Student – Campus – Politics — A Need to Regain Struggle

A tree-lined entrance, a daunting structure, vibrant classrooms and a raucous canteen with scripted benches, playful attitude and groping books- this is the grandiose of a college milieu we all usually get to observe. College, fundamentally considered as a platform to nurture and enhance one’s inherent skills and reach one’s goals in the spirit of youth. Students’ power, synonymous with idealism, was a major force harnessed by our freedom fighters in the struggle for independence from foreign rule. There were days when we had young freedom fighters talking of freeing country and discussing about the policies and prejudices of Britishers in Campuses through debates. Student idealists formed group of volunteers or samitis to generate political consciousness through social work during the Swadeshi Movement and even interrupted their studies and risked their future during the Quit India Movement. Similarly the Young Bengal Movement was an intellectual response to western education. While the young played an active role in the freedom movement, today political, economic and social conditions and more importantly, the so called disciplinary code of several universities forbids student involvement in politics.
Even after independence the students’ movement enjoyed celebrated status, especially in Bengal between 1968-1971 when student organizations, in an unprecedented show of unity, voiced a common demand for the release of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman from jail in Pakistan. The kernel of Bangla nationalism was implanted by idealistic students and it was the Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad (All Parties Students Resistance Council) that first voiced for an independent Bangladesh. The nationalist ‘Joy Bangla’ and all associated slogans and symbols were coined by the parishad. Historically, students were the standard bearers of just and popular causes. For instance between 1966 and 1970, LUSU organized a spirited movement against the Official Language Bill and pressed for the acceptance of Hindi. Similarly in Karnataka, student unions were in the forefront of mass agitations demanding a better deal for Dalits and farmers. Likewise in Bihar and Gujarat student unions spearheaded the late Jaiprakash Narayan’s anti-corruption crusade which prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency in 1975. Then started the detrimental ingression of political parties in students’ affairs, student unions lost much of their idealism and began to focus on relatively prosaic issues such as continuous subsidization of higher education, admissions, changes in examination schedules and postponement of exam dates, issue of scholarships etc. And predictably, the degeneration of national and state-level politics began to be reflected in campus politics.
Unfortunately, the word politics has acquired a different significance and it is because of this that there is so much confusion at the present time. Politics has come to mean agitation either against certain measures which the Government of the country has thought fit to adopt or in favor of certain measures which the Government does not adopt and which the agitator thinks it ought to adopt. And either kind of agitation has come to involve in the minds of many the imputing of bad motives to the opposite party. Newspapers, pamphlets, books, are brought into play by both sides to hurl sarcasm, abuse and logic against the opposing forces, personalities are indulged in and sooner or later the excitement thus produced threatens to become uncontrollable.
The topic student- campus politics is one of the vexed and deserted questions of the day. There are two classes of people in India — those who believe that students should as a matter of duty take part in politics and those who are of opinion that they should not. In the first place it seems to be necessary to know what is meant by politics and then it is equally important to know the circumstances surrounding the student and his age. First, with regard to the definition of politics, the broadest definition of politics is a science concerned with the means of promoting the general welfare of the state. It is a science (like any other science) with laws which, if brought into operation, produce certain definite effects. The academic discipline that describes and analyses the operations of the government, the state and other political organizations and any other factors that influence their behavior, such as social and economic in short, a study as to how power is exercised and by whom (and for whose benefit) through the administration of public power, to manage people’s affairs may perhaps be termed politics, a great concern of every intelligent member of society.
Albert Einstein observed: “It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacity to give validity to his conviction in political affairs.” The ignorance of politics among the masses of a country paves the way for the rise of tyranny and the fall of democracy. It is a grave injustice and ludicrous understanding of public affairs to command that political science shall be abhorrence in a college campus since, such allergy amounts to a backing of political illiteracy, social insensitivity and cultural bewilderment. The grammar of politics, in an enlightened sense, is the birthright of every member of our polity, which is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic as India is and shall be. The great guardian of the rights of the people in a republic is an enlightened youth educated in the various dimensions and instruments of political science such as the legislature and the judicature.
The land mark judgment of the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court empowering principals of respective colleges to ban any sort of political activity in the campus, had led to many heated debates in recent time. The issue moved into focus when a student, Sojan Francis, was debarred from appearing for examinations due to lack of attendance- the underlying reason being his participation in politics. The court, on the score of political importance, launched on a long discussion about the constitutionality of prohibiting political activity altogether on college campuses. The college concerned, St. Thomas College, Pala, in Kottayam district has certain guidelines regarding general discipline. One of them with which the court was concerned directly states that political activism is strictly banned on the campus and that “students are forbidden to organize or attend meetings other than the official ones”. Strikes are prohibited within the campus, and the challenge of the student was that such forbiddance was violation of Article 19 i (a) & (c) of the Constitution. “Since this question is of `considerable general importance’”, the court felt the urgency of the issue as one of adjudicatory moment. The ideas in favor of student participation in politics are varied, the bedrock being that politics and society are inseparable. The ignorance of politics among the masses of a country paves the way for the rise of tyranny and the fall of democracy. The right to govern belongs to every citizen and so political science, knowledge of which ultimately secures for the citizenry justice, liberty, equality, dignity of the individual and the integrity of the nation, can never be alienated from the concern of the community. It is a grave default, therefore, to deny to the population at any level the right and indeed, the duty to acquire a basic knowledge of local, national and global political forces. Thus, cutting out the air of politics from colleges will essentially rob young minds of the oxygen of freedom.
It is said that if studied within the highly politicized educational environment of any Education system- at the end of the day- there will be no opposition left to anything. By making politicians out of students is fundamentally wrong. Politics is the business of the shrewd and crafty- not young and energetic people who have an abundance of energy and enthusiasm but need direction and guidance. To be able to lead a group of youngsters towards a common political goal requires acumen coupled with experience and wisdom. If energetic but inexperienced teenagers get into the act and are given authority, it would lead to more bad than good. Secondly, once the practice of politics is let loose on campuses there is a definite competition of interest between academics and politics. Another aspect to deleting political awareness and thought from the minds of college students is that talented students end up wasting a great deal of time in such activities, which could otherwise have been spent in other more productive activities, all this only if things move without eventuality. Thus, student politics can also be viewed as the veritable ghost that looms on campuses and distracts young and creative minds- distorts their futures and manages to systematically decimate the peace and harmony on campuses.
The flipside of the argument has strong supporting pillars. While politics in campuses can be utilized as the best tool to liberate an individual from the general grime of the politics and as a platform to develop into not only better students but also good citizens in a democracy. It would be best to take a deeper look at whether the propensity to convert politics into a bloody and violent juggernaut can be controlled or even eliminated.
College education is improved through college debates and free speech. To control this collegiate freedom is to permit the manufacture of young minds conditioned by the management politics. To swear by what is officially ordered as sound political activity and to swear at every other political process to which the principal is allergic to is to create conditioned minds, which is the negation of political activism, democratic diversity and developmental sovereignty. The republic will suffer from robotism if the creative vitality of the young generation at college is ordered. This is a new menace that benumbs the intellectual potential of the nation. Apparently, even the judiciary is not sufficiently alerted about this ominous portent. Every young mind passing through college must be trained to be sensitive to the constitutional pledge of social, economic and political justice, liberty of thought and expression and the dignity of the individual in relation to the nation’s integrity. Since the mid-1980s, as student movements are almost absent in the university campuses, the interest of social scientists in the area is also waning. Thus, the arguments for the inclusion of politics are based on the right to expression and the use of politics to emancipate the student’s mind. The end is that – even though politics requires considerable time – it is time well spent in developing the political instincts of an individual and in turn making him into a better citizen.
College premises definitely cannot become scenes of sound and fury obstructing classes, but these important control measures of discipline do not justify the tabooing of political discussions, political magazines and political seminars inside the premises, setting aside with the permission of the principal as if to avoid law and order problems. Students’ study and learning involves several processes. Teachers, government servants and other employees in public institutions certainly can have their political views, but cannot resort to conduct or membership that will distract from or interfere with the neutrality needed for functional efficiency. Mixing up this category with the student community points to confusion; of course, disturbing demonstrations, obstructive strikes, ragging and other operations which make classes difficult to be conducted or study menaced by turbulence can always be prevented because they have a nexus to the goals of a student in college to equip himself with knowledge. Banishing politics for an 18-year-old student is to deny him the fundamental opportunity of becoming a good citizen to vote.
While student politics in the southern states may be driven by greater idealism. Down south where education tends to be regarded more seriously, things are much grim. A modification of the Karnataka State University (KSU) Act, 1986 banned students unions. Subsequently though the KSU Act 2000 permitted elected student unions in colleges subject to official permission, college managements have seldom granted permission, citing political interference in pre and post student union elections. Though some colleges do have unions and elections, they are mostly apolitical cultural and sports promotion organizations committed to student welfare activities (i.e. subsidization of higher education). With politicians of all parties committed to heavy subsidies for tertiary education, violence has been kept away from college and university campuses in the state. Likewise in Tamil Nadu, the student movement which peaked in the sixties and seventies in the wake of the anti-Hindi language agitation has lost much of its steam. Most Chennai colleges have done away with direct elections to college unions.
It’s also because of Students unions the situation aroused. Student Unions should focus not only on the rights and sentiments of students but also there should be societal concern too. Political awareness and involvement is an integral part of education. If students are involved in student union activity they should get a feel of the pulse of the people, should become acquainted with peoples’ problems and aspirations and debate ways to solve them. All this is good training for the future when some of them will enter active politics and serve the country. People who argue that students should be insulated from national and state level politics may prove anti-education in future. Society needs leaders and leadership qualities are best nurtured in the realms of academia. Our students today are aimless and leaderless because student politics and debates have been proscribed. Mobilizing students for a cause and advocating idealistic causes is integral to higher education. Banning student elections and debates is like cutting off nose because of a cold. Student leaders should be encouraged at every level right from conduct of cultural, social and sporting events to everything.
The concern at present, however, is as to how best can the coming generation be prepared to take an intelligent part in the work of their country’s regeneration. The recent interim order of the Supreme Court to implement the Lyngdoh committee recommendations on students’ union elections is widely accepted by the academic community. The committee, as per the order of the Supreme Court, was mandated to examine the alleged criminalization in student union elections, financial transparency and limits of expenditure involved in such elections, eligibility criteria for candidates contesting in such elections including the maximum age limits and minimum standards of academic performance and the need to establish a forum to address grievances and disputes arising out of such elections. Nevertheless, the J.M. Lyngdoh committee differing with the Kerala High Court judgments and even the primary observations of the Supreme Court and arrived at the conclusion that the ban on political activities of students shall amount to an infringement of the fundamental right to form associations, freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Constitution. While stating this, the committee quotes a 1981 report of a UGC committee, which reiterates the necessity of political activities. “Political activities in the Universities are natural because the university is a community of thinking people, of those who are exploring the frontiers of knowledge and of those who criticize and evaluate every idea before accepting it.”
Our democratic tradition and the constitution, ensures fundamental rights to all citizens, which include freedom of speech and thought and freedom of association. Teachers and a section of students are not only voters but they can also be candidates in local, state or parliamentary elections. Presentations and debates about different ideologies and plans and perspective of national development are to be welcomed and political activity directed towards this end would be wholesome for the growth of the universities. Regretfully much of political activity comprising of violence and loathing is noticed and sensed on the campuses, is of a degenerate nature, which is a blot on the concept of campus politics. It is the politics of expediency, opportunism that is doing while even knowing that it is wrong. The price of the little gain for the doer may be a disruption of educational activities for all. One sees this when campaigns are mounted to prevent action against those who copied in the examinations or misused university funds in a variety of ways. In the words of the Lyngdoh Committee, the purpose of Student Unions is to voice students’ “grievances”, take up issues of “student welfare”, and be a “healthy” ground for “training future leaders”. In fact, the universities are encouraged to organize “leadership-training programs with the help of professional organisation so as to groom and instill in students’ leadership qualities”! Many modernists believe that the days of violent revolutions are long gone and thus revolutions can be realized through the ballot and not necessarily the bullet. That brings the reason as to why our universities and other institutions of higher learning have a big responsibility to transform, recreate and organize our society.
College days usually should dream of changing the world. It should not matter in whose hand the power is, everyone should be invited, people from all shades of political and intellectual opinion to promote an ambiance of debate among students. Today students are vexed with the political pygmies. Politics unfortunately has become just about power grabbing and big bucks with the nation’s youth emulating what they witness. Student politics is dead all that is left is either student hooliganism or student reticentism. Almost six decades after independence it is self-evident that the student movements which discharged a vital role in the freedom struggle, has lost its bearings. The idealism which characterized the movement and prompted the Mahatma to co-opt it into the freedom struggle has evaporated from the nation’s campuses and transformed into a vested interest. At a time when foreign and private universities and colleges are gathering to storm the ramparts of higher education, this is an opportune moment for students’ unions to regain their struggle and idealism and help India’s institutions of higher education recover their lost momentum to re-position themselves as globally benchmarked centres of excellence. Certainly post-liberalization, India’s quest for developed nation status depends upon it.
Indeed, the right to vote vested in everyone at the age of 18 becomes a meaningful operation if only the exercise of franchise is an expression of political wisdom. In the finest sense of the word, politics must be obligatorily a subject of learning on every college campus that owes allegiance to the Constitution and its Preamble pledge. “We, the People of India” – the first five words of the Constitution – have made a revolutionary resolution to defend the politics of the Constitution. Winston Churchill once defined and defended the ballot process which every judge and administrator must constantly remember: “A little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.” The mission of our higher education institutions should be to educate future citizens about their civic as well as professional duties instead of making them ‘Knowledge labor’ and ‘intellectual slaves’ working for the so called capitalistic forces according to their will and wish. Therefore our institutions must prioritize and implement society centered education in the classroom, in research and in services to the community thus thinking for the society debating for the policies in the campuses and compelling the Assemblies and Parliament to adopt the right policies, right decisions at the right time for the welfare of the people consequently crafting “Creative Campuses” for a developed India.

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