Student Unions: The good and the bad

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Intifada P Basheer-

As the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) controversy broke out last year, student unions have come in the limelight, with people arguing about the role played by these unions and if student politics benefits or harms the academics conducted in the universities that allow such unions.

The presence of student political groups and their activism can be traced way back to the pre-independence era, especially during the time of the freedom struggle. Right from boycotting British run universities, to participating in the civil disobedience movement and taking part in numerous protests, student political groups contributed in a huge way to India’s independence struggle.

However, immediately post-independence, student unions shifted their focus from national issues to more local issues, mainly dealing with campus problems. However, there have been times when such unions and student run political groups went beyond petty issues and became the bandwagons of change. The Naxalbari movement in West Bengal is one such example. Students, who got influenced by ideas of change, justice and revolution participated in huge numbers during the Naxalbari movement in Bengal. The region experienced prolonged unrest because of which schools and colleges remained closed for months together. Simultaneously this led scores of students to get into activism which resulted in thousands of students getting arrested. A similar kind of student activism was experienced in the recent Telangana agitation that took place from 2009-2013.

When K Chandrashekar Rao(KCR) began his agitation in 2009 demanding the separation of Telangana from the then unified Andhra Pradesh, it was the student groups present in Osmania University that supported his cause when no one else did. Later as the agitation progressed and garnered more support, Osmania University became a battleground which regularly witnessed clashes between the protesters, mainly students and the police. Many students died, as a result of these clashes and police firing but also many more students committed suicide for the cause of statehood. Once KCR got elected as Telangana’s first Chief Minister, one of the first things he did, was to pay tribute to the students who gave up their lives for the struggle. His party estimates that about 1500 students died from 2009-2013 during the agitation.

Today, one can argue if student politics and unions have the potential for that kind of activism and if so, does it hold true in all parts of the country. While Kerela, West Bengal and Delhi witness serious student politics most of the other states do not.  Midhun Vijayan, a photography student who did his bachelors from Calicut University and is now studying in Delhi, says that having student unions and taking part in student politics is a good thing as it forms a person, it makes him think, ask questions and motivates him to act. “Student unions are very important to uphold democratic values in a country”, he says. While talking about the difference in the political atmosphere here in Delhi and Kerala, Vijayan comments, “student politics in Kerala is more emotive and artistic, while in Delhi, it is more driven by ideology and intellect”. While Vijayan staunchly supports the need for student unions in universities he does agree that there comes a time when the domination of one particular student group over a period of time leads to autocracy, which is very dangerous for any university.

Currently, many central universities do allow student politics but many more do not. This is despite the Lyngdoh Committee’s recommendation that asks for universities across the country to conduct regular elections to elect student representatives for student bodies.  The Lyngdoh Committee report also says that “In cases where elections are not being held, or where the nomination model prevails, the nomination model should be allowed to continue for a limited period of time. It is to be noted that the nomination system suffers from several flaws, and must only be resorted to as an INTERIM MEASURE”.

And it is this recommendation of the Lyngdoh Committee that many student bodies have called upon while demanding for a student union in universities that do not allow one. A recent case in point is that of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. The university abolished the student union in 1996 citing SIMI activism in the name of student politics. Then again 2005 the then Vice-Chancellor, Musirul Hasan did put in efforts to establish a student union but that too was abolished a few months later due to heavy infighting. Again, just last October a few students went on a hunger strike demanding a student union. However, the demand was not unanimously supported by all students. Shehzeb Ali, a Jamia student believes that it would be detrimental for Jamia to have a student union. “Having a student union in Jamia is not a good idea as the outside community is very much involved in whatever happens here. If there is a student union here, then we will see a lot of disturbance and trouble, mainly because there will be many guys from Batla House who will be intervening in our campus issues, which won’t be healthy for our university”, says Ali.

Responding to this, Arman Ahmed, a Masters student says, that it should be the responsibility of the administration to ensure that no outsiders are involved in campus politics. “Any community needs strong, educated leaders who can bring about development and improvement in the society, and student union is a way through which such leaders can be produced. Hence one can’t say that since there will be an external influence, one shouldn’t create a student union. It should be the job of the administration to ensure discipline and that outsiders don’t disrupt campus activities”, he says.

During the recent Foundation Day celebrations at the university, Vice Chancellor, Talat Ahmed urged students to adopt progressive ways and focus on academics and maintain discipline in order to make the university reach greater heights. This was seen as an indirect dig at the protesting students, which was met with huge applause by mostly faculty members and even a few students joined in.

However, quite a few faculty members do support students’ right to unionise. Agnithro Gosh, a guest professor at Jamia and Delhi University, believes that student unions are important to make campuses inclusive. He cites the Birla-Ambani Report while arguing for the need of student unions. “The Birla-Ambani Report is strangely a report by two industrialists who have nothing to do with education. They say that unionization is a bad thing because student unions pose a major problem to fee hike measures”. Gosh believes that this is the main reason why there is a need for student unions in every university across the country. “When it comes to students’ rights, only student unions will be able to fight for it and thus unions are absolutely necessary”, he says. Apart from that Gosh also believes that student unions have a history of producing strong political leaders and bringing about change in society.

The latter is quite true, especially when one looks at the big names in Indian politics today. Right from Prakash Karat to Lalu Prasad Yadav and Arun Jaitley, many top-notch politicians started their careers as student union leaders. This also includes Vice President, Venkaiah Naidu, who drew a lot of flak last year when he condemned Kanhaiya Kumar and other JNU students for their political activism and said that students should only focus on studying. “They (students) must study and stay away from politics. If they are interested in politics, they can leave studies and join politics”, he said.

While there is truth in the argument that students at times get completely consumed by university politics and don’t focus on academics, it is also true that a healthy political atmosphere in universities goes a great way in contributing to positive, public discourse which strengthens democracy.

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