CAA Protests: Has PM Modi Forgotten His Student Activist Days?

PM Modi must look back to Indira Gandhi era to avoid making the error of not paying heed to student protests.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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The protests rocking college campuses across the country in support of agitating students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) have put the Modi government on notice. For the first time since it stormed to office in 2014, it is feeling the heat of people’s fury on a scale and spread it did not anticipate.

From Mumbai to Kolkata, from Lucknow to Chennai, students are up in arms on two issues. One is the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which they have slammed as unconstitutional, discriminatory and communal. The other is the police action in Jamia and AMU where students were teargassed, brutally beaten and marched out with their hands in the air.

At the last count, around two dozen educational institutions were in turmoil as students boycotted classes, held protest marches and raised slogans against Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the chief architect of the CAA, the BJP and the police. Significantly, the demonstrations are not confined to Muslim or Left-dominated universities alone. Students in institutions across disciplines, including the prestigious IIM in Ahmedabad, the IITs in Mumbai and Chennai, and TISS in Mumbai, are standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with their Jamia counterparts.

Anti-CAA Row: History Says Govt Must Pay Heed to Student Protests

History tells us that no government can afford to ignore student fury, especially when it escalates into large-scale protests igniting campus after campus. Indira Gandhi did so at her own peril and learned a bitter lesson, as the first spark which eventually led to her downfall post-Emergency was lit in a small engineering college in Morbi, Gujarat.

And a rising young activist of the Navnirman Andolan — that subsequently swept the state and claimed its first ‘victim’ in Congress chief minister Chimanbhai Patel before spreading to the rest of country as the ‘JP movement’ — was none other than Narendra Modi himself.

Surely Modi’s memory cannot fail him as he surveys and monitors student eruptions around the nation over the CAA. No one can fathom better than he, the possible consequences for his government and his party unless he manages to bring the situation under control quickly. As recent events in Jamia have proved, police action is no answer to student protests. A word or gesture of empathy from the prime minister may prove more productive.

Anti-CAA Protests: PM Modi Should Look Back to Navnirman Andolan

A recap may be useful of those tumultuous years which ended in the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s subsequent humiliating defeat at the hands of the Janata Party in the 1977 elections. It’s important because Modi’s biographical sketch on his website devotes an entire section to the Navnirman Movement and Modi’s role in it. Interestingly, it is titled, “When student power rattled the unhealthy status quo’’.

Although Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her career after a stupendous victory in 1971, soon followed by a resounding win over Pakistan with the creation of Bangladesh, things started unravelling quite quickly for her. Ironically, it was the economy that did her in, as prices started rising and essential commodities became scarce.

In December 1973, some students of Morbi Engineering College led a protest march against an arbitrary hike in canteen prices.

The protest snowballed as other campuses in the state joined the stir which came to be known as the Navnirman Andolan. Very soon, the RSS and Jana Sangh (as the BJP was then known) threw their weight behind the movement.

This is where Modi comes in. He was a young RSS pracharak associated with the Jana Sangh’s student wing, ABVP. According to his website, he joined the movement “and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him’’.

Indira Gandhi’s Day of Reckoning

Around the same time in Bihar, student protests were rocking Patna University on similar issues. Among the stalwarts of the movement in Bihar were Nitish Kumar (who is today a silent spectator after having supported the BJP’s CAA) and Ravi Shankar Prasad, the union law minister who recently blamed the Congress for ‘inciting’ the students.

Ultimately, both movements dovetailed into one under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan whose call for ‘total revolution’ panicked Indira Gandhi into imposing Emergency and jailing the entire Opposition.

Her day of reckoning came in 1977 when she lifted the Emergency and called for elections. She was swept out of power, even losing her own seat of Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh.

Historical comparisons may be odious, but similarities between then and now are useful to study, particularly when some of the actors are the same. While Amit Shah may have been too young to be a part of the history of the 1970s, Modi clearly has recall.

As his website states: “The Navnirman movement was Narendra’s first encounter with mass protest and led to a significant broadening of his worldview on social issues. It also propelled Narendra to the first post of his political career, general secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti in Gujarat in 1975. During the movement, he particularly got the opportunity to understand student issues from close quarters, which proved to be a major asset once he became chief minister.’’

BJP Allies Having ‘Second Thoughts’ on CAA: What Modi Must Do

Will he now bring all that experience into play as prime minister as he faces a growing crisis on the streets? Attempts to communalise the student protests by referring to the clothes of the protestors (a dog whistle for skull caps and hijabs) have fallen flat, as have attempts to blame the Congress.

In fact, BJP allies like Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and friends like Naveen Patnaik’s BJD are now having second thoughts.

They had gone along with the BJP in Parliament to vote-in the CAA, but they seem to be backtracking after the protests by students. While they cannot undo the CAA vote, they have decided to speak up against the proposal for a nationwide NRC. In fact, Patnaik has flatly refused to compile an NRC in Odisha. Mamata Banerjee is on the warpath in West Bengal. Even Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra has said he will think again about the NRC.

Modi would be wise to draw on his memories of the Indira Gandhi era to avoid the errors of judgement she made.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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