By Rhea Kumar:
All through history, students have played a major role in the socio-political transformation of a nation. The formation of the Hindu Socialist Republican Organization by the revolutionary freedom fighters Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh arose out of their involvement in national politics during their college days. The Asom Gana Parishad, one of the two major political parties in Assam, was formed out of a movement against illegal immigration initiated by the All Assam Students Union. And it was Chinese students who led the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China, demanding democracy and higher accountability for the ruling regime.
As young people, we often feel a need to bring about a change in the status quo. In our formative years, being part of the Students Council in school, addressing student issues and meeting the aspirations of our fellow classmates gives us a sense of pride equal to that of getting a perfect score in mathematics. The ambitions are commensurately higher in college, as we look to bring about a change not only in our immediate surroundings, but also in society. And this is what has given rise to the concept of Student Unions.
In principle, Student Unions are an integral part of any democratic society and need to be encouraged. They provide a platform for students to be a part of the decision-making process and become effective leaders. Many political parties, both in India and abroad, channelize this exuberance by incorporating students into their student wings. Students are significant vote banks for all political parties. Student wings are representative of this vote bank and help the political party reach out to students and respond effectively to their needs.
Well, that is how it is supposed to be. Pranab Kumar Gupta of West Bengal would surely disagree. As most of us know, his son and a leader of the Students’ Federation of India, Sudipto Gupta, was brutally killed in a student protest against the state-imposed ban on student union elections in West Bengal. According to CPI (M), the parent party of the SFI, Gupta was arrested by the police and died due to injuries sustained while under arrest. TMC and Mamata Banerjee have denied the charges, saying that Gupta was put on a bus along with other arrested students and hit his head on a lamppost while leaning out of the bus window. Mamata Banerjee has also gone as far as to call Gupta’s death a ‘petty’ accident. It is no surprise, then, that she and her Finance Minister, Amit Mitra were heckled and manhandled by SFI leaders when they visited New Delhi this month.
But the political drama did not end there. On April 10th, student leaders of the Trinamool Congress Chattra Parishad (TMCCP) and Trinamool Congress workers broke into Presidency College, known to be a hotbed of the CPI (M). The students smashed the internationally reputed Baker laboratory and hit students of the Physics department with iron rods. It is also alleged that TMC workers misbehaved and assaulted female students and teachers in the College.
A number of highly complex issues are at play here.
Firstly, Mamata Banerjee’s dismissal of Sudipto Gupta’s death was in very poor taste. The highhandedness displayed by the police in dealing with the student protests reinforces the view that the police force seems to be a channel for state-sponsored violence rather than a body to maintain law and order these days. But, regardless of the West Bengal police’s responsibility for Sudipto’s death and his own role in the protests, he is a citizen and enjoys certain Fundamental Rights, the Right to Life among those. While Mamata Banerjee may not feel the need to apologize for his death, referring to it in such derogatory words is certainly hurtful to the sentiments of all those close to him. The events following Sudipto Gupta’s death have shown that it was anything but a ‘petty’ accident.
Secondly, while SFI’s protests may have been justified, their method of protest certainly was not. The Indian Constitution has vested in every citizen the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, but this right works on the basic principle that one’s rights cannot infringe on another’s rights. There are several legitimate means of protest – candle light marches, rallies and demonstrations, hunger fasts and petitions, to name a few. But physically attacking leaders and, in the process, undermining their dignity, is never justified, no matter what the issue. It is understandable that emotions were running high due to the loss of life of one of their own, but leadership demands restraint when it is the most difficult to practice.
Thirdly, the TMC’s response to the manhandling of the two ministers was even more deplorable both in form and intensity. The attack on one of the most respected institutions in the state, a laboratory where eminent scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha have worked, displayed complete ruthlessness and barbarism. The message of the TMC workers and students is clear: an eye for an eye, a law that is reminiscent of ancient barbaric times before the laws of modern civilization evolved.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there remains the issue of the legitimacy of student unions. Students from both the SFI and the TMCCP are at least partly to blame for the recent turnout of events. On the chessboard of Indian politics, students seem to play more the role of pawns than castles; rather than serving the purpose of bringing democracy down to the grassroots, they seem to be the arena for political leaders to fight their battles. And in the process, a few Sudipto Guptas are sacrificed as ‘martyrs’.
Sadly student unions have completely abandoned the purpose for which they first started, their agenda is no longer focused on student issues, instead they have become mere mouthpieces of political parties and are increasingly being embroiled in mainstream political conflicts. In order to further their own political ambitions, students will stop at nothing; they will vandalise, kill and destroy the very institutions that have given them that legitimacy of being students. It suits political parties very well to rope them in since it gives them easy access to large numbers and youthful energy to demonstrate mass support but unfortunately, it is ruining the very character of student politics in the country.
So was Mamata Banerjee justified in banning student union elections in the first place? Perhaps not. What we are witnessing today in student politics is only a mirror image of what we see in mainstream politics. Before engaging in a blame game, maybe our esteemed political leaders (including Ms. Banerjee) need to look into the mirror.