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At St Xavier’s Mumbai, Space For Expression Is Shrinking And Still No Students’ Union

Let us take a look at the curious case of our average Mumbai-based student.

Here we have what is possibly a young adult, recently liberated from an oppressive secondary education system, yearning to experience the utopian myths they have heard about college life.

Deceived by fantasy, they enter the gates of college, sit through a slightly disillusioning orientation and finally face daily university routine.

Now, consider the possibility of this student facing an issue of some kind; this is likely to happen since post-puberty is the time we come to realise the truth about adulthood.

When this student faces such a bout of misery, they are convinced that college is a sanctuary which grants them rehabilitation.

At least, that’s what the papers say about Indian colleges.

Colleges in our country are renowned for their cosmopolitan nature. Harbouring a variety of students from different cultures and backgrounds, an Indian college is a microcosmic representation of the diversity our country proudly brandishes. In such a vast student body, it is important that each voice is heard; a purpose that is met through the conduit of politics and the promises it makes.

Indian colleges, as such, are often synonymous to politics.

Housing students’ unions, youth political wings and campus ministries, one would assume that the aim of universities across the nation would be to protect the interests of its student body. However, the image our colleges exhibit seem to be highly questionable since the reality of the situation is terrifyingly different.

Despite the fact that Mumbai is a part of India and one of its most popular cities, the colleges of this urban metropolis may not be following the very system of governance our country is known for.

Democracy in India may not be dead, but it sure isn’t what we claim it to be. If the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, it’s only natural that the genealogy of political governance can be traced back to college politics. But what about those colleges that are deprived of students’ unions? What about those institutions that claim to be built by the student body, but whose very foundation is unstable with hypocrisy?

That’s the blueprint for average Mumbai-based colleges.

While educational institutions in Delhi, Kerala and Chennai are abuzz with politics, Mumbai seems to be completely devoid of any form of student representation. By confirming this fact, one must realize that the deprivation Mumbai faces does not mean student representation is ideal in other colleges of India. The very essence of the problem lies in the perception of student representation rather than the question of its existence.

Students’ unions in India are often the younger, extended arms of prude, conventional political parties.

A reservoir for recruiting fresher vessels containing the same, redundant ideology, students’ unions seem to have a warped understanding of its purpose and priorities. Instead of catering to the student body like it should, it further segregates the larger community into followers and rebels of their puppeteer political party.

While colleges in Mumbai are free of this false sense of inclusion, they are, however, left orphaned when faced with a problem. Especially those in which the college administration takes the role of the perpetrator.

In the eyes of the law, these colleges cannot be held accountable for neglecting student grievances since there exists a student representative cell on paper. Heck, some colleges go the extra mile by hammering up a board that says “Student Council” above a shackled door. A door that never opens. A door, if for some cosmic anomaly ever opens, holds nothing inside but empty promises.

Student councils and class representatives are established in most colleges across the country, especially around the time of the year when the NAAC evaluation begins. Having a student representative body looks good on paper. It shows that students from a particular college hone leadership skills and have the capability to become representatives of the nation.

Not many people from Mumbai have emerged as national leaders as we continue to experience a thacka-reign of ‘pawar’ and stagnating principles that are quite unaccommodating and contradictory to the very nature of democracy.

Student councils are merely a farce. One that isn’t fooling anybody. But to expose the sheer desolation behind this mask, who do students turn to?

Even if student leaders are selected for the council or as class representatives, the extent to which their authority lies in the space between their badge and their shirt, convoluted by a rusty pin.

And if for some surprising reason, they have the ability to conjure a modicum of power to dissent, they are not seen as a voice of the student body in the eyes of the administration. They are degraded to a domino that refuses to fall. An out-of-line ‘no’ in their battalion of blind, complacent ‘yes’ men. An oddity that needs to be silenced.

In the timeline of St. Xavier’s College Mumbai, the past three years have seen instances that drape the institution with an authoritarian cloak, drowning the voices that scream for democratic reform. Students risk themselves to realise their right to free speech, eventually to be shunned into a corner by the prejudice and cowardice of the administration. Research papers containing dissent against fundamentalist ideology were rejected for their incompatibility with the beliefs of certain members of the staff.

The administration, however, does not limit its power to academic autocracy as student demonstrations are under panoptic surveillance.

Celebration regarding the amendment of Article 377 were not met with college authorities acknowledging the nation’s step towards inclusivity and peace, but by persistent interruption of a pride march celebrating the historic moment.

According to one of the participants of the demonstration, the principal who ordered the security to dismantle the gathering insisted that he agreed with the cause but did not seem to understand that the quadrangle, where the march took place, was a public place of gathering within the college that could be used during the break for the march, no different than when most students utilise it each day.

The authorities further suggested to the students that such a celebration could be held as a panel discussion by renting out one of the seminar halls, unable to realise that the very conception of the event was borne out of sheer joy for the nation’s progress rather than a formal academic gathering.

By making hasty assumptions about the nature of the demonstration, the authorities seem to have been unsuccessful in not only lending an opportunity for the student body to express itself individually but also understanding the very intention behind the actions of students.

The truth is ambiguous. It is about time our country realizes the need to listen instead of passing judgment. It is time for our institutions to be challenged by the very people who strive to make it a better place.

College is a place for growth. It is a time for individuals to be comfortable in their own skin. And during this difficult time of understanding the self and its place in the world, support is a necessity.

A council decrees. A union questions.

It is time to listen.

Image Credit: Prasad Gori for Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Find out more about her campaign here.

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