Where Students Lose Out

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A student with social message and the colours of the Indian tricolour painted on his face poses on the eve of India’s Independence Day in Mumbai. AFP PHOTO/INDRANIL MUKHERJEE Student movements in India date back to the British days. It acquired a political colour in the 1970s when the Nav Nirman agitation toppled a corrupt Gujarat government. Today student politics feeds into party politics, lost in the process are issues like the state of academics or university administration which matter so much to students. BY ROBIN KESHAW

It was 4:30 pm on a somber Delhi evening as I came out of the Hauz Khas metro station and waved to an autowallah. He promptly asked: “JNU jaanahaikya? (Do you want to go to JNU?)”. I was taken aback because that was where I was heading, but he didn’t wait for my response and continued. “Andarjaaneka 60, baaharka 50. (I will charge 60 bucks for going inside the campus and 50 for dropping you at the gate)”. I nodded in acceptance of his terms and got into the auto.

At the JNU gate, the guards stopped the auto. They weren’t allowing anyone to go inside unless they had a reference from a JNU student or professor. But with some deft manoeuvring and smart talk, my autowallah entered the campus and as we picked up speed, he asked: “Bhaiya, idhar kya chal raha hai?

Daily aap jaise log idhar aake mela lagaate hai. (Bhaiya, what is going on here? People like you are daily crowding the campus)”.

I posed a counter question: “Aap ko kuch bhi nahi pata (You don’t know anything about the issue)? He nodded in response but before I could prod him further, we reached the academic block. As I walked towards the crowds gathered there, I could sense the calm of the evening was slowly dissipating.

After listening to some powerful oratory about the idea of nationalism and angry speeches about the ABVP’s role in the whole issue, I decided to take a stroll around the campus to gauge the mood. I met Ayaan, a philosophy student in DU, who was there on a friend’s invitation. He told me he couldn’t accept everything that was said: “The Left is digging its own pit. They think that erudite speeches treading philosophical trajectory and laced with hypocritical humanism is all that is needed to bring the proletariat revolution. It is just a mirage. This freedom of speech, right to dissent is not going to feed the hungry and employ the youth. They need to get involved in some real ground work.”

We reached the iconic Ganga dhaba where Ayaan was joined by couple of his friends and over a cup of tea, I listened to their impassioned yet non-intrusive arguments. A guy in a red T-shirt spoke calmly: “There is a clear method in this madness. This is not an isolated incident. First FTII, then HCU and now JNU, as if curbing dissent and imposing RSS ideology on university campuses was a part of their manifesto. They are targeting innocent students for God’s sake.” As he thumped the table in emphasis, some shook their heads in disapproval others in affirmation.

A bespectacled girl, who hadn’t participated in the discussion till now, pointed out: “They can’t be termed innocent students. I agree, that the issue was mishandled beyond repair by the government. I also agree that selective targeting of the Left bastions has been this government’s priority. But many of the actions by the students weren’t completely apolitical and hence I would use the word ‘innocent’ with caution. Nevertheless, I do believe that this whole JNU saga is going to raise a much wider debate on student politics in India.”

These voices sounded saner and more logical than the TV experts howling their opinions on panel discussions. They had a rational approach to their discussions and weren’t trying to push their views down other’s throat. As I walked out of the campus, I could see many students carrying their books, engrossed in their daily lives, completely nonchalant about the possible ‘political revolution’ brewing inside their campus. My mind was abuzz with different thoughts. It was clear that although I had heard from students across the ideological spectrum, there was a sizeable chunk who seemed indifferent to the whole issue.

The one statement, about the role of student politics in India, got my attention. What do we mean by student politics, or just ‘politics’ for that matter? What kind of issues should students get involved in? What is the opportunity cost of students’ involvement in politics? Should student politics be ideology based or issue based? What has been the history of student politics in India? As a part of healthy democratic debate, we should be exploring these questions to understand the whole issue rather than going into what slogans were raised and whose purpose was solved.

WE, STUDENTS OF INDIA

India’s college students have never been the idle lot. The first recorded protest by students was from King Edward Medical College, Lahore where students went on strike against academic discrimination between English and Indians. In British India, students took part in the Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements. These protests were limited to those where students didn’t have a political affiliation.

This changed in the 1970s, when student protests had wider political ramifications. It started with the NavNimanAndolan in December 1973, when students of LD College of Engineering in Gujarat, went on to strike against the hike in mess fees. Fuelled by the economic crisis and rampant corruption, the movement swelled into a state wide protest. This led to resignation by chief minister Chimanbhai Patel and dissolution of the state assembly. Many current Gujarat leaders including our prime minister, played an active role in the NavNirmanAndolan.

Many great revolutions across the world have started on college campuses but such revolutions happen once in a generation

The success of the Nav Nirmaan Andolan gave a boost to the protesting students in Bihar, who organized themselves under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan, JP as he is fondly called. The Bihar movement saw active participation from student political outfits like the ABVP, Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha (SYS) linked to the Samajwadi Party, and Lok Dal. Even though this movement couldn’t meet its end goal of dissolution of the Bihar assembly, it saw the rise of a number of student leaders who would craft a new political discourse. Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ramvilas Paswan and others rose to fame during these protests.

These movements along with that of the All Assam Students Union against foreigners or illegal immigrants in Assam, brought a new dimension to student politics in India. They canalized social discontent towards bringing about political change on larger scale. Also, they showed that student politics in India can act as feeder to mainstream politics. Along with the issues which were directly affecting students’ lives, like education, university administration and so on, students were actively voicing their opinions about everything that concerned the common man. Universities were being seen as political crucibles social and economic issues combined to shape the future of Indian politics.

Shruti Ambast, a researcher at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, concurs: “I think it’s natural for any group of people in a democracy to organize themselves around issues of common interest, seek representation and make their voices heard. From that perspective, student politics is very natural. Now, it may seem like student politics should confine itself to education or other issues which are of immediate interest to students. This doesn’t hold water, primarily on two grounds. One, student issues don’t exist in isolation. For example, say there is a problem of a shortage of affordable hostels. This is not a just a university issue. I may want to question why the government is not allocating more funds for accommodation in public universities. Then it becomes a larger policy question. Two, why shouldn’t students engage themselves with issues which may not be of direct interest? It’s something to think about. Students are not just students, they are also citizens.”

Shruti’s line of argument is countered by many who feel that student politics has an opportunity cost which can’t be ignored. Vaibhav Vijoy Singh, who is pursuing an MBA at Harvard Business School says: “I feel that the politics in Indian college campuses has overtaken the guiding principles of student activism. Many great revolutions across the world have started on college campuses but such revolutions happen once in a generation, not daily on evening news. The objective of the state funded university system is to create value for society. This value can be captured in patents filed, start-ups created or quality jobs created. Students played a big role during the emergency era in India as they did during the American civil rights movement. That said, somewhere in the last few decades, Indian college politics has become extremely partisan losing touch with academic objectives.”

In most foreign universities, issues are very local. Arindam Banerjee studied Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University and is currently pursuing Public Policy at Oxford University. In his view, “Universities like Jadavpur, JNU are overtly political in thought, nature and ideas. These are the places where ideas, theories, political thought are interspersed within the broader academic and non-academic framework inside the university. In Oxford, there is no political space as such, say like a student wing of the Labour party. It’s more of societies and particular groups of students over certain issues. For example, a large section of students actively participated in the Rhodes Must Fall movement.”

Interestingly, the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford and other universities across the world, traces its origin from the protests at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, over removal of the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. This culminated into a broader movement against the fee hike in the universities and spread across South African university campuses like wildfire. What started as routine protests turned into a nationwide demand to change the curriculum, and make it more representative of the diversity of their country. Despite the spontaneity and spread of the protests, the movement remained widely apolitical, where students’ demands were confined to the paradigm of university education.

In the Indian university system, the fine line between political and apolitical has long been forgotten. The confines of student union politics and student politics are not hardwired to limit the debate and discussions. University campuses across India, especially the residential ones like JNU, BHU etc are fertile breeding grounds for different opinions to prosper. Complex issues are discussed and debated which creates ripples. These ripples travel way beyond the campuses and disrupt the status quo.

POLITICS VS POLITICAL PARTIES

The Indian context of student politics becomes unique in terms of how political parties get embroiled in issues raised by students. Politics is essentially a way to provide well-being to different groups of people through their representation. In a socially and economically diverse country like India, politics will have multiple interpretations. In the university campuses across India, such interpretations lead to alignment of students along ideological lines. Such alignments are used by political parties to drive their agenda. The issues then take a backseat, as ideologies start getting convoluted and political interests of the involved parties become the prime mover.

The JNU saga, as it will be remembered, will be proof that it was essentially a fight between left wing and right wing ideologies. Freedom of speech, the right to dissent were important issues to be discussed. But in the political hubbub of ‘us vs them’, they become a decoy to score political gains. Questions regarding the state of university education in India, lack of research funding, etc were much important in present context. But, since they won’t feed into the political dynamic of the moment and won’t fuel impassioned debates on news channels, every political party is happy to ignore those issues.

The JNU saga as it will be remembered, will be testimony to the fact that it was essentially a fight between left and right wing ideologies

Student politics in India can do much better if realigns itself to generate traction around real issues rather than being the stooges to mainstream political parties. The JNU episode has provided a very opportune moment to Indian citizens to understand that student politics should not be used by political parties to pluck “low hanging fruits”. Instead, it has all the potential to transform mainstream politics and force our political leaders to mend their ways in the national interest.

Summary

  • Student movements in India date back to British times but acquired a political colour only in the 1970s
  • The JNU agitation may have had a point but it also underscored the inroads political parties have made into universities
  • Today there is little interest in debating deteriorating academic standards in universities or poor administration
  • Student union politics is a lot about laying the ground for a future career in politics
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