EDUCATION
POLITICS ON THE CAMPUS
Student Union Elections in Punjab Were Banned 33 Years Ago. It’s Time To Undo The Wrong.
- Dr. Balvinder Singh
Student Union Elections in Punjab Were Banned 33 Years Ago. It’s Time To Undo The Wrong.



Haryana will have student elections this year after 22 years. Why not Punjab?
 
AFTER A GAP of 22 years, Haryana will hold elections to students’ unions in its colleges and universities this year. In Punjab, student body elections on campuses were banned in 1984. It has been 33 plus years. All political parties which are stakeholders in Punjab have been demanding these elections. All of these parties have student wings. Why is then there not a strong movement for student union elections in Punjab?

Why even an announcement by the Haryana government has not spurred a debate on the issue in Punjab?

There are some concomitant issues involved, of course, and these, too, must be raised at this stage itself:

- Should students indulge in politics on campus at all? Parents of many students argue that they send their wards to study, not to do politics.

- Should political parties have anything to do with these student union elections? The experience has been that mainstream partisan politics percolates, or rather penetrates, into university or college campuses.

- Is it possible to shut out big money and muscle power from campus politics? The experience of student elections in the Panjab University, Chandigarh hardly inspires on this account.

- Should the possibility of violence not be considered? At the same time, should even the fact of violence occurring be an argument against conducting student union elections?
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For those worried about the desirability of politics on campus, the key question is whether education is an apolitical venture?  Student politics is a vital cog in democratic machinery.
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India has a big youth population -- 64.4% of Indians fall in the age bracket of 15 and 59 years. Merely 8.3% Indians are above the age of 60 years. (The 0-14 age group accounts for the rest of 27.3% of the population.)

Clearly, India belongs to the young, and they cannot be deprived of an opportunity to decide the future course the country takes. Our politicians have been ruing for decades that our politics needs young blood.

Where is the interface between politics and the younger demographic to facilitate the entry of this young blood into politics? 

There are two clear routes available: Either you push for students’ engagement with politics on the college/university campuses which makes it possible for the youth to interface with larger issues that India is grappling with and creates a resource pool of talent that can feed into political parties, or you leave the youth to jump on to the bandwagon of the local tough or henchman of the local politician and hope he or she will graduate to the higher league to emerge as an MLA or an MP.

After all, there are no colleges or universities where we have degree courses to produce MLAs and MPs; these are the routes through which they all come from.
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Our politicians have been ruing for decades that our politics needs young blood. Where is the interface between politics and the younger demographic to facilitate the entry of this young blood into politics?
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Given the state of our political parties, at least the principal stakeholders to power, there seems to be little enthusiasm to encourage genuine student politics where the youth have actual agency.

Wherever such an exercise happens, the ABVP or the NSUI exhibit the same deep flaws that their parent parties are doomed to live with. 

Speaking truth to power is not the forte of these students’ wings of political parties; since they have never practised it in house, they inspire little confidence of having the ability to do so outside.

Of course, there have been some singularly positive examples of student politics, the foremost being the campuses of JNU, Delhi; Allahabad University; University of Hyderabad; and the Jadavpur University, apart from a handful of others. 
 

The fulminations of the country’s incumbent rulers and the not-so-hidden forces behind them against the robust tradition of political engagement in JNU has scared a number of parents away from the idea of their wards participating in any political activity on campus.
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Given the state of our political parties, at least the principal stakeholders to power, there seems to be little enthusiasm to encourage genuine student politics where the youth have actual agency.
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Add to it the shrinking space for liberal arts/humanities in the universities and you have a recipe for widespread depoliticisation. Having a social sciences school on campus can change the character of not just that university but every single student who spends some of the most impressionable years on that campus.

Campuses that used to churn out graduates who would question and have imagination and a zeal to change the world order are now populated with students who are forever inquiring about placement camps and DJs at annual fests. Bereft even of the basic understanding of this thing called India, they claim to be in love with India. 

A crowd such as this is today part of Narendra Modi’s army, tomorrow it could back someone else from a different shade of political spectrum. This crowd would have little understanding of its own self; so it will never be able to back its own interests.

That was the job of the campus politics — to politicise them. To make them understand that their engagement with politics is the only way for them to secure their own destiny. This is neither on the agenda of the BJP or the Congress.

And Left has been painting itself out of the game for so long, it is a surprise it remains relevant to whatever extent it is. 
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Campuses that used to churn out graduates who would question and have imagination and a zeal to change the world order are now populated with students who are forever inquiring about placement camps and DJs at annual fests.
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No wonder you do not even see an opposition party pointing out the irony that Haryana’s education minister Ram Bilas Sharma, who announced that student union elections will be resumed in his state, was the same man who had banned these 22 years back. More? He was the education minister even at that time when the Haryana Vikas Party-BJP coalition government had banned these elections.

For those worried about the desirability of politics on campus, the key question is whether education is an apolitical venture? 

Student politics is a vital cog in democratic machinery. Any investment in this exercise will have an incalculable return. It is a no brainer to state that politics has a direct impact on education, be it on account of funding, subject matter or whatever.

But why are some campuses more politically-charged than others? In certain campuses where student union elections do take place, the issues are limited to in-house activism.
 
Students’ bodies seek votes on the basis of having held a glittery annual fest and promising to call Jazzy B next time. More often than not, students do not have agency. These are campuses sans any mechanism for an organised political culture. 
 

Compare them with campuses where robust debates about the occupation of Gaza can turn into a night long after-debate conversation in a hostel room.

Student politics makes campuses better, triggers minds, simulates debate, enables opponents to listen to each other. Students study gender or caste, and are more likely to agitate about these things and respond to issues. 

Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

Also, it is time to challenge the prevalent assumption that social science-heavy universities are more political than their science counterparts. The fact is that science students were in the forefront of opposition to Emergency; the medical students of AIIMS were one who wrested the initiative during the 1992 Seelampur riots; and the IIT-Chennai’s Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle have set new milestones in political engagement of youth. 

Vested interests may bandy about labels like ‘anti-nationalism,’ but the fact is that student spaces will always engage with national discourse. 

As for the parents not wanting their wards to have anything to do with politics, it is because the only face of politics that they get to see is the one about scams, illegal activities, muscle power, money and hooliganism. Only the students on the campus can redefine the very idea of politics for them, make them understand that politics is much more than its electoral aspect that they get to see, and in its ugliest form.

A tradition of robust on-campus politics will deal with issues of about autonomy enjoyed by our institutions of higher learning, and will ask the question why only a few institutions enjoy monopoly of producing political leaders? 
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To expect a tradition of a robust democracy and liberty in the country but to advocate apolitical campuses and universities is a foolish project.
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Politics today has become totalitarian in nature all around the world, varying only in terms of degree. The onus to question it rests on our educated youth. The economic development, our industries, corporates, social welfare schemes, health, education, infrastructure development are all guided by political policies and practices. Politics controls what our singers will sing, which films our filmmakers will make, what you can or cannot say. If politics is so deeply entrenched in our system, how can universities be an exception?

Autonomy and democratisation of our educational institutions are intertwined. To expect a tradition of a robust democracy and liberty in the country but to advocate apolitical campuses and universities is a foolish project.

Politicised, educated, aware youth with an engagement with politics will ask questions too tough for an Amarinder Singh to answer, a Sukhbir Singh Badal to field, even a Narendra Modi to take on.

That is why you do not see a clamour among the political parties for Punjab to have student union elections, now that even Haryana is all set to conduct these.

Thirty-three years have passed.

Down the line, your new politicians will either come through campus politics, if you fight to have these elections today, or they will come via a liquor thekedar, or a sand mafia, or cable mafia, or a brigade sworn to demolish one or the other shrine depending upon what your opponent’s God is called. Choose your kid’s politician today.
 
 
 
 
Dr Balvinder Singh straddles the world of media and literature, teaches at Panjab University & watches students' engagement with politics, as well as their distance from it, from close quarters.  
 
  

 

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