Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is in a jubilant mood. After a court battle for three years, the Supreme Court has relaxed the age limit to 30 years for research scholars to contest in elections. Known for its democratic and peaceful student union elections, soon the university will now be able to student union elections, the last election was in 2007.
Welcoming the verdict of the Supreme Court, Janesh Gautam, a JNU student said, “The peaceful and democratic ethos of the university has been upheld by the SC.” But, with an exception of a few, universities and colleges across the country are not holding elections for many years clearly flouting the Lyngdoh’s committee’s recommendations.
“University campus is one of the nurseries of democratic consciousness. But with a general exception of Congress and Mulayam Singh, all the parties that came to power have destroyed the democratic space in campuses,” says professor Anand Kumar from JNU, a former student leader and president of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) as well as JNU. The student politics has given the nation leaders who later led revolutions from the Quit India movement to Jai Prakash Narayan movement during the Emergency. Even contemporary leaders, Lalu Yadav, Sushma Swaraj, Prakash Karat, Nitish Kumar, Arun Jaitley, Ajay Maken and Shivraj Chahuan were all active student leaders.
But, where are the student leaders of today? “New leaders are not being found since there is no proper platform for students,” says congress affiliated National Students’ Union of India secretary, S Sharat who is in charge Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Lakshadweep.
To streamline the campus democracy, the SC-appointed committee came up with a set of guidelines in 2006 for holding elections in colleges and universities, which said that every educational establishment should have an elected student representation. “No doubt, an extreme fringe of lumpens are there. It’s a part of social pathology,” says Kumar. “A great vehicle of reforms, student politics should not be rejected, rather it should be reformed.”
It is not only the fragile atmosphere in the campus that makes universities ban elections. “They don’t want students to question their managerial skills, they don’t want student activism,” says Milind Marathe, president of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad, a BJP affiliated student’s body.
“In absence of Student union, the power balance gets distorted,” says Shahan Ahmad from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). From suspending students to banning campus entry on frivolous charges, or not allowing to put even posters are the few methods used regularly in other campuses throughout the country to curb the demand for student’s union elections.
Students across the country have voiced their opinions via online platforms, protests and using the RTI to get an explanation from their universities why they have not held elections. Some unfortunate students have even felt the backlash of their university’s bureaucracy.
At Allahabad Central University (ACU) students got lathi-charged during a protest to demand elections, a media student in AMU was expelled on charges of defaming the university and was re-instated only after a High Court order. Pondicherry university asks students not to indulge in political activity inside and outside campus, a Jamia student got hounded by proctorial team for asking a question on the absence of union during a lecture on student democracy.
But it is not all lost. Some universities do conducting elections every year. Delhi University and Hyderabad Central University, and state universities in Kerala, West Bengal and Karnataka, successfully hold elections.
AMU is holding elections for last two years, and has seen encouraging results this year with a girl candidate giving male counterparts a run for their money This year BHU has re-started elections for its student council after a gap of 13 years, since the last election saw a violent protest where two student were killed in a police firing. Though the president of the council this year is nominated by the university itself.
ACU is also mulling adopting the same model, of nominating the council president, not everyone is happy. “It’s a curtailed form of democracy, not confirming to Lyngdoh’s recommendations,” says Surya Narayan, a faculty at ACU, who raised the issue of democratic representation of students in the university.
The SC said in its JNU judgment that student union election can not be suspended forever, campus democracy which has historically thrown up leaders who led movements, is essential, with all its shortcomings like violence and money games. “University campus is one of the nurseries of democratic consciousness. Students learn about active citizenship from campus democracy,” says Kumar.