Indian students demand right to education, jobs

After four and a half years of the Modi government, the mood has shifted amongst students and youth from hope to anger.

Up to 20,000 Indian students and their supporters from around the country took to the streets of Delhi on February 7 for the Young India Adhikar [Rights] March. The protest was organised by representatives of 60 student organisations from campuses across the country, to protest the Modi government’s attacks on students, and to demand the right to education and employment.

Green Left Weekly's Susan Price spoke to one of the march organisers, Kawalpreet Kaur. Kaur is a student at Delhi University and a representative of the All India Students Association (AISA), one of the organisations that initiated the protest.

GLW: How did the Young India Adhikar March come together?

KK: Young India Adhikar means young India coming on the streets demanding their rights. The purpose behind organising this march was to send out a message to the government of India [in the lead up to the April-May 2019 central elections] from the students and the youth of the entire country.

Behind this march there were around 60 different student organisation from all across India, some central universities, some state universities, who came together under the one banner uniting for education and employment issues. So the main idea was to unite the entire youth and students on one single platform.

GLW: What were your demands?

KK: A Youth Charter was prepared by the Young India Coordinating Committee in coordination with the different constitute members. The Modi government came [to power] in 2014 riding on the promise of creating 2 crore [20 million] jobs to the youth of the country per year. But after four and a half years in power, they have failed to provide jobs to constituents and the youth. The posts that are lying vacant in the [central and state public service] number 24 lakh [2.4 million]. But the government is not filling those vacancies, so our first demand is to fill these vacancies.

The other demand is that if [the Modi government] cannot give us employment, then they should provide us with a youth unemployment allowance of 18,000 rupees per month.

Since the government came to power, universities have become a war zone in India. The government has been pushing its policies, anti-student policies, commercialising public sector education, selling it out to the private sector. Recently, the government came up with the policy of providing financial autonomy to public institutions. Financial autonomy in a sense means that public institutions will have to raise their own funds and the government will no longer provide them with grants, [forcing them to borrow] from the private lenders, so pushing forward back-door privatisation.

So the main demand is that the government stop interfering in universities and stop commercialising the public sector, also that it stop its crackdown on the universities. We have seen that sedition charges were put on student leaders for questioning the government. Protecting academic freedom and saving universities from the commercial policy onslaught were also immediate demands.

Another demand that was raised for the first time in India was that the government should write off all the education loans that they have forced students to take out, in the same way they have written them off for the corporations. They have written off loans amounting to billions of rupees to corporates who have left the country without paying them back to the public sector banks. When students pass out [graduate] they don’t have jobs, so they can’t pay the loan back.

Another demand was for an end to the discrimination in Indian universities and society, and we demand that the government must pass the Rohit Act. The Rohit Act is named because of the death of our comrade Rohit Vemula, who committed suicide two or three years back. [Rohit Vemula was a Dalit student at Hyderabad University who was a victim of caste discrimination there.]

The government should protect students from caste discrimination and end the discriminatory guidelines that are institutionalised on campuses in the form of curfews for women. In our hostels [student accommodation], women have been fighting against these curfews that dictate that you can’t go outside your hostel after 8pm. These curfews do not apply to men and are the result of patriarchal thinking in Indian society. So this was also a major demand, so that women can gain back the spaces, they can go outside, they can be on a par with male hostellers.

GLW: Did you have support from other sectors?

KK: Yes, even the faculty were also out on the streets. Professors, faculty, teachers associations were giving their support, as well as civil society organisations. Even Arundhati Roy gave us support. So we had civil society rights activists, kisan [peasant] activists – all extended their support.

The parents of many students and the youth are extending their support because they have begun to realise that it is extremely important right now to save the whole idea of the university and the idea behind public education.

GLW: What would you say in general are the attitudes of young people in India towards the Modi government?

KK:  In 2014, the students and youth were very hopeful, so many students and youth voted for the government and in support of Modi, not realising that behind the whole apparatus of Modi was a big fascist organisation working, which is the RSS. In 2014, Modi mobilised in a manner and ensured his entire campaign was projected as pro-development, pro-youth, pro-jobs, pro-people in general. So people were very hopeful, and the students and youth specifically.

After four and a half years I would say the mood has entirely changed in the country. Now the students have started realising that they were made a mockery of. They are the ones realising how democratic institutions are being compromised under this government. They are realising that the spaces of free thinking, where you could debate or you could argue - the universities - are also under tremendous attack because the government doesn’t want the youth to think, to question, to reason. Many of the people who voted for Modi in 2014 are not going to vote for him in 2019.

The major factor behind it is that the government failed to deliver on a single promise. On jobs, India is facing a major crisis. Even the jobs that we have right now in the public sector and in the unorganised sector are not dignified jobs. The quality of the jobs has shrunk. The number of jobs has shrunk... In 2018, the number of jobs was the lowest in 45 years. The students and the youth have started realising this.

From 2014 to 2019, the mood has shifted hugely so now there is a lot of anger among students and youth. Even among those youth who don’t belong to the left, who don’t really subscribe to a left background or don’t really participate in any protests, who are not activists. The mood has shifted in those students and in people in general to say, 'Look, this government has to go’, because it is extremely anti-student. The government has been extremely repressive against the students and youth.

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