Pondicherry University: A case of students polarisation in contemporary India | india-news | Hindustan Times
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Pondicherry University: A case of students polarisation in contemporary India

india Updated: Aug 24, 2016 18:01 IST
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Protesters burning copies of the Widerstand magazine in the Pondicherry University premises.s (Grist media)

When the Student Council at Pondicherry University (PU) first released its magazine this year, few took notice. In the first few days after its July 28 release, only a few hundred copies of Widerstand (resistance in German) were distributed. Within a couple of days, however, it seemed like the council had opened a pandora’s box of emotions, with protests and counter-protests from both left and right wing student organisations on campus, and eventually, the removal of the Dean of Student Welfare from his post.

Beyond free speech issues, these protests are also significant because they are not an isolated event, but rather they are part of the continuing politicisation of this university. For the first time in 31 years, PU is witnessing politically charged student protests. Beyond just the brouhaha around the magazine, the relatively apolitical university and the state of Puducherry are heralding the beginning of a new era of radicalised politics.

There have been a number of recent cases of the socialist Student Federation of India (SFI) going head to head against the right-wing Akhil Bhartiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), as they did in Pondicherry again. However, unlike the clashes at Hyderabad Central University and JNU, these organisations are still in nascent stages at PU.

Historically, PU has been a hotbed of sleepy activism and apolitical feelings. During PU vice-chancellor JAK Tareen’s tenure from 2007 to 2013, students were outright banned from participating in any kind of political activity both on and off campus. “Until 2012, for almost 10 years, there had been no student council elections. Although the SFI had members in many affiliated colleges, nobody in the university openly admitted to being a part of the SFI or any other organization,” one university professor says.

“Around three years ago, neither the SFI nor the ABVP had any activities [at PU], and both organisations had only a handful of students,” another senior faculty member at PU says. “When the two factions openly opposed each other, it was like a declaration that things have changed.” So how did this state of affairs come to pass?

BJP leaders holding protest rally against the magazine (Grist media)

The first protest against Widerstand was actually not by any students but rather the Puducherry wing of the BJP, which burnt copies of the magazine claiming it had an ‘anti-nationalist’ stance. PU staff and students say that until the BJP’s protests, most of them had not even noticed the magazine’s release.

“There is a lot of opposition against a magazine that would have been unnoticed until a national party like the BJP burnt copies,” says R. Rajangam, Secretary of the Puducherry CPI(M) unit. “The ABVP took up the protests only after the BJP,” agrees a PU student in the School of Green Energy Technology. “It seemed ridiculous to us that a national political party would care about what was written in a student magazine that most students had not even read.”

The day after the BJP protest, the BJP’s student-wing ABVP joined in on the act, burning copies of the magazine and claiming that it was extremely divisive. Soon, everyone rushed to read the magazine and over 2,000 copies were distributed and the text put online.

Following these protests, the university stopped the magazine’s further distribution and locked up the 4,000-odd remaining copies. At this, the student council, which had after all produced the magazine, staged its own counter-protest demanding its right to freedom of expression.

What is interesting to note is that this new student council, comprising the left-leaning SFI and the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA), is relatively new having won elections for the first time in December 2015, and the magazine was its first major activity. “Ever since the elections, there has been growing discontent,” says a student from the department of social work. “There are very few students belonging to the right-wing ABVP and they were not happy with the SFI’s victory. The magazine seemed to add fuel to the fire.”

(Grist media)

The ABVP called for the dismissal of the P Moorthy, dean of student welfare and also Widerstand’s editor. As the protests peaked, the university distanced itself from the controversy and stated that the administration had no role in the views expressed in the magazine. Moorthy was removed from his post and the Registrar stopped the distribution of the magazine. The protests continued for around a week, but they have now died down, and the remaining copies of the magazine were distributed in August. “The University agreed that we could continue to distribute the magazine as long as we made sure that everyone understood that the administration had no part to play in its content,” a student council member said.

So what made Widerstand such an ideal target for radical forces in Puducherry? According to ABVP protestors, the magazine was ‘divisive’ and ‘anti-national’. The main point of contention turns out to be an article titled ‘Turning into Saffron Concentration Camps’ written by Pramod Meena, an assistant professor in PU’s Hindi department. The article criticises the central government for “openly advocating its [the NDA’s] anti-educational policies”. The article also accuses the ABVP of being “an instrument of atrocities and violence against the Dalits and suppressed community students and teachers all over the country”. Translated from Hindi, it calls the death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vermula an “institutional murder”.

Other Widerstand articles also criticize the ABVP and the central government, with references to the protests at JNU and the Occupy UGC movement. “The NDA government had brought down the scholarship of social sciences from 5 percent to 3 percent,” an article states, adding that “the agenda of the current regime is to confine the arena (of education) to an economically well to do class (sic)”.

The ABVP claims that such articles do not represent the views of the university students. For example, the magazine opens with the words ‘Punjivad se lenge Azadi, Manuvad se lenge Azadi, Brahmanwad se lenge azadi, sanghwad se lenge azadi,’ lines made famous by the protestors at JNU during their chants for freedom for Kashmir. “These lines go a long way to incite communal tensions and dividing the campus,” says Manish Mahapatra, working committee member of the ABVP.

(Grist media)

ABVP president Sharad Awasti adds, “A magazine that has been released in the presence of the vice-chancellor, with the dean of student welfare as the chief editor, needs to be more balanced. This does not represent the views of all the students in the university, but has been published using institute funds.”

The student council counters these arguments by agreeing that the articles in the magazine represent the views of the council alone and not the entire university. “Although we invited articles from all students, we struggled to collect enough to compile the magazine. There were a few from other students, but [the articles in the magazine] were mainly written and sourced by members of the student council,” says Jishnu EN, general secretary of the student union and member of Widerstand’s editorial team. “The magazine was funded through the Student Welfare funds collected every year, and this [has been] one of the only activities of the [new] student council that has been in office for around seven months.”

While the protests themselves lasted around a week, PU faculty and students say that their underlying history of political polarisation has transformed public life on campus.

* * *

The ABVP at PU started in a small way in 2010. ABVP convenor Sanjay Parthap says, “We would have few meetings and probably had around 30 members in the beginning.”

The SFI was also formed at PU around 2011 by a group of students from Kerala and West Bengal who were filing RTIs to find out why there were no student body elections at the university. This new student body also had the support of the Puducherry Pradesh SFI, which has members studying in many of the colleges affiliated to the university. “The SFI was a group of around 10 to 15 students who would meet occasionally and wanted to ensure the students’ right to have representatives,” Jishnu says.

The first Student Council elections were finally held in 2012 and it proved to be a mostly apolitical affair, with a few ABVP members elected as office bearers. This first student council had no SFI members.

According to students, the polarisation of student politics at PU gained momentum the next year in 2013 when Vice Chancellor J.A.K. Tareen finally stepped down and Chandra Krishnamurthy took over. “Although the student body was mostly united and apolitical, there were a few scuffles over some issues but nothing serious,” says one PhD scholar.

In 2014, the left and right wing organizations joined hands for a long-term protest for the removal of Chandra Krishnamurthy as vice-chancellor. Students united under the common banner of the Pondicherry University Student Movement (PUSM). On 27

July, 2015, some students announced an indefinite siege at the university demanding Krishnamurthy’s removal for alleged plagiarism, corruption, misrepresenting credentials to gain her post, maladministration and human rights violations against students.

(Grist media)

The most prominent student harassment issue during Krishnamurthy’s tenure was the detention of a first year MA Tamil student S Radhakrishnan. According to complaints submitted to the MHRD and the Human Rights Commission, Radhakrishnan was accused of lewd behaviour in the women’s hostel. As a result, he was detained by the security officer for over 27 hours, and forced to confess to the crime. He was then paraded before the girls’ hostel. The disciplinary committee probe, however, found that he was at the library at the time he was allegedly harassing students.

“This incident brought the students together. For a year, we were all united by the PUSM banner, whether we belonged to the SFI, ABVP or any other banner,” Mahapatra says, adding that although there were a handful of students who stood against the PUSM, their numbers were negligible.

“There were students from almost every department involved in these protests, and we all decided that it would be an apolitical struggle,” an economics student adds.

These protests reached their peak in August 2015, almost exactly a year before the release of Widerstand. “At the time, the student council in office was pro-administration, but it was only a handful of students who did not want her (Krishnamurthy) removed,” says Jishnu.

While the protests against the VC saw a coalition of right-wing and left-wing students along with a large portion of the teaching and non-teaching staff, they also ended up creating deep divisions among the university staff. The older associations on campus like the Pondicherry University Teachers Association (PUTA), the Officer’s Association and the Non Teaching Staff Welfare Association joined to form a Joint Action Committee to anchor the protests against the VC. At the same time, a new organization called the Pondicherry University All Employee Association was also formed. “Till date, these associations cannot see eye to eye,” one PUTA member says, while the students remained relatively united through this period.

(Grist media)

The MHRD asked Krishnamurthy to step down in August 2015 and put her on compulsory wait, while appointing Anisa B Khan as interim vice-chancellor. Krishnamurthy was finally dismissed from service through an official order of the President of India in July 2016. While Khan’s tenure of the last year has been relatively peaceful, both left and right leaning student organisations have gained traction and swiftly positioned themselves against each other.

“Although the ABVP is a fairly recent organization in Puducherry, the SFI has been present in other colleges in Puducherry for years. Both these organisations have been trying for a while to gain a foothold in the University,” says one professor.

In the last year, it looks like this has finally started working. The ABVP at PU has almost doubled in size, holding several membership campaigns and registering over 100 new members. Office bearers estimate that they now have around 300 members, of which about 50 actively participate in all ABVP activities. Around 30 to 40 ABVP members participated in the protests against Widerstand.

At the same time, the SFI has also grown to around 500 members. “Although we have not actively campaigned for new members, there is an increased awareness of the SFI and the ASA and their ideology,” says Jishnu. A majority of SFI members are from Kerala, with a handful from north India, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and West Bengal. On the other hand, most ABVP members are from north India and Odisha.

The Puducherry CPI(M) unit has issued a statement condemning the burning of Widerstand. “While students have a right to protest, the entire problem would have been sorted if ABVP members had simply contributed to the magazine, and it could have been much more peaceful,” says Puducherry CPI(M) secretary R Rajangam.

A few faculty members fault the VC in-charge Anisa B Khan for this growing student polarisation, saying she failed to stop the issue from getting out of hand. Since the current Vice Chancellor, Registrar and Finance Officer only hold temporary positions, they do not exercise much control on the students. “Several political parties and even Puducherry lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi got involved before the protests died down. All this could have been avoided,” one PU head of department says.

Some students are demanding that the former dean of student welfare P Moorthy be reinstated. It is expected that a search committee for a new VC will be constituted at the next executive council meeting. Sources say that the MHRD is contemplating issuing an advertisement in newspapers to ensure that accusations of unfair selection, as in Chandra Krishnamurthy’s case, are not repeated.

Even as students find themselves in a familiar stand-off against each other, a majority of them on campus apparently remain unaffiliated to any political organisation. The polarization of the willing looks to be complete at Puducherry University.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)