The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

Protest Spaces : Finding Solidarity in Solitude

By Rwiti Bhattacharya, UG 23, and Nidhish Birhade, UG 22

A surreal article published on the morning of 17th March brought the news of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation to all Ashokans. It found its way into WhatsApp groups big and small, and frantic discussions followed. These events transpired when the pandemic split the student body across different spaces: some were on campus, and some of those on campus were in quarantine, while the rest were at home. Such a  three-fold distribution enables us to view the protests through three distinct sites, within the overarching framework of the digital space. Protests are mobilization zones, and mobilization is intimately connected with  corporeal movement. Despite being unable to participate physically, the Ashokan community gathered in solidarity without “gathering”. The movement itself was shaped by and through space.

If there’s anything to be learned from the past year, it is that isolation is no stranger to us anymore. This feeling of loneliness worsened with the utter lack of a physical community in times that most demanded it. In our conversations with people then quarantined on campus, one of them said, “what started off with a show of solidarity, eventually fizzled out with the realisation that in the end, it was just you, alone, with your fears, anxieties and sadness”. Against all odds though, people found new ways to build a community when existing ones became  almost impossible to maintain. Remote unanimity went a long way in mobilizing people, be it for signing on to important petitions or even participating in social media protests.

Digital activism worked with its fair share of disillusionment though. Many students online spoke to us about feeling inconsequential and incapable of contributing justifiably to the movement. Remote spaces of engagement, like email spams and Twitter storms, come with certain restrictions. However, as mentioned by a first-year student, “although these measures seem performative and short-lived, it’s in these small ways that you build a hybrid community”, they offer an affirmation for meaningful collective action. This cautious optimism is the life force of the protests. “Social media inherently democratises things’, one student believes. On platforms such as these, people are free to render their worldviews in ways that they deem fit, whenever and in whatever words they want. Expression is no longer in the hands of a nominal few who need to reduce ideas down to a cohesive front, there is scope for nuanced discussion. Even at Ashoka, we saw people coming forth in their own capacities to send out petitions to the student body, or posting stories on Instagram, giving outsiders a glimpse of their take on the situation.

The digital space expanded the frontiers of the protest. Conversations around academic freedom were pulled into the limelight. The dire consequences of having the State intervene in University spaces with the larger aim of political homogenisation became glaringly evident. Mass media covering the entire situation added a new layer of exposure and interaction; the Ashokan discourse was now a part of international media and academia. On campus, the conventionally radical aspects of the movement, such as sit-ins and demonstrations, found abundant expression in the posters and artwork—visual reminders that still seem to say “The dust might have settled but a storm has been roused nevertheless”.

Art has always been a crucial part of any protest—it is both a medium of catharsis as well as an expression of dissent. We have seen protest art before at Ashoka, but this time the constraints of space almost transformed what we consider as art. Engagement with the protests now ranged from Kalinga’s daily satirical updates to Clubs and Societies banding together to collectively hold protest-related events involving poetry, music, and art. At the town halls, the comment section of the zoom meetings became a space of diverse expression. As the meetings ended, the students asked fervently for the chat to be saved, making it border on being poetic memorabilia. A student involved in protest artwork on campus remembers how people who were off-campus collaborated with them by brainstorming art ideas on Whatsapp groups. Those on-campus who had materials—like paints and brushes— pooled in resources. The art at the atrium was not just a symbol of dissent, but also of solidarity of Ashokans across batches and across spaces. 

One thing that most Ashokans shared during the week following the resignations—irrespective of where they were located—was a sense of dread. What happens now? Where do you go from here? A student who had taken courses with Professor Mehta felt as though someone was “banging on our door and taking away something so precious to us”. Another student spoke about the overwhelming sense of betrayal from Ashoka; gaining information through news articles on the internet and being drowned with “2000 updates” by the day on Whatsapp groups. This feeling became overwhelming for many off-campus, around parents and friends who, even if they were supportive, could not truly identify with the situation. Many who were in isolation on campus were entirely cut off, unable to express themselves in a situation that felt like “imprisonment” in the face of a call to action. On the other hand, a student protesting on campus was glad that the internet had become a space of protest—it was a reminder that there were more Ashokans out there, other than the few on campus, and that Ashoka went beyond just the red brick walls.

The presence of undergraduate batch-wise differences makes the transactions between space and political expression even more dynamic. While the online realm is majorly brimming with first-years, the second years are divided between Sonipat and home, and the Ashokan campus is overwhelmingly populated by third years. This division brings with it nuances of collective thought, mobilisation, and ideologies which differ not only between but also within batches. The forms of engagement that are derived from the nature of space, are in turn reflective of larger, demographic factors at play. This begs the question, how far is our political organization dictated by the ways in which we organize ourselves across space?

Note: We would like to thank the students from UG21, UG22, and UG23 batches who have been respondents for our interviews and have helped us supplement the article with the voices of students themselves.

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