Students’ Arrests amidst COVID-19 and the Lockdown : Issues worth Pondering

Martin Luther King Education

At a time when another large democracy of the world, the United States of America, is in the throes of a crisis, it is relevant to recall, for all protesters and resisters struggling for their rights, what Martin Luther King (Jr.) had said:

“The non-violent resister is not physically aggressive towards the opponent. But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken.”

Even in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown, arrests of those involved in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) continued unabated. It is to be noted that most of those arrested have been students. Even more significant is the fact that some of them are women. The latest to join this list are Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, who were arrested on May 23, granted bail, following which they were immediately re-arrested by the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police under a fresh application and a different FIR.

But let us, for a moment, not get into the details and the nitty-gritty of the grounds for arrests, re-arrests and the situation as of today. Let us take a larger view, look at some fundamental aspects, especially from the perspective of education, citizens’ rights and society. This is important also, as quite often, one argument brought against participation of students in such protests is that they should limit themselves to their studies and not be engaged in activities that are construed to be ‘political’ in nature – a subject that would, by itself, require a separate inquiry and article.

Is the objective of education limited to getting a job and hoping to earn enough for a decent living, and thinking just about oneself and one’s family? Or is it about students evolving into citizens and human beings trying to make sense of the world around them, being aware of their rights and duties as citizens, being sensitive to the needs and rights of fellow citizens, so that one contributes to the making of a better society with equal rights for all? Are such questions not of significance in a country with a democratic set-up rooted in constitutional values based on equal rights and duties for all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, class, region, religion and various other considerations?

The involvement of students in protests and their arrests needs to be viewed in this larger backdrop of the interface between education, the individual and society. Taking them to be broadly representative examples of these students, the journeys of Natasha and Devangana provide us an opportunity to understand this phenomenon.

Both of them have been actively involved with issues related to the rights of citizens, especially women and the marginalized sections of society. It is clear enough that they are acutely aware of the problems that beset our society. This is reflected in their educational journeys and the values they would have inherited from their families. Natasha, pursuing her PhD on women’s movements in Delhi, has degrees in B.A. (Honours) and M.A. – both in History – and her work in M.Phil was on access to land rights for Adivasis in Raygada, Odissa. She has also contributed as a photographer to the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI).

Devangana has a B.A. (Honours) degree from a reputed college in Delhi, a course she topped in her college. She has Masters Degrees – in Development Studies from the University of Sussex and in Modern History from a university in Delhi, and is now an M.Phil scholar in the field of Women’s Studies.

After their schooling – in Hisar (Haryana) and Dibrugarh (Assam) – they had the merit to be admitted to reputed colleges and universities of Delhi. Both come from highly educated and socially conscious families. Natasha’s father retired as senior scientist from the C.C.S. Haryana Agriculture University, Hisar and her grandfather, an ex-serviceman, was actively engaged with issues of social concern – the eradication of illiteracy and standing up for inter-caste marriages, for instance. Devangana’s father is a renowned Cardiologist from the Dibrugarh Medical College and her mother, a Professor of Geology.

These women’s active engagement with issues of social concern makes it quite obvious that they have imbibed the idea of Education as a medium that nurtures thought and sensitivity, making them grapple with matters of citizenry and citizenship, as also larger humanitarian concerns. This may well possibly – if not probably – be true not just of these two women but quite a few of the students involved in the protests against CAA.  Some (if not all) students like these two women, who have been a part of the protests against CAA are, obviously enough, well-grounded in their academic pursuits. They are thinking individuals, articulate, actively engaging with social issues on the ground, sharply aware of the inequalities in society.

Anything wrong in this?

It indicates that they are alive to the socio-economic-cultural issues around them. And so, it is pertinent to ask : if, in an independent, democratic country, one senses that the government of the day is being neglectful of the entitlement to equal rights of a section of citizens, is it wrong to be a part of peaceful – even if robust –  protests? Is it not right for a student to be part of such a protest that, in her view is necessary for safeguarding the rights and interests of fellow citizens, based on a considered, thoughtful view of the matter? Does participation by educated, socially conscious youth in such protests become a crime – or is it their constitutional right that they exercise (which, simultaneously, becomes a duty to safeguard the democratic ethos)?

Coming back to the arrests. The way they have come about is itself worth a thought.

One wonders as to why these arrests came so many months after the incidents for which they have been made?

It is also to be noted that, as reported in the Indian Express dated May 25, 2020, Natasha and Devangana were facing three probes – by the Special Cell, the Jafrabad Police Station and the Crime Branch SIT. Once bail was granted on one count, another application was moved for interrogation. In quick succession came the re-arrests for communal violence with grave charges like attempt to murder, conspiracy, rioting, obstruction of public servant and sections of the Arms Act.

Ultimately (as a last resort?) as in the case of Natasha, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is being invoked in which the provisions of bail are so stringent as to more or less rule out the possibility of getting it.

It is, indeed, strikingly telling that an Act amended to be used against individuals supposed to be terrorists is being invoked against these students.

On the other hand, it is so very obvious for all to see that no action has yet been taken against those who publicly exhorted people to take law into their own hands.

If we understand the significance, spirit and meaning of the real democratic ethos and citizens’ rights, and wish to retain the edifice of a democratic set-up rooted in equal rights for all under the rule of law, we do need to think about these issues, with sensitivity, and on rational grounds.

Ramnik Mohan, formerly a teacher at the level of higher education, is an occasional  freelance writer and translator actively engaged with issues of socio-cultural concern.




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