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50 Yrs, 2 Authoritarian Regimes: How Has Student Politics Evolved In Delhi University?

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The Students Of The 60s Were Rebels With A Cause

Their rebellion against the Vietnam War, and the underground student Naxalite movement, ushered in an era of anti-authoritarian student politics across the globe. It politicized the lives of thousands of students in Delhi University, leading to a desire for a strong student democracy.

Set nearest to the heart of country politics, for nearly six decades, the democracy in this university has been a reflection of, and reactionary to national politics. Political activity is most rampant in places that are academically most stimulating, and where students from different walks of life interact. And therefore, it is not a coincidence that universities like Patna University, Allahabad University and Delhi University were hotbeds for anti-emergency activity, during the rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

A clip out of The Hindu newspaper from the emergency era.

The 70s Were Tumultuous Times

PM Indira Gandhi grappled with the increasing discontentment of the masses, which was heightened by the imposition of the Emergency. Authoritarian governments crush opinions that they fear will resonate with the public. So, they jail opposition leaders, activists and academics, and thrive by creating echo chambers. Students and professors who speak of liberty, rights, freedom and democracy, are threats to an Iron throne. Stirred awake from their state of dormancy, students mobilised to reclaim their spaces.

The two predominant student fronts in Delhi University were National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student front of the Congress party, and therefore pro-establishment at that point of time. The other major party was Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Rising leftist parties included Students Federation of India (SFI), All India Students Association (AISA) and All India Students Federation (AISF). However, much like today, most students back then did not affiliate themselves with any political party and adopted free-floating ideas. They did not believe in unconditional devotion to a party ideology, and frequently took a variety of political positions.

The jailing of late Mr Arun Jaitley, who was then an ABVP leader and President of Delhi University Student’s Union (DUSU) had one implication for students- The centre fears its ability to mobilise against them. Therefore, in sharp contrast to today, ABVP between the 60s and 80s was able to legitimise itself as a democratic organisation, because of the role it played in anti-authoritarian and anti-emergency protests.

Then DUSU president Arun Jaitley serenaded by supporters.

The anti-emergency movement led by students paved the way for the democratisation of university spaces. While the electoral politics in Delhi University continued to be Bi-partisan, left parties and its factions began to expand. The campus was charged with political activity, dialogues and hot debates. Delhi University could not become an authoritarian space again.

There were few people at that time who openly committed themselves to the right-wing ideology. Yet ABVP won most of the elections and most of the seats. There were people who were professedly Marxist, but would still vote for ABVP for the simple reason that ABVP at that point of time, had cultivated an image of hands-on anti-establishmentarian politics. And for the same reason, they garnered votes from students who did not affiliate with any party or ideology as well. They would not try to find alibis for the government’s policies like NSUI did,” says Professor Pankaj Jha, Ramjas Batch of 90.

Although SFI was increasing its reach on campus in the 80s, it couldn’t permeate electoral politics. SFI has always been driven strongly by their ideological position and did not mind taking up causes that were unpopular at that time.

Mr Pankaj recalls an instance, where female students of Ramjas were eve teased by male students of another college. A fight broke between boys of the respective colleges; not because the assault angered them, but because they felt territorial about the women in their college. The political landscape in the 70s and 80s was not friendly to women.

Although those years shaped some powerful female leaders of today, politics at the time was primarily fought by, against and amongst male students. And they were fought in a way that was exclusive of women and their concerns. Both NSUI and ABVP did not take a stance on the incident. They feared becoming unpopular amongst male students. However, the student front who protested against this injustice was SFI.

“Back then, the average student couldn’t relate and rally with the passionate causes SFI took up. They wouldn’t always ensure that hot water ran in the taps, and fests were well funded. They would bring up issues of national and international importance, they would hold reading sessions, and thrive in intellectual spheres,” shares an alumnus of DU.

However, today AISF, SFI, and AISA have a strong presence in Delhi university and national politics. They are working towards mobilising students to rally peacefully through talks, sloganeering, art, music and theatre. Several times in the recent past, unaffiliated students, different factions of the left, and the NSUI have united to protest against the anti-democratic and communalist CAA/NRC, pogroming of Muslims in Jaffrabad, unlawful arrests of academia, etc.

Students protest against the communalist Citizenship Amendment Act.

NSUI and ABVP have been well funded by their parent organisations, the Congress and the RSS respectively. When universities become a medium for these fossilised organisations to materialise their agenda, student’s interest and reform take a backseat. The money they pour in, and the careful appointments they make gives them direct access to control intellectual enquiry. When this happens, there is a disconnect. And parties need to go back and read the Constitution.

With BJP in power, the roles have reversed in comparison to the 70s-80s. ABVP, which then fought against authoritarianism, is now a pro-establishment puppet in the hands of RSS, and its radical right-wing ideology. This tells us that the fight in the 70s, wasn’t for a free democracy where dissenting voices are acknowledged, but to instill a dominant right-wing ideology among students.

“The ABVP-led Delhi University Students’ Union has put up hoardings on the DU’s North Campus blaming the Left for the January 5 violence at JNU. It claims that the country was being broken on the pretext of protesting against the amended citizenship law,” Business Standard, January 16, 2020.

DUSU, which was trusted as the guardian of the student democracy, yet again finds alibis, and it also propagates the hateful policies of the centre. There is a fear of activism and academicians. In 2017, Ramjas college was forced to cancel a seminar with JNU students Umar Khalid and Sheila Rashid, due to intimidation by ABVP members. This is one of the several instances where people, talks and discussions have been named “anti-national”- a recent term lazily used to avoid an actual conversation.

Repression and violence.

Apathy and alibis.

Why do we keep becoming prisoners to political parties?

Originally published on DU Beat

Image sources:, The Hindu, The Indian Express
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