JNU row: The fight to dominate the campus is on
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JNU row: The fight to dominate the campus is on

Soon after the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar has turned the focus on how student politics has become a proxy turf war for political parties

lifestyle Updated: Feb 22, 2016 19:51 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar (centre) and other students at a protest before the former’s arrest in New Delhi(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

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.


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.

Watch | Protest against mourners of Afzal Guru’s hanging outside JNU

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