Lessons from the pro-Palestine campus movement in the US for India

Student Protest Palestine Gaza USA

By all accounts, the US is a highly policed and regulated state. There are rules, limits and boundaries for everything, including social protests. How to picket on a sidewalk (no stationary protesting; keep moving in a circle); what is private property and what public; whether an amplified mic can be used or only a foghorn. Etc.

A rally a certain size can immediately attract a large police presence and also overhead helicopters. Police  response is a grim reality there with patrol cars, mounted police and police on bicycles and motorcycles maintaining quick access to any trouble spots. Crackdowns and arrests are swift.

And yet, recent years have seen a constant spate of protest and resistance for various social justice causes, including the protests for the targeting of African-Americans.

The recent encampments on the campus of Columbia University by pro-Palestinian protestors is a telling case of fierce resistance and an unbending spirit of protest. As such, the Palestine resistance movement has been embedded in US college campuses for a very long time. So, after the Israeli counterattack on Gaza for the Oct 7 Hamas attack in Israel, the various Justice for Palestine student organizations swung into action to organize protests and demonstrations. 

Some of the initial blowback against them came in the form of charges of anti-semitism. The presidents of 3 premier universities were summoned in front of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce of the US Congress. They especially grilled Harvard University president Claudine Gay, and eventually precipitated her resignation. The Harvard students who were identified in a students’ group statement the day of the  Oct. 7 attack, were “doxxed” (publicly identified). Trucks with their names and pictures were driven around the city to publicly shame them. Several companies who had made offers to graduating students pulled back their offers if any student had any connection with any mode of protest. Donors to the university threatened to withdraw their donations on account of the pro-Palestine response.

Despite such pressure tactics and direct targeting of students, the protests have not died down across campuses in the US. As the latest continuing protests at Columbia University show, the spirit of resistance is deep and unbowed. Over a 100 students have been arrested. Police have been called into the campus repeatedly. Gates are locked. Security checks are constant and there is online vilification. Yet, the students have dug in.

They have encamped on the lawns of the campus in tents. They have occupied the university, reminiscent of the days of the Occupy Movement, when several universities and public spaces were taken over as a form of protest. This is a stirring feat of determination, resolve and a fight for justice. Knowing what they face, knowing that their careers could be on the line, yet the students are risking it all.

Fears of crackdown on protests are a worldwide phenomenon. Whether in Myanmar, Egypt, Hong Kong or Russia. Even in the US, arrests in political protests take a lot of legal procedures to get names cleared, if at all. Several activists who were arrested during various protest movements, especially the Occupy protests, for merely participating, had to go through a long and protracted court battle to get free.

In India, the chilling, swift and often unexplained arrests for any sort of protest deemed anti-state or anti-national, seem to have put a damper on the culture of mass demonstrations. The recent farmers’ protests, with the primary theater at the Singhu Border in Delhi, drew its strength from the brave and well-prepared farmers mainly from Punjab. But they too were bottled-up outside Delhi with the government refusing to talk to them for the longest. Several participants in the protests were badly roughed up.

The anti-CAA sit-ins, as at Shaheen Bagh, were surely a very powerful and successful example of people’s protest. And yet they ran their course and in the end the government enacted the law they had then threatened to impose. 

In its wake, several students, principally from JNU, DU and Jamia Millia were put behind bars on flimsy charges of participating in the protests or making statements – and many of them still remain incarcerated.

Earlier several activists, allegedly connected with the Bhima-Koregaon bicentennial celebrations of 2018, were put behind bars and many still remain there. Other activists like Teesta Setalvad were remanded to custody for old cases but soon let off.

Various other organizations, journalists and individuals have been harassed and in several cases, their owners or founders have been arrested. Emails have been hacked and other social media accounts have been pry-ed into to make cases of wrongdoing and conspiracy.

This is no small matter. Protest spaces have been designated in almost every major Indian city. In Delhi, it is the Jantar Mantar area, heavily cordoned-off – and away from public view. The very purpose of a public protest is defeated there. Media platforms have been compromised or simply been taken over by “new management,” which is closer to the government. Entire groups of people who raise their voices are maligned by everyone from the prime minister downward, being referred to as tukde-tukde gang, urban naxalites and even sickular.

But it is not just the ordinary citizens who have been harassed and arrested. Politicians of opposition parties – many of them chief ministers –  who one would think would have more resources to protect themselves, have been also bundled behind bars.

Yet, brutal repression and dire repercussions do not seem to be deterring the pro-Palestinian protests, which are spreading across campuses. Encampments have begun springing up on other universities as well, such as at Harvard. And even Israel’s PM Netanyahu has reacted, calling them “horrific.”

Not just that, ordinary citizens have been gradually doing their bit by participating in local level politics and pressurizing their towns and counties for a ceasefire in Gaza. Earlier, staffers in the US government have resigned in protest of the war. And even high-school students have walked out of their classes in protest.

We know how some universities in India have been victimized for any whiff of protest emanating from them. It is true that across the world, colleges and universities have been largely de-politicized. This is more so in countries like the US with a large number of recognized universities, public and private. However, the tradition of campus protests and free-expression has never really been killed off there. 

From anti-war protests, to protests against racial issues and more recently, as part of the Occupy movement, there has always been a simmering culture of campus protest. Besides, campus staff is often unionized and  engages in continuous struggle with management for better work conditions. There is often a mutually supportive relation between the students and staff.

The situation, in comparison, seems bleak across Indian campuses. Barring a few, there has been almost no meaningful political activity from campuses across the country. Though campuses might be heavily politicized, that politicking seems more for cornering political posts than for any constructive issues. Most professional colleges, such as the engineering and medical colleges, have been non-participatory in any significant way in socio-politico interventions.

But if there is one lesson we can take from the recent and ongoing pro-Palestine protests in the US, is that resistance is necessary. Even if one’s cause seems hopelessly outnumbered and overwhelmed, it is necessary to raise one’s voice fearlessly against injustice. We see that even as the protests continue in the US, a funding bill for $26 billion in aid to Israel was passed by the US House. The protestors know that they are up against overwhelming odds. They know their protests are being attacked from every angle possible. And they well know that the state machinery is still chugging along in its support of Israel as if nobody had objected. Yet, in whatever small way, the resistance has started figuring in the re-election bid and chances of the current president, Joe Biden. There are fears that his stance in the war in Gaza could adversely affect his chances for re-election. The protests and acts of resistance are slowly seeping into the nation’s awareness and one might say, even in its conscience.

In India, where we see the progressive and liberal group of people constantly under attack, retreating into a shell cannot be the response. Neither can online expressions be the only expressions of one’s opinions. One has to project one’s voice for it to be heard. And this has to be out in the open. Also, this cannot be in and from safe and comfortable enclaves, be it a Press Club, a Jantar Mantar or a Constitution Club. The discourse has to be out in the streets. Probably we can all take encouragement from a lone crusader who, at great personal risk, has campaigned on the streets of Delhi distributing pamphlets whenever he sensed injustice being done. Every small action counts.

Aviral Anand is a social activist based in New Delhi

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