Delhi was hub of student activism. Then came pandemic, a State crackdown
Student activism in the capital has seen a marked change ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March last year. While prolonged closure of college campuses has resulted in no student body elections being held after 2019, some believe many are also reluctant to participate in student politics after seeing the state crackdown on student activists during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests last year.
Normally, between August and September, Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campuses would be busy for the high-stakes campus elections. But this year, just like last year, there is a lull.
Officials at both DU and JNU said that so far, there are no plans to conduct student body elections, and discussions on this can only happen once students return to campuses and the undergraduate and postgraduate admissions get over in October.
”The students’ body polls can only be held once college reopens and the admission process is completed. Only when the pandemic situation improves, we can think about holding students’ union elections as it is important to have a democratically-elected students’ body,” said DU acting vice-chancellor PC Joshi.
Student body polls in both universities have always been significant as these have been the launching pad for many future political leaders. Some prominent student leaders of their time who became national leaders in later years include the late Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The impact on students
The last students’ union elections in the two universities were held in September 2019 and those elected have continued in their posts in the absence of fresh elections. With colleges closed, student outreach has also been a problem. Delhi University Students’ Union president Akshit Dahiya, a third-year student of Faculty of Law and member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), said the union tried to beat this by organising campus tours for over 3,500 students, but the second wave of the pandemic in April stopped everything.
He also highlighted the pitfalls of hybrid learning. “Online learning cannot match in-person learning on campus where diverse conversations happen among people from all parts of the country. First-year students would also participate in department elections that gave them a platform to show their leadership potential and creativity. That hasn’t happened since last year,” Dahiya said.
Without the student bodies functioning in full measure, many newcomers have formed separate groups to push their demands. In May, first-year students from around 50 DU colleges formed a group and petitioned their principals and the university administration, demanding suspension of offline learning due to a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Falit Sijariya, a member of the group and now a second-year student at St. Stephen’s College, said, “Most colleges like ours did not have an elected students’ union. This is why we took it upon ourselves to organise using social media platforms, develop a network, and reach out to the administration. It took multiple petitions but eventually, they agreed and our demands were met.”
From organising relay hunger strikes at their homes to sending mass emails to authorities over multiple issues, student activists also engaged in innovative modes of protest to register their dissent amid Covid-19 restrictions.
N Sai Balaji, national president of All India Students’ Association (AISA), said Covid wasn’t the only reason why the forms of protest have changed. “There have been concerns among the student community after the arrests of student activists under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) last year. Many have health concerns as well. That is why protests largely moved online,” Balaji said.
But he listed the student protests against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi in Bangalore, and the protest by Ashoka University students after Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit, as examples of offline protests still happening. “Ground-level student activism has increased in smaller towns and there is an urge to question the system due to the repression. The real impact of all this would be known once colleges reopen,” Balaji added.
Following the Delhi Disaster Management Authority directive last month that allowed colleges and universities to hold offline lessons at 50% seating capacity, only DU has allowed final-year undergraduate students to return to campus only for practical lessons and academic consultations. JNU and Jamia are currently allowing final-year PhD students to visit campus for academic work.
An environment of fear
The fear among students is real, as several youngsters attested Balaji’s claims. Some, like Prerita Yadav, an undergraduate student at Hindu College, acknowledged being warned by their parents to stay away from political activism. She had petitioned for a break in classes in May due to Covid.
“My mother has strictly asked me not to get into politics because they fear for my safety. In recent times, student activists in Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, and DU were beaten. Even recently a students’ outfit member approached us when we were petitioning for reopening of colleges for science students but I preferred to keep my distance because my parents have warned me about this multiple times,” Yadav said.
Recently, Delhi Police arrested at least five student activists of AISA for protesting outside the DU campus demanding the reopening of colleges. A case under section 188 was registered for allegedly violating the DDMA guidelines, and they were later released.
Jamia Millia Islamia — another central university in the capital — does not have an elected students’ union since 2006 when it was disbanded. The matter is currently sub-judice. However, several students’ outfits are active on the campus demanding accountability from authorities and dissenting against unpopular measures.
In December 2020, members of different student outfits took to social media, submitted multiple representations to the varsity, and held talks with authorities to get the proposed proctored method of online exams scrapped for its students. However, many said that the arrest of student activists from Jamia in the Delhi riots case and the questioning that followed have deterred many from engaging in student politics.
Last year, three students from JNU — Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Sharjeel Imam — and another three from Jamia — Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, and Asif Iqbal Tanha — were booked under UAPA for allegedly instigating the February 2020 riots in northeast Delhi. Former JNU student Umar Khalid and Jamia alumni association president Shifa ur Rehman were also arrested in the case.
Arbab Ali, a postgraduate student from Jamia Millia Islamia and an AISA activist, said, “Jamia student activism was at its peak during the anti-CAA movement, but then it plummeted due to the witch-hunting done by the authorities followed by arrests of our student activists. People stopped raising voices for those arrested out of fear because so many students were called by the police for questioning. We couldn’t do physical protests like sit-ins or protest marches and had to rely on the online medium, but that too was limited because our social media activities were also surveilled upon.”
Ali added, “Students have been afraid to attend physical protests even if it is something as simple as demanding reopening of campus. Student activism has faced severe derailment and the fear still exists.”
The importance of activism
Several teachers point out that the closure of college campuses means that students cannot mobilise or hold discussions, which can obstruct the flow of information or hinder their growth and awareness about issues of national importance.
Professor N Sukumar, who teaches political science in DU and has studied student politics in eight central universities, said the future of the country is dependent on students’ participation in mainstream societal activities, including politics.
“Student activism plays an important role in shaping societies and questioning the institutions if the system is going in the wrong direction. We have seen how student activism can really influence the system, which is why their participation is necessary. This is also why the State is becoming increasingly repressive on students because students are questioning their misgovernance,” Sukumar said.
The professor also criticised the system of imposing fines or giving show-cause notices to students for merely stating their viewpoints — be it related to the reopening of campuses or online education. “Due to these institutional threats involving university administration, police, or judiciary, there is hesitation among young students of engaging in activism. Instead of institutional intervention in campuses against students, the focus should be on dialogue and debate among stakeholders for the future of the country because students need to be involved in the political front along with academic activities,” he said.
The closure of campuses has also affected various student organisations, backed by political parties. Parties get recruits from among the young activists, some of whom go on to play bigger roles in the political arena.
“There has been no dialogue among the students of different batches, which used to help in making students aware of our ideology or mobilise them for demonstrations against anti-student measures. For instance, the National Education Policy was passed and implemented during this period because students could not mobilise on ground to fight this anti-student decision,” said Neeraj Kundan, president of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), which is the student wing of the Indian National Congress.
Delhi — once the hub of student activism in the country with its vibrant universities, political awareness and proximity to the seat of political power — is today bereft of this vital source of democratic activism, substantially due to the pandemic and partly due to alleged State crackdown on dissent. But the academic community is hopeful that as Covid-19 restrictions get eased, normalcy will return — and so will competitive student activism on both university and national issues.
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