Election time in universities is one of the most vibrant and gripping times of the year. Debates, discussions, name calling and mass mobilisation of students: this is how I had imagined the election scenario, as a school student. However, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, I saw none of that. The election is a mere formality wherein students vote for a class representative who goes on to be voted as a member of the student council.
Additionally, the whole campus never votes for one person. This leads to the representative being accountable only to their classmates, rather than the entire student population. Such an environment breeds unaccountability to students who hoped for their voices to be heard at the institutional level.
This, however, is a relatively recent development. Last year, indirect elections were conducted for the first time in all the off-campuses. It was met with skepticism which led to the students forming an action committee. They conducted an unofficial referendum held in the Hyderabad campus; members of the committee while in conversation stated that 78% of the student population supported direct elections. Despite the clear opposition to indirect elections, the administration disregarded it, calling it a “rigged” referendum.
The official reason for the change in the election pattern was attributed to the guidelines which were stated under the Lyngdoh Committee, as per its report on May 23, 2006. (This committee was set by UGC to give directives for student elections in university spaces).
There is a specific section for elections in campuses which are spread out in different geographical locations.
The Mumbai campus implemented point 6.2.4 in all the off-campuses. This was stated as the main reason for the shift from direct elections to indirect elections.
However, students across TISS have been asking for a shift from point to 6.2.4 to 6.2.2. It seems like a simple demand which falls under the Lyngdoh Committee guidelines as well.
“We aren’t asking for a lot. It is a valid demand. We wanted direct elections last year as well, however, this year we are relentless. We saw how an indirectly elected student council failed us. We don’t have to have another year to follow the pattern”, said Bibin San Thomas, a student from the BA program in Hyderabad Campus.
An important guideline mentioned in clause 6.1.5 under the Lyngdoh Committee is the fact that the system decided by the university must undergo a review every two years.
“When the system failed miserably, why should we wait for another year to change it?”, asked Thomas.
The students have decided to protest in a full-fledged fashion. Over 320 signatures have been collected in two days for the campaign. Many professors have also shown solidarity with this movement for direct elections. Dr KP Rajesh talking about the importance of a democratic platform at the university-level said, “I think the voices of the students are important in the context of higher educational institutions in the country. I believe that in order to deepen the democratic structures of an institution it is inevitable to create a democratic platform where the students can register and articulate their collective voices.”
He further states that the implication of restricting student voices will have a detrimental effect on the institution as a whole. “Curbing student voices will have a destructive implication on the academic autonomy and imagination of the institution. Given this larger scenario, I feel that the TISS Hyderabad students’ demand for direct elections is undisputable and that should be respected if one is really aspiring to expand the democratic structures of the institution and also need to create a climate to express democratic dissent in a collective fashion”, said Rajesh.
Dr Arjun Sengupta, a professor at TISS Hyderabad, raised a pertinent question in a Facebook post questioning the ethos of the decision and highlighting the fundamental democratic value that runs through the core of this institution. “The courses I have taught in TISS Hyderabad till now have reflected, in terms of syllabus, a core democratic ethic. If one went through the curricular content of the various courses offered here, across academic programs, one would find a similar democratic spirit pervading all that is taught. Ideas of ‘deepening democracy’, ‘democratic accountability’, ‘participatory governance’ are the staple courses offered here, a fact that sets TISS apart from a large number of educational institutions.”
“Given this commitment to strengthening democracy, should we not also be concerned about the democratic rights enjoyed by the students? Should we not see the curtailment of student rights as contrary to values we espouse in class? The students have begun a campaign to ensure direct elections on campus. They wish to ensure that their political rights on campus extend beyond selecting their own class representatives. They wish to have a union that is directly elected by them, something that any minimal concept of unionization must entail. Direct elections are an important and inseparable component of representation and unionization by the standards of even bodies like the ILO which TISS regards as pivotal players in the global thrust towards socioeconomic justice and equity. A denial of this basic right would amount to a contravention of the basic values that TISS stands for. I request and urge faculty members of TISS Hyderabad to support this basic demand of the TISS students. Let us rally behind the students in this basic demand which reflects a significant part of what we teach them every day. Let us live up to what we teach them,” said Sengupta.
Amidst such strong support, the General Body has sent the signature campaign to the administration in TISS Mumbai along with documents stating the demand. The administration has been given an ultimatum till August 3 to make a decision.
The question remains, would this lead to a change in the system imposed on TISS off-campuses? Or would this be another example of curtailing the democratic rights of students?