Police gather outside a gate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) following clashes between student groups in New Delhi on January 5, 2020. Photograph:( AFP )
Any student union must always be apolitical, independent body free from the clutches of political parties and their interference.
The physical violence that happened at the campus of the reputed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi is horrifying, yet it’s not surprising. Going by the level of polarisation in campuses along ideological lines, and going by the resultant vitiation in the academic environment, a showdown of this nature is only logical. In this context, isn't this the high time that student unions in college campuses are thoroughly depoliticised and any affiliation of student bodies with any political party is outlawed?
Rampant politicisation of student bodies in universities is the biggest ailment that plagues our educational institutions and poisons our academic environment.
Student politics in academic campuses have mostly resulted in the opposite of what was originally intended behind creation of student unions – creation of leaders in society who could bring about harmony among divergent thoughts and ideas through debates and discussions, and who could promote critical thinking among the young generations to take the legacies of democracy and pluralism forward; it further intended to promote a culture where right to question and dissent - the cornerstone of all human progress - could be respected.
However, our experiences tell that over the past few decades, the student union's politics has done more harm to the cause of students than benefitting them. In reality, it has brought academia in bad repute by poisoning and criminalising the academic environment.
In JNU, a group of masked men and women wielding lathis, sharp weapons and sledgehammers entered hostels on Sunday and allegedly carried out a targetted attack on students, faculty members and guards and damaged vehicles before vanishing from the scene. The cops arrived on the scene following written permission from the JNU administration. However, till the time, the script had been played out, leaving a ransacked campus and terror-struck souls that may take years to repair.
But, is the incident just one-off clash to be brushed aside as a mere law and order problem that may be set right through proctorial interventions or is it symptomatic of a deeper malady afflicting the student politics across India?
This incident in JNU is said to be preceded by a series of skirmishes that had broken out earlier on the New Year’s Day and also on Saturday, between the members of the left and ABVP, in which the president of the JNUSU is said to have played an active role. The Sunday attack is said to be the culmination of such skirmishes.
As it emerges, a fight had broken out over non-functioning of the registration servers on which the new students were supposed to register for the new session. The pro-registration students alleged that the left-dominated student union, under the leadership of its president, Aishee Ghosh, had locked the server room and disrupted servers to prevent registration of students willing to join new classes. The Leftists, long on protest against fee hikes, have been boycotting classes and hence any registration by new students and resumption of academic activities would mean the defeat of their strategy. Hence they allegedly devised the conspiracy to disrupt new registrations.
This just reflects the degree of politicisation prevalent in the university campuses across India leading to a culture of conspiracies and the mutual distrust among the inmates.
As usual, the incident drew swift battle-lines and the civil society players took positions, firing salvos as per the ideological ground they stood across the divide. Even before the police had taken over the scene of crime, Congress had begun a frontal attack on the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of India, implicating them directly in the incident. Soon enough, tweets, laced with ideological insinuations, and innuendoes aimed at inflaming passions and inciting the youth, flew thick in the air.
The barter of charges on political and ideological lines would go on for aeons but the larger picture is that the student politics in India has much degenerated in today’s times, turning the university campuses into full-blown political constituencies as far violent showdowns are concerned. The modern university campuses have become the microcosm of the wider political universe displaying all the quirkiness of the nationwide politics.
Right to protests and to indulge in union politics, both are fundamental to the students’ campus life. Right to protest within the university campus is a right available to each student as a part of their fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. But, thanks to rampant politicisation of campus lives, protests are becoming horrible and, most of the times, they cross all limits of decency.
As part of the mainstream protest practices in campuses, faculty members are heckled inside and outside the classrooms, are subjected to consistent slogan-raisings and are catcalls on their way to work; faculty and administrative officials are gheraoed, subjected to physical violence or threats of it, and locked from outside or prevented from using washrooms etc till demands are met. Such innovative ideas of protest don’t stop here as the students even go to storm the homes of the officials, scaring their family members who, while terrified and tormented, have no solace available than to keep praying for their safety.
On March 26, 2019, Vice-Chancellor of the JNU, Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, had shot a panicky tweet, “Yesterday when students broke into my residence terrorising my wife who was alone at home, it was the wives of JNU faculty members who rescued my wife with the help of security guards and took her to hospital. Grateful to them for their kindness.” When the Vice-Chancellor of a prestigious university like the JNU is not safe what can be said about smaller universities and their staffs?
Are such things just and fair in the names of protests? Protest is a fundamental right, but protesting with the intention of insulting and terrorizing innocent officials isn’t. It’s a violation of someone else’s fundamental right and hence criminal. However, the students dare to breach the lines of discipline and indulge in such criminal modes of protests only because they enjoy complete protection of the political class, who frustrate all attempts of the administrators within the campus to enforce discipline.
Last month, the Governor of Bengal, who also happens to be the Chancellor of all Universities in Bengal, was prevented by angry students from entering the campus of the Jadavpur University. Similarly, on another occasion, Babul Supriyo, a central government minister, was manhandled and pulled by his hairs inside the same university campus by students belonging to the left-wing and the TMC camps. Protesting with the aim of intimidation and of jeopardising the national interest can never be the objective behind the creation of Unions and their activities within campuses.
In January 2017, activists of the Student's Federation of India (SFI) had snatched principal's chair from her office inside the 144-year-old prestigious Maharaja College in Kochi - boasting of alumni like politicians AK Antony and Vayalar Ravi, the former Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan, and figures like, Swami Chinmayananda and actor Mammootty - and burnt it at the main entrance of the campus, as a 'warning' during their 'symbolic protest' against her 'moral policing', because the Principal, NL Beena, tried to introduce a dress code on the campus.
Do such protests go to train and create a breed of the responsible citizenry for running a civilized democracy or do they create a bunch of bullies learning the knack of having their way by threats and jeers?
Democracy is not always about protests; it’s mostly about the art of striking consensus and harmony through collaboration and dissent management. In the Constitution of the Delhi University Student’s Union (DUSU), promotion of mutual contact, democratic outlook and a spirit of oneness among the students of the University of Delhi is mentioned as one of the aims and objects of the Union. However, the kind of democracy that the student unions promote inside the university campuses is all about coercion and bullying that can only lead to tyranny and disorder, not democracy.
Student unions are mostly populated with students having criminal mindsets who use money and muscle power to win elections that are fought with the active support of major political parties. The lure of money, power, recognition and of perceived respectability sucks in ambitious youths into campus politics who look into it an opportunity to launch themselves in the real political world.
Student politics and their success give the young generation an instant feel of power. But this power is like riding a tiger; the moment the delicate balance is upset, one is certain to become a victim of this power, instead of being the master.
University campuses are live theatres for training the youths and preparing them for the future so that they could take the socio-political legacies forward. Thus, a certain amount of authority must be vested in the administrative functionaries to enable them to inculcate a sense of discipline among the future citizens of the nation. The Principals, the Vice Chancellors, etc must have certain inherent authority - of course, the bare minimum and accountable - under their command so that necessary discipline in institutions could be maintained.
The matter of strengthening the administrative powers of the principals and vesting punitive authorities in them has been examined by the High Courts and the Supreme Court at different occasions and they've made decisions in its favour.
Referring to various such decisions, a division bench of the Kerala High Court, during a hearing on a college student who was debarred from taking his second-year BA examination by the Principal on account of shortage of attendance, had ruled in 2004 that, “The Head of the institution should in law be presumed to possess an inherent right of such acts as are necessary in his opinion to maintain discipline in his institution.”
The HC upheld the decision of the Principal to disallow the student from taking the examination.
As his non-attendance from classes was primarily due to his participation in the union activities of the college because he was a member of the area committee of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student accused that the action of the principal was politically motivated and in his appeal petition, raised the following points for consideration of the High Court: (i) whether an educational institution could legally prohibit political activities within the college campus and forbid the students from organising or attending activities other than official ones within the college campus? (ii) Whether a student who is admitted to the college is bound by the code of conduct laid down by the educational institution? And (iii) Whether such restrictions laid down by the educational institutions would violate the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (A) and (C) of the Constitution of India?
After considering the matter at length, the Kerala High Court had ruled that “Article 19 of the Constitution of India is not a carte-blanche enabling any citizen to exercise a fundamental right so as to encroach upon similar rights guaranteed to other citizens.”
On the issues under consideration, the HC had ruled, “Guidelines banning political activities within the campus and forbidding the students from organising or attending meetings, other than the official ones, within the campus is not designed to prohibit any of the fundamental rights of the students guaranteed under Articles 19(1)(A) or 19(1)(C). The Right to Admission not being absolute (meaning, it's revocable if the conditions are breached), there could be regulatory measures for ensuring educational standards and maintaining excellence in education.”
Therefore, the court had ruled that “It was open to the educational institutions to prohibit political activities within the college campus and forbid students from organising or attending meetings other than the official ones within the college campus and such a restriction would not violate Article 19(1)(A) or (C) of the Constitution of India.” (Kerala Students Union vs Sojan Francis, 20 February 2004)
Enforcing discipline in an academic environment is not only important rather it's mandatory in order to strengthen the prestige of the education system. The majority of the students want to focus on their studies so that they could find their feet in the highly competitive world outside, but a minuscule minority of them keeps spoiling the academic environment on issues hardly related with students' genuine interests. Therefore, the administrative authorities must be vested with sufficient powers so that those devoted to their studies and careers should not be disturbed by those handfuls of bad apples.
Beset with constant and increasing caste-based violence in the campuses, the state of Karnataka under Chief Minister Veerendra Patil had banned all student union elections during 1989-90. And, the ban is still in place enabling the state to provide conducive academic environments in colleges and universities within its jurisdiction. Although some colleges have student councils with class representatives, direct election of union office-bearers, as elsewhere in the country, stands totally banned in Karnataka. Many states have temporarily or for longer periods have imposed university-specific bans to contain growing trends of violence in campus life.
An old observation made by the UGC Committee in its report in 1983 on students politics is still relevant and is worth a mention here:
“Political activity in the universities is natural because the university is a community of thinking people, of those who are exploring the frontiers of knowledge and of those who criticize and evaluate every idea before accepting it... We, however, regret to say that much of "political" activity which we noticed and sensed on the campuses is of a degenerate nature...It is a "politics" of expediency, opportunism...that is most advantageous for the doer (but) a disruption of educational activities for all... It is also a politics of corruption where money or other attractions are used to achieve an end, be it victory in an election, or hiring of goondas to harass the functionaries or disrupt a meeting or examination.... In a situation when the leadership of a young group of a few hundred agitators can be grabbed on seemingly "democratic" or "'humane" grounds, the temptation to give a political backing becomes irresistible....”
On the matter of framing guidelines for student union elections in universities, the Government of India, Subsequent to an order of the Supreme Court in 2005, had constituted a six-member committee under the retired CEC, Mr J M Lyngdoh, with the mandate to make "recommendations on aspects that are required to be observed to maintain academic atmosphere in the educational institutions”.
The committee submitted a detailed guideline as part of its recommendation in 2006 that was accepted in toto by the SC, which directed all college and universities to adopt the Lyngdoh committee guidelines for conducting union elections. (University of Kerala Vs Council, Principals, Colleges, Kerala and others, 2006)
The Lyngdoh Committee report had suggested sweeping electoral reforms along with freeing the student bodies from the influence of political parties and their dirty money. The guidelines strongly recommended disassociation of student elections and student representation from political parties, as it mentioned, “During the period of the elections no person, who is not a student on the rolls of the college/university, shall be permitted to take part in the election process in any capacity.” Further, it also recommended that candidates contesting the union elections must possess certain minimum levels of discipline and academic abilities, such as - at least 80 per cent attendance in the previous year and she/he should have passed all the examinations of the course undergone.
However, the Lyngdoh committee has been denounced by the student bodies who consider it as restrictive and violative of the rights of students. But, there is no denying of the fact that involvement of political parties with student bodies have resulted into degeneration of the campus environment. The undue political interferences and patronizations have only promoted indiscipline and lumpen disregard of authorities among the students.
Furthermore, political parties regularly prevent independent candidates, who don’t conform to the prevalent political ideology, from contesting union elections and such contestants are forced out from the fray. Loss of an independent voice is a loss for the campus.
Moreover, the party-based student unions, sitting on the heap of cash and resources, violate the right of many other students to remain apolitical or to exercise their right to choice by not being any union member. However, the student bodies manage to suck in many unwilling students by patronising them or pressurising them or by luring them through various freebies and lavish ‘cultural events’.
Student unions are an important aspect of campus life, as such unions happen to be the legitimate mediums to voice the collective concerns of the student community and to protect their genuine interests. However, balancing the interests of campus democracy with the larger interest of maintaining academic atmosphere, discipline and public order within the universities and the college campuses is necessary. Any disruption in campus activities due to union violence plays with the futures of thousands who come to universities seeking academic excellence and not political indoctrination.
All human progress starts with critical thinking. Dissent is the key to the existence of human life, and debate, discussions and discourse is the way to go forward for students in the academic campuses. Debates make bridges to get over differences and discussions promote understanding to explore the other's viewpoints. However, when dissent is manufactured on political lines and debates are substituted with hooting and physical violence, promotion of democratic values takes the back seat. The biggest drawback of politicising the student unions is that the unions impose political agenda of their parties on campuses, the real issues of students are lost in the din.
Hence, though some kind of protection of unions is necessary for students in the campuses in order to safeguard their rightful interests, such union must always be an apolitical, independent body free from the clutches of political parties and their interference.
Unless this is done, it would be difficult to end the eternal cycle of violence and confrontations of political nature on the campuses that is a must for transforming our academic institutions into centres of excellence. So, doesn't the JNU violence present us the perfect opportunity to completely ban the student unions from having any political affiliations or association in any form?"
(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)