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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

Students Protest is Soul of Democracy — In Defence of Students Protest in Columbia University | Vijay Kumar

Saturday 11 May 2024, by Vijay Kumar


I have been watching the protest of students at Columbia University, and its spread over other University campuses in US and even in other countries against the Israel attack on Gaza civilians and humongous violation of human rights with sad emotion and unrelieved anguish. As recently as in the last week of March, I was invited to participate in a symposium on the American-Indian Constitution, organized by the Law School of Columbia University. I enjoyed the warm hospitality of faculty and enthusiastic participation of students and the penetrating questions raised by them. The interaction with both the faculty members and students was enlightening and rewarding. Therefore, I am penning this article after a considerable amount of hemming and hawing.

Given the existence of democracy, the positive right to participate in synergy with negative liberties of right to free speech and expression, and the right to autonomy and conscience, are integral imperatives. Democracy demands the active participation of democratic citizens, and the morality of democratic politics desiderates the triggering of protest against the unjust policy and arbitrary decision of the Government. Thus, the right to protest is as much a facet of the right to participation as to the right of free speech and expression. In fact, protest unmistakably amounts to expression.

The university’s campus is a fertile space for new, progressive and radical -– indeed even insurgent ideas. The University is a crucible for heated debate. The young, by their age and temperament, are rebellious and intolerant to unjust social and political order. The agitation by the students is informed by idealism – a virtue that starts wearing thin as one advances in age. Thus, the protest of students in their colleges and university campuses provides a moral compass and thus operates as catharsis for the salutary evolution of democratic politics.

The response of Israel to the horrific attack by Hamas on 7th October, 2023 is unconscionably disproportionate. Its right to defence cannot extend to committing genocide by bombing hospitals and blocking the aid supply spearheaded by the United Nations leading to massive starvation. The repeated resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly and the judgment of the International Court of Justice have brazen-facedly been flouted by the Netanyahu Government. Given this kind of blatant defiance of International Law and world opinions, the repeated vetoes by the United States in the Security Council against taking any action against Israel is preposterous. Moreover, the inaction of the Biden administration has exposed it to the charge of being duplicitous. The inability or unwillingness, or both, to restrain the Netanyahu Government has dented the morality of US foreign policy in case of an equally barbaric attack on Ukraine by Putin. Therefore, the hypocrisy and duplicity of US have unmistakably come to the fore.

Confronted with the casuistry and deception of the Biden Administration, the students in their respective campuses have raised their voices. Their sense of conscience is justifiably pricked by humongous violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Far from engaging with the students through epistemic dialogue, the President of Columbia University — the epicentre of agitation – has called the police and got the agitating students arrested. This is monstrous. Ideally, there should not be any kind of presence of police in college and university campuses.

Curiously, the Biden administration seems to be impervious to the student agitation of yesteryear. The present student protest is an echo of the 1960’s protest against the Vietnam War. The universities in the US were in ferment when the US attacked Vietnam. One such student, who was in the forefront of opposition against the Vietnam War on the campus of Yale Law School, was Bill Clinton. When Bill Clinton secured the democrat nomination for the presidential contest against senior Bush in 1992, it was canvassed, rather aggressively, by the Republican Party that his Democrat rival was anti-national as he opposed Vietnam War as a student – a nasty and jingoistic campaign that was resoundingly rejected by American voters.

Again, the students in US and other parts of the World were in the forefront when they agitated against the apartheid regime in South Africa and the unjust incarceration of Nelson Mandela. It is the sustained protest of students in their campuses in all parts of the World that played a catalyst role in dismantling apartheid, followed by a free election in which Nelson Mandela was elected as President of South Africa.

Back home, it was the student agitation, started from Gujarat and Patna under the leadership of great Jay Prakash Narayan, that unnerved Indira Gandhi, and eventually, led to the emergency, and subsequently, her defeat in the election, and restoration of democracy in India. Thus, the emancipatory aspect and liberating potential of student protest stand unmistakably established.

Incidentally, the ambivalence of the Biden Administration over Israel’s belligerence that has provoked students has introduced an additional imponderable for the November election. The immorality of American foreign policy is further compounded by the passing of 26 billion Dollar aid by the Congress with remarkable bipartisan support, paradoxically, even in the time of polarized politics. This speaks volumes of the stranglehold of the Jewish lobby which is confined not only to wall-street and Military-Industrial complex but extends to even Congress and endowment funds of Ivy league institutions On the one hand, there is an issue of bankrolling election expenses by rich and powerful Jew lobby – an indispensable ally of the both Democrat and Republican, and, on the other hand, there is distinct possibility of alienating youth, Muslims and other progressive and liberal groups. How Biden would navigate this conundrum and how this would play out is hazardous to predict.

The student protest provides a moral and ethical benchmark for interrogating the unjust action of the government and thus constitutes a vital feature of redemptive and transformative politics. The protesting students are moral agents and their protests are valuable resources for steering democracy towards just and fair; equitable and inclusive political system and rule-based international order.

(Author: Vijay Kumar, senior advocate Supreme Court of India and the author of a recent book: “The Theory of Basic Structure : Saviour of the Constitution and Democracy”)

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