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Opinion | It's time to relearn idealism from students

  • Young protesters are standing up for constitutional rights across the country, and women are at the forefront
  • The attacks on students of Jamia and Aligarh have triggered a nationwide response of solidarity

This week, I was back on campus drawing energy from the students.
This week, I was back on campus drawing energy from the students. (Photo: PTI)

The trouble with writing this column is that every time I click on the video of Anugya, the Jamia Millia Islamia student who distilled the meaning of education, belonging and the ideas enshrined in the Constitution in an emotionally charged 4-minute interview to television reporters, I can’t stop my own tears.

My tears are entirely involuntary and take me by surprise. I rarely click on news-clips online, especially not the ones that seem to have gone viral. Having worked in news television for a decade and a half, I feel fatigued and cynical about the manufacture of sound bites. Yet I recognize that we are in a special moment in history right now.

“My name is Anugya," the law student of Jamia Millia Islamia tells a clutch of television reporters recording her impromptu interview, one day after police stormed the campus and attacked students—including those who were in the library, mosque and hostels—with lathis and tear-gas shells. “I was studying for my exam on the Constitution of India today. But what have they done to the Constitution? Nothing is left of it. What can I study about it any more?"

In response to another question from a reporter, she asks, “What wrong had the students done? They were just protesting, right? What is the point of education if we don’t use it? We don’t study so hard just so we can learn to operate some machines. Education empowers us to stand up against injustice, to support those who are being oppressed.

“I am not even a Muslim, uncle, yet I am part of the protests," she adds, referring to the nationwide uprisings against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that privileges the right to citizenship of India on the basis of religion. “We cannot stay apathetic when our own people are being singled out.

“They have attacked us in our own university. This was the safest home for us. I do not feel safe here any more. We do not even know if our friends will remain Indians tomorrow. If I can be attacked by the police in my own home, I do not feel safe in this entire country any more," says the emotionally charged student from Ranchi.

Another video of women that really caught our imagination is one in which a group of Jamia students save a male student from being thrashed by lathi-wielding policemen. We watch the women surround the victim, who has been thrown on the sidewalk, and scream at the attackers in uniform to back off till they do.

This is how bystanders must respond in a situation where a crowd begins to lynch someone, I thought to myself— tweeting this as well later. The tweet itself went viral, inviting thousands of responses, most of them applauding the women for being real-life heroes.

Earlier this year, I had been invited to speak to students at the AJK Mass Communication Reasearch Centre in Jamia Millia Islamia at an annual event where old students are felicitated for their professional achievements. On stage in the auditorium, I had recalled how I had discovered my own idealism on this campus in my early 20s. The years in television news had made me sceptical about the relevance of an individual’s power to influence change—yet here I was, recovering my faith all over again as part of the media team of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat.

This week, I found myself back on campus drawing energy from the students and their acts of protest. Their confident voices are taking many of us by surprise and leaving us in awe of how the personal and the political is one continuum for them.

In another popular video released by a YouTube channel called Bahujan TV, Kirti, a young woman, defines what the Constitution and citizenship really mean in simple yet profound words. “Dr B. R. Ambedkar wrote the Constitution of India for the people of India and we have ownership of it," she says, asserting that it cannot be changed without people’s participation. “We are all citizens here, each one of us who has gathered to protest. We are the India we want this country to be like."

While I spent my time meeting and reassuring students in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, at home I found two of our daughters immersed in reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. They have seen the trailer of the Greta Gerwig film adaptation of this classic novel and are preparing themselves to watch the film as a Christmas gift to themselves.

Like my response to the young women protesting for citizens’ rights on the streets, my daughters are also caught unawares by their emotional reaction to moments in this book about the power and idealism of youth and the strength of sisterhood. Our 11-year-old comes to me to console herself when one of the sisters dies. She returns with happy tears later, when she has finished her first reading of the book.

“I found words for my feelings in this book, Mamma," says her older sister. “The inner life of women has been written about so beautifully. How sisters can support each other to recognize their ambitions and summon the power and talent to realize them."

As the year draws to a close and Christmas is around the corner, I leave you, dear reader, with the words of Kirti, the student at Jantar Mantar who spoke to the reporter for Bahujan TV. “When I was leaving home, my mother asked me what difference will I manage to make by myself. It made me both laugh and cry at the same time. Look at this sea of people, each one of us is one individual. Together we are so powerful that the police and the paramilitary forces have been called in fear of us. We are the India we want to be. We will prevail."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.

Twitter - @natashabadhwar

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