by Namrata Mukherjee
The emergence of the youth as a distinct political class is especially conspicuous in newly founded nations. The same is the case with India, where organized student movements have played a major role in our independence struggle.
Organizations like the All-India Students Federation (AISF) and National Students’ Union of Indai (NSUI) emerged with the objective of mobilizing and integrating the youth with the national resistance against British rule.
Post independence, India witnessed the genesis of numerous other student bodies with varied political ideologies and affiliations which played a major role in not only shaping the national mood towards policy but also in drawing the attention of the government towards specific student issues such as admission policies, tuition, academic freedom and student welfare at large.
However, as opposed to the desired metamorphosis of student unions from an entity playing an active role in national politics to an administrative body whose primary focus is to take care of the general interests of the student body, they continue to be everything but apolitical.
While student politics per se is not undesirable, politicization of student unions in India has resulted in many undesirable consequences. Apart from the above-mentioned phenomenon higher educational institutions in India have been plagued by the ills that characterize politics in the country. Frequent student union clashes, boycott of classes, strikes, roadblocks, manipulation of voters, display of muscle power, disruption of academics and violence have become commonplace during campus elections around the country. This is time and again accompanied by a significant number of casualties with reluctant students and the college administration routinely becoming the recipients of such political wrath as witnessed in the numerous student clashes in West Bengal over the last 6 months, which have resulted in several casualties.
While the role of student unions during the independence struggle must be given its due credit, what needs to be realized is that almost 70 years since independence what higher educational institutions need is a student union whose primary role is to ensure the welfare of students and not political pawns whose sole objective is to promulgate their respective political ideologies and expand their vote base.
However, our political atmosphere has not allowed for the same and major parties like the Congress, BJP and CPI(M) continue to use student unions to establish their stronghold over campuses across the country. As argued, while student’s association with politics is not the issue, in fact it is highly desirable that a democracy like ours demands an educated and cognizant youth for effective participation and reform, what is infelicitous is the politicization of student unions.
There are two points which are to be noted here. First empirical evidence has showcased that campus politics have ended up doing more harm than good. Not only are students subject to violence and coercion in institutes where campus politics is prevalent, but the quality of education also tends to suffer on account of the frequent disruptions by such bodies, which often resort to mob tactics to get their demands heard.
Recognizing this, some of the best educational institutions of the country like the IIT’s and IIM’s have gone ahead and banned politicization of student unions, with some States like Maharashtra and Kerala completely proscribing student union elections.
Secondly, the argument by proponents of campus politics that democratic tradition requires political parties being active on campuses and the same is essential for mobilizing students for national causes and shaping future leadership is fallacious. Politicization of student unions has the inevitable consequence of imposing a fixed ideology on highly impressionable minds with the affiliating political party exercising undue influence on its members. This prevents member students from developing an independent and comprehensive outlook, as they are obliged to pay loyalties to the stance of their respective parties. While this may not be a theoretically sound argument, it is more or less in consonance with current trends. In the light of the above, it can be contended that intellectual freedom plays an important role in shaping complete future leaders and political affiliation is not a condition precedent in either developing politically consciousness amongst the students or inculcating leadership skills. In addition, a student always has the freedom to pursuing his political beliefs outside campus.
The judiciary of the country has also taken note of the negative externalities associated with politicization of unions, as reflected in the Kerala High Court’s judgment Sojan Francis v M.G. University wherein the Court declared that right of the administration of higher educational institutes in maintaining order and discipline includes the right to ban political activism on campus and such prohibition does not violate rights guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) and 19(1) (c) of the Constitution.
Following the confirmation of this decision by the Division Bench, student unions filed a SLP in the Supreme Court wherein the Court recognizing the ills of campus politics, provided for the establishment of the Lyngdoh Committee for the purpose of laying down guidelines for student union elections.
After carrying out sizable empirical research and extensive debate, the Committee made recommendations regarding matters like eligibility, transparency, grievance redressal and affiliation of student unions. Of these, the most debated recommendation of the Committee is regarding the disassociation of student unions from political parties. This has invited a lot of wrath from affiliated student bodies, which vehemently argue that their constitutional guarantees are being transgressed.
However, this argument is flawed as the Apex Court had propounded in University of Delhi v. Anand Vardhan Chanda that the right to participate in Student Union Activities is a statutory right and is subject to rules of the concerned University.
The Supreme Court has also issued orders for the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations thus giving it statutory colour. Most states down South have been responsive to the Committee’s recommendations with Kerela and Maharashtra placing an outright ban on student unions. While Karnataka has not imposed an outright ban on student unions, the Karnataka State University, 2000 has been amended to permit elected student unions in colleges subject to official permission from college management. But as statistics go to reveal, college managements rarely grant such permission, citing political interference during student elections as the prime reason for the same.
On the other hand, most states especially the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab which are the major hubs of campus politics have failed to implement the same and continue to suffer on account of the violence and disruptions that afflict higher educational institutions therein. West Bengal, is ostensibly making efforts to implement the Committee’s suggestions. Certain renowned universities like the Bengal Engineering and Science University have gone ahead and banned student unions and replaced the same with cultural clubs with colleges like IIT, Kharagpur, IIM, Calcutta, St. Xavier’s and Loreto following suit. However, the State Education Minister has declared that it will not be possible for the State to implement any policy, which provides for apoliticization of student unions. This is unsettling considering that the Education Ministry had earlier expressed it’s desire to push for apoliticization of student unions and had gone ahead and drawn draft guidelines for the purpose and also on account of the fact that West Bengal is one of the worst hit States as far as campus violence is concerned.
This is showcased by the hunger strike observed by representatives of teachers associations in various State colleges around West Bengal on Teacher’s Day as a protest against the increasing incidents of campus violence, which have plagued the State. However, much to the animosity of the protestors, the Government continues to turn a blind eye to such demands.
Many states argue that is practically not possible to separate politics from student unions given history and the predominant bond that has existed between the two. However, what must be realized is that the costs incurred in terms of the inefficiencies caused by campus politics are far too large to be tolerated. What India needs is an efficient higher educational system wherein students enjoy an uninterrupted access to knowledge, healthy debates on issues of national importance and the freedom to dissent without fearing adverse repercussions.
A look at democracies like the USA and UK goes to reveal that the effective democracy does not require politicization of student unions. The operation of student unions in these countries is confined to activities promoting student welfare and there are comprehensive laws governing their functioning. The UK Education Act of 1994 is a good example of such a law, as it not only lays down a democratic framework for the operation of student unions but also provides for fairness and accountability in their functioning.
Thus, the argument that de-politicization of unions is an unfeasible proposition is not acceptable as it is the government’s duty to ensure that higher education in the country does not suffer on account of political interference. The agenda of most affiliated student unions today is no longer focused on student issues but, they are instead becoming mere mouthpieces of political parties and are increasingly getting embroiled in mainstream political conflicts, and the same is taking a toll on academic standards around the country. Therefore, the contention that affiliated student unions ensure that student voices are heard by political parties, which in turn enables them to effectively reach out to students is flawed as prevalent practices show otherwise. In addition, student initiatives as witnessed post the Delhi Rape incident and the more recent peaceful anti-Lanka protests in Tamil Nadu are two glaring examples of how apolitical student movements prove to be more effective as compared to the violence meted out by political unions wherein the focus shifts to the collateral damage caused rather than the actual objectives intended to be achieved, if at all there are any.
In Sojan Francis the Court recognized that ‘discipline is the bedrock on which an educational institute is founded’ and thus it is the duty of the State to preserve the same and ensure that vested interests do not negatively affect it. States like Maharashtra and Kerala have already enacted laws, which seek to foster a healthy and apolitical environment for campus elections and it is desirable that other States follow suit.
After all, the quality of our future leaders can only be ensured if the integrity of the institutions that produce them is maintained and the only way to ensure the same is by quashing those forces which undermine the efficacy of the hubs of knowledge, political intrusion being one of them.
(Namrata Mukherjee is a third year student of NUJS, Kolkata and an Associate Editor at JILS)