Democracy as a system of governance is a mechanism of checks and balances. It is perceived to be better than other systems because of the apparent power-sharing mechanism. Considering a university to be a microcosm of the larger world, this system of representative politics has also been a part of the functioning of many educational institutions. Students’ unions act as organs of a democracy and various organisations as diverse pressure groups.
In my opinion, politics and therefore, the existence of a students’ union is a necessary structure in an educational institution and, much more than what many perceive it to be. The purpose of having a union is multi-dimensional. A representative body elected by the student community can keep a check on any arbitrary rules being imposed upon the students by the authorities. For too long now, we have been told that the participation of students in campus politics is only to prepare them for the larger political arena of the country when they complete their degrees.
However, if the same were true, teachers’ unions and associations of non-teaching staff should also not have existed. Many people also assume that if a person is associated with a political party, they must be doing so to cater their self-interest. Had the only purpose been that of preparing students for what some mistakenly call ‘real politics’ then there would have been no need for other unions at different administrative levels in institutes of higher education.
There exists a firm belief among many that those who come to ‘study’ in a college or a university, must not be involved in politics of any nature as the purpose of an educational institute is seen only to be of facilitating learning through course structure. In India, over a period, we have seen political spaces on campuses being watched closely. There is a gradual shrinking of spaces of debate. A students’ union can facilitate discussion, take decisions on behalf of the students, implement them, and judge how students benefited from them. This system is functional on many campuses like DU, JNU, Allahabad University etc, across India. The phenomenon of ‘students getting exposed to politics’ is inevitable when there is a students’ union, but the agenda is not the rationale behind the existence of students’ unions.
It is also important to understand that while a students’ union might be an organ in the functionality of an institution, it does not guarantee a political space for the students. There have been instances of vandalism by unions and denial of space to ideas that differ from those in power. However, these factors do not negate the importance of a Students’ Union in an educational institution. A union is needed to fight against issues that affect the student community like the privatisation of education, eroding autonomy of institutions, ban on study circles, arbitrary appointment of heads in colleges and universities, archaic rules of code and conduct, sexist rules, jingoism and hyper-nationalism. In such matters, students’ unions need not be restricted to institutions but fight for the larger political space of the students which is otherwise being stifled. In this regard, #OccupyUGC was perhaps the only students’ movement in India in recent years that saw students of across many central universities fight against for a common cause.
There exist problems with all forms of governance but these problems need to be addressed rather than brushing off student politics as an activity that keeps young men and women from getting a quality education. Student Unions are important if institutes of higher education are to be free and open in their functioning. Students need representatives from amongst themselves and representation in matters that they face and participation in political activities on campus can pave way for that.