Have ideas abandoned student politics?
Siddharth Singh | 25 Feb, 2016
Country without a Post Office is a quaint—part poetic, part rebellious— name for a cultural event. But in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where revolution is serious business, names usually signal revolutionary intent. When a bunch of students gathered at Sabarmati Dhaba on its campus in the evening of 9 February, they were clear about why they were there. In the best of Leftist tradition, poetry and rebellion ran togethwy evening. Earlier on, the university authorities—among the most liberal in a famously liberal campus—had given a go-ahead for the event.
That event has gained some notoriety in India and abroad. Slogans were chanted in favour of convicted terrorists Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru. If that were not enough, there were calls for waging a struggle until Kashmir is freed and India broken into pieces. In a politically charged atmosphere, this was nothing less than adding fuel to fire. There were protests and counter-
protests in Delhi and elsewhere one student—the leader of the JNU Students’ Union, Kanhaiya Kumar—has been booked for sedition. Four other students, wanted for their participation in the event, absconded. Two of them, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, finally gave themselves up to the police after almost a fortnight late on the night of 23 February.
In the welter of claims and counter-claims about what happened at the campus gathering, its motives and those of its organisers, there is a general air of ferment among students. There are claims that India is witnessing a new wave of student unrest, one that has not been seen in the country since the 1970s. The events at JNU took place in quick succession after the badly mishandled situation in Hyderabad Central University, where the tragic suicide of a Dalit research scholar led to a stir by students. Are these isolated events or is there a general sense of unease among students? What is fuelling these protests?
The JNU event of 9 February was organised by the Democratic Students Union (DSU), an outfit that draws inspiration from Naxalite ideology, demands revolutionary political change in India, and favours extreme ideas such as the secession of Kashmir and Northeastern states. Even by JNU standards, it is an extreme organisation. “It’s not an influential group,” says Arvind Kumar, an MPhil student of Political Science at JNU. “Several meetings take place every week and it is hardly that anyone at the campus cares. DSU members keep organising meeting on issues of Kashmir and Northeast states. Some even go to attend them. But largely, they are ignored.”
What do members of DSU feel about their outlook and ideology? In the wake of events since 9 February, there are not many who can be found to explain what the organisation stands for. The answers are a bundle of confusion— of misplaced anger and fear. Take the case of Rama Naga, the poor student from Ramgiri village in Odisha’s Koraput district. He says that poverty and repression influence students like him, which is hardly unusual for anyone in his position. “I come from a Scheduled Caste and have seen discrimination in life,” says Naga, “I got attracted to the idea of equality, and within a few days of coming to JNU, became a member of All India Students’ Association or AISA.” What this 24-year-old is unable to explain is the link between his life of deprivation and anger against nationalism. How would destroying the country of his birth help the cause of the poor?
“It is very easy to talk of nationalism sitting in AC rooms,” Naga reacts, “Go and see in the rural areas, the condition of poor and Dalit families, and ask them if they are happy.” He goes on to say that his idea of nationalism is “different” from what others are portraying. He feels a moral obligation to fight for the rights of the poor and oppressed. “I always think that had there been no JNU,” he adds, “a student like me would have never imagined coming out and seeing the world.” He vows to continue his struggle for the betterment of people like him and is not scared by the current controversy. “This is nothing new. I have been leading protests against the policies of the Government. It is natural that they would target me,” he says confidently. The threat of police action has tempered this young man’s attitude a bit. “There were some outsiders with their face covered. They started raising anti-India slogans in response to slogans by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). I immediately rushed to the organisers to stop this,” he says, claiming that he had left the venue after some time. It was in the news the next morning, to his dismay, and has been every day since. He came to know of his name featuring in the police report only after Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested. He, along with Khalid and other students, sought legal opinion. “By the time we could think of anything, everyone termed us ‘anti- national’ and a mob attack took place inside the court premises when Kanhaiya was there,” he says.
Today, this would-be-revolutionary is nervous, and as advised by his lawyer, he and his friends went underground for few days, living in areas around JNU. They resurfaced on the campus on 21 February to “prove” that they are not anti-national. Since then, Khalid and Bhattacharya have surrendered, but Naga has refused to do so.
Naga’s peers, who are not in awe of extreme ideologies as a solution to India’s problems, are more coherent in their thinking and political choices. Naeem Khan, 25, is the only one of six siblings who has had the privilege of attending university. In this respect, he is not very different from Naga, who is also the only member of his family to receive higher education. Khan graduated from Aligarh Muslim University and has been at JNU for the last three years. Not unusually, he was largely influenced by the political views of his family before he came to the university. But unlike Naga, his thinking took a different turn at JNU. “Now I fact check everything before believing it, and only when I am convinced do I go for it,” he says.
Of the events of 9 February, Khan says, “How can someone say ‘Pakistan zindabad’, a country which has no democracy in real terms, doesn’t care for its citizens and is spreading terror among neighbouring countries? I understand you may have your grudges against India. But do you really think that aligning with Pakistan is the right step?” He is clear about his choices: he disagrees with what the ABVP is all about (“They are pretty clueless even about the good work done by this government and they always create trouble or look for opportunities to create trouble”), but, unlike many other students, does not suffer any confusion between the country and its government.
On the other side of Delhi, away from the campus dominated by would-be revolutionaries, lies Delhi University (DU), a place with very different concerns. In stark contrast to JNU, this university is historically a stronghold of the Rightist ABVP where Leftist ideology has not been able to get a foothold.
According to the current president of the DU Students Union (DUSU) Satinder Awana, the ABVP has a strong presence in every college of the campus because of its strength and organisation. This is echoed by former DUSU President Nupur Sharma, who recently contested the state elections against Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for the BJP and says that ABVP remains popular with students from off-campus colleges in Delhi. “This is where the group’s organisational skills come in handy,” she says, “They come to us whenever they need help. On- campus colleges like Hansraj, Hindu or St Stephen’s will never vote for a DUSU candidate, because they have their own resources.” DU student elections are usually a contest between the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the Congress’ student wing, and the ABVP, allied with the BJP, and outcomes often depend on which party is in power at the Centre.
The two universities and the culture of their student politics display path dependence with a vengeance. In JNU, a dominant Leftist faculty—entrenched since the inception of the university by self-selection and political patronage—has been mirrored by a student community that thinks similarly. In contrast, DU, a university with far-more prosaic concerns about life and learning, reflects the realities of Indian public life far more closely.
What about universities elsewhere in India? Kerala is a good state to look at, for two reasons. One, it has had a continuous tradition of higher education for more than a century, a record that is matched only by West Bengal; and two, as in DU, student politics echoes the sound and fury of the political field.
At Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, one of the oldest colleges in Kerala, Leftist politics is dominant and the campus is still the nerve centre of the Left students’ movement in the state. It is fashionable here to belong to the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) or the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), or even student groups of Maoist sympathisers. And it is not surprising that the college campus has seen rallies in support of JNU students. “I don’t agree with the argument that campus politics is dying,” says Rohith Ronson, unit president of the SFI in Maharaja’s College, “Our generation is more informed and hence raises questions.” He says that SFI comrades face critical questions from students each time they go out on a political campaign. On 22 February, the CPM- allied students group held a campus protest against Union Minister Smriti Irani that had about 50-60 demonstrators. Ronson, however, claims that most students who prefer to be mere spectators are silent supporters of Left politics. “They don’t come out for various reasons. There are many factors that impose pressure on students like the [college’s] compulsory attendance and internal evaluation. Parents in general are also unhappy about their children getting into student movements.”
But even a bastion of Left politics like this college cannot remain immune from wider social trends. SFI-led gatherings no longer shy away from elements of fun once seen as too frivolous or bourgeois, such as parties with students dancing to cinema music played by DJs. A protest against controversial policies followed by the Vice Chancellor of Calicut University in 2014 was an example. The protest was named ‘Festival of Resistance’, and it literally drummed up a festive mood. Students joined the protest with dance, music, painting and flash mob performances. The agitation also had colourful balloons flying in the air. The trend is unmistakable: each university takes the colour of its environment. In JNU, it is the Leftist ideology of its faculty that shapes the outlook of its students; in DU, it is the business of life that determines what students think; in Kerala, again, it is the wider politics of the state that affects the perspectives of students.
But in all three cases, and those of campuses across India, one constant remains. After a certain generation, students have never made it big in politics in general and in legislative—Parliamentary and local legislature—politics in particular. One can count a number of political leaders across the country today who were student leaders at one time. Key ministers in the BJP-led Union Government were once student leaders. There is a sprinkling of such leaders in some states as well. But take a closer look and you will find that there are no second-rung leaders, or leaders being groomed to take charge, who have had anything to do with student politics.
What explains this cul-de-sac that student politics finds itself in? Strange as it may seem, the answer is to be found in a place that once demonstrated the revolutionary potential of this type of politics.
In 1972, Harendra Pratap was a 22-year-old student and supporter of the Congress party from Arrah in Bihar. Those were difficult years in India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, just one year after her spectacular win in the 1971 General Election (and an even more spectacular victory over Pakistan in war), found herself in a tough spot. That year marked the start of agrarian distress in the country. Crop failure in 1972-73 set off a price spiral that took forever to abate. If that were not enough, the oil price shock of 1973 added to this combustible mix. The combination of unemployment, corruption and unbearable inflation made life almost unbearable for most. It was a bad time to be a youngster. By 1974, Pratap was a full-time activist of the ABVP, the students wing of what was the Jan Sangh then. “In December 1973, after the student’s union election at Patna University, the boys gave a 12-point charter to the government. Among other things, we asked for an end to corruption, an end to inflation, reducing unemployment and changes in educational policies. But [Bihar] Chief Minister Abdul Ghafoor and his advisors thought this was just another student scheme and ignored it,” reminisces Pratap, now 66, of those days.
“By middle of February 1974, Patna University was in ferment. In Gujarat, the Navnirman Andolan was at its peak. A peaceful march was planned for 18 March. But by then the events in Gujarat had unnerved Mrs Gandhi. A day before the march, there was heavy police patrolling in Patna. But that did not deter the boys. The march took place the next day. From the 50-60 students who had gathered at the Patna Engineering College, the number swelled to 1,500 by the time the procession reached the Vidhan Sabha gates. There, as the students were chanting slogans, the guards opened fire. Some eight or nine boys were killed. I barely managed to escape from the place.”
The rest is history. Soon enough, Jayaprakash Narayan took the reins of the ‘movement’—with the present rulers of Bihar, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar as his followers— and the result was a countrywide reaction against Indira Gandhi. This bit of history is well-known. But what happened to student politics after this earthquake in Indian politics?
“That was the end of student politics in Patna University and Bihar in general,” says Pratap. “The leaders who emerged from that movement—Lalu and Nitish in particular— knew the potential of student politics for upheaval. They ensured that no student leader or leaders of caliber, who could pose a threat, emerged after that,” he adds.
Pratap’s words are echoed by contemporary observers and participants of student politics in Patna. “All that is history,” says Randhir Kumar, an associate professor of sociology at Patna College. “Today, the combined weight of big leaders, the state government and the administration is against student politics. It was only after the JM Lyngdoh Committee (on guidelines for student elections) was submitted that pressure and protests led to the holding of student union elections.” What is interesting is the time it took after the submission of the report in 2006 for the university union polls to be held. “These elections were held [in 2013] after a gap of 29 years and were organised in the manner of elections to the Lok Sabha or the Vidhan Sabha. Forty magistrates were pressed into action and Patna University was a barricaded fortress. The bill came to a tidy Rs 20 lakh. If this is the cost of holding a single student union election, you can be sure that it will not be a regular affair,” he adds.
Professor Kumar is downbeat about the possibilities of student politics. “There is nothing called student politics now,” he says, “Ever since the introduction of reservations in admissions to university courses, students here are split along caste lines. Hostels are divided by caste and teachers dare not step out of line while teaching; otherwise they, too, will be accused of favouring or discriminating against a particular caste. There is no idealism left. What you see is a continuum of politics—from student to adult life. You cannot say that students behave differently from adults. At one time that may have been true, not anymore.”
The current president of the students union, ABVP’s Ashish Sinha says the same thing. “Former student leaders don’t get a chance to do ‘real politics’ on campus anymore. So they make do with politicising freshers who enter the university. This, however, serves no real purpose.”
Is this situation—so marked with particularities—true only of Patna and other universities in Bihar? “I don’t think so,” says Pratap, adding that, “Studentship is a transient phase of one’s life. After all, there is a life beyond the university gates. One has to search for a job. This is as true today as it was in 1974. All that student leaders—and more importantly teachers—can do is to try and help students become better citizens. If a student leader becomes a representative in an assembly or in Parliament, that is more a matter of chance. There is no link between the two.”
Even if one were to dismiss the pessimism in Patna as being the product of vicissitudes of a backward state and a resource-starved university, there is some truth in the words of these observers and participants—past and present. If an atmosphere that was ripe for political change (back in 1973-74), an activist body of students and a bungling government could not result in lasting changes, it is hard to believe that matters today could be all that different. Not only do students have incomparably greater opportunities in life now, the political class has learnt important lessons from the events of the 1970s.
Maybe some members of this class, and more importantly its intellectual backers, have not learnt this lesson. If student politics is transient and devoid of organic links to electoral politics, it still retains potency enough to create trouble. It is this aspect of campus unrest that must be handled with caution. What has happened in JNU is not a mere case of some misguided students shouting slogans. This kind of politics, incubated by a Leftist faculty without whose willful inspiration it would not have taken off, does have potential for anarchy. The Naxalite and Maoist movements are incapable of lasting change due to their geographic and ideological limits but have caused immense hardship to the country as a whole, including the very people they were meant to help. The danger of JNU type protests lie in their ability to provide cannon fodder for mindless adventurism. It is a faculty that continues to cling to one kind of thinking and then transmits a virulent variant of ideology to young minds that lies behind the contemporary unrest. The fact that it is restricted to JNU and a couple of other campuses does not detract from the gravity of the problem.
The danger posed by students shouting anti-national slogans is not in the slogans as such, but in these young minds being used for more sinister ends and then being discarded. That loss is what should concern all Indians.
(With Kumar Anshuman, Aanchal Bansal and Shahina KK)