In Support of Students’ Political Activism
By Anand Teltumbde
There are strong signals that the government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to ban students’ political activism. At least one of its senior leaders, M Venkaiah Naidu, who is the ex-president of the party and is currently a Union Minister, has repeatedly spoken against students participating in politics. In the wake of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Hyderabad University (HU) controversies, he said: “They (students) must study and stay away from politics. If they are interested in politics, they can leave studies and join politics.” This is not an uncommon view coming from ruling-class politicians; they have always considered student activism as dreaded fire to be smothered with all their might. A report of a government panel on the New Education Policy, headed by former cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian, on which the government has invited public opinion, has also recorded its reservations against students participating in politics. Expressing concern over the increasing number of student protests, the committee, in its report, states:
Agitations, disturbances, gheraos and other disruptive movements are being increasingly witnessed on campuses with potential to interfere with normal academic activities. As a result of this, examinations often get delayed or postponed. These disturbances are generally caused by a small section of politically active students and work to the detriment of the majority of serious students.
Reflecting the general tone of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), it recommended that “educational institutions should consider derecognising student groups based explicitly on caste and religion” and also restrict the period for which students can stay on campus. It further says:
Most of the disruptive activities on the campus are led by students who remain enrolled for many more years than normally required to pursue the course of study for which they have enrolled. The main interest of such students is not to pursue learning but to use the hostel and fellowship facilities to follow a political agenda. There should be a national debate on the need for students to necessarily achieve the minimum benchmarks for scholastic progress to prevent the misuse of educational facilities established at public expense.
State of Campus Politics
If one takes a realistic stock of the current state of student politics, one would be appalled to see how little is left of student politics in India. India has 761 universities as per the UGC website with the following break up: Central Universities: 46, State universities: 350, Deemed universities: 123 and private universities: 241. Apart from these universities, other autonomous institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT), Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the National Institutes of Technology (NIT), the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), are granted the permission to autonomously award degrees. As of August 2015, India has a total of 18 IITs, the Indian School of Mines, 32 NITs, 18 state-funded technical institutes and 18 IIITs. In addition to these, there are institutes which are under the control of the professional councils, without approval of the UGC, which are also higher education institutions. Nearly 30 million students are currently enrolled in these universities/institutions today.
There is a virtual class divide among these universities. The state and central universities run by the government charge nominal fees and have relatively better academic standards than the recent crop of private universities. They attract more meritorious students of all classes and communities, thanks to the policy of reservation quotas. Whatever student politics is observed in India, it is confined to these university campuses. JNU and HU, which were in news for students’ politics, belong to this class. But not all of these universities are known for any significant student activity. Student politics is generally correlated to the representation of students from the lower classes with social consciousness. The former may be due to the lower fee structure and the latter the academic culture of the institutions. JNU, HU, DU may be cited as examples. Many other state and central universities which also are structurally similar to JNU, HU and DU, do not have student politics because of the lack of a congenial culture.
With rising fee structures, as in the case of the autonomous institutions which are also run by the government and which follow the reservation quotas, students’ politics is transformed into quasi-academic curricular activities. They are mostly technical institutions with negligible or no presence of social science subjects. This, however, has not been a barrier for student politics as historically speaking, engineering colleges were far ahead of their social science counterparts in the country in terms of students’ politics. The students from the lower strata which are more prone to agitate do exist in these institutions but they tend to belong to a different class within their respective communities. These institutions rather insist on a culture and fame of academic rigour, which keeps dissuading students from indulging in political activities. Therefore, we do find student politics in such autonomous institutions only as instances of exception. The agitation that broke out in IIT Madras because of the administrative ban on the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) is one such exception.
Apart from these universities and institutions, there is a virtual ban on student politics in all other universities and institutions run by private agencies. Firstly, the hefty fees charged by them structurally exclude students from lower strata from entering their campuses and create an elitist culture which is inimical to the germination of genuine political discussion. Many of them offer courses with seeming concern for political issues but they are run in a bookish manner and without conviction. Moreover, such courses act as a safety-valve for any residual resentment that students may incur.
There is environmental pressure as well acting against students’ indulgence in politics. The invisible impact of neoliberal ideology champions extreme individualism, and a culture of incessant open competition exerts tremendous pressure on students to perform. The orientation towards cut-throat competition begins right in childhood with parents pressurizing students to outperform each other. The students have to attend tuition classes in addition to school, which leaves little time for them to relate with anything other than the academic. The entire humanizing ethos of education is lost under the neoliberal juggernaut making it an investible opportunity to reap maximum return. Academics thus becomes examination-centric with little to do with learning or grooming critical faculties in children. The competitive ethos which took roots in the urban middle classes has now infected even the rural poor, who have also begun seeing education as the only ladder for their children to scale up in life. The current Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for higher education (18-23 years) at 20.4[i] indicates that four-fifth of the students are dropped out of competition to enter this sphere. With the job market becoming increasingly competitive, students are under excessive pressure to get jobs. In addition to these factors, increasing intolerance of the state which would repress any dissent with brute force, as has happened everywhere that students agitated, also keeps them away from politics. These have been dampeners thwarting the natural expression of students’ anger, but recent incidents have clearly shown their limits. There is no force on earth that can contain the volcanic force of students’ anger. And thanks to the self-obsessed ruling classes, the conditions are being rapidly created for such a catastrophe.
Arguments: For and Against
The usual argument against students’ politics is that students’ raison d’etre in campuses is academics, and insofar as politics distracts attention, they should not indulge in it. This is what Naidu and Subramanian expressly contend. There is another argument in favour of banning ‘party’ politics from campuses. It is argued that politicization of students has the inevitable consequence of imposing a fixed ideology on highly impressionable minds, with the affiliating political party exercising undue influence on its members. This prevents member students from developing an independent and comprehensive outlook, as they are obliged to offer their loyalties to the stance of their respective parties. This linkage makes campuses proxy battlefields for political parties. In a country like India divided along castes, communities, races, ethnicities, languages, regions, and classes, everyone wears these identities, but it is insisted that they get rabid expression in students’ politics. Some argue that students’ politics infringes upon the rights of the majority of students who want to stay ‘apolitical’. In the competitive world of today, when academic excellence has become a key for a good future, student politics is believed to take away their focus, affecting their future prospects. These are the typical arguments one hears in favour of banning student politics.
These arguments, however, collapse with a simple statement that students in higher education are voters in elections and are as such constitutionally reckoned as political stake-holders. Higher education campuses are the last posts of training young people into becoming responsible and enlightened citizens. Whichever branch of education they pursue, they are eventually required to perform the role of a citizen, contributing to the betterment of society. To see universities only as places of bookish learning is myopic. History of the world, including India, shows that most leaders who eventually became distinguished in public life have been the contribution of student activism on campuses. Even in India, most of the leaders, past as well present, have been products of campus political activism. In the case of BJP itself, many of its leaders like Arun Jaitley, Vijay Goel, Alka Lamba, Nupur Sharma, and Venkaiah Naidu himself, came from student politics.
The argument that students should focus on their studies may sound incontrovertible but it is not. It is based on a constricted conception of education. While books embody accumulated knowledge, campus politics brings students face to face with living knowledge-practices. It is the laboratory to test out the efficacy of learning from classrooms – learning how to apply them, learning how to unlearn. The USA, that Indian ruling classes seek to emulate, has the maximum number of universities ranking amongst the top 100 in the world. But it also has an equally glorious history of student activism. It is generally acknowledged that each period of structural and cultural transition since its founding has a corresponding story of campus protest and dissent. From the earliest historical accounts, campus-based activism has reflected grievances based in the political dynamics of the nation. There have been peaks and troughs in students’ political activism but it never died as such. The anti-war and racial justice campus movements of the 1960s that came to characterize students’ politics were not a short-lived product of students’ identities, as thought by some people; they exemplified the university as being a site of activism and social change.
Research shows that students who engaged in activism on campuses develop an inclination to continue their political participation post-campus life and acquire a greater sense of social responsibility and identity consciousness.[ii] Some studies have noted that beneath the dissatisfaction that characterizes campus protest, students experience gains in critical thinking[iii], civic engagement[iv] and commitment to the larger community[v]. Scholars of campus activism characterize its great potential for teaching students about the importance of democratic participation, leadership, and the ability to build coalitions amongst a wide variety of individuals on campus[vi]. Student activism is a genuine version of what is called extracurricular activities, which are accepted as leadership promoting and character building measures on campuses. Cassie Barnhardt of University of Iowa and Kimberly Reyes of University of Michigan,[vii] referring to higher education research, observe: “… [student] activism should be viewed as a developmental component of student learning, and that campus unrest must be understood in the context of civic engagement. Campus leaders are right to recognize that in expressing dissent, students are constructing ideas and perspectives that may one day provide solutions to some of our nation’s most urgent and complex dilemmas.”
Recounting the Nature of Student Activism
Students’ activism is a function of frustrations with the status quo reaching an extreme point. When the status quo is represented by the pervasive intrigues and doublespeak of the ruling classes, by the inhuman oppression and exploitation of the poor, by the wars the state wages on its own people to serve the moneybags; unscrupulous plays against interests of the country under cover of jingoist patriotism, and indulges in inhuman repression of dissent to terrorize people into submission, the frustration is obvious. Here, helplessness itself becomes a motivation for seeking change. When the urge for change within oneself reaches its acme, it transforms into a collective urge that necessarily precipitates into a rebellious act. Nothing can thwart the tide if it has caught the imagination of multitudes. The recent incidents of students’ activism in four campuses portend this tide in the making.
The first is the student protest that erupted in IIT Madras against the administration derecognizing the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC). In May 2015, following an anonymous complaint that APSC was instigating protests against the policies of the Centre and creating “hatred” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus, the MHRD had written to the Director of IIT Madras for his comments. As it happens, the Director crawled when he was asked just to bend and took a decision to derecognize the APSC through the Dean. IIT Madras has had a dubious history of being a monopoly platform for right-wing groups to propagate their own ideology and train young minds for their intellectual wings through the Vivekananda Study Circle, RSS Shakha, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Vande Mataram, Dhruva, etc. When some students belonging to lower castes decided to organize themselves as a study-circle, the Dean had bared his casteist prejudice advising the students to change the name of the group stating that ‘Ambedkar and Periyar’ were politically motivated. The APSC remained firm and went ahead exposing the Hindutva overtures and anti-people policies. They had taken up several issues such as the impact of coal-bed Methane, GM Crops on agriculture; implications of the amendment of the Factory Act 1947 on labour; the implication of the beef ban; the Hindutva overtures of the MHRD in promoting Sanskrit week celebrations; proposal of separate vegetarian mess halls in IITs and IIMs, etc. The widespread protests against and condemnation of the ban that followed over a fortnight brought the administration to its knees and compelled it to withdraw the ban on 8 June.
The second case is the indefinite strike of the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the country’s premier film education centre, since June 12, 2015 in protest against the Information & Broadcasting Ministry’s surprise appointment of a minor television actor-turned-politician, Gajendra Chauhan, as Chairman of the institute. Notwithstanding large-scale denunciations and widespread support of the Who’s Who of the film world to the students’ protests, the haughty government did not budge. Gajendra Chauhan’s only credential was that he was a BJP member. His appointment as the Chairman of the FTII Society sent shockwaves across the film fraternity, with many viewing it as an instance of political largesse. It was clearly an attempt by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to foist its right-wing agenda upon the institute. Students carried on for 139 days and had to withdraw the strike but not without exposing the undemocratic and fascist style of the BJP government to the people.
The third episode of students’ activism is around the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) in Hyderabad University. As in the case of the APSC in IIT Madras, ASA also engaged in exposing the anti-Dalit, anti-minorities character of the BJP government. The flare-up in HU was triggered by an incident on 3 August 2015 when ASA activists demonstrated against the death penalty for Yakub Memon, and condemned the ABVP attack on the screening of the documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, in Delhi University. In response, ABVP’s local leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar called them “goons” on his facebook page. The ASA students challenged him in his hostel room and obtained his apology. However, the next day Kumar got himself admitted into a private hospital and projected that he was roughed up by around 40 ASA members. The enquiry set up by the university squarely proved it to be false. However, BJP leaders like Bandaru Dattatreya, MP and a minister in Modi’s cabinet and Ramchandra Rao, the local MLC, brought pressure through Smriti Irani, the controversial HRD minister, to punish five ASA members with an obnoxious punishment, which virtually amounted to their social boycott. It eventually devoured the life of a promising Dalit research scholar, Rohith Vemula. The students are since agitated demanding justice by arresting the culprits under the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Should such misdemeanour of the government be left to go unchallenged? The police had filed an FIR against the vice chancellor Apparao Podile, Bandaru Dattatreya, Ramchandra Rao, and N Susheel Kumar for abetting the suicide of Rohith Vemula, but have not acted upon it. Instead, they arrested and thrashed the students black and blue when they protested against Apparao’s resuming duties, slapped cases on them and kept them in jail for seven days. They further raked up the issue of Rohith’s caste just to confuse the issue.
The fourth episode of student activism surrounds the jingoist charge of anti-nationalism and sedition on the students of JNU, who had organized a programme to observe the controversial hanging of Afzal Guru. Like in HU, this one also appeared to have been pre-planned to decimate the Leftist students’ domination there. The BJP-ABVP combine whipped up the bogey of some anti-India slogans and an obliging state machinery extended it to arrest the students under the draconian charge of sedition. The ruling definition of the sedition charge is that slogans, howsoever they might be detestable, do not constitute sedition until they imminently lead to violence. Despite this, the media, the police, the judiciary continued to harass the students. The entire episode exposed the intrigues of the state.
All these episodes of student activism have the misdemeanour of the state at their root. The students came forward to uphold the values of the Constitution and expose the unscrupulous pursuit of power by the rulers to the detriment of the majority of people. However, the state and its minions are unperturbed and persist with their repressive strategies.
Like many of its ploys, the BJP’s move to ban student politics on campuses is utterly hypocritical. What it means by politics is simply the resistance to their overtures to saffronize campuses and establish the dominance of ABVP, their student wing. The ABVP also represents students’ politics but Venkaiah Naidu would not refer to it. Its tacit supposition is that ABVP’s politics is nationalism and every resistance to it is ‘anti-nationalism’ and even ‘sedition’. This is the precise interpretation that the JNU episode clearly exposes. While in any society, students as future citizens should be encouraged to participate in politics, in India, the amount of injustice, lawlessness, and oppression that pervade naturally induces reactions in their victims manifesting in political activism. How could Dalit students stomach the lynching of five Dalits in Dulina, Jhajjar to death by the Hindutva mob under the very nose of the police? How would they feel about such an episode being repeated in Una in Gujarat? How could they bear two of their community being murdered and five of their women being raped every day? Could any sensible person, irrespective of religious allegiance, reconcile with Mohammad Akhlaq’s brutal killing by a cow vigilante mob and leave apart justice, his survivor family being slapped with charges of cow slaughter? Even within universities and colleges, the high-handedness of authorities, the crash commercialization of education, and unscrupulous plays within institutions just for petty political gains would provoke anger in anyone.
The ruling classes have many ways to suppress student politics. In many colleges, student elections are banned. As explained before, the possible domain of students’ politics is increasingly constricted with the proliferation of corporate universities in the country – where there is an undeclared ban on student politics. The political-economic paradigm of neoliberalism begetting increasing crises has ideologically as well as circumstantially pulverized society into discrete and self-centred individuals who would contract within their own cells than resist the onslaught on them. Students are the only ones, with relatively free minds and instinctively bubbling with energy and craving for change. They could potentially defy all these barriers. However, sensing even the slightest inkling of it, the state can nip their resistance in the bud by unleashing its police and military might. It has adopted the taxonomy of ‘war on terror’ to label any incipient trace of dissent with ‘sedition’ or ‘extremism’ and terrorize people into submission. This is what has been done in every episode of students’ resistance described above. Pitifully, what the state does not realize is that with every such vicious attempt to break the back of rebellion, the students have only been steeled in their resolve to rebel.
[i] All India Survey on Higher Education, 2011-12 (Provisional), by MHRD available here.
[ii] Cole, Elizabeth R., Meanings of Political Participation among Black and White Women: Political Identity and Social Responsibility, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(1):130-40 · August 1996.
[iii] Tsui, Lisa, Effects of Campus Culture on Students’ Critical Thinking, The Review of Higher Education, Volume 23, Number 4, Summer 2000, pp. 421-441
[iv] Sax, Linda J., Citizenship Development and the American College Student, New Directions for Institutional Research, No. 122, Summer 2004, pp. 65-80.
[v] Barnhardt, C.L., Sheets, J.E., & Pasquesi, K., You Expect What? Students’ Perceptions as Resources in Acquiring Commitments and Capacities for Civic Engagement, Research in Higher Education, 56: 622, 2015.
[vi] Kezar, Adrianna, Faculty and Staff Partnering With Student Activists: Unexplored Terrains of Interaction and Development, Journal of College Student Development, Volume 51, Number 5, September/October 2010, pp. 451-480; Robert A. Rhoads, Victor Saenz, Rozana Carducci, Higher Education Reform as a Social Movement: The Case of Affirmative Action, The Review of Higher Education, Volume 28, Number 2, Winter 2005, pp. 191-220.
[vii]‘Embracing Student Activism’, March 2, 2016.
Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst, and civil rights activist with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights. He held top management corporate position before moving to academia at IIT Kharagpur. Currently, he is Senior Professor at Goa Institute of Management, Goa.
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