In schools there are no students unions. It is only when students move to college that they have their first brush with political life by way of students unions and elections. But these too are primarily confined to general colleges under State and Central universities. Many institutions of higher learning have student councils but not unions and are thus able to avoid political interference on their campuses. A case in point are all the Indian Institutes of Technology as also most of the private universities which discourage student union politics.
While about a decade ago, the issue of whether universities and colleges need to have students unions was debated at length following actions by some universities against students unions in the wake of violence both on and off the campus, the matter has once again come to hog the limelight in the wake of recent clashes between students and university administrations in several parts of the country.
Campuses have been on the boil in the past year. First came the protest by students of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India last June. They went on indefinite strike protesting the appointment of TV actor-turned-politician Gajendra Chauhan by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as chairman of the institute. The incident took a political colour after the Congress vice-president visited the campus. The protest was also backed by a Left-wing students body, All India Students’ Association, as also several other Left leaning groups of students and academics. Despite a long stand-off, Chauhan still retains his post.
Then Allahabad University came in the spotlight. Here its first woman students’ union president Richa Singh got into a running feud with the students wing of RSS, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, as also the University administration. She had won the post with the backing of the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, the student wing of the Samajwadi Party, after the nomination of its candidate was rejected. With the four other posts in the Central panel going to ABVP, it was expected that she would face trouble. But as she opposed ABVP’s attempts to get BJP MP Yogi Adityanath on the campus, the ABVP got back at her by trying to prevent her from organizing a programme in late January. However, she managed to go ahead with the event after changing the venue.
Kolkata too witnessed campus related protests last year when some students of Presidency University were roughed up by the police. The students, who were protesting the death of Students Federation of India leader Sudipta Gupta in police custody, later gheraoed the vice-chancellor.
Then in January came the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. This incident took on a caste colour as it was alleged that Vemula, a Dalit scholar, was victimized by the University administration at the behest of the Union HRD Ministry and at the instance of the new Vice-Chancellor. He had been expelled along with five others from the hostel by the university authorities and his fellowship of Rs 25,000 per month had also been stopped. The matter even resonated in Parliament, where HRD Minister Smriti Irani, who had been under attack from the Opposition, denied any nd and even insisted that he was not a Dalit. But that did not stop the students and Rohith’s family from continuing their protest.
The issue has become big and protesters are now demanding the “Rohith Act” to curb caste discrimination on campuses.
But the most talked about incident was the Feb. 9 rally at JNU in Delhi to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru in the Parliament attack case. With slogans being raised at the rally for secession of Kashmir from India and of the agitation continuing till the country broke into parts, the police registered a case of sedition. It arrested the JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar as also two other student leaders, Umar Khalid and Anirban, for organizing the event.
Ironically, while a University enquiry committee report later confirmed that the provocative slogans were actually raised by a group of students from outside, who had their faces masked, they are yet to be caught.
The grapevine has it that these students, apparently from another Central university in Delhi, have links to the ruling dispensation in Jammu and Kashmir and in view of the ongoing political stalemate there, the Delhi Police has been instructed to go slow on the matter.
The JNU episode triggered off a debate on what constituted nationalism and anti-national activities. It also split the media, the academic community, students and public down the line. It also showed how deft handling of such sensitive issues was needed, be it by the police or by politicians like Rahul Gandhi, who rushed in smelling an opportunity to score brownie points against Narendra Modi.
Many questioned if a case of sedition was indeed made out. Nivedita Menon, a professor of repute from the University was quoted as saying: “Sedition as a crime has no place in a modern democracy, there is no justification whatsoever for provisions that criminalize and silence dissent and ethical challenges to the dominant order.” Many academics like her observed that such provisions were remnants of the colonial era and were completely unconstitutional and anti-democratic.
On the other hand, the “nationalists” argued that this was not the first time an anti-national event had taken place in JNU. As Delhi ABVP secretary Saket Bahuguna put it, several such “unacceptable student activities” have been reported there in the past but each time the students got away since the internal inquiry committees comprised people who followed similar ideologies.
Incidentally, the BJP sees in all these incidents involving the Central universities an attempt by the Congress, which has been losing state after state, to stay politically relevant. It also believes that the Left, which has been ousted from West Bengal, and now only has Tripura and Kerala to fight for, also wants to keep its hold over the campuses intact.
The Opposition on the other hand is finding the trouble on campuses a valid ground to woo the youth away from the BJP. Through these incidents it has managed to target the BJP as a fundamentalist party that wants to run its own agenda in Central universities.
BANNING STUDENT POLITICS
However, as the bodily attacks on Kanhaiya Kumar, first at Patiala House Courts and then during a meeting at JNU, have shown, such politics need not necessarily be the best thing for students, primarily because when tempers run really high, the chances of violence increase. There are several instances in the past when student union elections were banned and bodies disbanded due to violence.
In Punjab, elections to students unions were banned in 1984 as the state battled terrorist and secessionist violence. It was only after militancy was controlled that the ban was revoked in 1997.
The BJP sees in all these incidents involving Central universities, an attempt by the Congress, which has been losing state after state, to stay politically relevant
Student union elections in Maharashtra were banned in the early 1990s following violent incidents and law and order problems.
In Jamia Millia Islamia, another Central University in Delhi, the elections were banned in 2006 as the administration felt the students’ union was interfering in areas not under its jurisdiction. Despite the matter going to the High Court, the students body is yet to be revived. In the meantime, students are being represented through class representatives.
A year later in 2007, the Mayawati Government in Uttar Pradesh had elections for the State’s 13 universities and 242 government degree colleges. It was only when the Samajwadi Party returned to power in 2012, that the direct elections to student unions were restored as per the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations. But, realizing that student politics is getting very violent, the state is now moving to an indirect form of elections, especially for large universities.
Last year, the University Grants Commission had also written to all the universities to implement the Lyngdoh committee report, which had called for conduct of elections for student representative bodies by all universities and colleges. The Committee had been constituted under the chairmanship of J.M. Lyngdoh by the HRD Ministry, following a Supreme Court order to make recommendations on issues related to student bodies and student union election in institutions of higher education.
The panel had submitted its report on May 26, 2006, and the Supreme Court had through its order of September 22, 2006, directed all colleges and universities to implement its recommendations on student union elections.
Though the Lyngdoh Committee had called for disassociating political parties from campus politics, it never happened. Even the cap it put on expenditure during elections is violated with impunity. As the Delhi University elections last year demonstrated, nothing happens even if the Rs 5,000 expenditure limit per candidate or the ban on use of printed materials is ignored. Going by conservative estimates, over Rs 20 crore was spent in these polls.
It is for these reasons that the clamour for banning student politics is growing. Those against it argue that due to students unions, “undisciplined elements” find a place in colleges. Their unreasonable and unjustified demands often lead to tensions or result in protests and strikes. This also breeds violence and hooliganism on campuses, and poses a serious nuisance to students, teachers and administration alike. The students unions also result in wastage and misuse of college funds.
They cite the example of institutions like IITs where students not only study hard but also participate in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), National Service Scheme (NSS) and National Sports Organisation (NSO besides pursuing sports and organizing technical and cultural festivals). And while IITians have excelled in various spheres of life, some of them have also made it big in politics, which exemplifies that it is not through students union elections alone that politicians can be nurtured.
So be it former Vice-President Krishan Kant, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, Union Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal or former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, the IITs have made their contribution to the Indian political firmament.
The votaries of students union elections argue that these elections provide a training to the youth in democracy. They learn to participate in and conduct elections which are the mainstays of a true democracy
The votaries of student union elections argue that such activities provide a training to the youth in democracy. They learn to participate in and conduct elections. Also, these polls encourage debate and discussion, which are the mainstays of a true democracy.
Observing that many an Indian politician- be it Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury or even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar - are the product of students union politics, they insist that what is needed are reforms and not abolition of these polls.
Taking all aspects of the matter into consideration we can say that students unions have a valuable role to play in college life. They are useful in many ways. No doubt, they have certain shortcomings but with a little care and attention their functioning can be improved. What they need is reform and not abolition.
A very balanced suggestion on the issue has been provided by a much-followed blogger, Balaji Viswanathan, who recommended that while students should be allowed to join parties and discuss ideas, they should not be able to campaign for political parties within a campus nor should they let outsiders run campaigns or shout slogans within a campus.
Protests within a campus have to be directly related to a campus issue and other issues should not be allowed. If students want to protest about other issues, it should be outside the campus so that all students are not disturbed. But in these times of extreme views, it looks unlikely that such reasoning would be accepted.
PRODUCT OF STUDENTS UNION POLITICS
Arun Jaitley, Finance Minister
Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister
Mamta Banerjee, CM,West Bengal
Nitish Kumar, CM, Bihar
Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) Chief
Ajay Maken, Leader, Congress
Manish Tewari, Leader, Congress
Prafulla Mahanta,Ex CM, Assam
But political parties may find it hard to accept even though the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the Lyngdoh panel recommendations
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