From the 1973 Gujarat Students’ Movement to the Ongoing Agitation - Where Will It Lead?
A blow to the Hindutva agenda of the BJP and the RSS?
The youth leading the present upsurge against the central government on the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, and the terror unleashed by police on various university campuses across the country has led to comparisons with the scenario that prevailed before Emergency was imposed in 1975.
References are being made to the Navnirman Andolan (Reconstruction Movement) of 1973-74 in Gujarat which influenced Jayaprakash Narayan to spearhead a student movement underway in Bihar, soon culminating in the clarion call for ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ or Total Revolution.
Investigating the similarities and differences between the two, I reached out to Manishi Jani in Ahmedabad who was president of the Navnirman Samiti and also the first student member to be elected to the Gujarat University senate at the time.
There are several stark, uncanny resemblances between the two scenarios set apart by almost 35 years.
Both movements began with students, on the issue of fee hikes. As Jani pointed out, “The Navnirman Andolan was triggered by a protest in the LD Engineering College in Ahmedabad over an increase in the mess charges from Rs 70 to Rs 100.
“Thereafter, the protest grew in colleges affiliated with the Gujarat University which were spread across north Gujarat, Kutch and Ahmedabad, and parts of central Gujarat. In the present case, it was the issue of CAA and NRC along with support for the JNU students protesting fee hikes that led to the protests in Delhi and other cities.”
The police met both movements with brute force. The governments of the day tried to use the police to quell dissent. The Navnirman Andolan saw violence unleashed by the Chimanbhai-Patel led Congress government on students in Gujarat.
In both cases, attempts were made to discredit protestors and communalise the protests. Jani recounted that earlier too, government attempts at communalisation were the biggest challenge for protest organisers.
“We saw for ourselves how political bigwigs were using communalisation as a weapon to achieve their political goals. The Congress government was known for giving a communal colour to movements building against it. So when the Navnirman Andolan was at its peak, and we feared that trouble would be created in minority-dominated localities like Jamalpur, we would organise concurrent readings of the Gita and the Quran. This strategy worked,” he recalled.
In the present scenario too there have been attempts to discredit organisers in various ways, to project the dissent as ‘Muslim protests’ or as xenophobic in the northeast states. Campaigning in Jharkhand Prime Minister Modi said violent protestors could be identified ‘by the clothes they wear’. Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi cautioned students against being misled by ‘urban naxals’.
Coming to the differences between the two scenarios, Jani had very interesting details to share. The first pertains to the “stellar role” played by several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders including PM Modi in the Navnirman Andolan, as members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad which is the student wing of the RSS.
“Incidentally, I was introduced to Modi as an RSS leader near BR Ambedkar’s statue in Sarangpur only in 1984. That was the first time I came across him, and never saw him during the Navnirman Andolan or after. The ABVP leaders active at the time of the Andolan whom I know included Arun Oza, Chandrakant Pandit and some others,” Jani recalls.
He further added, “The BJP in its earlier avatar of Jana Sangh did not support our call for a statewide bandh on January 25, 1974 which we gave in alliance with various trade unions and journalist bodies.”
Another difference between the two movements pertains to the media available for reaching out to allies. The present movement has the advantage of social media and mobile apps, despite the fact that the authorities are using internet blockades as a major weapon.
However, it must be said that mainstream journalists played an altogether different role during the Navnirman Andolan.
It is worth asking if the Navnirman Andolan inspired Jayaprakash Narayan to lead students in Bihar and the process culminated in Emergency and the eventual ouster of the Indira Gandhi government, where will the present movement lead?
Achyut Yagnik, one of the most prominent political observers and commentators in Gujarat believes, “This is going to have a long lasting impact, because the students who have taken to the streets at this point of time will be the adults of tomorrow. The future aspect needs to be taken into account. This will be a major challenge to the ideology and philosophy of the RSS.”
Yagnik further observed, “The BJP failed to read both the present and the future. It did not expect non-Muslim youth to speak against what it has been doing. It expected the protests to be limited to Muslim educational institutions. But non-Muslim students have stood up in unison with the protesting Muslims against a discriminatory law, and the brutal assault on students not subscribing to the BJP’s moves.”
In fact the people have risen as one against the government’s policies, and led by the northeastern region in most places it is non-Muslims who have spearheaded the protests.
Yagnik said that the way things have been moving is a big blow to the Hindutva agenda of the BJP and the RSS.
Jani too believes that the authorities failed to dilute the outcome of what happened at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. “The spontaneous response by the common masses to a movement started by students will surely go a long way.”