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A Morality Tale: Violence in Student Protests

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 12, 2009 1 Comment

About an hour ago, I woke up groggy in the pre-dawn hours in a satellite town of New Delhi, India. Almost with automatic first-thing-in-the-morning reflexes, I searched for “Berkeley” in Google News, and was horrified to see a story entitled “Protesters attack Berkeley chancellor’s home.” According to the official UC Berkeley news release,

a group of about 40 to 70 protesters stormed Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau’s home on the north side of the UC Berkeley campus, smashing planters, windows and lights while shouting, “No justice, no peace.” They also threw incendiary objects at the house, which could have caused a major fire.

The violence has been precipitated by recent events, and probably most directly escalating as a result of the arrest of 66 protesters at Wheeler Hall, more than 40 of whom were UC Berkeley students, on December 11th. It has been short five days since I left for India, and yet it seems as if it has been eons in “political” terms.

In my room right now, I can see two paperbacks covered in a gray patina of dust. One is entitled “The Constitution of India,” and the other, significantly thinner, entitled “The Mandal Commission Report.” The Mandal Commission Report, submitted in December 1990, was conducted to “identify the socially or educationally backward,” and “affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of lower castes (known as Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Scheduled Castes and Tribes) were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government jobs and slots in public universities, and recommended changes to these quotas, increasing them by 27% to 49.5%.” This led to massive and violent protests across the country, with many of the anti-reservationists being students. Rajiv Goswami, a Delhi Univeristy student, attempted to self-immolate (dying at a later point probably as a result of complications resulting from the act). That symbolic act was to spur a series of other attempted (“copy-cat“) self-immolations. I was just starting out in middle school, and I remember how quickly events escalated. One day the report was submitted, and the next we-especially vulnerable in the nation’s capitol-were being told not to venture out-at any time. Reports of violent protests were plastered across the front pages of the newspapers, and the government worked overtime to spin the news in the nationalized television station. Schools-public and private-were asked to shut down in a show of support, but many principals-including mine-resisted. Eventually, it was not until the day a group of black arm-band wearing “youths” took over our campus and precipitated the school’s closing. School was out for many weeks (I can’t remember if it was months, and it could be). As someone within that educational system, and a prospective student at Delhi University (I did my undergraduate studies there, a few years later), I felt moved, angry, and slighted. As a tween I wouldn’t have been allowed to participate in the movement by my parents, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to go out there with the armbanded protesters. And yet, as sympathetic as I was with the movement, I also felt deeply troubled by the violence I heard of and witnessed.

The eternal ends/means dilemma is one that I think stands at the core of my existential moral dilemma. There are things that are important ends in themselves, but should we try and achieve our ends at any cost? In my mind, there’s never an easy answer. I think of the two distinctly different ideological axes on which Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose, two major leaders of the Independence Movement, fought against the British colonization of India. Gandhi’s core values were non-violence and peaceful non-cooperation; Bose was passionately militant in his determination to overthrow British rule. I admire Gandhi for what he accomplished, and yet-yes-I cheer for Bose. Somehow (and of course this is problematic), in my mind, the cause of Indian Independence makes questions about the moral issues surrounding adoption of violent means a little easier to answer.

Now back to the news that inspired this post, the attack on the Chancellor’s home. I can as little condone what happened there as I can the multiple acts of police brutality I witnessed first hand at Wheeler or the arrest of so many students three days ago. Our rallying cry is “Whose university? Our university!” [I also keep in mind that of the eight arrested, only two were UC Berkeley students.] Yet the boundaries of the movement-the student protests in particular-have been somewhat loosely defined. I want the UC President to listen, I want our Chancellor to act, I want Sacramento to GET IT. But I only fall somewhere in the spectrum of those active in the protest movement; when I read the news, I thought, this is not what I signed up for. I felt impuissante-because I am so far away right now, and also because I feel like our movement is spinning out of control and I do not know my place in it anymore.

Who, in the end, is included in the “our” of “our university”? And if the boundaries of the “our” get stretched too far, is there an “our” left? And where should I find myself in it?

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One Response to “A Morality Tale: Violence in Student Protests”

  1. Aaminah on: 15 December 2009 at 7:31 am

    Unfortunately, this is the time when morality and conscience are pitted against one another as we struggle to name ourselves and discover who we are in all of this. In the end, the anger and passions are perhaps justified, but I think futile. In my opinion the most important thing to be done is to change public perceptions and then public policy. The way to do that is to shame the moral conscience of the public by shaming the university. This is perhaps why everyone has heard of Ghandi. He brought shame on Britain. MLK is most remembered for the shame that he brought on the US gov’t. While the rock throwers who shout angry slogans and punch walls may get a release, it is as one protester put it “masturbation”. We need strategy. Unfortunately, when you have too many leaders you wind up making blind moves.

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