St Stephen’s students boycott class, join huge march in North Campus

Sukrita Baruah
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At St Stephen’s College. 

Wednesday morning brought an unusual sight at Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College — several classrooms lay empty during class hours while hundreds of students marched around campus, shouting slogans and holding posters. The prestigious college has, over recent decades, gained the reputation of remaining distant from student politics and activism and silent on a number of issues that caused a stir in other universities.

On Wednesday, however, around half the student body participated in a boycott of classes, in response to the call for a national workers’ and students’ strike against violence in universities as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.

Students attended the first class of the day from 8.30-9.30 am, and half of the second class. At 10 am, they gathered at the college cafeteria, moved indoors because of the rain. Gradually, a procession of 300-400 students took out a march — carrying umbrellas and posters — to different parts of the campus. Students had also set up a photo exhibition on one of the college lawns of images from anti-CAA protests from across the country.

Students then joined the larger demonstration in Delhi University’s North Campus in the afternoon, in which over a thousand students and teachers marched through the streets of the university enclave before gathering at the Faculty of Arts. The students had marched on Chhatra Marg at Delhi University in support of Wednesday’s workers’ strike, carrying posters and raising slogans of ‘azadi’.

While some carried banners and posters of their student outfits (primarily AISA and Krantikari Yuva Sangathan), others waved posters of educationist Savitribai Phule and Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Many students spoke about incidents in Jamia Millia Islamia and JNU. “What we have seen over the past two months in a more overt fashion is the brutality of the police when it comes to dealing with dissenting students. We aren’t safe in our own campuses. We are here in support of the workers’ strike, but we also speak for the students who have been beaten up by goons and the police,” said Mitali Kaul, a student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women who is not affiliated to any outfit.

Students raised slogans of “Police brutality ka ek javaab, Inqalaab Zindabad” and “Gunda Politics Down Down”. “This is the first time in my four years at Delhi University that I have seen so many students out on the streets, protesting. We all are here because we don’t feel safe in our campuses anymore,” said Sahil Sharma, an MA student who did his undergraduation from Ramjas College.

The Stephen’s boycott and protest were organised primarily by a group of women students, who had been mobilising for it for weeks. “It’s actually a feminist movement,” said a teacher at the college.

While several teachers did not hold classes, some did if students still wished to attend. Reacting to some backlash online over a poster that read ‘Kashmir ko azaad karo’, a student organiser said: “Because students realised this kind of a gathering cannot be mobilised again anytime soon, many of them came forward to speak on different issues. Students from Kashmir spoke of their struggles, students from Assam and Meghalaya spoke of what is happening in their states, others spoke on privatisation of education. This backlash only shows the anxieties of the critics. They’re not talking about how so many students came together but they need to pull out one small thing to call us anti-nationals.”

N P Ashley, a teacher at the college, pointed out that Stephen’s has had spells of intense political activity in the past: “In the 1910s and 1920s, principal C F Andrews was friends with Gandhi and Tagore so the college was involved with the Gandhian movement of non-violence and non-cooperation. In the 1960s and 70s, many students were involved in the J P and Naxalite movements. In the recent past, the anti-autonomy protests in 2018 were a considerable contribution to higher education.”

Nandita Narain, a senior teacher at the college, said the last time students had actively boycotted classes was during the 109-day-long strike by DU teachers in 1982-83.

“There have been some occasions when many teachers and students left classes to join large protests. But the last time a conscious boycott took place was in the early 80s. Ten teachers of the college had joined the strike and students called for
a one-day boycott of classes,” she said.