By Shreya Urvashi
Originally published on (Un)Scholarly
The pandemic has exposed many features of our society that cannot be ignored anymore. On the one hand, countries like the USA and UK are witnessing citizens coming down on the streets to protest racism, despite the physical distancing guidelines, due to the seriousness of the matter. On the other hand, there are many countries where the pandemic stilled the anti-establishment protests that had erupted, bringing months of marches, rallies and riots to a sudden halt.
India fell in the latter category. Many citizens, especially university students, were out to fight for the autonomy and accessibility of public higher education, and also to speak up against the new citizenship act. There were constant marches, rallies, sit-ins and demonstrations. The coming of the novel virus, and with it, physical distancing rules, brought about a significant change here. The protest sites had to be emptied. All those who came out on the streets had to go back to their homes, many-a-times to their hometowns. Students went back home, confined by quarantines and fears for public health. The government also took this opportunity and got all the murals made as symbols of resistance painted over.
However, not being able to mobilize on the streets cannot be equated to the dying down of dissent. Students have been adopting and co-opting to adjust to the new rules of the same game.
I have been doing virtual conversations with protesters, to understand and contextualize activism and protesting during COVID-19.
So, here goes:
What are the protests about?
Along with the already existing issues of autonomy and accessibility of public higher education and the citizenship act, new issues of online learning and migrant crisis have been exposed.
In India, like many parts of the world, there was an almost overnight shift to virtual classes in schools and universities when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown. Students had to vacate their hostels, and either go back home or arrange alternate living conditions. While some universities did a smoother transition, a large number of students were left in a dire situation fending for themselves.
Along with this, they also started online classes. Online and virtual learning that had been a gradual and somewhat lacklustre process until then, suddenly became mainstream and necessary. Teachers in major universities started taking online classes for batches of 60–100. These classes were expectedly not planned, given the short time between notification and implementation. Those who had access to infrastructure and the internet were able to transit comparatively smoothly, whereas others are missing out classes. This not only led to less than good education being imparted, it can also be thought to take a step towards the furthering of existing inequalities in academia. At present, students are asked to submit assignments or take exams by their universities without even considering the varied difficulties faced by a number of them.
Further, the migrant crisis and its mishandling are a blot on the Indian scenario that will remain with us for a long time. While several NGOs and citizens, including students and student groups, have been working at their individual capacities to help out, no one can provide a rationale for the inhuman treatment meted out not only to the workers but entire communities.
Where are the protests happening now?
Most protest strategies are now confined to online spaces and rely mostly on social media, and websites like change.org, for dissemination of information and concerns. And of course, not everyone can participate in online activism. Nevertheless, virtual protests cannot be dismissed as they have a good reach and are fruitful in spreading awareness amongst people.
How are these new protests?
Social media as a platform for protest is not entirely new, giving rise to the idea of slacktivism-a virtual form of activism of convenience partaken by many in today’s age. However, the probing difference in the present scenario as compared to all earlier instances is the degree of reliance on social media and other modes of communication from isolated physical spaces. Virtual protests are unpredictable because one does not know the identity of those liking or retweeting, unlike in physical rallies where it is easier to establish solidarity. The effectiveness and feasibility of social media for communication in times like these would be interesting to see unfold.
Why are these protests taking place?
The pre-pandemic protests about university autonomy, academic freedom and other national concerns are so far a low priority; but the new issues, especially due to the recent differential behaviour of the government, are causing a lot of uproar by different means.
What makes the protesters go on? From what I understand, they know that they are in it for the long run. While being considered stubborn and fixated on abstract ideals, protesting students I spoke with say that not giving up on the cause even in such times of crises goes on to show their sense of justice is not on flimsy grounds. In their own words, their activism, however seemingly hopeless and impossible, “will continue till we can ensure that future generations don’t need to take on the same fight as we are.”
Cover photograph by Suraj Bisht, The Print
About the Author
Shreya Urvashi is a research scholar of Sociology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research areas are higher education and politics of sociology. She is also an Editor at Critical Edges.