Students lead struggle for reinvention of democracy : The Tribune India

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Students lead struggle for reinvention of democracy

The stand taken by the heads of American universities has been demoralising.

Students lead struggle for reinvention of democracy

Up in arms: Dissent and opposition to injustice underpin the student protests. Reuters



Shelley Walia

Ex-Professor, Dept of English and Cultural Studies, PU

THE police crackdown on university students has again roiled the US. The student protests of 1969 were against the Vietnam War, and this time, they are against the American backing of the Israeli war machinery targeting Palestinians.

Sadly, international agencies for peace and the defence of human rights remain moribund while a serious humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza, with more than 14,000 children killed. It is student activism that has drawn attention to the brutality of the war. They have been closely watching the massacre in Gaza and feel deeply frustrated that their country and their university are complicit in the ongoing genocide.

While the presidents of various colleges and universities support the police force for the maintenance of order and discipline, their moral bankruptcy is apparent from their deafening silence at the destruction of schools and universities across Palestine. Their role in bringing the police to the campus and repealing the age-old tradition of free assembly or disregarding the legitimate and moral aspect of the protest against genocide underscores misgivings about moral progress and mutual understanding.

Dissent and opposition to injustice underpin the student protests and evoke the spirit of democracy in an academic environment that has gradually become subservient to the conservative far-right. Undeniably, politics remains central to education. Education believes in and inculcates public participation in the affairs of the state — the mark of an egalitarian society in which open debate and difference of opinion invite a vigorous presentation of opposing viewpoints, enriching our understanding of the challenges we face or the meaningless wars we fight.

In any civil society, educational institutions are sites where complaints are freely heard, considered and swiftly resolved. Such a democratic environment rekindles a new hope at every step, giving the youth the stamina to take a peaceful position that is neither easy nor expedient. But this is far from the reality the world finds itself in. The decline has been steady over the years. Educational institutions across America, rather than facilitating the procedures of defence of fundamental rights and the promotion of a civil society, have gradually become pawns in the hands of right-wing ideologues. Citing anti-Semitism or invoking the question of law and order are lame excuses used to justify the crackdown on students. The dogmatic strain found in the reasoning resonates with the dominance of the Jewish lobby in the US that ignores the call for the end of the Israeli onslaught on the people of Palestine.

It is a fact of history that when governments fail to safeguard the democratic rights of citizens, it is often the students who become vigilant about the state’s inadequacies or transgressions. As we have seen in the last few days, the attempt to scuttle dissidence and freedom of thought has grown in its ferocity across universities in the US. Nationwide alarm at the use of police force against demonstrators calling for the end of the war in Palestine and for divesting all links with companies that support Israel reflects an adversarial stand against the administration. A collective defence against the brutality of war and terrorism in West Asia has moral and intellectual legitimacy in a democracy.

We stand at a moment of crisis in world history when the free citizens of the world are livid at the return of McCarthyism, which uses the ‘malaise’ of communism to smudge critical education, university autonomy and public intervention in the policy decisions of a power-hungry state. Persecution and muzzling of the human spirit through the advocacy of irrevocably established stubborn thinking and institutionalised hegemonies amounts to the abrogation of social and moral obligations to the principles of a meaningful conversation.

Student activism in the US, as seen since the days of protests against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa or the Iraq War, becomes vital for resistance to political structures that take a stand against the freedom of expression and refuse to recognise basic human rights. The killing of innocent children and women in Gaza underscores the fragility of the notion of justice and respect for human life. Such a regressive milieu deepens the sense of estrangement and distrust between the students and the state with its deceitful politics, its civil aggression, the rampant academic repression or the pervasive acts of war. The student agitations compel us to revisit centres of higher learning where diverse interests and opinions underwrite a robust critical conversation. Let it be clear that institutions of higher education cannot be turned into programming centres where critical thinking and revolutionary pedagogies are scoffed at.

And though there is a lot of rage to go around, we also share hope for a better world and a commitment to bringing it into existence through those who dream, act and think deeply to subvert any kind of state control underpinned by violence and the manufacturing of fear. The voices of the students have begun to resound and reinforce each other in unison in the emancipatory struggle for the reinvention of democracy and its beleaguered educational institutions. The motivation is to oppose the tyranny of the state and spread the message that education must not be painted as a site of radical ideology out to overthrow social norms, community and national unity. The public must believe in the fact that, though demonstrations and strikes have always been put down, they nevertheless advance the cause of progressive movements. It is the power of the people to act and stand up before the state apparatus.

Understandably, interrogating power is fundamentally unsettling. Administrators across American campuses must understand that if there is a breakdown of communication between them and the students, the blame lies with the establishment’s inadequacy in engaging in a discussion across the table on the relevant issues. Bureaucratic high-handedness or intimidation tactics of thought-policing higher education will never work. The stand taken by the heads of American universities has been demoralising, especially because of the botch-up by the establishment to integrate ‘student idealism’ as well as activism into university policies.

#Democracy #human rights #Israel #Palestine #United States of America USA


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