India's student protests revive memories of those in 1970s

Analysts note similar spark but say current rallies lack effective strategy, leadership

University students protesting against India's new citizenship law and the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kolkata last Saturday. The controversial law offers citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries - Afg
University students protesting against India's new citizenship law and the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kolkata last Saturday. The controversial law offers citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Protests against a controversial citizenship law have flared across India over the past few weeks. They have been largely propelled by students, prompting references to previous mass youth movements that have left an imprint on the country.

In the early 1970s, widespread student protests in different parts of the country coalesced into a wider political campaign against the Congress government led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

She responded by imposing a state of emergency across the country because of what was described as prevailing "internal disturbance". A dark chapter in India's democracy, the emergency lasted from June 1975 to March 1977, and was accompanied by severe crackdowns on civil liberties.

It was followed by general elections in March 1977, which saw the Congress party losing power for the first time since the country's independence. Some of the student leaders from this era have gone on to become senior leaders of the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other political parties.

One of these pre-emergency student campaigns was the Navnirman Movement in Gujarat. It began in December 1973, when some students launched a strike to protest against a 30 per cent hike in hostel food fees. The agitation spread like wildfire across the state, with workers and others joining in to express their dissatisfaction with poor governance and corruption. It ultimately led to the resignation of the then Congress chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Chimanbhai Patel.

Mr Manishi Jani, an Ahmedabad-based writer, was the president of the committee that led the Navnirman Movement. Referring to the current protests, Mr Jani said it is the first time he has seen youth protests on such a big scale since the 1970s.

"These protests over the last few weeks have been able to shatter the climate of fear that has existed. That in itself is a success," he told The Straits Times.

Students also played a leading role in protests elsewhere, including in Assam in the early 1980s, when they campaigned against an influx of migrants from Bangladesh in what was touted as an effort to protect the local identity. The current Assam chief minister, Mr Sarabananda Sonowal, is a product of that movement but today finds himself arraigned against students protesting for the same cause.

They are opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act because it offers citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

  • BJP leaders who were student leaders


    A former finance minister, who died last year, Mr Arun Jaitley was a BJP leader who cut his teeth in student politics.

    He was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students' wing of the BJP, and rose to be president of the student union of Delhi University in 1974. He played a key role in student protests that preceded a period of emergency, during which he spent 19 months in prison.


    Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in his 20s when Gujarat was convulsing with student protests under the Navnirman Movement.

    His personal website says it was his "first encounter with mass protest and led to a significant broadening of his worldview on social issues", resulting in his first political post, as general secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti in Gujarat in 1975.

    "As a young pracharak and associate of ABVP," his website adds, "Narendra joined the Navnirman Movement and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him."

    Debarshi Dasgupta

Mr Sitaram Yechury, a veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who was detained by the police during the emergency, has also drawn parallels between the current student protests and those of the 1970s.

"The whole question that was being debated then was that of the future we had envisaged at the time of our independence," he said.

"It is similar to what is happening now... Then it was a struggle to defend democracy and democratic rights, now it is a struggle to defend secularism."

However, Mr Yechury told The Straits Times it is too early to say how things would unfold.

"We believed the emergency was there to stay for long and struggling against it was not worth it, but the protests eventually turned the tide and the emergency was finally defeated. That is the direction in which the current protests seem to be moving," he added.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while defending the right of students to protest, has tried to link the demonstrations to opposition parties, while urging protesters to desist from violence.

Speaking at a political rally last month, Mr Modi appealed to the students to "discuss and debate the government's policies", but added: "If you feel something is wrong, protest democratically and make your voice heard. But you must be wary that some parties... and self-claimed intellectuals are attempting to fire from your shoulders for their political gains."

Mr Yechury, however, argued that it is wrong to suggest students protesting against the Act are being used as "political pawns" by opposition parties. "These protests have been spontaneously led by students," he said.


The protests have been largely peaceful, although instances of violence involving police and demonstrators, including the throwing of stones and damage to public property, have been reported. Also, more than 25 protesters have been killed in police crackdowns.

The Navnirman Movement, which Mr Modi was associated with when he was a youth leader, was similarly violent; clashes were reported in several towns in Gujarat and the army had to be mobilised to restore order. Thousands were arrested and at least 103 people were killed in the violence.

Dr Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, an academic who has researched and written on the Navnirman Movement, said the campaign then was successful because of, among other things, effective campaign strategies, mass mobilisation, leadership and cadre-building.

"The current protests are weak on all these counts. Besides, they face a whole range of additional challenges, such as religious polarisation, bans on the Internet and a legal offensive from the current government," she told The Straits Times. "Just arguing that something is against civil liberties and against the Constitution is not going to be enough to ensure resistance percolates widely."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2020, with the headline 'India's student protests revive memories of those in 1970s'. Subscribe