been a definite sharpening of national awareness; (ii) the student movement tended to give greater importance to highly talented men and women without regard to political ideology.  “Student Power” in Gujarat was not pitted against the university faculty.  Persons with high academic prestige were invited to put across their points of view; and (iii) by adopting the rhetoric of social reconstruction rather than revolution, the Nav Nirman Samiti was able to create a relaxed attitude which facilitated cooperative social arrangements.

The question whether the Gujarat-type protest movement will be repeated elsewhere in India is of two-fold interest.  First, although the hardship caused by high prices and corruption exist in other States, perhaps to a greater extent than in Gujarat, the special sensitivity to Gandhian standards may be lacking among those who organise campus unrest elsewhere in India.  Second, the “collective consciousness” which accommodated student activism in Gujarat might be disrupted in the galloping drift towards food riots, vandalism and general violence.

A number of points can be made about the orgy of violence which Bihar witnessed shortly after the consequences and lessons of Gujarat had begun to impose on the public mind of that State.

Bihar violence

First, there was a wholesale turn of events by the participation of the political parties in what could have otherwise been a student’s movement on the Gujarat pattern.  The clash of fundamental caste had political interests did not create the “revolution of consciousness” inherent in the Nav Nirman programme.

Second, the effect on the social fabric of the student movements in Gujarat and Bihar was quite different.  By avoiding narrow-minded prejudices the Gujarat students developed a solid basis for a State-wise strategy to get their demands conceded.  The lingering antagonisms among different political factions were reflected in the student body in Bihar.  The attacks on the “Aryavarta” and “Indian Nation” newspaper offices and the setting on fire of the ‘Searchlight” and “Pradeep” buildings showed a deplorable lack of commitment to the welfare of the community.

Third, the ambitions and problems of a political party like the CPI created profound flaws in the student movement in Bihar.  A clear look at the Gujarat agitation suggests that it happened spontaneously and at all times the demands of the students were negotiable.  The confrontation of the CPI-led student demonstration with the Bihar Education Minister showed visibly the pathology of party rigidity.

Fourth, while the Gujarat students rejected the intervention of persons claiming to be political benefactors and were full of optimism that they would usher in a new order, the Bihar students have not been able to preserve their identity from the plethora of Opposition parties operating in the State.  While it would be too simplistic to say that the role of Mr. Jaya Prakash Narayan was more important from an emotional and symbolic point of view in Bihar than in Gujarat, it does point to the fact that the Gujarat students were not willing to jeopardise their own status as a community by giving a disproportionate influence to an “outsider” however well-meaning.

The Gujarat model and the Bihar model are both clear indications that an unprecedented wave of student activism is sweeping across India.  The major reason for popular backing of the student’s demands by the entire Gujarati community was that the Nav Nirman Samiti did not impose absolutism of doctrine.  Political parties with dogmatic ideologies either kept away voluntarily from intervening in the movement or were prevented from achieving dominance and prestige by public opinion.

The moral identification of the student with the entire community was a marked characteristic of the Gujarat movement during its intense phase.  It was this which prevented its degeneration into cut throat rivalry and helped the rest of the country to perceive and accept the values of Nav Nirman Social Reconstruction. The grave contradictions in Bihar are a warning that students activism can produce great oscillations if blind instincts detract from the authority of student leaders.
<< Back