Interview with Comrade Prakash Karat (President of SFI, 1974 to 1979)
Late 60s and early 70s have been marked with vibrant student movement at different corners of the globe, mainly in western countries, in history. What were the important features of the international situation in the seventies which were relevant to the student movement?
The first half of the seventies was dominated by the national liberation struggle in South Vietnam. The indomitable struggle of the Vietnamese people against US aggression had a profound impact on the student movement internationally and in our country. The decade witnessed the historic triumph of the Vietnam struggle and the successful liberation of the Indo-Chinese peoples and many countries in Africa such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Ethiopia. These brought about a decisive change in the international balance of forces to strengthen the forces of anti-imperialism and peace. Alongside, the international situation saw in the first half of the seventies the process of detente, where imperialism was forced to relax tensions and recognise the growing strength of the USSR and the Socialist countries. The seventies also saw the development of the most profound all round crisis of the world capitalist system. The aggravation of the crisis saw the stepping up of the arms race and military preparations by U.S. imperialism, followed by reversal of detente. In the eighties, under President Reagan, a full fledged drive began to step up the arms race and develop new offensive missiles. In the seventies, the socialist bloc was strong but in the eighties for a variety of reasons, the reversal began.
What was the national situation?
To sum it up briefly, the decade began with the new radical postures of the Congress under Mrs. Gandhi consequent to the split in the ruling party and its sweeping victory in the 1971 general elections. It also saw the emergence of the Left as a determined force which withstood the wave particularly in West Bengal. The emergence of the Left as the major opposition force was in the background of the most vicious attack on the Left led by the CPI(M) in West Bengal. The major part of the seventies upto the end of the emergency saw the systematic semi-fascist terror launched against the left forces in the state. This attack presaged the growing authoritarianism of the ruling Congress which culminated in the emergency in 1975. The fight against authoritarianism and for defence of democracy was a major political issue in this period. It saw the imposition of the Emergency after the bankruptcy of the Indira Congress's populist rhetoric was revealed and also the united fight put up against the danger of authoritarianism. This resulted in the victory of the Janata Party and its brief spell in Government. Contrasted to the short lived Janata experiment, was the emergence of the Left Front Governments in 1977 in West Bengal and Tripura which became the advanced outposts of democracy and for implementation of alternative policies to those of the Congress (I). It is the character of these governments and fronts which have ensured their durability and attraction for the people all over the country
You were part of SFI in its initial decade. What was the characteristic of student activism during those initial years of SFI?
I was in the SFI in its initial years. Earlier, as a student in the University of Edinburgh, I was active in the movement against the Vietnam War and against apartheid in South Afirca. The early 1970s were a period of heightened student activism. There were three streams in the student movement. The first was a Left stream which include organisations like the SFI, AISF and the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha. There was a second stream of the student organisations associated with the Congress party and thirdly there was the ABVP which is affiliated to the RSS. The SFI, after its foundation, had to contend against these rival political and ideological streams in the student movement.
How did the student movement involve with the challenges put forward by that period.? How did we prioritize the issues to be addressed?
The period 1973 to 1975 saw widespread student struggles- in a scale and intensity which was more than a similar outburst in 1965-66. These struggles had as their focus- cheap and mass education to enable students to pursue their education; struggles to reform the educational system; and finally defence of democratic rights and fight against the government's anti-people policies.
The seventies saw the expansion of the organised, democratic student movement. This was reflected in the growth of the SFI since its foundation conference in December 1970. The SFI led many mass movements in defence of the economic and educational demands of the students. The economic crisis deepened in the first half of the seventies-and the student movement had to struggle to ensure cheap text books note books and educational material for the students, for cheaper kerosene in the villages, for mid-day meals etc. All these were directed to make education accessible to the common people. Further the progressive student movement and the SFI in particular fought for educational reform and to make a mass democratic and scientific educational system a reality. It was also in the forefront in the defence of students' rights in an atmosphere of growing authoritarianism.
Another major issue which confronted the student movement was the new orientation of government policy. With the deteriorating economic situation and growing educated unemployed, the Congress government at the Centre and in the states began resorting to hikes institution fees, restriction of entry in educational institutions and halting the trend towards abolition of fees in the secondary school stage. The student movement had to fight against these anti-student measures and struggles took place on the broad issue of defending the right to education. Big struggles were led by the SFI in West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura, Andhra and Punjab in this period. This served to channelise the student discontent on democratic lines.
On the international plane, the solidarity campaign with Vietnam was undertaken by SFI. No other organisation took the issue in such a big way to students as the SFI.
Apart from the organised movements, two major student upsurges were the Nav Nirman movement and the JP led Chhatra Sangharsh Samity movement in Bihar.The Gujarat student movement became a popular mass movement against the Chimmanbhai Patel ministry. It was sought to be crushed by bullets and repression. Scores died in police repression but it failed to crush the popular upsurge and the government had to go. However, in the absence of a strong democratic students organisation to guide it on the right lines and take it forward, there was no lasting influence of this movement. The same Chimmanbhai Patel became a Janata leader later! The Bihar movement had a wider impact and it played an important role in mobilising the anti-authoritarian forces. The fact that thousands of students participated in these two struggles shows the deep impact of the harmful Congress policies and growing authoritarianism which drew the mass of students into these movements. These were paralleled by the big mass mobilisation undertaken by the SFI and its allies in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Andhra etc. on their day to day issues.
Can you tell us something more about SFI's role and development in this period?
The SFI began with a membership of 1.24 lakhs in 1970 and by the Third Conference at Patna in 1979 its membership was 4,12 lakhs. This was an advance. Behind this was steady organisational growth in many new states. The SFI was in the forefront in the struggle for democratic rights and defence of democracy. In West Bengal, the SFI played a heroic role in the reign of terror which was extended to the educational institutions in the period of semi-fascist terror. Hundreds of SFI activists had to leave the educational institutions. Teachers were murdered. Yet the SFI fought against the anarchy sought to be fostered by the Chhatra Parishad-Youth Congress hoodlums and the Naxalites. It was the most difficult but a glorious period in the history of the SFI. Because of its tenacious work, the SFI retained its links with the students and continued its mass activities.
The Emergency was preceded by growing militancy in student struggles. Because of the SFI's prominent role in defence of democracy and students' rights, the Emergency saw a severe attack on its leadership and cadre. Nine of the CEC members including the Secretaries of Kerala, Assam, Orissa and Presidents of Tripura and Orissa were jailed under MISA. 4 other CEC members were wanted. Over 60 cadres of the SFI all over the country were detained under MISA and Hundreds had DIR cases against them. In Kerala alone over 600 of DIR were filed against SFI activists. Along with this hundreds of SFI cadre were denied admission in educational institutions. The SFI despite all the attacks continued to organise activities and protest actions during the emergency.
The struggle of the students in JNU under the SFI-led JNUSU against the emergency period attacks was a notable chapter of the student movement. The JNUSU president and another SFI activist were in jail under MISA in this period.
The SFI brought out as early as 1973 an alternative plan for the educational system - from the primary stage to the university stage. Since the third Conference in Patna in 1979, the SFI took important initiatives to unite with other student organisations on question of war and peace, national unity, employment for all etc.
The first important step was the joint student-youth convention on democratic rights, educational reforms and unemployment in April 1979.
What would be the main lessons of the decade?
PK: The student movement learned by experience of the Emergency and authoritarian attacks that the preservation and extension of its educational and democratic rights is inextricably connected with the defence of democracy in general and struggle against authoritarianism. Apart from uniting with the other democratic forces in society, it also brought about the realisation of the need for a wider unity of the students' organisations and for united struggles. It is only after the Emergency that the SFI also seriously oriented itself to this task as was done as the Third Conference at Patna. The earlier reoccupation with building its independent strength was now coupled within the necessity to unite with other student organisations for unity and effective intervention.
One of the barriers to united struggles during this period had been the approach and role of the AISF. Its wrong approach to the questions of defence of democracy and authoritarianism and its lining up with Congress elements against the oppositional student movements prevented any vital unity of the progressive sections of the student community. This could be overcome only after the Emergency.
Secondly, those organisations which had purveyed the ruling class idea that students should be kept away from politics such as the AVBP, soon had to give up this stand. The SFI's consistent stand that students should participate in politics and choose the correct political platform to defend their rights and reform education get employment etc. found widespread acceptance.
Thirdly, a beginning was made to fight the retrograde educational policy measures of the government, right from its formulation stage rather than reacting to its implementation university-wise, and institution wise. The effort by SFI to pose alternative policies to the Sixth Plan prescription and its later effort by the end of the decade to unite with other organisations to adopt common positions on issues vital to the students, showed that the degree of organisation and consciousness was growing.