The glories and perils of student activism

Anuradha C

Can you imagine a teenage student obediently attending classes, getting back home right after and being studious all the time? Might sound ideal to a harried parent, but no. We’d rather have boisterous young wannabe adults brimming with energy, unconventional ideas and fearless action.

When a teenager is up in arms at home, fighting for more pocket money, more freedom or more privacy, that’s adolescence. When the same teenager fights in the public domain for social causes that impact the larger populace, that’s activism. Eternal vigilance is said to be the bedrock of a healthy democracy. Student activism is a significant and valuable contributor to this.

Some important student activist movements in history
Student movements have been known to take up political, environmental, educational, social or economic causes across all parts of the world. Let’s list down some memorable ones, both in India and abroad.
• The Assam agitation (1979-1985) against illegal immigrants in Assam.
• The Jallikattu protest (2017) in Tamil Nadu against the ban on the traditional Jallikattu sport.
• The civil rights movement (1960s) in USA in which college students protested against racial segregation and marched for civil rights.
• The Million Student March (2015) in USA where students from over 100 campuses across the country protested against student fee increase and rising student debt.
• The Paris student revolt (1968) turned into a massive general strike which eventually led to the ouster of French President Charles De Gaulle.

Why student activism is so potent
Activist movements organized by students are likely to be spontaneous, low cost and full of energy. For one, there is no fear of ramification lurking in their minds when they take up a bold stand against the establishment. Simply because they don’t have family responsibilities, obligations to an employer or health constraints. They are free to follow their instincts and act on impulse. Also, since many participants are likely to be underage, they have to be treated with kid gloves by the law enforcing agencies.

The poignant visual of students on a sit-in protest, on a hunger strike or on a long march evokes a huge rush of sympathy and emotional support from the silent audience. Even hard-nosed establishments find it difficult to scuttle or undermine selfless and well-meaning agitations from students.

College campuses have seen the genesis of many a radical movement. Organizing university elections might be the first taste of political activity for a student. But the skills of mass communication and mobilization that they gather during the process are invaluable.

Political alignments of the teaching faculty in universities is another huge influencing factor. Campuses in the US, India and other democratic countries are becoming more and more politically aware and aligned over the years.

Beware when activism leads you astray
There is an inherent risk that comes with an underage student taking critical, life altering decisions. It’s not without cause that the law restricts a minor from voting, marrying or even getting a driving license!

The fluid nature of one’s world view at that highly impressionable age makes a student a soft target for subtle manipulation and covert influencing. Vested interests with dubious intentions may find it easy to hide behind a façade of a student protest while the real goal is to destabilise the establishment – be it the university management or a federal government.

There are several notorious instances in history when political parties, extremists in academia or religious groups used student protests as a façade for nefarious and anti-social purposes. When the movement backfires, the masterminds simply vanish, leaving innocent students to bear the brunt.

Student body elections in many of the Chennai colleges during the 1980s-90s is a sad example. There was visible, direct interference from political parties into all campus activity. Students vandalizing public property and creating a nuisance was subtly encouraged, condoned. This gave the erring students a false sense of power. But it put them on the wrong side of the law, ultimately ruining their academic as well as career prospects.

Mass movements tend to be emotionally overwhelming. So it’s easy to lose sight of facts or fairness in a mood of frenzy. A small misstep can spiral into serious repercussions that may last a lifetime.

Student activism in the digital era
In the context of the modern day digitally wired world, communication has become easier and tougher at the same time. You can reach more people in lesser time, with limited resources. But the sheer volume of content generated pushes it out of active public memory as easily as it came in.

Activism in the digital space is about 1 per cent content creation and 99 per cent content dissemination. Tools in the digital universe are diverse, mostly free of cost and constantly evolving. In the present day, the following IT tools and applications have been able to create maximum impact:
• Short videos, chat messages, blogs, podcasts, animations – diversity of content formats help in creating the right impact.
• Social media platforms for instant content dissemination.
• Video/audio conferencing applications for connecting with people and mobilizing large scale people participation.
• Crowd-funding and peer to peer online financing techniques for mobilizing resources.

Some quick DOs and DONTs for students and youth activists before you take up a protest for a public cause:
Not for money please – Stay away from campaigns that offer to pay you for your online or in-person participation, just to build the numbers. If the cause is genuine, the organizers should be able to find voluntary support and not purchase their numbers.
Pick a worthy cause – Always verify the original goal or mission of the protest before enlisting your services. What does it aim to achieve? Do you personally believe in that cause too? Sometimes protest movements morph into several tangential causes and people may lose sight of the original intent.
Not for fandom or friendship – Never get into an agitation simply because your friends or your favourite celebrity is endorsing it. Do your own homework. Read up the law, policies or regulation that the protest is up against. Formulate your own opinion for and against it. Otherwise your stand will lack conviction and you will be prone to external manipulation.
No objectionable content – Desist from creating, endorsing or disseminating inflammatory, violent, anti-national and sexually explicit language. Effective communication does not need the prop of titillating content, you can be equally impactful with dignified language. Just requires clarity of thought, greater focus and proper preparation.

The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at

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