The Debate | Opinion

Public Spaces and Radical Solidarity Define India’s Student Protests

India’s student protesters are standing up for a particular vision of the country.

By Surajkumar Thube for
Public Spaces and Radical Solidarity Define India’s Student Protests
Credit: AP Photo

“We, the people of India…” — this phrase has become a clarion call among the students protesting against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act in India. These introductory lines from the preamble of the Indian Constitution have been invoked by students protesting not just in and around Indian universities, but also by student communities across the globe. This specific moment of a public reading of the preamble stands out for two reasons.

First, even at a symbolic level, the preamble has become a primary source for arousing reactions to perceived threats to the pluralistic social fabric of Indian society. Having the introduction to the constitution as a catalyst for a collective response breaks such mobilization free from more divisive sources like religion and ideology. Second, even if the preamble carries minimum heft in legal fighting over larger issues of social justice, its public invocation is both sociologically and historically unprecedented. The very act of students claiming the everyday public space with the preamble is a historic moment. The Navnirman movement, which saw the beginning of the rise of all latter-day stalwarts of right-wing politics in India, had a discerning conservatism attached to it. If that movement was initiated and led by student leaders, the present protests embarked on reclaiming public spaces without leaders. This speaking out in the language of the constitution can largely be seen as an act of re-appropriating the inclusive, all-encompassing liberating potential of public protests.

Public groups and communities have referred to the text of the constitution in fighting their collective legal battles in the past. At the same time, public outrage has seldom been seen channel through the constitution for the humanizing of the “Other.” The definition of this “Other” during the protests has widened and has shown signs of pushing for a group of Muslims, farmers, and India’s tribal people as natural allies. It is in this way that the idea of a public university acquires a new meaning where the collective alienation of these allies is brought out in the public domain. This is the microcosm of India that has systematically been ignored. Public universities are the platform where voices of resistance seek their courage and empathy. If voting is the only emancipatory political tool for the indigent, inclusive and affordable education at a public university is the new reformulated and radical tool for social change. Unlike the historic apathy and ignorance of highlighting issues of social change in the public domain, the recent vandalization of campuses and most importantly the libraries and hostels has been received by students as an attack on their personal, intimate spaces which they view as their last hope of emancipation.

In response to the vandalization of libraries and reading rooms, mobile libraries on footpaths outside universities have opened. This is not just an act of active defiance against the intrusion of personal educative spaces but also a strong signal to those people who ridicule these acts of resistance by constantly harping about how students must study and not do politics. These have been amplified by public lecture series, often under expansive titles surrounding nation and nationalism. The participation of teachers and research scholars on the dusty roads of North India have turned the hitherto impersonal spaces into educative “Commons.” Other events, either organized or spontaneous, are worth our attention as well. The very act of marching in unison signifies intent and purpose. Sloganeering in public has resoundingly pinned elections to crown themselves as the real “dance of democracy.” The seamless connections of colloquial one-liners and humorous hashtags of the social media world with the rhythms of everyday life out in the open has seen more palpable resonance among a wider audience.

Political graffiti using roads as the canvas of political messaging has amplified the visual radicality of public spaces. Students chanting the national anthem and offering their Namaaz (Muslim prayer) whilst not shying away from their everyday religious moorings has brought back a healthy confrontation of religion and secularism back into the national imagination. Not to mention, practicing Hindus forming human chains in order to protect Muslim students while they pray is the human form of visual radicality. As moving images consume the popular imagination, human formations coax the neutral public to at least register their attendance. Curiosity has always thrived in open air discourse. Street theaters are a hallmark of this cultural potency. The new book on the deceased activist Safdar Hashmi called “Halla Bol” by Sudhanva Deshpande concerns itself with his remarkable foresight in the using of the public arena to inculcate a sense of empathy. The public is the place where curiosity meets empathy. Protests and its multiple forms act as a conduit in creating this narrative. The raising of placards and photo frames of Indian heroes of the independence movement lay further credence to this evolving story.

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Creative placards have not only pulled no punches back in calling spade a spade but have also interestingly reignited interest in language, dialects and the revolutionary zeal of quotidian humor. If English is used for the more stoic presentations of reading out solidarity statements in public, vernacular language has owned the space of colorful dissent. Similarly, photo frames of Indian personalities who have fought for social justice issues have cropped up in protests. If Gandhi and Ambedkar are being made to be seen as allies in a common fight against fascistic tendencies, a regional figure like Mahatma Phule has become transregional by the raising of his photo-frame in Punjab. There is a mutual recognition of one “people” and not “Hindus” or “Muslims.” Nameless and faceless people are voluntarily turning into chaiwallahs and serving the protesters with free water and food.

The radical potential of the public transcends national boundaries. When students from London, Munich, New York, Oxford, Johannesburg, and many other places rally for equity and dignity, solidarity trumps the cynicism of the enclosed boundaries. However, this narrative of solidarity and using the public space to galvanize people presents interesting and challenging questions. Can the idea of street solidarity compensate for the failure of a genuine embedding of a common idea of citizenship? Is solidarity inherently ephemeral and might that jeopardize the already short shelf life of a protest movement? For how long can public spaces act as the theaters of democracy? We cannot let this reassertion of politics into the public space to decline, but we also need to be constantly debating and discussing these fundamental questions.

Surajkumar Thube is DPhil student in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford.