right to protest
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EDITORIAL

Curbing students’ rights to protest

A recent directive by the Acts Implementation Committee of the Assam Legislative Assembly debarring students from taking part in protests and demonstrations during school hours has caused quite a ripple across the state. While Committee Chairperson and BJP legislator Mrinal Saikia is on record saying that the directors of both elementary education and higher education have been asked to ensure that students do not participate in protest programmes during school hours, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and other student bodies of the state have not only vehemently opposed it, but have also described the directive as one intended at curbing democratic rights. Meanwhile, as Chairman Saikia has also announced that heads of institutions were asked to comply with the Committee’s recommendations, a couple of officers in the state education department have already gone enthusiastic over it and issued show-cause notices to a couple of headmasters and principals across the state.

While students have been at the forefront and has remained the heart of all social activities in Assam since the British days, it remains a fact that it is the student community which has been the most active in raising various issues and fulfilling the grievances of the people. The student movement in Assam has already crossed a glorious 100 years, with the first ever student body presided over by none other than Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaroa. The freedom movement on the other hand had seen large-scale participation of students, with Kanaklata standing out as one of the youngest martyrs of the entire country in that historic movement. The post-Independence era too has seen a series of major student movements in Assam, and it was primarily because of successive student movements that the state had got three successive oil refineries – Noonmati, Bongaigaon and Numaligarh. That we today have so many bridges across the Brahmaputra, that we today have broad-gauge railway tracks up to Ledo, that we today have a number of institutions of higher education including the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Assam University and Tezpur University, all are outcome of students’ movements.

That Assam was facing a well-designed demographic invasion with large-scale infiltration of people from erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh too was brought to focus only by the student community. The issue of protecting the Assamese identity – and for that matter identity of the various indigenous communities of the state – too has been time and again highlighted only by the student community. It is the student community which has been at the forefront in raising the voice for all and any kind of injustice faced by the common people, be it price rise, rising crimes, failure of the government to solve the flood and erosion problem, and so on.
In sharp contrast, politicians and political parties have miserably failed in getting things done to solve the basic problems of the people. If one takes the Assam Accord as an example, it is seen that while the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had taken the six-year long Assam Movement to its logical end by signing the historic Assam Accord, it is a fact that successive governments, be they at the Centre or in the State, have miserably failed to implement its various clauses. Politicians and political parties on their part have mostly played politics over it instead of securing the future of Assam and the indigenous communities by pressing for effective implementation of the Accord. That the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is now being prepared (and has reached close to completion) is also outcome of pressure exerted by the students, and not by any political party.

The present attempt to debar students from taking part in protests and demonstrations meanwhile brings to mind the infamous Cunnigham Circular of 1930, one that sought to prevent students from taking part in the freedom movement. The Cunningham Circular, issued by J R Cunningham, the then powerful director of public information of Assam, imposed a blanket ban on any anti-British and pro-swadeshi activity by students. But what it actually did was provoked more students to take part in the movement as the entire country was getting ready for the Civil Disobedience Movement. While the recent move only asks concerned officers to take action against headmasters and principals of schools, Cunningham had also issued an order asking students to sign an undertaking to the effect that they would have to quit their schools and colleges if they participated in anti-government demonstrations or movements.

In a democratic country like ours, it should have been the duty of the government to train young people in using their democratic rights for the betterment of the country and her people. But while we do not see any such attempts (barring the present Assam Assembly Speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami’s unique move to pick up 20 brilliant students for a month-long internship) by the government to empower our students, the recent directive has also evoked opposition from all those who believe in and consider democracy as sacred and vital for development of the country. It is a fact that students should not lose valuable time meant for studies. But then what can they do when politicians fail, when political parties fail, and even when the government fails to fulfil the basic demands of the people?