It was the Punjabi stalwart Lajpat Rai who first identified the young as political agents who could prosecute a free future for India. A century ago, Rai published Young India, which declared war on the prevailing system of education, producing as it did passive and pliant subjects for the British Empire. This was a bold move for nationalist politics until then had been dominated by professionals, primarily lawyers and educators with a smattering of self-appointed spiritualists and notables. Lajpat Rai's hero was the much younger, twenty-something fellow Punjabi Har Dayal. Itinerant, intellectual and insurgent, Har Dayal, in a famous gesture in 1907, had renounced his scholarship at Oxford on the eve of his graduation, leaving imperial spymasters and fogey dons equally shocked. In popular tracts, Har Dayal pointed out that the Empire's permanence was guaranteed because education had done the work of pacification. An invisible but more effective form of violence, education had replaced the police and the army in forging peace in the historically restive Punjab and had also evacuated any potential for politics. For Har Dayal, breaking the compact with colonial education was a primary step in political freedom. Not coincidentally, this period also witnessed the zealous deployment of the colonial sedition law that made prisoners out of political actors.
A century later, the latest images from Punjab attest to a confrontation between the state, primarily the police, and the young. Visible in video and photography, a full display of the brute force of lathis, batons, and water-canon unleashed on densely gathered and protesting students captures an ambient energy that disrupts the clean-edged Corbusier lines and manicured gardens that have given Panjab University its postcolonial poise.
At first sight, the now-familiar image of the young Indians confronted and surrounded by state violence in their place of education replicates scenarios in other Indian universities. This similarity, though striking, is as superficial as it is misleading. It is much easier to assume that the youth of Punjab has either surrendered itself to a drug-addled alterity in the mode of Udta Punjab or is committed to militant and religious bigotry. After all, the Indian intelligentsia and media have deemed that student leadership in places like JNU is uniquely qualified to carry the historical and political burden of bringing in the nation's future. Since at least last spring, and from JNU — to Hyderabad and Jadvapur, student political action has been met with violent suspicion and even been declared seditious by the State. In these scenarios broader national issues like Kashmir, caste justice and gender violence were acutely distilled. Mimicking the national in miniature form, students in these Central Universities agitated, organised and mobilised against the political consensus. Teachers, mentors and sympathisers sought to create a fearless solidarity and even gain international attention, however ephemeral. With force, the ruling powers converted this emergent student politics into an opportunity to redefine nationalism. Shorn of their specificity, all issues of dissent over the course of last year have been reduced to and effectively been equated with questions of loyalty. Proofs of patriotism bludgeoned diverse issues of contention into a national uniformity. As part of the same logic, JNU student leaders in particular became heroic dissidents.
Prose of political Punjab
Protests by students in Chandigarh, however, have a distinctly prosaic political cause. Without a visible name or leader, students are resisting arbitrary governance. They are protesting against the sudden and steep hike in fees, which varies from a 100 percent to 900 per cent increase, depending upon the market value of the course. Sedition was initially invoked and immediately dropped against them. This certainly does not mean the end of state violence. Bearing witness to injustice, students “remanded to judicial custody” have testified to forms of abuse horrifically brutal but familiar. Why was the charge of sedition dropped? Were the JNU student leaders properly seditious because they invoked Kashmir? Few gestures of solidarity have been forthcoming from commentators and clickactivists, whether in national or international campuses, let alone Panjab University's complete absence from all-too influential television studio debates. This indifference betrays a significant lack of judgment.
A strategic sense of survival, conversely, prevailed over political elites. Perhaps they recognised that to charge the protesting students of Panjab University with sedition was tempting fate. After all, it is within living memory that the youth of Punjab had been seriously dangerous, properly violent and intentionally seditious. Sedition in Punjab summons barely forgotten images of another politics of the young dated by the year 1984 or the word ghallughara. A postcolonial Punjabi politics of seditious militancy effectively brought the Indian State to its knees, including the desecration of a sacred shrine, the assassination of the original model of a strong Prime Minister and the pogroms of 1984. No cosmopolitan march, clickactivism or compulsive digital act can conjure, let alone compete with that violent deathscape which effectively remade postcolonial India.
While protestors at JNU have been comforted by the support of their teachers and seniors, Punjab today is caught up in a fight between generations. Faced with a “financial crisis”, Panjab University has decided to literally pass the buck and debt on to those who are most unlikely to be able to bear it. The young have been frog-marched into paying out for the greed and laziness of the old. High fees matched by zero job prospects and deathly competition is the future for the young. And the students' immediate mentors and teachers in Panjab University are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to them. Aware, they are now justifiably protesting against this shameless robbery of their future.
If for Lajpat Rai, the young were a promissory note to a free political future, the young today have been spoken for and deprived of their future. The rest of the country, however, is in the heady throes of weaponising identity, whether to square the historical injustices of caste or express majoritarian machismo against minorities and primarily Muslims. Having literally and violently done so not once but twice in the last 70 odd years, the young in Punjab are today far more mundane in their political demands. And this is what perversely writes the young of Punjab into the national script. India as we are tirelessly told, is the global future since the young are its “demographic dividend”, the bailout mechanism for the old, a potential new market and the clear electoral horizon for any political party aiming to rule. A lot is riding on the young. In Punjab, once more, the young are seeking to define the future.
Unlike the current identity-fixated politics of the rest of the country, the conflict in Punjab's premier university shows the defining battle is between the young and the old. This might convey a deceptively prosaic agenda that leaves commentators cold. It might attract no international interest. Yet being ignored nationally and globally might just offer students the luxury of political reflection. Punjab might portray itself as parochial, but despite and perhaps because of this it will prove once again to be politically instructive and categorically consequential for the future of India.
The writer teaches Modern Indian History and Global Political Thought at the University of Cambridge.
"The University has decided to literally pass the buck and debt on to those who are most unlikely to be able to bear it. This is not even a mortgage that would guarantee ownership but a theft of the future by the old."
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