The NSUI-led Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) came into power after two years with two promises:
1. Restoring free speech, critical thinking and academic autonomy.
2. Defining the democratic role of student unions in the governance of universities.
While Delhi University students celebrated their democracy over a huge decision, Karnataka students imagined a similar day like this over the ban on student politics.
The student union elections were banned in Karnataka during 1989-90 when Veerendra Patil was the chief minister and KH Ranganath the higher education minister – following several incidents of caste-based campus violence. While some colleges still continue to have student councils with class representatives, there is no direct election of union office-bearers nor is there any influence of external student unions inside the campus.
Some student leaders including Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid have become chief targets of media trials, with many being labelled as anti-nationalists, terrorists, or brainwashed ‘kids’ funded by foreign organisations. An attempt to curb politics and regulate free spaces in higher educational institutions is being masqueraded in the garb of nationalism and security. Thus, it is not surprising that the public opinion on student politics in India has turned unfavorable – and most intellectuals claim that student politics is no longer what it used to be. In such a situation, it becomes crucial to highlight the importance of student politics in any society – and especially where 65% of the population is under 35 years of age.
The history of student politics and unions date back to the pre-independence era when the mobilisation of students was an important part of the Indian freedom struggle. From the Non-Cooperation Movement of the 1920s where students participated in large numbers (for boycotting educational institutions) to the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1930s, the student’s community was united to impair the British regime in India.
However, the rise in the prices of essential commodities during the period of the Emergency brought many socio-political changes and protests from a large section of the society, including the student community. Student movements were suppressed by the government by using various tactics. The student leaders who were sympathetic towards the Opposition leaders were detained and tortured. About 60 students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were jailed during the entire period. Student unions were also banned in many universities.
The next phase of student activism is evident in the 1990s when the government accepted the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. During the agitation against the Mandal Commission, Rajeev Goswami, a student from Delhi University, set himself on fire and sustained 50% burns on September 19, 1990. This incident triggered nationwide uproar against the Mandal Commission – and in quick succession, a lot of students did the same.
Student politics and activism were also prominent in two big incidents where they participated in large numbers – during the anti-corruption movement with Anna Hazare, and when thousands of students wanted justice in the 2012 Nirbhaya gang-rape case.
Without the presence of a students’ union, students can’t express their genuine grievances. Most of them are not comfortable with taking trivial matters to the court or an external body outside the campus. The student councils do not seem to be effective enough to solve these matters. Most of the time, the decisions are taken in favour of the administration, rather than the students – and the council members are bound to abide by the decision of the administration even in the worst scenario. The framework under which student councils work restricts the attempts or ideas of the council members. This often deprives the students of their basic democratic rights.
Hibah Bhat, a student Council representative of Christ (deemed to be University) said, “We don’t discuss real issues as we are only a student council, not an elected union. We need to discuss more fundamental and grassroot issues at the student level.”
The purpose of higher education is the holistic development of an individual’s personality and character. Politics is one such field where young students can earn immense exposure, alongside gaining skills in leadership and decision-making. If the policy-makers of tomorrow are not exposed to the problems of today, how can one learn to draft a policy that will actually help the cause?
“In Karnataka alone, it has been about two decades since student unions have been banned – and that is a distressing sign for a pluralistic democracy like ours. We need the youth to evolve into strong leaders, and be outspoken. Even if it requires the implementation of the Lyngdoh Committee report in the initial stages, I think we must proceed with it; something is better than nothing. Gradually, direct elections can be introduced in accordance with the status of law and order,” said Sharan KA, founder and president of Dialogue, a student-run policy-making institute.
If dynasty politics in the country has to end, we need to build platforms for them. If the youth needs adequate representation, they need to be nurtured through the union elections.
In an interview with the Economic Times, H S Manjunath, the Karnataka state president of the Congress’ student wing, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), said: “Leaders who have come up through student politics are the ones most active today. The situation that happened in 1989 is very different from now and there is no need to fear that Unions will cause campus violence.”
There is another section of students and professors who do not want student politics back in campuses. They have their particular set of reason for this. Some believe that the introduction of student politics will bring back campus violence, whereas others believe it will lead to more disruption and chaos.
“The ban on student politics in the state of Karnataka was a wonderful move and must be followed in all the institutions across the country. There are other ways of expressing grievances. Strikes and agitations are not one of them. The student unions don’t maintain a code of conduct in the institutions and this result in conflicts and campus violence. Moreover, education takes a backseat, and students become embroiled in issues that have no place in the campus,” a professor from a reputed college in Bangalore stated.
On the other hand, it does not really matter whether a campus is conservative or liberal (or maybe, all over the political spectrum). There are advantages to having student unions on the campus. Not only is it a democratic approach, it’s also a common ground for various beliefs, theories and ideologies.
When asked about the ban on student politics in Karnataka, one of the members of the Students’ Federation Of India (SFI) said, “The ban on student politics is anti-democratic and an encroachment on students.”
Campus violence is one of the major reasons why the state is not ready to lift the ban. Even with the imposition of this ban, there have been several incidents in self-financing colleges (where there’s no place for student organisations). The management have always tried to restrict campus politics, as student organisations often question the exploitation, injustice and their rights. The ban on student politics is violating the rights guaranteed by the Constitution – and any attempt to curb student politics should be opposed. Students don’t go to college only for an academic qualification. The institution should make them better citizens for tomorrow. Without a taste of democracy, how can the students even articulate themselves in the process of democracy?
“The reason for campus violence is not student politics. The reason for campus violence is that the ruling party’s student groups are protected by the government in power.” Shehla Rashid, a student activist and former JNUSU vice-president, said.
The Congress claims that the BJP government is intolerant and not secular in their thought processes. The Congress even supported the students who were deemed to be ‘anti-national’. But, despite being a majority outfit in Karnataka for the last five years, they have not taken sufficient steps to lift the ban on student politics.
Dr Nasser Hussain, a recently-elected Member of the Parliament from the Karnataka Congress, acknowledged the need of lifting the ban on student politics. He also said that he has been working closely on this issue for the last two years.
If this ban had been imposed on any central university, the issue would have been dealt with more carefully. The issue would have gained the attention of and attracted the mainstream media. Somewhere down the line, Karnataka’s students don’t get enough attention like the students from other central universities like the Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University or Jadavpur University. Student politics was banned to prevent caste and gender-based discrimination in the state, but the bias towards the Lutyens’ Delhi University students reveals discrimination on the basis of region.
“First of all people should change their mindsets. Students are not tomorrow’s leaders, they are today’s leaders. By banning students politics, the politicians kill the leadership qualities of students. As the ABVP’s motto goes (‘Student’s power, Nation’s power’), the strength of a nation is in the hands of students. So, by banning students from politics. they indirectly stop the nation’s growth. We will fight till the ban is lifted,” says Sharavena Raghul, unit convener of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Chief Advisor to the Executive Board, Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC).
Despite a large number of student organisations wanting student politics back in the state, there is clearly no sign from the government to act in this scenario. The government is least interested in the problems faced by the students.
“One of the main reasons why the government is not lifting the ban is because of the nature of the issue. Largely, we have not really reformed ourselves. It might have been a long time chronologically, but the main question lies as to whether the student electorate has departed from caste-based issues or violence. DUSU’s politics is an example,” states Amogh Chakravarthy, Community Engagement Officer, Deakin University Student Association Student Council and Faculty Board member, Deakin University.
Banning student politics to solve the problem of campus violence is highly irrational and detrimental. Another set of argument by the intellectuals is that the turnout for the DUSU elections shows that students don’t want politics in the campuses. The turnout for the DUSU elections was about 44%, which was higher than the previous year’s where only 36.2% of the students cast their ballot. The reason for the low turnout is poor campaigning by the leaders. Most of the students are not sure about the candidates contesting for the election. Nor do they know about the promises made by these leaders. However, banning student politics is not the solution for the low turnout.
On the possibility of lifting the ban on student politics in future, Amogh further added, “Being a student politician myself in a different country, I feel that student politics is inherently good. But there are things to be kept in mind. Student politics is a reflection of the larger political narrative in a country. It increases engagement, awareness and representation, but there are other things to be sorted out before student politics can make a comeback.”
Colleges are not political institutions. They are places for holistic development. However, student politics might convert college campuses into proxy battlegrounds, and students may have to pick sides and decide between right and wrong. If this creates a problem, then we are forgetting the entire point of education. The point of education is not just about getting a job. It is about the ability to choose between right and wrong, and being vocal about the issues that matter.
The ban on student politics should be lifted from the state of Karnataka, and the student unions should be restored on the college campuses. The sad part is that not a single party is concerned about the problems faced by the students. Not a single party mentioned anything about restoring student unions in their manifestos for the assembly election in Karnataka. This shows how little the ‘to-be-elected’ representatives care about the problems faced by the students. The student unions must get together and draft a petition to lift the ban in the state.