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Why are Mumbai’s students so quiet?

“In the University of Mumbai campuses, things have been quiet despite an unprecedented disaster that deeply affected lakhs of students.”

mumbai Updated: Sep 27, 2017 18:28 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Of the 475 exams conducted by the University of Mumbai, the results of more than 90% were delayed beyond the stipulated time of six weeks.
Of the 475 exams conducted by the University of Mumbai, the results of more than 90% were delayed beyond the stipulated time of six weeks.(HT FILE)

The girls at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) have gripped the nation’s attention. After one of them was sexually harassed by three men when she was on her way to her hostel one evening last week, the campus rose as one and challenged the BHU administration. In response, the vice-chancellor sent in the local police who mercilessly lathi-charged the protesting girls, closed down hostels, and had cases for arson and violence filed against a 1,000 of them.

The girls’ protest last week came on the heels of continued discriminatory practices between the girls and boys: The girls’ hostels have earlier curfew timings, they face more restrictions, the security leaves much to desire, repeated complaints have not made their campus safer from predatory men. The politically-blessed vice-chancellor has got away with it all but the students are not giving up – yet.

Nearly 20 months ago, Rohith Vemula , the PhD student at the University of Hyderabad pushed to suicide, became a student icon. Since then, students bold enough to take political positions have become popular anti-establishment icons: Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Shehla Rashid, Gurmehar Kaur and others. The recently-concluded elections in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University even evoked national interest.

READ:Monitoring assessment of answer papers not part of my day-to-day work: Mumbai University VC

In the University of Mumbai campuses, things have been quiet despite an unprecedented disaster that deeply affected lakhs of students. The results of a staggering 4.7 lakh under-graduates who had taken their exams in March-April were inordinately delayed due to the on-screen marking system hastily and clumsily imposed by vice-chancellor Sanjay Deshmukh. Of the 475 exams conducted by the university, the results of more than 90% were delayed beyond the stipulated time of six weeks; some are yet to be declared four months later. The university admitted that nearly 28,500 answer sheets have gone missing. Deshmukh was forced to go on leave.

Many students lost their provisional admissions in post-graduate courses in national and international universities, others found job offers drying up, yet others do not know if they have to write the exams again or accept an arbitrarily given average score. The sheer helplessness and agitation among Mumbai university’s students has to be seen to be believed.

Yet, agitations on the ground have been remarkably absent. The students’ wings of political parties made some noises, a delegation or two of youth leaders met the chancellor, a bunch of law students approached the Bombay high court, and some pro-active students shot off letters here and there. There is deep anger but the BHU or JNU or DU sort of protests have not happened.

This, unfortunately, is an outcome of de-politicising the university 25 years ago, after the gruesome murder of student-activist Owen D’souza during a college election in 1989. Since the early 90s, all kinds of political activity on campus remained suspended, student wings of political parties sit in the university’s senate but that’s it.

Across its college campuses, three generations of Mumbai’s students have seen little to no political mobilisation. Except the few hundreds who chose to read political science, lakhs have remained aloof from even textbook knowledge of democratic institutions, constitutional rights, civil liberties, the role of political protests and the like. Their political side has been rarely awakened or nurtured. Higher education has been limited to lectures, practicals, assignments and exams.

Many students do not exercise their right to vote in general or civic elections, they do not engage with socio-political issues possibly because they have not discovered their collective voice or learned about political protests and debates. Their (perceived) lack of agency begins on campus, even with issues that deeply affect them. There is no reason to keep students away from politics when so much pervades its administration.

Ironically, the Student’s Literary and Scientific Society set up in 1848 by Dadabhai Naoroji, Dr Bhau Daji Lad and two others in Bombay is considered the precursor of students’ organisations in India.