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The pro Palestinian protests across American universities over the last few weeks — and the heavy handed action of the police — are reminiscent of the student protests that the US witnessed against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

The scale today does not compare with what happened back then but there are some similarities. Then too, police were called in, and they even opened fire on anti war protesters at one campus, killing 4 students. Those images would haunt the White House later.

There are countless other examples. It was a small group of student protesters who started a peaceful sit demonstration against segregation in 1960 in the US state of North Carolina.

Their small protest quickly grew and lead to a bigger movement against segregation. In South Africa, a student march in the 1970s against unequal education lead to brutal police action that caught the attention of the world. Thailand has seen youth lead pro democracy protests in recent years.

So student protests are not new. We have seen them in India as well, where student politics has thrived and many of the country’s leaders today come from those vibrant student movements.

Read more by Nidhi Razdan

Picketing and raising slogans

Which is why I find it hard to understand those who argue that politics should not have a place on campus. That students must study and do no more. That parents pay huge tuition fees which does not include picketing and raising slogans, no matter what the cause.

But what is the point of a university education if you can’t even think, debate, argue and analyse. I would argue that in a democracy, protest is key as it hones young people into who they later become. It is supposed to educate them not just through books and lectures but through debate and discussion on current issues.

This is what forces students to really think deeply about issues that matter. It helps them decide the path they chose to take later in life. It is a more holistic approach to education which can never be confined only to books.

That’s not to say that decorum and order don’t matter on campus. They do and as I have written before, protests that morph into hate speech cannot and should not be tolerated. If any Jewish student has felt unsafe on US campuses — and many have — there is no place for that and authorities need to intervene.

A large number of the pro Palestinian protests on American university campuses have been peaceful, even a number of Jewish students have joined them, and yet these ended up becoming casualties of police heavy handedness as well. Their demand to divest from firms that support Israel is exactly what the anti apartheid protests were like.

Images will live on

And why is politics such a dirty word? Our biggest problems today stem from this narrative that all politics is “dirty” or “bad”. Politics needs brighter, younger people to be active participants.

Students can really drive change when they feel passionate about an issue. Today we are witnessing that in America. Even though most of the protests have been clamped down, the images will live on.

The messages have resonated. What is also starkly clear is how the protection of free speech, which Americans hold so dear, has deteriorated. That is why so many US universities called in the police even on peaceful protesters. In the University of Texas, Austin, more than 50 students were arrested and later all the charges dropped.

Student politics and student protest are essential in any democracy. This is what drives change in those societies. And the West must allow it to thrive.