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  • Naman Vakharia

The State and the Students

In conversation with Dr Sriparna Pathak on student politics, her experience in JNU, and comparison of student dissent in India and China.

It's in the very DNA of politics to think and debate- especially in a democracy where conversations enhance the efficiency of the state. The goal of democracy, particularly in India is to create an inclusive space to discuss and deliberate for all people from all walks of life and ideologies. Likewise, it includes a room for students to dissent and challenge the relevant authorities. But this central element of India and democracy has swaggered in recent times. One such breeding ground of discussions and debate is the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. The varsity has faced a colossal amount of media trail and trolling leading to the demonisation of the university and the overall participation of students in politics.

Student politics is essential in a democracy as they contribute to shaping public opinion. Democracy gives students involved in student politics the ability "to think freely and learn and unlearn" says, Dr. Sriparna Pathak, Assistant Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs and alumna of JNU.

Dr. Pathak, while sharing the experience of student politics during her time at JNU and Delhi University, highlights that "student politics shape individuals and engages them in open conversations which helps them understand the complexities of the world." Furthermore, she reminisces her days at the JNU hostel and mess, which frequently hosted debates where students from all ideologies came together to listen to different ideas.

Dr. Pathak also condemns the current image of JNU and its students as 'anti-national'. She says that the University "lets students think for themselves and others with compassion and empathy and inculcates a sense of contributing to the development of the country. As a student, I never imagined that JNU would become a 'bad word.' The constant rhetoric and trolling against the students, faculty, and the whole university is bizarre and unheard."

However, Dr. Pathak notes that extreme opinions of all political ideologies exist in JNU. Still, these conversations are what she calls "powerless discussions and do not pose a threat. Suppose any particular discussion posses an actual and serious threat to the security and development of the country, in that case, a due action is a must." She believes that "conflict of ideas and interests has always existed in JNU, but the mode of this engagement has turned online and anonymous because of social media. There have been physical clashes on campus, and they have been solved internally and peacefully. But as the conversation happens online and no regulations or accountability can be guaranteed, the trolling phenomenon has increased. Mental harassment as a tool is used by all stakeholders to propagate their ideas in a violent and unhealthy manner. It disrupts the safe space on social media, which can be used for healthy debates."

Dr. Pathak has also studied the Chinese domestic economy in the Beijing Language and Culture University, China for two years. The academic experience in China and India made her realise the true meaning of democracy, and the rights and freedom it entails. During the winter months in China, she says, "the government decides when the entire heating system in the country can be switched on." She also said that "young Chinese students had to stand in a line for hot water to bathe. The state in China is omnipresent in the lives of its people. It can control what individuals can surf online to their sanitary needs." She adds, that "students in China like in India or JNU do protest. However, the nature of the protest and demands are drastically different."

Further, Dr. Pathak says,

"Chinese students were not allowed to switch on lights in their hostels post a particular time. A form of psychological control and discipline is taught to students so that they do not question the state in the future. But in India the students would protest for personal freedom like press rights, social and political equality. Hence, the definition of liberty and freedom is vividly different in both countries."

She continues,

"the mode of dissent is also different. For example, the use of art in India for protest and dissent is direct, but in China, the dissent using art or other methods is subtle."

For instance, she recalls "the street art in China, depicting an image of the Chinese Yuan to protest the government's negligence towards social prosperity to attain economic wealth."

"The Chinese monitor student movements and discussions through the cameras in classrooms and other private places; this restricts free academic discussions. And, helps the government to teach its students a narrative which enhances the propaganda and objectives of the state. I wanted to discuss the Dalia Lama in my class but was stopped by the faculty who pointed out towards the camera in the room," says Dr. Pathak. The experience in China made Dr. Pathak notice the actual differences between a democracy and a dictatorship. Dr. Pathak also points out that "as a society, we should gauge and compare ourselves with China on the democratic meter, only to realise that we must not fall back and slip away from our core ethos of equality and liberty guaranteed in a democratic India."

Over the last few years, student politics has become vicious and toxic because of social media, and widespread nationalist rhetoric student politics has become a deleterious space. As we move forward, we must use social media and the power of words peacefully and safely where opinions and individuals are respected and delivered in a hate-free manner.

Dr. Pathak signs off on an optimistic note and hopes that student politics in India will strive for unity with all the participants involved for the greater good.

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