How pragmatic is a student protest?

Last Updated: Sat, Mar 23, 2013 00:02 hrs

For several days now, Madras has witnessed protests by students and other youth, calling for a stronger resolution to be passed against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Their methods have ranged from fasts to sit-ins to blockades to seminars. While this has ensured that the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils dominates several pages of the newspapers, and not just the front page, what else has it achieved?

Perhaps it's compelled the DMK to pull out of the UPA. When students have taken an active role in calling for a strongly-worded resolution, the DMK – which has already been heavily criticised for acquiescing in India's indifference to the devastating Eelam War – cannot be seen to do nothing, especially since Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been so vocal about her stance against Sri Lanka.

Whether the tiff between the UPA and the DMK will last long is debatable. The UPA does need an ally in the state, and Jayalalithaa has been too outspoken in her disapproval of the Central Government's policies for the coalition to approach her with an alliance proposition. No other party has a strong enough presence in the state, and enough importance in the national arena, to be worthy of consideration as an election partner.

The protest has clearly had little impact on the resolution. India's attempts to make amendments to the wording were not entertained by the US. Last year, a much stronger resolution passed in the UNHRC found 24 countries in favour, and 15 against, with 8 abstentions. This year, the figures were 25-13. Sri Lanka has refused to take cognisance of the relatively mild resolution this year.

In the meanwhile, several colleges have closed early, and many have stopped plying buses. Some have closed hostels, forcing students to rush back home on unreserved compartments in trains. Others have insisted that the parents of the students come to fetch their wards, to ensure that they don't join the protests.

Across the world, and across decades, student protests have hit the headlines. Every time, the pundits speak of the promise of this new, politically-aware generation. Every time, they have given the entire nation a heady sense of change. But how effective are these protests? And how true is the sense of involvement these students feel?

Often, these protests have led to tragedy. Even more often, they have led to a false sense of achievement.

While political initiative from students is always a good thing, perhaps we need to rethink the channels it finds. There is a crucial distinction between student protests and student activism. The former, more often than not, is a token gesture. I'm not saying it's easy to go on a fast, or to stand for hours in the hot sun. But does it really accomplish what the protesters want it to? Would it not be more effective to focus the world's attention on why it's so important to call for change?

In the case of the Sri Lanka protests, the human rights violations and alleged war crimes had already got media attention before the students marched out. Photographs of children who appear to have been killed in military custody, videos of men being lined up and shot, and of the naked bodies of women – possibly victims of rape – had gone viral.

However, the condition of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) only merits the odd article every now and then. Journalists occasionally visit these camps, and bring back stories of abysmal living conditions and lack of basic facilities. Activism involves engaging with these issues, and ensuring that the media's focus stays on these subjects. The improvement of facilities in camps for Sri Lankan IDPs in India is within the purview of the Indian government, and this would be a good time to demand that something is done about that.

Geographically, India is in a delicate position, surrounded almost entirely by hostile nations. It doesn't make political sense for a weak government – as the UPA has undoubtedly proven itself to be – to take a hot-headed stance in this context. It doesn't make military sense for most countries to intervene in others – it definitely doesn't for India.

But it is possible, and it is important for us, to keep the pressure up. And this is something a strong student body can help achieve. With the protests having got the media's attention, those involved need to think of ways to take it forward. And the manner in which they do will illustrate the extent of their engagement with the issue they are fighting for.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at