By Simran Nandrajog:
This year, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) witnessed a political storm because of an event organised by a few students, which some describe as an act of ‘anti-nationalism’ and others as ‘dissent’. During the ruckus, many people had branded the students of JNU as ‘anti-national’, ‘pro-Pakistan’, and accused them of misusing the taxpayers’ money by indulging in such activities. At the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar, committed suicide after allegedly being harassed by members of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the administration. In both cases, student spaces became a topic of national debate.
Such incidents have led several people to raise the question of whether institutions of higher education should refrain from indulging in political activities or not. While some say that the purpose of colleges and universities is to just educate their students and not make them engage in political issues, others argue that educational institutions should make students politically aware and teach them to question. A student from Ashoka University, when asked if universities should be apolitical spaces said, “The purpose of educational institutions is to impart knowledge and not promote ideologies of different political parties. However, they should equip students in such a way that they are able to analyse and decide which political issue or party to support.”
One of the main reasons why people don’t want college students to engage in political activities is because our country has seen numerous scams and illegal activities orchestrated by politicians. Moreover, politics in India is associated with muscle power, money and hooliganism. Around the time of elections, especially in institutions like Delhi University, there is a blatant display of power, often resulting in clashes between contesting parties. Also, like what happened in JNU, many students and universities have been in trouble in the past when they tried to take a political stand. Hence, some want students to stay away from all this.
However, there are some who feel that student unions are a necessity. Being a country with a high youth population, there are several people who believe that students should participate in politics. Student unions are important as they act as a mediator between the administration and the student population and because they have the power to work for the welfare of the students. For instance, Madras Christian College’s students’ union does not only address students’ concerns but also provides students with opportunities to exhibit their talents. They conduct activities such as recycling plastic bottles, creating a waste management system and providing scholarships and concessions to needy students.
There are times when for the welfare of the people, you need to take bigger actions in the form of mass movements, either to protest an issue or support a cause. For example, after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, there was a movement across some colleges in India, resulting in the cancellation of the suspension of Rohith Vemula’s friends. In 2014, when a female student was molested in the boys’ hostel of Jadavpur University, a movement called ‘#Hokkolorob‘, which means ‘make some noise’ in Bengali, was started. The movement involved hunger strikes by the students, boycotting of classes and ultimately resulted in the resignation of the Vice Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti. Many students even refused to accept their degrees, as a mark of protest.
On the international front, students from the University of California, Berkeley protested against the university’s administration to lift a ban on campus political activities and end racial discrimination in the 1960s. Even two years ago, in 2014, they held large-scale protests against hike in tuition fees.
Indian campuses are expected to be apolitical because most middle-class families want their children to study well, and get a good job rather than engage in politics as that would invite trouble. However, in my opinion, the presence of student unions is essential since they act as a link between students and the administration, help organise events and address grievances. But, at the same time, student unions shouldn’t exploit or harass students in the name of politics.