By Priya Ravichandran
The protests, mass agitations, hunger strikes and self-immolation that have been adopted by the students in Tamil Nadu in support of the Tamil Eelam cause have gone on for more than two weeks now. At best it represents a group of people who think they are united by a common language and culture but are actually fighting for an alien cause. At worst they are a mob of virulent, misguided, politically instigated, ‘activists’ who continue to espouse a cause that many thought was buried after the Hindi agitations of the 60’s. The protest at its most basic is not just a sorry indicator of how skewed and discriminatory our idea of democracy continues to be, but also symptomatic of the massive failure of our education system.
Universities, especially public universities have always been an ideal launching and breeding ground for politics. The idealism of the students combined with defiance for the authoritative nature of colleges has made recruiting students to espouse political ideologies easier. The last few years have however seen a more virulent form of politics taking root. From murder, assault physical and emotional threats, strikes, agitations, sit-ins, lock outs, mob violence, and using political patronage (for admission, evaluations and exams, to favourable student union results) student politics in this country has been reduced to thuggery and violence.
It begins, however with the dismal quality of our legal and liberal arts education. The syllabus and education of liberal arts that includes history, civics, and literature have fallen short of addressing anything beyond the basics of government and society. They talk about individual rights and emphasise our democratic structure, but fail to situate the student in a republic or talk about the demands of a secular society stressing on the importance of a state or a country. The responsibilities that a citizen owes to his country are singularly absent. Students are pushed ahead without the basic understanding of what differentiates a democracy from a republic or the difference in state vs federal rights.
We now have a group of probable leaders, who do not realise that they are protesting for the rights of citizens of a country that is not theirs. They do not realise that being a Sri Lankan Tamil is an identity and not necessarily a badge of kinship to a group across the isthmus. Should we be fighting among ourselves for the political rights for people in a foreign land? The situational equivalent would be a group of Pakistani students going on a rampage in Karachi for the rights of Urdu speaking Indians, or a group of Chinese students going on a fast for the rights of people in Arunachal Pradesh. A solid grounding in history and civics would have perhaps helped in realising that interference in the sovereignty of another country is not a part of India’s foreign policy.
Our education focuses much on what made our nation and little on what makes our nation. The regional emphasis of history also makes it difficult for students to see beyond the local and realise that we are still a union and states have rights within the union. Increasing pressure from parents and peer groups to adhere to certain fields of study, compulsions due to reservations, marks and exam results leading to enrolling for a field of study for the sake of attending college, absentee professors, syllabus and texts that are obsolete, little research or lab work, lack of infrastructure and courses that are designed to encourage rote learning rather than thinking and more importantly a bureaucracy that requires the power of politics to stay in control are the other factors. A student burdened by these pressures, built up by the failures of our higher education, seizes the appeal and power of using political clout to further his career. Name dropping or belonging to a student group that has the muscle of political party behind it has proved time and again to be much more powerful than learning.
The criticism of this protest movement is not to be taken as a mockery of all students run movements. Student participation and involvement in national politics is an absolute necessity. The lowering of voting age to enable students to have a say is a way of justifying the need for young leaders and as a means for encouraging more youth participation in democratic movements. But, participatory democracy should not degenerate into destructive democracy and power politics.
It has been easier in many ways for political parties to gain trust and following amongst students by appealing to their emotions and use them to advance their political ideologies. The mobilisation and voice that these parties get from standing behind student unions or groups, rivals any other way of gaining support. What is lost in this melee is the need for civil discourse and debates that encourage reasoning, questioning and arguments that highlight issues. Colleges and Universities are the best place to debate the nature of democracy, argue the highs and lows of a republic and appreciate the diversity within student communities. Participatory democracy of this kind would not only encourage a greater interest in politics amongst the youth, but also get more people involved in non-discriminatory policy making.
We need more students to be a part of the national dialogue and not get caught in the ruckus of regional politics. A democratic republic is only as strong as the next generation of voters. These voters need to be informed, educated and balanced. There is a strong need to encourage young people to step up and take an interest in the philosophy of politics and its realities.
Priya Ravichandran is Programme Officer for the GCPP programme at the Takshashila Institution.