Students protesting the CAA in Guwahati, Assam, India. 30 November 2019. Photo: Talukdar David /

Repression and resistance of India’s student movement

  • October 28, 2020

Education & Emancipation

Student movements face a tough time under Modi’s authoritarian rule — but Indian students have successfully resisted repression by the state before.

In the past two months, dozens of student movement leaders have been arrested across India as human rights violations in the country are becoming increasingly frequent. The arrests follow widespread opposition to the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), implemented in late 2019, in addition to the wave of sectarian violence it instigated toward the country’s Muslim population.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is currently using the communal violence of February 2020 to detain student movement leaders at the forefront of the movement. On September 14, 21 student and political leaders — mostly Muslims and feminist organizers — were arrested in New Delhi and falsely accused of instigating the violence. Then, on October 10, 14 student movement leaders were arrested in Hyderabad for protesting against the CAA.

Immediately after these arrests took place, Amnesty International was forced by the Indian government to halt all operations and had its assets seized because of its reporting on the Modi administration.

During India’s Emergency (1975-77), student leaders were similarly abducted and detained to quell the student movement and “restore democracy”. In order to counteract the violent suppression of student movements in India, revisiting this past can provide us with valuable lessons about how to launch civil resistance campaigns against authoritarian rule.

For my book, Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2020) I conducted nearly three years of archival and oral history research to recover the history of the movement against postcolonial India’s brief authoritarian period in the 1970s.

Revisiting the arrests and detentions of students during India’s 1975 Emergency provides important insights, not only for India’s student movement, but also for movements across the globe that are confronting authoritarian states with a demonstrated willingness to abduct, detain and use violence against student leaders.

As we shall see, the tactics that the anti-Emergency student movement used to resist Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule are relevant particularly in today’s context with the prohibition of public gatherings around the world.

Students against Hindu Nationalism

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014 revived India’s left student movement. Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist program poses an existential threat to religious minorities, Dalits (people belonging to castes that have been subjected to untouchability) and the rights of women.

The recent increase in violence against women, Dalits and Muslims is a direct consequence of the ruling party’s far-right Hindu nationalist ideology which delineates greatly restricted social roles for women and Dalits, rooted in regressive notions of Brahmanical (high caste) patriarchy. Muslims, by contrast, are seen by the ruling party as unable to be incorporated within the Hindu nation entirely. Since Modi’s election, lynchings of Muslims have become more frequent.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has been used to disenfranchise and revoke Indian citizenship of Muslims. Non-violent protests against the CAA were brutally suppressed by the police. In February of this year, Hindu mobs in North East Delhi assaulted, stabbed, and shot Muslims. Delhi Police not only failed to intervene, but even encouraged the violence.

However, India’s student movement, which has been revived since Modi’s election, offers a vibrant response to this state repression and persecution of marginalized groups. In 2014, a study group by the name of Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was stripped of recognition by the administration of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras for criticizing Modi and caste oppression. Afterwards, new APSCs began to proliferate at universities across the country.

In 2015, India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry made the political appointment of BJP associate, Gajendra Chauhan, as Chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), India’s most reputable film school. Students at the Institute went on indefinite strike. Over 139 days, they innovated new forms of protest including performance art, short films and other strategies.

One of the most well-known events of India’s contemporary student movement took place in February 2016 at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. The students’ union organized an event against capital punishment and when Hindu Nationalist student groups objected, the university administration prevented the event from taking place. Leaders of the JNU Students’ Union and event organizers were then arrested and charged with sedition because, as the far-right government saw it, the canceled event would have supported domestic terrorists.

Large solidarity protests and rallies in support of students were held across India and abroad. While the arrested students were members of various leftist student groups, support for the arrested students came from across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, the right-wing government and its supporters continued to vilify the JNU student movement and its leaders, declaring them and all of their supporters “anti-nationals.”

In December 2019, this vibrant, India-wide student movement mobilized once again to protest the CAA. At the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi police violently suppressed the protests, using tear gas and batons. Then, early the next morning, they invaded the campus, dragging students out of their dormitory beds and beating them in front of news cameras. The next day, police opened fire on the students, injuring hundreds and maiming one student by shooting him in the leg at point blank range.

In response, students organized solidarity protests across India. Amnesty International condemned this brutal repression of the Jamia students, while many in the Hindi film industry also voiced their support.

In light of these and countless other violations, political observers of India have characterized the contemporary political situation in India as an “undeclared Emergency.” The phrase directly alludes to India’s 1975 Emergency, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and declared herself India’s sole political authority.

India’s 1975 Emergency

India’s Emergency began in June of 1975, when India’s highest court found Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of corrupt election practices and barred her from holding office for six years. Instead of conceding, Gandhi declared a state of emergency, thereby installing a dictatorship in India. During the Emergency, political meetings, rallies and agitations were banned. State agents detained citizens without trial; both academic freedom and the free press were eliminated.

During the Emergency, students, intellectuals and journalists with dissenting views were subjected to surveillance, abducted by secret police and condemned without trial. Police shot and killed protesters without repercussion. Peasants were rounded up and taken to “family planning camps,” where they were forcibly sterilized. In cities, entire slums were bulldozed, leaving the most vulnerable urbanites without food, sanitation, water, shelter, or access to health care. These measures, which were carried out under the explicit rubrics of “development” and “progress,” disproportionately targeted historically disadvantaged and therefore vulnerable Muslims and Dalits.

India’s Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), which was originally enacted during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, was amended to grant the state and its agents the power to arrest and detain anyone without cause. MISA detainees had no recourse to constitutional or common law. Their cases were immune to judicial review, detainees could be kept indefinitely without being informed of why they had been jailed, and the judiciary had no right to information.

According to official figures, a total of 100,806 political prisoners were illegally detained during the Emergency. On the night that the Emergency was declared, the Superintendent of the Crime Investigation Department of the Delhi Police was given a list of 159 political leaders to detain. The Lt. Governor of Delhi, Kishan Chand, who later committed suicide because of the atrocities he committed, told an inquiry commission that the arrest orders for political prisoners on that night were issued by PM Indira Gandhi herself. She had helped create the list earlier that day and approved the finalized list of detentions to be carried out overnight.

Many of these arrests were made by the Special Branch, whose officers were ordered to kidnap individuals without grounds for arrest. Detainee could not be released on bail, as there was no record of the arrest.

Student movement leaders were abducted and detained in this fashion. For example, in the heat of the short-lived Students Federation of India Jawaharlal Nehru University Unit Student Strike in 1975, Prabir Purkayastha, a student who had only just joined the University, was abducted from campus by plain clothes Delhi Police in an unmarked car because officers believed him to be student leader, DP Tripathi. While no charges were ever filed against Purkayastha, he was denied bail and transferred to a prison in Agra, where he was placed in solitary confinement. Neither his student group, nor university administration were ever informed of charges brought against Purkayastha.

Once in jail, students faced horrendous conditions. When the Emergency was declared, five hundred prisoners were added overnight to the already overcrowded Delhi Prisons. By March 1976, the total number of inmates in the Delhi Prison system had nearly doubled, stressing the water and sewage systems beyond capacity. Toilets backed up as water lines corroded and leaked into the prisons. There were constant water shortages and no sanitary arrangements.

Furthermore, inmates faced poor food quality, inadequate medical care, lengthy periods of solitary confinement. Many political prisoners were not even given cots or pillows on which to sleep. Later, inquiry commissions concluded that jail staff intentionally kept conditions substandard as a form of physical and psychological torture.

Some groups were deliberately subject to even worse treatment, such as Muslims who had participated in the Turkman Gate Uprising. Their cells were lined with asbestos so that it would be unbearably hot in the Delhi summer. Delhi Jails Superintendent, SK Batra, stated that these asbestos lined cells were constructed with the intent to “bake” Muslim political prisoners. He added that “troublesome” prisoners were routinely put in the pagal chukki (the lunatic ward) as a form of psychological torture. Needless to say, many of these political prisoners died as a result.

Café culture fights back

Despite all this, the anti-Emergency movement was organized by student leaders on the left and right. From behind bars, leaders coordinated letters, resolutions, statements and helped facilitate meetings of students who were not arrested. Detained students from a wide range of political persuasions agitated for better prison conditions and more humane treatment.

Prisoner organizing was linked to a wide network of political actors through New Delhi’s café culture and urban autonomous zones, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, or — briefly — the Old Delhi neighborhood of Turkman Gate. In these urban spaces, new tactics were formulated and broad coalitions were formed. However, because mass public gatherings were banned, marches and rallies were not possible — and even if they were, they would have resulted in mass arrests — students had to innovate new strategies.

For example, students would strategically sit on a campus lawn or in a café and start a conversation with a passersby. They would then talk about movement objectives or plans for a strike, or distribute cyclostyled pamphlets containing news, political commentary and politically engaged poetry. Small groups of students would also go door to door in the dormitories informing other students about upcoming actions and educating them the anti-Emergency movement. Such strategies particularly resonate today as the global pandemic prevents large public gatherings.

Cafés were also used to facilitate violent protest against the state. Cooperative coffee house workers affiliated with the Communist Party collaborated with socialist regulars and the Socialist Party-affiliated Railway Workers Union to bring dynamite from Baroda, Gujarat to Delhi. Once the dynamite reached Delhi, coffee house workers gave it to Socialist Party leaders to strategically place around the city to destroy property as a way of showing India and the world that there was an organized movement against Indira Gandhi’s rule.

In addition to left coalitions, the café also fostered left-right coalitions that became important in ousting Indira Gandhi from office. The Janata Party, which came to power after elections were reinstated in 1977, was a coalition between a right-wing Hindu party and the Socialist Party. While initially there was widespread support for the Janata Party among both left and right groups that opposed the Emergency, the Janata Party ultimately collapsed due to infighting. This led to the fragmentation and eventual collapse of Socialist parties in India after the Emergency, while strengthening and legitimating the Hindu right-wing party.

But the safe space provided by the café was short-lived. In 1976, Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, ordered the Indian Coffee House location at Connaught Place in New Delhi demolished, putting an end to many activities that relied on the café culture to organize against authoritarianism.

Ultimately, the movement against India’s Emergency failed to defend urban autonomous zones from state repression. These failures, ironically, provided new openings for the Hindu right to come to power and then enact the authoritarian measures the contemporary Indian left is currently fighting.

Defending space and maintaining hegemony

India’s contemporary political landscape looks remarkably similar to that of the Emergency. Although the constitution has not been suspended as it was during 1975, under the Modi administration, the media has faced massive lawsuits from the government for unfavorable reporting or engaged in self-censorship. Meanwhile, academic and student leaders have been arrested on anti-terrorism charges. Since the global outbreak of COVID-19, the administration has used the pandemic as an excuse to ban political meetings, rallies and agitations — violently suppressing protests for gender equality, caste justice and protecting the enfranchisement of Indian Muslims.

With authoritarianism once again proliferating in India and elsewhere, we need to ensure that the violence against the student movement faced during the Emergency does not repeat itself in a contemporary context that shares far too many parallels with the atrocities of India’s past.

The movement against the Emergency provides some lessons of how to successfully organize under conditions of repression, social distance and mass arrests of dissenters. However, the failures of the anti-Emergency movement similarly provides lessons: the urban spaces which serve as key resources to movements should be defended and that the left must maintain hegemony over broad coalitions forged in the heat of the struggle.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University campus as an urban space continues to be an important resource for left movements. The JNU leftist student movement has forged coalitions with other leftists groups with some success. The ”United Left Alliance” swept the 2018 student elections, preventing the center and right from making inroads in student politics. However, this coalition has not been able to pacify the right-wing Hindu student movement while the university administration is increasingly comprised of right-wing political appointees.

While the Hindu right may have been barred from holding office, it nonetheless continues to perpetrate violence against leftist students and faculty, like the attack on January 5, when a group of about 50 Hindu right-wing students attacked the JNU campus, injuring students and faculty. Lessons from the student movement against the Emergency indicate that broader coalitions are necessary to defend against such attacks on important urban spaces that serve as a resource to the left, but only if hegemony can be maintained within those coalitions.

The lessons of the Emergency are not solely for India’s student movement to learn. Indeed, in places like Belarus, the United States and Nigeria, students around the globe are fomenting resistance against far-right nationalism and authoritarianism.

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