Teenage can be impressionable and interesting part of one’s life. Especially, if growing up in dynamic and continually changing country like India. I was 15-ish in the summer of 1990…
That year saw one of the most serious upheavals in India’s political history in recent times. A bill had been passed that allowed the reservation of jobs in public service divisions of the government for people from the disadvantaged classes of India’s much fragmented society. This law came to be known in popular terminology as the Mandal Commission recommendations. With all the noble intent that the recommendations had, the manner and the time it was being enforced was something that couldn’t exactly be called noble. And therefore, the fragile Indian society was further fragmented with people on both sides of the divide fighting furiously.
The Mandal Commission recommendations sparked a series of protests across the length and breadth of the country. And the student community was the single largest group that spear headed these protests everywhere. These public demonstrations against the implementation of the recommendation reached to such intensity that most of India came to a stand-still with roads, transportation, educational institutions, and offices being closed indefinitely. The student protests were openly planned well in advance, and generally escalated into violence. With extreme acts of self-immolations and the consequent violence across the country, the situation was just short of imposition of a state of emergency –wherein the army would have to be called to bring things under control. In sensitive places where the protests had reached feverish pitch the police would use brute force to curb the demonstrations and protests. One such sensitive place was the city where I was doing my high school.
The student body from the local university had organized a protest and had requested the public to join and support their cause. The university gate where this protest was to be held was on a road which was a T-Junction, the high boundary wall of the university forming one long side while the other sides had equally high walls demarcating the various departments of the sprawling university campus.
At the age of 15, one doesn’t have political leanings, but one does have a whole lot of curiosity and excitement. And so I along with a childhood pal decided to slip away from home and join the protest. We stood there in crowd listening to the student leaders come one by one and make speeches about why the reservations were wrong and why the law which recommended the reservation should be repealed. In hindsight, all this was because each of these student leaders wanted to gain political mileage from these protests and show the political big-wigs their capacity and clout and hence be inducted into one of the many parties that adorn the Indian democracy. In short it was their time to flaunt their resume to prospective employers.
One such person – a guy who looked too old to be a student leader – came onto the dais and began his diatribe. I didn’t pay too much attention to his speech as I was too busy looking at the crowd and enjoying the feeling of being part of such a big movement. However, the one line that did catch my attention was – “We don’t protest for ourselves, sooner or later we will fade away into the background. We protest for the future students. In our hardship and pain today, lies a better tomorrow”.
As the speeches continued, I noticed that the local police was preparing barricades on the all the three sides of the T-Junction. I could feel the unease in the crowd as the students looked furtively at the police. My friend told me that it would be best that we stood in the crowd, rather than try to move away. We would be much safer there, should anything happen. I agreed to his idea, but I felt the excitement giving way to panic.
And then it happened. I heard the shout of the commanding officer in the police team, and from all three sides hundreds of constables’ descended onto the gathered crowd. It was the dreaded baton-charge. A technique which is taught to all Indian Police personnel and is designed to cause a lot of injury especially to the upper body areas.
I saw the crowd quickly disintegrate into individuals trying to flee from the scene in order to avoid the cops. I saw the people who had been hit lying on the road holding their shoulders or their heads crying out in pain. For a few seconds I stood there, frozen in time, watching all this happen in slow motion. And then I realized that I too should run for cover. I saw some people scaling the walls to jump into the university campus. I ran towards the wall, but it was too high and I wasn’t that physically enabled to claw my way up. From the corner of my eye, I saw a cop running towards me. With no where to run I cowered in fear trying to cover my head with my hands. Waiting for the blow I just stood there, when I heard a slap of the baton and a painful grunt.
I looked up and saw this burly guy, pinning me to the wall, and the cop behind mercilessly beating him. The few moments that I stood there shielded by him seemed like an eternity. All I could do was look at him bleeding, and think of ways to escape.
And then, just as suddenly as that baton-charge had started, it stopped. Getting this reprieve, I ran with all my might, too afraid and too selfish to even look back at my protector. The regret of not looking back and not expressing my gratitude is something that I guess I will have to live with all my life. But what I gained from this experience is immense.
I still remember those idyllic school days and that fateful summer afternoon. I can’t comment whether the reservations and the ensuing protests and demonstrations were good or bad. I believe, good and bad are very referential terms and can change their color and meaning depending on the context. I can however, comment on principles and ideals. These in comparison to “good and bad” are far more time and context resistant.
In that crowd of hundreds of students that afternoon, there was one who actually believed in ideal of self-sacrifice. Who believed that he had to let go of his security so that he could ensure the security of another less fortunate. The future is not in the years ahead but right now, and we have the power and the responsibility to protect it from harm at all costs. Social and political responsibility is not only the caring of one’s country and its policies but also the people in it. That unknown guy believed in these principles and ideals and he out of the hundreds stood up for his belief, alone!!
“…sooner or later we will fade away into the background… In our hardship and pain today, lies a better tomorrow”
Great ideas and grandiose thoughts are just that – great and grandiose. Like plastic they are attractive and smooth. However, just like plastic they melt in the heat if they are not backed with principles and ideals. Principles and Ideals on the other hand are rough, at times unattractive and difficult to handle. But like gold, their true value can only be ascertained when they are tried through fire.
Photographer: Stuart Franklin Magnum