When student leader Michael Mukherjee walks into the state assembly as an elected representative of the people, friend Arjun in tow, more than a few in the audience wrote off the concluding scenes of Yuva, Mani Ratnam’s 2004 film, as another cinematic hyperbole. But though Ratnam’s plot is fictionalised and he relies heavily on cinematic licence, at its core, the story of a student leader’s rise to mainstream politics has many parallels in the real world.
In an essay on Student Politics and National Politics in India written in 1971, authors Loyd I Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Karuna Ahmed address the role of student politics within the larger political ambit: “In India, and in some other new and industrialising nations, modern educational institutions have created the new political class of youth prior to, or parallel with, the emergence of other modern political classes such as the middle and working classes. In consequence, this political class and particularly its vanguard, the students, has a significance in the politics of these countries uncharacteristic of the political change process in Europe and America during comparable periods of their democratisation and industrialisation... Given the special significance of students in the politics of many new nations, certain questions assume importance and interest. These are: whether or not their politics are like national politics and integrated with them; whether student politics are separate from, opposed to, or ahead of, national politics; and what conditions promote one or another of these tendencies.”
Whether it was the state of Emergency introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1975, the Assam Accord of 1985, or the recommendations of the Mandal Commission on reservation for backward castes in education and jobs in 1990, student unions mobilised the youth in voicing their concerns on campuses and beyond. All economic, political and social crises in the country were hotly debated at educational institutions. Sitaram Yechury, Arun Jaitley, Manish Tewari — Indian politics is peppered with the names of those who have risen through the ranks of campus unions to make it big in the state and national arenas.
There was something of a lull in the mid-1990s when elections and the day-to-day functioning of campus unions continued but there were no great student movements. “With economic liberalisation and development, traditional social movements decayed. But if there is a political crisis, these movements will return,” says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
RAISING THEIR VOICE
Whether the present political and social divide in the country qualifies as a crisis is open to debate. But the last two years have seen outbursts across campuses in India that have spread beyond the gates of these institutions. These include the protests against the alleged sexual assault of a girl student in Jadavpur University, which escalated into the Hok Kolorob protest across Kolkata in 2014, the agitation over the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 2015, and the controversy over the ban of the dalit organization, Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at Chennai IIT, also in 2015. This year has witnessed the suicide of Rohith Vemula, allegedly for caste-based discrimination, and the resulting protests at Hyderabad University, and the ongoing crisis at Jawaharlal Nehru University following the arrest of union leader Kanhaiya Kumar. Opinion is divided on whether these outburts can be termed as the return of student activism. While some feel the dialogue has shifted from larger world issues such as economic deprivation, inspired by the ideology of the Left, to caste and religious issues; others believe it is a “mixed bag” of grievances that don’t always unite campuses across the country.
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“These incidents can’t be compared to the student movements of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s which were profoundly transforming in their sheer impact. These are just sporadic attempts by students to make their voices heard, which are drawing sustenance from the 24X7 media cycle. There is little on-ground activism” says Congress leader Manish Tewari. That, however, hasn’t stopped either political parties or the state machinery from descending on campuses in support of the students or to criticise them. “For parties, students are future votebanks. They also form the party cadre and are used by the parties to propagate their ideas. Of course, it is important for parties to find a hold on the campuses,” says Mehta. While that has always been true, there is something desperate in the shrill rhetoric and absolute force that is now being used to make the youth conform to a certain ideology.
“Campus politics has changed dramatically in the past few years. There was a certain sophistication in the political leadership in the past. While parties would have representation on campuses, they largely ignored the extreme statements and hyperboles of any student or student group. Even at the height of the Naxal period and during the Emergency years, the system left deliberate loopholes for students. That sophistication is lost today. Parties seem desperate to use student outburst and issues to gain political mileage. The last two electoral defeats in state elections and the loss of popularity seems also to have made the ruling party desperate to build a wider support base,” feels sociologist Ashis Nandy.
THE PARTY DIVIDE
The Lyndoh Committee was formed in 2005 on the recommendation of the Supreme Court to study student bodies and unions in colleges and universities. The report it submitted in 2006 recommended the setting up of elected student bodies at all campuses. The report did not focus upon the subject of the political affiliations of the student unions.
Parties can’t be kept out of campuses says Mehta. “Members of political parties may come to campus on invitation to put forward their views and visions. They should not, however, be active participants in any political issue on campus,” says sociologist Dipankar Gupta. “Teachers too should not belong to any political party for that makes them less flexible in their thoughts. They may engage with political events but shouldn’t be a part of any political party to retain their impartiality,” he says.
The increasing involvement of political parties has perhaps opened campuses to greater state interference. “The real problem is not the presence of political parties on campus, but the fact that slowly but surely the government has been eroding the autonomy of the universities. The autonomy of the universities should not be compromised,” says Mehta. That might be difficult at a time when even faculty appointments are state approved.
Kanhaiya’s bail application is scheduled for hearing on Monday. While the academic community in India and abroad has been pushing for the release of the student leader, it’s more than his future that is on trial. The debate now is on the very future of campus politics, and on how to give students the freedom to voice their ideas and opinions, without making them vulnerable to the politicking between parties.
KNOW YOUR UNIONS
Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP): Ideologically close to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
Students Federation of India — Aligned to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
All India Students Association — Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation
National Students Union of India — Student wing the Indian National Congress
Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti - Student wing of the Aam Aadmi Party
* These are only some of the students unions with a pan-India presence. There are others, as well as students wings of regional parties