Special Report

Special Report

Steep decline of student unions

Almost six decades after independence it’s self evident that the students union movement which discharged a vital role in the freedom struggle has lost its bearings. The idealism that characterised student movements and prompted the Mahatma to co-opt them into the freedom struggle, has evaporated. Vidya Pandit reports

SFI demo
The Lucknow University Students Union (LUSU) began an agitation to institute an inquiry into corruption, nepotism and casteism gaining ground in the university. the agitation continued until 1962 with added and modified demands and ended only when an inquiry was ordered.

2004. Student union elections held after three years, result in the murder of a student leader; money is extorted from local businessmen to fund the elections and graffiti is painted all over town. in an election bereft of issues, winning candidates swear allegiance to the ruling party, openly display firearms and spend as much as Rs. 20 lakh in election campaigns which violate all norms set by the lucknow high court.

These two scenarios graphically depict the general degeneration of student politics in India. Youth power, once synonymous with idealism, was a major force harnessed by the Mahatma in the struggle for independence from foreign rule. Student idealists formed corps of volunteers or samitis to generate political consciousness through social work during the Swadeshi Movement (1905) and even interrupted their studies and risked their future during the Quit India Movement (1942-45). Similarly the non-conformist Young Bengal Movement, was an intellectual response to western education. But while the young played an active role in the freedom movement, today political, economic and social conditions and more importantly, the 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 students’ organisations, in an unprecedented show of unity, voiced a common demand for the release of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman from jail in Pakistan. The seeds of Bangla nationalism were sown by idealistic students and it was the Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad (All Parties Students Resistance Council) that first voiced the clarion cry for an independent Bangladesh. The nationalist Joy Bangla and all associated slogans and symbols were coined by the parishad.

Likewise across the country, students were the standard bearers of just and popular causes. For instance between 1966 and 1970, LUSU organised 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 (Total Revolution) crusade which prompted prime minister Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency in 1975. But as political parties began to openly participate in students’ affairs, student unions lost much of their idealism and began to focus on relatively prosaic issues such as continuous subsidisation of higher education, admissions, changes in examination schedules and postponement of testing dates. And unsurprisingly, the degeneration of national and state-level politics began to be reflected in campus politics.

Tripathi: idealism lacuna
Senior Congress leader Satyadev Tripathi, general secretary of the Allahabad University Students Union in 1963 and president of LUSU in 1965, attributes this change to lack of idealism and ideas within latter-day student leaders: "In our college days we dreamt of changing the world. It did not matter who the chief minister was, we invited people from all shades of political and intellectual opinion to promote a culture of debate among students. Today student leaders have a generation of political pygmies as their idols. Politics unfortunately is just about power grabbing and big bucks in office, with the nation’s youth emulating what they witness. Student politics is dead; all that is left is student hooliganism," says Tripathi.

While student politics in the southern states may be driven by greater idealism and better causes than in the north, it too has suffered deterioration. Bangalore for instance, last December saw a rival group forcibly kidnap a class representative in an engineering college election, forcing the stunned college authorities to annul it.

Regrettably as the number of colleges and universities has multiplied from 565 and 25 in 1953 to 15,600 and 311 currently with an aggregate student enrollment of 9 million countrywide, student unions have transformed from being an idealistic force in Indian politics and society into mirror images of the nation’s irredeemably seedy and self-serving political parties.

The steep decline of the Lucknow University Students Union constituted in 1922, a year after the establishment of the university to "promote cooperative social life by offering opportunities for the growth of the academic unity and co-operative spirit among the students," is a telling case study.

In its formative years students were nominated by the vice-chancellor with office bearers serving one term. By the early forties the number of elected representatives increased and tenures in office stretched to one year. While the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wings of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist Party of India (Marxist) have been active on the campus throughout its existence, the last decade has witnessed direct participation by political parties in student union elections. So blatant is this intervention that contemporary student union elections are indistinguishable from the high-spending, blood and gore modus operandi of assembly and general elections. Many student union leaders have long and chilling criminal records. Notable among them is Babloo Srivastava, designated an ‘international gangster’, former aide of drugs and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim and a master kidnapper who is now cooling his heels in the Bareilley jail. Srivastava is still much admired in the professional student leaders’ fraternity and unsuccessfully fought the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from jail. Hordes of Lucknow university students campaigned for him asking voters in Sitapur to give the "wayward son" another chance.

Down south where education tends to be regarded more seriously, things are much better. 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 organisations committed to student welfare activities (i.e subsidisation 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. However student leaders haven’t severed all political connections and during assembly elections, student wings of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and the MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) mobilise students for vote canvassing or when other needs arise.

Ramakrishna R, state secretary of the Students Federation of India (SFI), Karnataka is emphatic that student politics in the state has come of age. "We are focused on students. We don’t have any hidden political agenda; we just want to help the student community. We are constantly fighting for curriculum and content reform of education. For instance we want all children to get free and compulsory education on a par with anywhere else in the world till Plus Two level. We don’t indulge in violent protests or agitations where there is loss to state property. Stoning or burning buses, damaging government vehicles etc is not done by our members," says Ramakrishna.

Box 1

Students on student unions

We don’t have student politics in this college and I certainly haven’t been affected by any such thing till now. Occasionally one hears about it in other colleges, but politics is not very evident on Bombay college campuses — Uday Bakshi, first year B.Sc student, K. C. College, Mumbai

I helped in the election campaign of the president,
but now he has no time for students. All his time is spent getting into the good books of Akhilesh Singh Yadav. Such student leaders are only concerned about themselves. I am very disillusioned — Mohit Tiwari, first year, media studies, Lucknow University

Like most average Delhi University students,
on-campus politics doesn’t really affect me. It makes its presence felt usually only during election time (September). Since we have to vote for a candidate/ party, I try to familiarise myself with their political/ cultural agendas. Our focus is mostly on academics, unless there is sporadic campus violence or a political incident which causes us students to take sides or think about the politics involved. But that’s rare — Abhishek Tandon, B. Com student, Dayal Singh College, Delhi University

In my opinion student unions should focus
only on the rights and sentiments of students and there should be no political interference. Nowadays students are well informed and if a student leader has the right motivation, he/ she can inspire students to bring positive changes in society — Archana Rajaram, fourth year student of Dr. Ambedkar Law College, Chennai

Union elections are just a nuisance.
Classes are suspended and these so-called leaders take over the campus. My friends and I prefer to stay away from all this. The crowds under the guise of campaigning misbehave with women students. I have never seen or heard of any election manifesto of these candidates. There are no issues. So what is the point in being interested in such elections? — Arti Sharma, third year BA student of Lucknow University

But focused and peaceful student unionism is hardly the norm in most of the country’s universities. In the September 2004 student union elections in Delhi University, violent clashes took place between the National Students Union of India (NSUI) and the Indian National Students’ Organisation (INSO). At Zakir Hussain College, 50 cars were smashed and there was large-scale damage to property.

Ashok Basoya (22), vice president NSUI dismisses this as an "unfortunate occurrence". "Political awareness and involvement is an integral part of education. If students are involved in student union activity they get a feel of the pulse of the people, become acquainted with peoples’ problems and aspirations and debate ways to solve them. All this is good training for the future when some of us will enter active politics and serve the country. People who argue that students should be insulated from national and state level politics are anti-education," says Basoya.

Student voting in LU
It’s hardly surprising therefore, that most educationists shudder about the type of politicians student unions will contribute to Parliament, the state assemblies and local governance bodies given that most of Uttar Pradesh’s student leaders become law breakers as soon as they are out of school. In the Lucknow University Student Union elections held last October, frontrunners had nine criminal cases pending against them for a range of offences including extortion and attempted murder. One of them, Ram Singh ‘Rana’ who was elected general secretary, has four criminal cases registered against him. During the campaign Rana threatened to gun down a university provost if he failed to provide rooms, food and liquor to his supporters. Unsurprisingly this wannabe politician had the full endorsement of the ruling Samajwadi Party which ensured that following initial ripples over the incident in the local media, criminal charges were not filed.

Inevitably Rana protests his innocence. "The charge was made just to tarnish my reputation. Someone used my mobile to make a call," says Rana who moves around in a fancy car which proudly sports his designation in Samajwadi Party colours and does not bear a number plate.

Most of the candidates in the LUSU elections of 2004 sought to advertise their virtues to students by forcibly displaying posters on city hoardings and buses. The only response to a high court order, passed on a writ filed by a local outdoor advertising agency, directing removal of poll graffiti within three weeks, was blackening the candidates’ posters. In this particular matter, university authorities also received flak from students piqued that they (varsity authorities) chose to apply the high court order selectively, targeting only those unprotected by political heavyweights from the ruling party.

However it can be plausibly argued that in the matter of student union politics the rough, wild west state of Uttar Pradesh (and neighbouring Bihar) is sui generis or in a class by itself. Because in other parts of the country student unions operate within the boundaries of the law and tend to focus on matters of serious academic import.

Dhar: student focus
Anandini Dhar, 20, president of Delhi’s Lady Sri Ram college students union outlines her priorities. "Our prime objective is to improve the intellectual and physical environment of the college and to help in the resolution of students’ problems. Since the new union took over, we’ve organised several seminars, identified and invited a first-class visiting faculty for various departments especially journalism, procured more computers from the college fund etc," says Dhar.

However implicit in this example of responsible student union politics which has the approval of post-independence India’s non-merit or unwarranted subsidies-addicted new class, is an admission that college and university student unions have transformed into a vested interest hellbent upon defending heavy subsidisation of higher education. And the informal contract between politicians in all parties across the spectrum and student unions is that subsidisation of higher education is a sacred cow. In consideration of rock-bottom tuition fees remaining inviolate, student unions will maintain the public peace.

And the terms of this faustian pact which has siphoned away investment from elementary education have been maintained. Tuition fees in the top grade Presidency College, Kolkata are as low as Rs.75 per term for an undergraduate arts degree. Science education is priced slightly higher at Rs.110 per term, as against the actual cost of Rs.1 lakh per student per year. Compared to this Lucknow Unive-rsity’s tuition fees of Rs. 500 per term for its BA study programmes are sky high.

Dwivedi: faulty logic
Prof. S.K. Dwivedi of Lucknow University’s department of political science and director of an Indian Council of Social Science Research sponsored study Student Unrest in Uttar Pradesh: A Case Study of Student Agitations in The University of Lucknow (1966-1985), despairs of the extent to which political populism drives higher education in India. "Our politicians keep touting the principle of equality to justify low university fees which make higher education available to all and sundry. However such populism ignores the reality that everyone is not suited for higher education. What is required is adherence to the principle of proportional equality. Therefore the issue of blanket subsidy needs to be seriously debated, especially since the government has not increased grants beyond the 1997 level. What is the logic behind the assumption that students who pay high tuition fees at fancy public schools cannot afford more than rock-bottom tuition fees at the college level? Dirt-cheap higher education encourages mass enrollment and to campaign among great numbers, student leaders require money and muscle power backed by political patronage. It’s a vicious circle that has to be broken," says Dwivedi.

But if there’s one issue on which student union leaders in India’s 15,600 colleges and 311 universities are united, it is opposition to even partial de-subsidisation of higher education. Student union leaders are either unaware or unmindful or both, of the ground reality that of the 177 million children who at any given time are in primary schools countrywide, only 9 million enter institutions of tertiary education. With fee incomes of institutes of higher education negligible, they are unable to fund their own expansion and are pathetically dependent upon resource-starved UGC (University Grants Commission) handouts for capital expenditure, and upon state governments for faculty salaries.

Yet student union leaders take great pride in successfully agitating for way below-cost tuition fees for higher education study. "Last year the fee structure worked out by the committee for medical colleges in Maharashtra though lower than in other states, was not to our satisfaction. We suggested an alternative structure which we thought was more suitable. We agitated for it. Thirty of our members went to jail over this issue but we had the satisfaction of seeing most of our demands met," says Navnath Satpute, secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The rock-bottom college and varsity tuition fee regime mandated by post-independence India’s purblind political leadership has had an unexpected fallout in Uttar Pradesh, the crucible of student politics. With the monthly price of higher education being "less than the cost of a packet of cigarettes" in political commentator Tavleen Singh’s memorable analogy, the phenomenon of ‘mature students’ making campus politics their vocation is an omnipresent reality in Lucknow University.

Kashyap: mutual benefit
Rajpal Kashyap (28), newly elected president of the Lucknow University Students Union has already spent more than a decade in the university acquiring his bachelors and Master’s degrees in social work, and is now pursuing M Phil in social studies. Unlike some of its southern counterparts, (Bangalore University for example which has prohibited multiple Masters degrees), Lucknow University has not imposed an upper limit on the number of years a student can spend on campus. Nevertheless Kashyap is a relative youngster compared to many student leaders who are well into their 40s. For instance, Neeraj Jain, LUSU president in 1989-90, is still a registered student and possibly holds a world record for being a student of the same university for 30 years! Currently Jain is in charge of the university’s sports association and is widely acknowledged as a student leader par excellence to whom wannabe leaders flock for advice.

Unsurprisingly Kashyap is dismissive of the idea that there should be an age bar for student union election contestants. "Twenty five is too young. At that age it is easy to be manipulated and exploited by teachers and university employees. An older candidate has greater ability and experience to withstand pressure and negotiate student welfare issues," he says. He also defends direct intervention of political parties in student union elections. "It is only natural for students to get attracted to political parties which understand our problems and needs. In Uttar Pradesh the Samajwadi Party has proved its student friendly credentials by lifting the freeze on student elections, reversing Lucknow University’s tuition fee increase last year and increasing the number of seats in several courses. It is a mutually beneficial relationship," he argues.

Mulayam Singh Yadav with LUSU office bearers
There’s no doubting that the Samajwadi Party which has its base in Uttar Pradesh from where it has contributed 36 members of Parliament is ‘student friendly’. For instance Lucknow University’s manage-ment and serious students were overjoyed when student union elections were stayed for three years following a writ petition filed in the high court in 2000 challenging a 25-year age limit for student union office bearers. Another government order had disqualified students who had failed or skipped exams from contesting union elections. However when Samajwadi Party chieftain Mulayam Singh Yadav returned to office as chief minister in September 2003, one of his first orders was withdrawal of these restrictions which he dubbed "blatantly undemocratic". Yadav also reversed a modest fee hike in tuition fees imposed in May 2003, inflicting a revenue loss of Rs. 10.5 crore per year upon Lucknow University. Another student-friendly decision to increase capacity in several graduate and postgraduate courses has resulted in the admissions process stretching to January even as the university prepares to conduct the annual exams in March this year.

Box 2

Pakistan student politics: What the papers say

The student wings we have seen on the campuses in pakistan are the product not of a political-constitutional norm but the absence of it. The main problem here has been the violent nature of politicking. But that is not confined just to the campuses; in fact the campuses merely reflect a bigger reality of the contest for resources in which use of force has become a dominant metaphor. The biggest culprit in this regard is the army itself whose only legitimacy derives from the barrel of the gun and which has come to be the most-heavily-armed political party in Pakistan.

Elsewhere, lack of party politics resulted in groupings on the campuses along ethnic and linguistic lines. All these groups have shown a tendency to use violence to capture or retain spheres of influence. But this trend is not owed to politics per se; it reflects the lack of politics as an acceptable process informed by a legal-normative framework — Daily Times, January 25, 2005

Student politics was banned in the days of Gen Zia Ul Haq. student unions have not, technically, functioned in the last two decades. Even the civilian governments that came to power for short periods in between bouts of military rule paid scant attention to this issue. Have educational standards in our universities improved during this period? There has in fact been a marked deterioration in both education and research at universities and degree colleges.

The government has recently taken steps to improve funding for higher education and to promote greater academic activity. But the results will take time to appear. The present state of our universities, some headed by retired generals, is woeful and there is hardly any intellectual activity on the part of either the teacher or the taught. So no link has been established between student politics and its possible deleterious effect on academic standards — Dawn, January 2, 2005

However, even as student militancy and unionism is experiencing a revival in the north, down south in Madras University vice-chancellor S.P. Thyagarajan believes that the heyday of student unionism is over. "Student unionism has evolved and students are not as susceptible to mainstream politics and politicians as they were earlier. Generally, student unions make their own decisions except for occasional emotional outbursts — for instance, whenever there is a rise in college fees. This is the only issue on which they experience the need for political influence. In general open participation of political parties in student affairs is on the decrease," says Thyagarajan.

Quite obviously the pursuit of scholastic excellence demands that student politics evolve on the southern rather than northern model. Yet imposing a plethora of restrictions or banning student unionism is not the solution. Prof. N.S. Ashok Kumar, an alumnus of Mysore, Bangalore and Boston Universities who heads the department of electronic media at Bangalore University and was himself a student union activist, regards student unionism as an "absolute necessity" and lists Karnataka industries minister P. G. R. Scindia as one among the many capable political leaders shaped by student politics.

"Society needs leaders and leadership qualities are best nurtured in the realms of academia. Our students today are aimless and leaderless because student unionism has been proscribed. Mobilising students for a cause and advocating idealistic causes is integral to higher education. Banning unions is like cutting off your nose because of a cold. Student leaders should be encouraged at least for conduct of cultural, social and sporting events," says Ashok Kumar.

Likewise Manabendra Mookherjee, West Bengal’s infotech minister and former general secretary of the Students’ Leftist Movement believes that student unions are nurseries of mainstream politics in which students acquire mobilisation, organisation and advocacy skills. "They systematically highlight student problems. Even if they are affiliated to political parties, it’s not a problem so long as they do not lose track of their primary purpose."

Misra: police intervention plea
But V.D. Misra, proctor Lucknow University, believes that university authorities cannot manage student militancy rooted in unionism. "A police officer of the rank of deputy superintendent should be appointed proctor. The uniform is probably the only thing that student leaders still fear. They are capable of being abusive even with the vice-chancellor and threaten political action if teachers demand discipline. The only language they understand is police action," he says despairingly.

Writing in the Harijan on January 18, 1948, Gandhiji addressed the question of whether or not students should be involved in politics. "Politics may be divided into two parts; first, the study of its science; second, political action... Students should, however, refrain from speaking or giving their opinion on the questions discussed at such assemblies. But they may serve as volunteers if this does not interfere with their studies. Students should avoid party politics and cultivate respect for all leaders without any distinction. Students are concerned only with seeking and acquiring virtues wherever they can find them; they have to learn to worship the virtues."

Similarly over half a century ago, the Radha Krishnan Committee on University Education (1948-49) warned of the impact of student unionism and activism on student discipline and law and order in universities in general. The committee suggested that students’ unions should be federations of departmental associations "where students assemble not for the discussion of sectional interests but topics of much wider significance".

Almost six decades after independence it’s self-evident that the student union movement which discharged a vital role in the freedom struggle, has lost its bearings. The idealism which characterised 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 hellbent upon retaining unjustifiable blanket subsidies and unearned privileges. 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 retrieve their idealism and help India’s institutions of higher education recover their lost momentum to re-position themselves as globally benchmarked centres of excellence. Indeed post-liberalisation India’s quest for developed nation status depends upon it.

With Neeta Lal (Delhi), Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) & Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)