Baptism by fire. It was like that before. Unions of college and university students became crucibles of political ideology, where one reached the majority. We started reading, discussing and asking questions. The sixties. Youth plunged 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. Young people have long played a vital role in liberating peoples from foreign domination, overthrowing dictatorial regimes and launching crusades against social injustice and economic exploitation.
Naturally, given the problems of underdevelopment and colonialism, youth movements have made their notable contribution in the Third World countries of South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. The governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Indonesia and South Vietnam have been overthrown by the youth. In Thailand, South Korea, Turkey and Iran, young people have successfully led national movements against authoritarian regimes. Youth played an important role in the rise of unrest in 19th century Tsarist Russia and formed the backbone of the revolutionary movement in China in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Cuba in the 1950s.
Protesting against the Soviet-backed Czechoslovak authoritarian regime following the brutal ousting of teenage student Alexander Dubcek, Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1959. In 1956, anti-Stalinist revolts in Budapest and in Warsaw were triggered by demonstrations by young people. And the pro-democracy youth unrest that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China is too recent to require comment. Youth participation in protests against the King of Nepal brought him to his knees. In his country, youth movements have a long and impressive history. Perhaps the first youth protest was organized in the 1880s to hold ICS examinations in India. Later, the highly emotional issue of the proposed partition of Bengal in the early 20th century sparked violent unrest among young people, and some members of a student terrorist organization attempted to assassinate the Governor-General. This movement was so sustained that of the 186 people arrested in Bengal between 1907 and 1917 for revolutionary crimes, 68 were students.
But it was Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in 1920 that led to the political mobilization of young people across the country. By the time the second civil disobedience movement was launched in 1930, youth activism had become an important component of the struggle for freedom. Even by 1930, many young people had left the colleges and taken up organizing work on behalf of the Indian National Congress. The first all-India conference of university students was held in Nagpur in 1920. One of the major campaigns of agitation organized during this period was a series of protests against the Simon Commission (1928). Many youth leaders took it upon themselves to organize the industrial workforce and became deeply involved in trade union activities.
With the intensification of political struggle in the 1930s, the youth movement not only gained greater momentum, but also spread to wider sections of campus. In response to Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation, young people not only dropped out of school and boosted the boycott movement, but also cut phone lines and engaged in other acts of sabotage. It is an indication of the political awareness and social commitment of the youth of this time that when agitation activities were at their lowest, young activists were involved in social services such as the organization of adult literacy and the dissemination of nationalist ideas among the masses.
It was the Quit India appeal in 1942 that saw the youth movement enter its most militant phase. Educational institutions throughout the country were closed, young people took a very active part in acts of sabotage, disrupted the civil administration and helped to maintain liaison with the underground leaders to maintain the unrest. Thousands were imprisoned, hundreds were rusticated. And this rhythm was maintained until the end of the struggle for freedom. After independence, the youth movement lost much of its ideological momentum, and protests were mostly upheld for the redress of local grievances like lower tuition fees, improved educational facilities and accommodation, postponement of exams etc. But there are several notable exceptions, and when the provocation was severe enough, the youth mounted vigorous agitations with decisive results.
Incidentally, the massive youth turbulence in West Germany, France and the United States in the mid-1960s also led to a wave of youth protests in India. At the end of the 1950s, the youth expressed their solidarity with the political parties to demand a better salary scale for teachers. In 1962, many students faced lathi charges and died in the ensuing shootings while protesting government efforts to allow large landowners to hoard food grains. The Student Health House was created largely through the efforts of the beneficiaries – the students themselves.
Following a series of youth agitations against corruption, the government of Orissa was forced to resign in 1964. Violent youth in southern India forced the central government in 1965 to reconsider its politics in hindi. The power of young people manifested itself again in the 1967 elections when Kamaraj, the president of Congress, was defeated. Again in 1974 the corrupt government of Chimmanbhai Patel in Gujarat was ousted as a result of the Nav Nirman movement. The youth had supported Jaiprakash Narayan’s crusade leading to the collapse of the Bihar administration. In Punjab, the extremists relied heavily on young people for their cadres. The youth movement was strong enough in Assam to eventually form a government of student leaders in the state. More recently, UPSC had to succumb to student pressure regarding its civil service preliminary examination questions. In West Bengal, although young people supported the democratic mass movement launched by the SFI in the 1980s, the growing problem of unemployment in the state and the withdrawal of English from the primary level caused bitter resentment, in especially among the city’s young people.
This is an impressive record of youth activism. Youth movements seemed not only to derive their sustenance from the struggle for freedom, but they also gave it vital support at critical times.
Young people around the world have influenced change through actions fueled by awareness. But unfortunately – in the 1990s – things got to such a point that young people started to form independent unions. For most students, campus politics seemed to be synonymous with rowdiness. Values, ideologies and morals took precedence over them, even when a prime minister figured prominently in a big scam. The huge media outcry against corrupt politicians and the criminalization of politics seems to have led young people to believe that politics is nothing but a dirty game. The disintegration of the Soviet Union spelled the end of the communism for most political experts. Young people started talking about “a new world order”, but to no avail. The engagement of young people in the centrist course and their immediate response to “primary political opportunities” seemed to indicate an element of moderation and sobriety that we do not normally associate with the spirit of youth.
While during the freedom struggle, the country’s unique liberation agenda was at the center of all protest movements, after 1947 students were expected to play a greater role in national affairs. After all, students have the greatest stake in the future of the country, and any damage to politics should hurt them the most. But whether it was the criminalization of politics, the spread of corruption, the spread of the cult of communalism, or the outright dismantling of our social institutions, young people seemed to be passive observers. In fact, when a big blow to our system came with the declaration of emergency in 1975, youth activism seemed to be on the wane. Moreover, youth and student leaders have too often allowed themselves to be easily used for factional and partisan purposes.
There was a resurgence of youth power as young people took to the streets after the release of the Mandal Commission reports. Now, once again, the power of young people is on display in recruitment into the military services. But the establishment will take hope from the fact that no background leader has come forward to lead the movement.