Some call it democracy

Sedition and conspiracy charges have been filed against three former students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and seven others. If these charges are established, 10 young Indians could be sentenced to life-term imprisonment. A great deal has been said and written about the need to banish a 19th century law, introduced by Lord Macaulay, from the statute books. It may be time to ask another question: what kind of a government wages war on its own students? History tells us that short-sighted governments do precisely this. The spirit of 1968 In May 1968, students in universities across France rose in revolt against hide-bound, patriarchal and class-governed structures, from the family, the capitalist market, to the government ruled by the conservative President Charles de Gaulle. In early 1968, students at the campus of the University of Paris at Nanterre, located on the outskirts of the capital city, had launched a protest. They campaigned against the involvement of Western governments in the Vietnam War, against sexual unfreedom, and for the realisation of liberty that the French had, less than 200 years ago, fought for. In May, students at the Sorbonne expressed solidarity with their fellow students, and revolted. Young women and men took to the streets, and as a result were beaten up by the police. Hundreds of them were arrested. This led to the closing down of the prestigious university. Ironically, police brutality incited even more students to join the movement. The police assaulted young people with tear gas and swinging batons. But students were determined to re-enact the spectacular 1789 revolution that had been left unfinished in some respects. They constructed hundreds of barricades in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The slogan that inspired them to defy the police was: politics is the art of the impossible. On May 13, workers from the Renault factory joined the protests and struck work. Factories were closed, trains ground to a halt, and the French government came to a standstill. De Gaulle had not taken student demonstrations seriously; he had to pay for this serious lapse of judgment. He dissolved Parliament and mobilised hundreds of supporters to counter the protest. His party came back to power after the elections, but in the following April he resigned after his government lost a referendum. He had thought the results would demonstrate his acceptability to the people of France. The French did not forgive him for going to war against his own students. Fifty years later, May 1968 is remembered as the month and the year when university students launched a political, cultural and sexual revolution. And the world recollected the words of the English poet William Wordsworth, who in The Prelude wrote of the 1789 French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! O times…When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights.” Wordsworth was perceptive. The vision, the energy and the language invented by rebellious young people inject a breath of fresh air into our jaded and bankrupt political discourses. If the young do not struggle for emancipation, who will? Three years ago Students assembled on the grounds of JNU more than three years ago spoke of liberation from a caste-ridden and inegalitarian society. They reiterated the need to abolish capital punishment, which many fine legal minds have also condemned. They pointed out that the government should address escalating tensions in the Kashmir Valley. Some elements, reportedly outsiders, shouted anti-India slogans. This is hardly sedition. Will our great country and ancient civilisation collapse because of some idiotic slogans? We ought to have confidence in the capacity of India to endure youthful indiscretions, the country has survived infinitely more serious attacks on its territorial integrity. It is ridiculous to charge students with sedition when all that they were asking for was the breaking of shackles.

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