What Is The Message From Student Protests In US And Elsewhere?

What Is The Message From Student Protests In US And Elsewhere?

We need to remember that in the past 60 years or so, students in the US universities have consistently protested on many issues, domestic and foreign

VrijendraUpdated: Monday, May 20, 2024, 10:30 PM IST
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Representative Pic | Pixabay

Ever since Hamas attacked Israel in a surprise move, killed more than 1000 Israelis and took around 250 Israeli citizens as hostages on October 7, 2023, the disproportionate and immediate response from Israel from October 8, 2023 onwards — and the assault continues till date, killing more than 35,000 Palestinians and displacing lakhs of them (many have termed the Israeli assault as ‘genocide’ of Palestinians) — has invited criticism and protests.

Soon after the Israeli assault, protests against the war in Gaza began at Columbia university in NewYork. In recent weeks, these protests have spread to universities across the US — more than 140 universities and colleges, the UK and many other countries in the Europe. The protesting students are demanding that universities divest from companies which are supplying arms to Israel. They have accused that universities and colleges investing in Israeli companies are complicit in the war against Palestinians. They are also demanding an immediate ceasefire in the ongoing war in Gaza.

(We need to remember that in the past 60 years or so, students in the US universities have consistently protested on many issues, domestic and foreign. They were in the forefront of anti-Vietnam war protest, against apartheid in South Africa and then against the Iraq war. Domestically, they were in the forefront of civil rights movement from the very beginning. They pushed for more rights, protection and respect for women and queer people long before others outside the campus did. In the recent years, they have protested against economic inequality and for climate change.)

As I write this, even more protests are expected with Israel’s recent attack on Rafah despite international condemnation. Some students have begun hunger strikes against their university’s ‘inaction’. These protests have acquired a much wider publicity and spread across many universities in the US, UK and Canada in the recent weeks also because administrators at Columbia University, specifically its Chancellor, called on the police to deal with protestors after students occupied the building, Hamilton Hall. The police immediately arrested more than 100 students and forced them to vacate the premises.

Different academic institutions have responded differently to these protests: some have resorted to crackdown by the police while others have begun to negotiate with protesting students and have decided to include a human rights framework in their future investment policies. While many administrators have accused protesting students of ‘anti-semitism’ endangering the lives of many Jewish students on the campus, some administrators and a large number of faculty are hugely supportive of these protests.

At the same time, these protests have also forced a debate on the limits of free speech and academic freedom in the universities. While these protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, and protesting students have found many creative ways through music and dance and discussions to remain focused on the issue of ongoing war in Gaza, the draconian crackdown on protesting students in many universities is rightly viewed as an attack on free speech and peaceful assembly on campus.

Apart from the police brutality, in many campuses, events have been cancelled, students have been expelled; arbitrary disciplinary hearings have taken place and there has been outright censorship. Many universities have cancelled the annual commencement ceremonies where students are awarded their degrees. In some cases, speakers sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have been barred from speaking.

Further, not only university administrators, but also leading politicians from the Republican Party, as well as major private donors to universities and other leaders have consistently attacked protesting students and their supporters. They have repeatedly and deliberately misdirected any opposition to the present Israeli government with an attack on Jews everywhere. Even leading corporates are not far behind. Many have blacklisted protesting students and openly rescinded even employment contracts! These supporters of the present Israeli government have made many of us, in a country like India, deeply aware of how double-standards and hypocrisy mark so many in the so-called democratic West. (This is not to suggest that the western democracies are no democracies at all. Despite their many fault-lines, western democracies are far more democratic in their practices and institutional framework than many other countries, including India, which are only partially democratic in many ways and where democratic consciousness, even now, remains deeply suspect.)

In any case, the inspiring reality is that once again, young students in universities are re-shaping not only their universities but also the wider political debate on a global issue: this time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These protests remind us what universities are really about (and should be about): not simply a place to learn certain specific skills and specialised knowledge, but primarily a place to debate, question, challenge the prevailing orthodoxies; a place to imagine new possibilities and new ways of seeing; a place to dream alternative dreams; a place where students learn to be citizens and learn to engage with the larger world as adults.

Of course, it is naive to think that students alone can reshape the world. It is also true that they are not often right and prudent but their protests, time and again, have forced the larger society and politicians to confront the inconvenient truths that define the reality around us. This time too, these students have brought out to the fore the devastation caused to the millions of ordinary Palestinians by the war waged against them by the Israeli state with the complicity of the US and many other governments in the West. More power to them!

Vrijendra taught in a Mumbai college for more than 30 years and has been associated with democratic rights groups in the city

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