On Campus Activism

A professor, supervising students’ union elections in a local college, died of heart attack on Saturday after a group of students allegedly belonging to Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad tried to mob him after he cancelled the polls. Rediff

Although it was later found that he actually died of rib injury. The professor was beaten to death.

Update: CNN-IBN has an exclusive footage related to the above incident.

This is the state of student politics in India, where campus activism and hooliganism can be used interchangeably. And when political parties throw their weight behind student unions, things start looking ugly — like the incident in Ujjain.

But why are political parties interested in student unions in the first place?

Giving an outsider’s perspective, Erica Lee Nelson of Washington Times brings out the nexus between the student unions and political parties of India. Quoting from her article:

Student elections are major affairs in India, where political parties poured $500,000 into one recent contest and the winner was invited to celebrate at the home of Congress party President Sonia Gandhi.
Ragini Nayak, new president of the 300,000-member student body at Delhi University, now occupies a spacious sky-blue office with a team of security guards and men to bring tea for visitors.
“When you get a mandate here, it’s not a mandate from a metropolitan city, it’s a mandate from the whole nation,” said Miss Nayak, a 22-year old English master’s-degree candidate whose fellow students hail from across the country and around the globe.
She believes that is why the political parties are so interested in campus elections, especially at big universities like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), both in New Delhi.
Congress and its national rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), throw almost as much support behind their student nominees as behind candidates for Parliament.

Now one solution to this would be to eliminate all student unions. Completely insulate the university from politics.

Let’s move over to Pakistan, where it has indeed happened.

Nabeel Khan, in his paper on student politics in Pakistan, analyzes how the banning of student unions has affected student attitudes:

The youth has stopped being idealistic notes Azizuddin and a general skepticism exists in society which is increasingly taking a toll on student life. At first when students were involved in political debate, there was a general linkage of issues they felt strongly about with possible political solutions to specific issues. Since the banning of student politics, there has been a lack of debate for quite a time period and the students of today feel at a complete loss as to they are unable to bridge perception with reality. They thus are indulgent now in petty work or work that at the end of the day appears meaningless and may lead to deviant behavior or a general detachment from life.

Nitin Pai brings out another facet in his blog:

Pakistan’s political parties are loaded with feudal elites and other establishment types. If it is to ever become a electoral democracy, what it needs most as grassroots leaders who have genuine popular support. Student politics is one good way to create a new class of politicians who can potentially become part of Pakistan’s new democratic infrastructure. That suggests that contrary to Musharraf’s gratuitous advice, Pakistan actually needs healthily political students, of which it does not have many. What it does not need are political soldiers, of which there are one too many.

It seems now that we need a middle path between absolute hooliganism and absolute depoliticization.

In 2005, a concerned Supreme Court of India had asked former election commissioners to set up guidelines for student union elections. A few of their proposals are listed below:

  • Students older than 26 should not be allowed to contest elections.
  • Those studying to get a third degree irrespective of the age should also be barred.
  • Big political parties will be kept out of university campuses. So political leaders cannot campaign for candidates, which has been a regular feature in student elections so far.

Good proposals I’d say. But given the fact that the very same political parties would have to act on these, this middle path might prove to be elusive.

[tags]politics,campus activism[/tags]