By Anand Singh:
If there was one event which caught the attention of the media, and of everyone else, beyond Mr. Modi’s speech at the centenary convocation of Banaras Hindu University, it was the alleged roughing up of a student soon after the Prime Minister had wrapped up his speech. The said student was shouting out to the PM to restore the students’ union elections within the varsity. What happened thereafter has been much talked about.
The student in question is one Ashutosh Singh, a B.A. sophomore in the Faculty of Arts. His Facebook profile proudly boasts that he is an active member of the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, the student wing of the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. That he chose such a glitzy occasion to voice his dissent, and that too concerning the revival of the students’ union within the campus, brings into serious question his intentions. Moreover, given the controversial and the rather riot-obscured history of student union elections in this central varsity, his demands lose the force that was intended to be woven around them.
It is necessary to go back in time in order to understand the legitimacy of his alleged concerns. The student union was banned abruptly when large-scale violence paralysed the campus on February 20th, 1997. A student was killed during a blatant display of firearms while an election rally was underway at the amphitheatre ground. The then Vice-Chancellor of the University Dr. Y.C. Simhadri ordered an indefinite ban on union elections within the campus, and rightly so. To this date, an ordinary student at the university associates the student union with utter lawlessness and pompous display of power which serves no apparent purpose.
In a similar manner, the demand for the revival of students’ union by a group of students took a turn for the worse as students clashed with police and held the otherwise peaceful campus to ransom over an entire weekend. There was widespread loss of public property as several buses and an Amul pickup van were torched. The rioting was quelled when a large contingent of local police and Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel were asked to intervene. Subsequently, five hostels, all belonging to the arts and social science faculties were ordered to be vacated indefinitely. Semester exams had to be pushed back. It could not have been any more ironical that a movement intended to guarantee the welfare of the students resulted in causing them intense hardship and mental anxiety.
Now, it is being alleged that criminalisation of dissent is happening across university campuses. One would most certainly agree with this proposition. The manner in which Ashutosh was slapped hard across his face in the full glare of television cameras displays the audacious contempt with which sympathisers of the ruling party have gotten into the habit of treating dissent. He was detained briefly at Lanka police station, then let off. One must clearly draw a line here. The manner in which he was sought to be silenced must exhort us to sympathise with him, but not the cause which he was espousing.
Union politics has always been dubbed as the nursery of future politicians in the country. A democratic environment within university campuses, which allows for free and unimpeded exchange of ideas, is the lynchpin of all learning. On the other hand, BHU must go through a rigorous process of experimenting with democratic ideas before being able to welcome a full-fledged student union in the campus. The popular opinion within the campus is vehemently against the restoration of a union. Tanvi Chaudhary, a final year student of Masters in Financial Management, says that union politics has become synonymous with brazen displays of power, in which power is wielded only by a few persons who are so removed from the concerns of an ordinary student that it is extremely improbable that democracy would have any meaning for them. This sentiment is echoed across a broad spectrum of students in the varsity.
Charles Caleb Colton, an English political thinker, remarked: “Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing which must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” It must always be remembered that BHU does not exist in a vacuum. Varanasi is still a deeply feudal society, and its politics can’t be expected to be any different. Meanwhile, let us expect that in its 100th year of existence, BHU attains some maturity in order to be able to become worthy of a working students’ union and that Ashutosh’s dream may become a reality.
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