For the last few weeks, Aruna Thakur*, Tanmay Yadav, Shilpa Bodhi and others are among Pune university students who are busy practising for the Firodiya Karandak theatre competition for college students. The 45-year-old competition has been one of ideal platforms for students to articulate their views. As students were gearing up for the competition, organisers issued a diktat.

“As per the directives issued in view of maintaining social peace and law and order, students will not be given permission to perform on sensitive subjects — Hindu-Muslim, Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370, any subject relating to India-Pakistan, any subject about Ram Mandir- Babri Mosque and subjects commenting on caste and religion. If any of these subjects are selected for performance, the concerned team or individual will not be considered for awards ..” the organisers stated.

This came as a shocker to theatre artistes who raised their voices and supported the students. Veteran actors Amol Palekar, Sonali Kulkarni, Jabbar Patel and Satish Alekar, with others, voiced their protest. But for students in the ‘Oxford of East’ also called ‘ Cultural Capital of Maharashtra’, this diktat was just a continuation of what has been happening in college and university campuses for the last five years.

Issues brought to a head

“The Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) played the role of a trigger. It came as an opportunity for students to vent their suffocation in colleges and universities. Now there are restrictions on which books should be kept in book exhibitions, on what topics you should hold discussions and what programmes you should organise,” says Ravi K, a university student.

Indeed, the CAA-NRC-NPR combo has brought together students agitated over a host of issues, extending to even the elite IITs and the IIMs. It has ceased to be a protest of just the minorities in many parts of the country, even as it was apparent that minority institutions were targeted with police violence. The police attacks on Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University vent viral, with students across community and religious affiliations protesting against it, first in Jamia and later elsewhere.

Ravi adds that students participating in the CAA agitation stood up because they felt that there would be more restrictions and discrimination against students and Indian citizens in the garb of the new Act. Students claim that police presence in university campuses has increased in the last five years and university administrations, especially private universities, are taking every possible step to stop students from taking part in any anti-government agitation.

A professor requesting anonymitysays that objections are being raised even on the pamphlets put up on university display boards. “Generally, we put up all pamphlets or information on the display boards. Recently, a group raised an objection on one of the pamphlets, which talked about a discussion organised by a Dalit group. The complaint was taken to the Vice-Chancellor and the pamphlet was removed by the university,” she says. “We have got directions from the university that no talks related to Article 370 or Jammu and Kashmir must be organised in the campus,” the professor adds.

“There are deliberate efforts to kill the culture of debate and discussion. Our college (one of the oldest and well-known ones in Pune) recently organised a Satyanarayana puja in the campus and we wanted to know the reason, but no answers were given. We had invited an expert in Adivasi rights to speak on the budgetary allocation to Adivasis, but the college administration denied permission. We had organised a play on Rohit Vemula. The college principal first wanted to check the script and then kept denying our request to allow the performance,” says a student, Anil Shah. “What can we do? We can raise our voice against suppression and we are doing that,” he says, adding that students who raise their voice are being isolated and targeted by the university administration. “The easy way out is to call students naxals or tukde tukde gang and avoid answers to the questions” says Anil.

“As students, we can agitate against oppression. We will continue to do so as it is our right and the only way we can fight. CAA protests were not about Hindu and Muslim. I feel that there must not be any discrimination against people in the name of religion. I believe that our country is secular and I want my country to remain secular” says Aruna. Shilpa echoes Aruna’s sentiments and adds that students must have freedom to express their views and organise programmes. “The government has to listen to the voice of students. You can’t just suppress students” says Tanishka. However, Tanmay says that students can’t continue their agitation as they have studies to complete.

The agitations in Pune were non-violent. “We have to carry forward our struggle in an affirmative way. Our only concern is that the government must not quell the voices that are not in consonance with its views,” say students.

Interestingly, the majority of the students participating in the CAA protests were not affiliated with any political party, but the response to the CAA agitation by students was political. BJP and ABVP leaders in Pune organised pro-CAA protests in university campuses and city roads. City MP and BJP leader Girish Bapat says that those who are opposing the CAA must first understand the Act. “The Act is in the interest of the country and everyone must support it,” Bapat says, adding that the government was not suppressing any voices, and was working towards strengthening the nation.

What began in a way as a students’ protest across eight universities against the fee hike, cutback on scholarships and lack of infrastructure under the banner, All India Forum to Save Public Education, morphed into a larger movement against CAA. Says Arun S, a student at IIT-Madras, who was holding a banner of quotes by freedom fighter and socialist Bhagat Singh at Chennai’s Valluvar Kottam, “The need to protect the Constitution is understood by the student community now. And this is happening across the country.”

Social psychologist Shiju Joseph sees an “interesting” pattern in this. “Psychologically speaking, these revolts, especially by the newest generation is a revolt against the patriarch, the father figure. For many of them, these new rules reflect orders from an authoritarian parent and their default response is to revolt.” According to him, in the early years of the BJP rule since 2014, such in-your-face rules were not the norm. “Demonetisation changed the game, then came Kashmir shutdown and now CAA. Youngsters see these as acts of dictation. The new leadership is seen to be more aggressive, arrogant, abrasive by youngsters.”

Meanwhile, even as the government sticks to its stand on CAA, Pune students have registered a small victory. Following the reaction from students and civil society, organisers of Firodiya Karandak have withdrawn their diktat, allowing students to perform on any subject they want to.

*Names changed to protect identities

With inputs from AM Jigeesh, Jinoy Jose P, and A Srinivas

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