How We Are Heading Towards Peril By Not Promoting Politics Among Students [Part 1]

By Akshat Seth: 

This is part 1 of a series on student politics

What image does the phrase ‘Student Politics’ build in our minds? Of newspaper and sometimes TV reports about violence, carnage, factionalism, damage to the property of the institution, assaults on students and professors, murders and rioting during union elections, misbehavior with female students, etc., generally speaking. In other words, the term ‘Student Politics’ is most commonly associated with two words – anarchy and disruption. Now, no student who gives the slightest consideration for things like career and academics, or a parent, or a teacher, or any peace loving citizen would therefore have anything to do with it. A substantial portion of this common perception does, unfortunately, come out true in real life. Like many things in this country, the state of student politics needs substantial improvement.

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Did I say improvement? I might sound romantically and hopelessly naïve. Of course one can start by stating the facts; that how student activism did of course play a key role in our freedom struggle, but then, after independence, the rot from the corrupt political parties gradually pervaded the student movement. How the early days of idealism were replaced by a culture of vandalism, intimidation, violence and how student politics has deteriorated to the levels that for the sake of saving the academic environment of the Universities and ensuring safety and security of all the stakeholders, this ‘menace’ needs to be eradicated.

How then do you deal with something that is wrong in the system? Banning it outright? Things like corruption, violence, exploitation and other malpractices are rampant in the mainstream politics of this country and therefore, to extend the argument about restrictions, it would be a good idea to actually do away with the democratic political process since corrupt and ‘Goonda’ elements rule the roost. Instead, have a strong central authority like a dictatorship which can solve all your problems for you! Why not? In fact, we see a practical manifestation of this when we look at the kind of cynicism that has crept in about the state of affairs in this country, “It is not going to change, why bother.” This is the standard reply we have all heard and said at some point in our lives. History has more than enough instances to point out the flaw of such a cynical approach.

The repercussions of depoliticizing the students are serious – they have both short and long-term detrimental effects. The argument stated above seems philosophical on retrospect and the issue has a lot more riding on it than mere philosophical considerations about freedom and democracy. So, we need concrete instances.

Here is one:

A good eight to ten weeks back, an article appeared on this very platform which caused plenty of outrage. A female student narrated the story about her harassment and intimidation when she raised up the issue of gender equality through peaceful and democratic means on her campus. The university in question, the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), is said to be one of the better technical institutions in this country. The catch is – it is a private university. No student elections, members of the student council are nominated by the faculty, nominated students are said to be ‘meritorious’ which practically means that it doesn’t matter whether they have the leadership skills as long as they’re good in academics and hence, here’s a student representative body ornamental in nature which wields no power and tows the management line irrespective of student grievances. Barring exceptions, which are too rare to be considered, the overall picture of student representation in these private institutions is grim. Another article from The Hindu explains it better, The article shows us what can happen when the democratic voice of dissent is totally crushed. There are many such horror stories where the management, in the name of ‘maintaining order and discipline’, imposed harsh diktats that undermine the basic rights guaranteed by the constitution to an adult. Private universities and colleges owned by individuals, or religious organizations in particular, are infamous for harsh crackdowns on inter-gender interaction, curbing the movement of female students outside campus and policing the personal lives of students old enough to vote. See another article from Daily Bhaskar.

Many of us must have been all too familiar with such stories. The point to note here is that in all of these institutions, there was no channel through which students could take up their grievances with their respective managements since either the student representative body did not exist or was ‘nominated’ from among the academically sound students to leave it ineffective to negotiate with the management on genuine student issues.

So, basically we see the two extremes over here. One is the rampant use of muscle and money power, and the disruption and deterioration of the academic environment in the government-run institutions in the hinterlands of this country. On the other hand, we also see how privately owned institutions violate student rights and make their lives on campus a nightmare instead of an enriching and constructive experience and strip the students of their rights to democratically raise their voice against these measures.

Obviously, these contrasting situations put us in a dilemma regarding a stand on this issue. So, do we need a balance – something in between the two scenarios?

A key to finding a viable solution would be to look at the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations, which constitute the guidelines for conducting student union elections across all the college and university campuses in the country. The committee was formed and directed by the honorable Supreme Court to look into the state of ‘Student Politics’ in the country and lay down guidelines to stop the use of muscle and money power during election campaigning.

Student politics in India

The most important point for our consideration is that the committee has explicitly taken a stand for conducting student body elections in all college and university campuses, whether public funded or self-financed. The committee has also laid stress on the fact that nominations, particularly merit-based nominations, are not consistent with the democratic ideals of the constitution and must be only used as an interim measure, if at all used, and not at all based on merit. Of course the committee has laid down guidelines and procedures to be followed while conducting the elections in order to stop the criminalization of student politics.

So, this leaves us in a relatively clearer position on the matter. The need for a democratically elected student body to address student grievances and take up reasonable student demands related to the quality of academic and other related matters with the concerned authority is constitutionally recognized. In taking this stand, the Lyngdoh committee recognizes the important fact that it is not student politics, but the malpractices associated with it that have done harm and since there is scope for corrective measures, they are not reason enough to ban student union elections altogether.

In fact, it is a union elected by the student which can deal better with campus issues; be it a private or a government run institute. The mandate of the students brings that sense of responsibility on the student representatives. Many vice-chancellors of the state universities, where union elections were banned, point out their difficulty in dealing with student issues when various individuals and student groups keep raising one issue or another and claim to be the ‘true representatives of the students’, leading to chaos and disorder. Things would be much better off if there were a single elected student body that could take up student issues with the administration. The kind of rudimentary and disorganized ways of dealing with student issues that many private institutions resort to are highly flawed and lack reliability and validity. Of course the fact that student elections on campus go in keeping with the spirit of democracy and develop leadership skills among students goes without saying. What also goes without saying is the fact that elections or not, there’s always going to be politics – some students are always going to try to cozy up to the management and faculty and emerge as ‘leaders’ and influence other students and cause resentments in certain quarters. Politics is a part of our lives and electoral politics gives the fairest chance to everyone to be heard, hence it is essential for the campuses. As the question of rules, regulations and guidelines are concerned, the Lyngdoh Committee provides us a ready-made model.

It is interesting to note here that since the recommendations of the committee were based on extensive research using standard sampling techniques, all the stakeholders were invited to attend the meetings held at different cities in the country- including private universities. The committee noted the fact that all the private institutions unanimously opposed any form of elections and favored nominations. This status-quoist approach was tried to be explained away in the guise of excuses like most of these self-financed institutes being related with professional courses and therefore students not having any spare time to participate in union activities. These flimsy grounds are easily exposed when you look at the examples of the IITs’ across the country. One of the students from IIT-Madras who is a friend, pointed out the merits of an elected student council where having been given reasonable powers, the council came up with innovative student-friendly measures like introducing computerized fingerprinting system instead of carrying I-cards all the time during entry into the mess hall. Certainly, the workload of these private funded technical institutes cannot exceed that of the IITs’!

Another interesting reason given by these private institutions is that ‘disorder and indiscipline’ will prevail if students are allowed to have their way. It is as clear as day that more often than not, the interpretations of the word ‘discipline’ has been twisted to suit the individual agendas of the management, patriarchal mindset (In which inter-gender interaction and freedom of female students is curbed) being a common example. The Lyngdoh committee notes that many of these institutes are run by politicians who anyway ban all kinds of dissent so that no ‘errant’ political ideology might creep in. They are the same people who place a hand of blessing on those criminal elements who infiltrate the student union elections through the student wings of the parties these politicos belong to, and play havoc with the functioning of public funded colleges and universities. It was this very violation of basic student rights – whether it be in the manner of charging exorbitant fees, not delivering on promised quality in education, imposing harsh diktats based on administrative whims in the name of maintaining order and discipline, and especially not providing for structured mechanisms to deal with genuine student grievances that led the Lyngdoh committee to recommend mandatory student elections.

The ground reality tells us that as is the case with many things in this country, these guidelines haven’t really been followed even after seven years of their inception. The privately funded institutions continue to act in an arbitrary manner regarding student elections and the fate of genuine student grievances is often held ransom to the whims of the management of these institutions (Please feel free to correct me if I happen to be wrong here). No one seems to be too concerned, the lawmakers least so and incidentally many of them are actually reaping the dividends of this privatization and commercialization of education. It is only a matter of time before some headstrong and pragmatic student pursues the matter in the form of filing an RTI or pursuing the matter legally (I won’t advise anyone to do something like this but hope against hope that someone actually does so; romantically hopeless I might sound, but one lives in constant hope) and these private institutions fall in line.

This is after all a question of one’s basic rights and unless this culture of rubber-stamp student bodies, that in the name of order and discipline breed conformism and render students ineffective to negotiate on basic student issues is countered, the larger question of the engagement of youth with the larger problems of the country is going to be tough.

In the other part of this discourse (which I hope to write soon overcoming my pathetic idleness), we’ll look at the larger issues involved – how is the de-politicization of young minds going to be a peril in the long run. How has the weakening of student activism only led to an increase in conformism and how is the student movement relevant in the larger context of social, economic and political issues. We’ll look at the limitations of Lyngdoh committee and raise the fundamental question – should student activism and politics be confined to the campuses?

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