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LitFest Debate | 'Protests Destroy Campuses': Hindol Sengupta; Gurmehar Rebuts

The Quint's Editor-in-Chief Raghav Bahl chaired a debate on students' protests at The Mumbai LitFest.

Updated
India
6 min read

The Quint's Editor-in-Chief Raghav Bahl chaired a debate on the motion 'College Students Should Not Participate in Political Protests,' on Thursday, 18 November, at the 12th edition of Tata Literature Live! – a literature festival in Mumbai .

India has a long history of student protests, dating as far back as the movement to gain Independence for the country. Since then, student protests have featured strongly in the country's social and political fabric.

Since the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed by the Constitution of India, students are legally allowed to be a part of agitations. But should they?
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Author and journalist Hindol Sengupta, as well as noted columnist and founder of media website Churn, Shubhrastha, appeared for the motion in the debate, arguing against the student protests.

Meanwhile, Bombay High Court advocate Abhinav Chandrachud, as well as activist and author Gurmehar Kaur, argued against the motion.

'In the 1970s, Students Protesting Was Not Debatable': Raghav Bahl

"When I saw the subject, I was transported to my student days. I wonder if this subject would've been debatable in the 70s. Because in the 1970s, student politics and student activism and studies were one organic whole," said Raghav Bahl, opening the debate session.

"At that time, we saw some of the biggest students' movements. In our own country, we had the whole Naxal movement; we had the Navnirman movement. Within the Emergency as well, we had very active student reactions. Across the globe, we had the Vietnam protest, the Tiananmen Square protest in China. Then, it was very difficult to say that students should not, or could not, or would not be a part of political protests. But 40 years out, some evolution seems to have happened such that the issue is now debatable."
Raghav Bahl
LitFest Debate | 'Protests Destroy Campuses': Hindol Sengupta; Gurmehar Rebuts

(Photo Courtesy: Mumbai LitFest)

FOR THE MOTION: 'Students Should Not Participate in Protests'

'Protests Not Expanding the Minds of Students but Destroying Campuses': Hindol Sengupta

"It is not enough to ask whether students should participate in political protests. We must ask the vital second part of the question. What kind of political protests are these? Are these grand debates on ideas? Are they competing on novel ways of looking at the world? Are these (protests) even led by students? Or, in the name of students, are we seeing cadets of political parties fight out in the universities?" questioned Hindol Sengupta.

"The so-called political protests are not expanding the minds of our students. They are destroying our campuses in a vicious identity-based ideology, which forces people into boxes, demands unquestioning loyalty, and is in fact the very opposite of the meaning of education."

"Education is supposed to build a sense of identity. Politics in our campuses takes away from that greatest boon of student life," he added.

"In the name of political protests, what we are seeing today is the curtailment of every ability of freedom to dabble, the freedom to mix and match, the freedom to embrace and then discard ideas, the freedom to form opinions and then leave those opinions behind, to make up one's mind, or far more importantly – to change one's mind," argued Sengupta.

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The senior journalist pointed out that for the last several years, only three Indian colleges ranked in the top 200 positions in the world rankings. "IIS Bangalore, IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi – what is common, ladies and gentlemen, among these three: They do not have the curse of what we call rampant political protests."

AGAINST THE MOTION: 'Students Should Participate in Protests'

'Absurd To Think That Voting Students Are Not Affected by Political Decisions': Gurmehar Kaur

"Lynching, communal violence, police brutality, bills being passed without debates, the State's attempts to clamp down freedom of expression – all these are very common sights by now. It is absurd to think that students, a significant subset of the voting population, would not be affected enough by political decisions to call them out and demand justice," Gurmehar Kaur argued.

"Politics is not just for political parties and legislators, but for every single citizen affected by it, and that includes students," she added.

"So many student get to interact with a diverse set of people once they enter college. They are introduced to perspective so different from ones of their parents. They view the world through a broader lens, get sensitised to issues they never knew existed, and go through a process of self-discovery and actualisation. This involves shaping their personal beliefs and principles. In a world that the students have to now navigate themselves, the State and its ruling become more pertinent than ever."
Gurmehar Kaur

"The youth, more than anyone, cares about the future and the world that they live in. They feel obligated to make it more than just a safe place. Believing in causes, and standing up for fundamental rights, is something they should be able to do collectively, because student protests create a unified voice that is hard to ignore or silence easily," Kaur submitted.

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FOR THE MOTION: 'Students Should Not Participate in Protests'

'Very Interesting and Very Sexy To Talk About Lynching': Shubhrastha

"There needs to be a demarcation between activism and protest. We have, somehow, very successfully, been able to muddle the difference between the two," opined Shubhrastha.

The debater then went on to unleash a slew of verbal attacks on Gurmehar Kaur, her opponent in the session.

"If Gurmehar would've managed to read the CAA-NRC bill properly, without getting into that intellectual hegemonic atmospherics of the English Department of Delhi University... she would not have fallen into this classic 'Indian liberal' trap," said the political activist.

"In a democracy, when we use words like protest and dissent, when we romanticise this entire 'students' movement,' we take away the essence of what is actually at hand – that is the philosophical, theological arguments behind what is going on," argued Shubhrastha.

"It's very interesting and very sexy to talk about lynchings without understanding and without actually looking into data to see which state actually passed the anti-lynching law in India... Gurmehar made it seem as if everything in India is not right, lawmakers are making laws out of some random machinations. That's not true, Gurmehar," she stated.

"There was some talk of parental conditioning. Let me tell you, in campuses, in a campus that I have been part of, there is deep-seated intellectual conditioning. Students need to be given enough time and leeway to understand the merits and demerits of both these kinds of conditioning – parental, or intellectual hegemonic dictatorial conditioning in campuses," Shubhrastha opined.

The speaker has been a student of English Literature at Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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AGAINST THE MOTION: 'Students Should Participate in Protests'

'Why Do You Want Adults To Stop Participating in Protests?' Abhinav Chandrachud

"Violence should not be condoned by anyone. No student should participate in a violent protest. No student should indulge in hate speech. But why not non-violent protests?" Bombay High Court lawyer Abhinav Chandrachud said in his opening remarks, observing that art, poetry, and several such means of protests can be used by students.

"Why is it that students should not participate in protests, but can participate in other kinds of demonstrations? So if I am a college student, and if I hold a demonstration to support a law that is being enacted by the Parliament, am I allowed to do it merely because it is not a protest?"
Abhinav Chandrachud

"Why do you want to stop adults from participating in protests? Adult college students can vote, can drive a car, can enter into contracts, can get married... but can't participate in political protests? This makes no sense," he opined.

"Some of the members who spoke for the proposition hinted that students are going to college for the purposes of studying, and that's what they should do. Now, I find this to be quite an interesting and amazing argument. 'Students should only study' – if that proposition is correct, then wouldn't it be correct to say that cricketers should only play cricket, workers in factories should only work in factories, farmers should only till the land?"

"That argument would lead us down a very dangerous, slippery slope, because then nobody would have the right to protest remaining," he submitted.

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