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Students strike, farmers march, and women rise: This week in India’s social movements

You don’t need me to tell you that these are dark times. From Mississippi’s recent (and definitely unconstitutional) banning of abortion at 15 weeks, to Trump’s revolving-door series of government appointments which are now slated to include a known torturer, the news is bleak. And it’s not only in the U.S.: Authoritarian right-wing governments are on the up worldwide. Including in my current home, India, where the right-wing BJP has been in power since 2014.

The past few years have seen a number of student and people’s protests against issues ranging from the uptick in lynchings of Muslims under an ideology of Hindu ethnocentrism, to  the negative effects of increasing higher education privatization on educational access. In the wake of all this, the past week has been especially busy, with students striking for scholarships, farmers marching for land (and winning!), and women rising up against sexual harassment and moral policing.

Check out what’s going on and take heart that, while global political problems seem doomed to escalate, so too do people’s movements. “They tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds.”

Students Strike

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A student protest from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where students are on strike. Image credit: Personal acquaintance. 

Student political action has been a potent force in India ever since the Independence movement, and no less in the past few years, which have seen movements against privatization and for women students’ rights.

Recently, the students of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), one of the nation’s largest premier social science research institutions, have been on strike for a month protesting the withdrawal of scholarships for students from marginalized backgrounds. They’ve appealed for international support, making the point that education privatization — the root cause of the withdrawal of scholarships — is not an Indian issue alone. (Of course, those of us living under Betsy DeVos know this full well.)

This comes at the same time that students and teachers across Indian universities have been protesting increasing privatization, including increasing insecurity in faculty appointments (taking the form of contractual or adjunct positions…sound familiar?). Students and teachers at Delhi University and at Jawaharlal Nehru University (where I’m based) in the country’s capital are both currently on strike. They’re protesting the government’s moves toward education privatization and the decimation of affirmative action (required by Indian law) in teacher appointments and student admissions.

Farmers March

At the same time that students went on strike, a very different group of citizens mobilized at an enormous scale. More than 30,000 farmers marched hundreds of kilometers from the rural lands of the state of Maharashtra to the metropolitan center of Mumbai. Mostly indigenous people, the farmers overwhelmingly till land to which they have no legal deed and thus live in extraordinarily precarious conditions of poverty and legal dispossession. Marching under the auspices of the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) and the All India Kisan Sabha (All India Farmer’s Organization), the farmers demanded that they be given the rights to their land.

Images of urban streets filled as far as the eye can see with landless people, and marchers’ blistered feet, filled the airwaves as urban dwellers rallied behind the farmers’ demands. Last week, in an incredible victory, their demands were granted, including the grant of a farm loan waiver and the promise to give indigenous people legal deeds to their cultivated land. “The government has looted and exploited our earlier generations and the farm loan waiver is a loot-wapasi,” (“return of the loot”), said Ajit Nawale, state secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha.

Women Rise

The past few years have seen incredible organizing from Indian women students, rising up against moral policing, sexual violence, and more. From the massive national anti-sexual violence movement sparked by the brutal December 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, to the  Pinjra Tod (“break the cages”) — women’s student movement against regressive university policies like curfew for adult women students living in campus housing — women students have risen up.

The movement has continued in the past few weeks. Women students in Kerala are protesting against a professor’s sexist comments that women students show their breasts like “a cut watermelon” by (what else?) sharing images of sliced watermelon…and breasts. In Delhi-based Jamia Milia Islamia, women campus residents protested against their repressive (and gender-unequal) 8pm curfew, successfully getting it extended to 10:30 pm.

Meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru University (where I’m based) has seen massive protests following the filing of eight sexual assault complaints against a prominent science professor with connections to the ruling party and college administration. Despite numerous protests and the filing of eight separate legal cases, the university has yet to suspend the professor. This comes months after the campus’s elected sexual harassment complaints body was arbitrarily disbanded by a right-leaning administration, and replaced by an administratively-appointed body — which the complainants have declined to report to, fearing administrative tampering.

Here’s a video from The Wire summing up the sexual harassment case — and the reasons for ongoing student strike.

Solidarity is Global

While it’s easy to see our movements in isolation, snapshots from what’s happening all over the globe remind us that the forces at work under the Trump administration — sexism, colonialism and imperialism, discrimination, and the privatization of every conceivable human good — are much, much bigger than just the U.S. But with the enormous scope of the problem also comes the enormous scope for hope — that, as the old slogan tells us, the people united can never be defeated. Or at least, can keep the spirit of social equality alive.

Header image: Farmers wearing communist colors march as far as the eye can see, via Changing Tomorrow.

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