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What On Earth Do Marx Or Modi Have To Do With Student Unions?

16/09/2016 12:52 PM IST | Updated 17/09/2016 7:40 AM IST
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What is the relevance of the ABVP's stance on national security to students who wish to be kept safe from miscreants entering university grounds? For Kanhaiya Kumar to raise the issue of bedbugs in JNU hostels, need he be a candidate from a political front? Why must a debate in student union elections invoke Marx or the Raj? When the campaign revolves around rabble-rousing, and when the votes are cast along such ideological lines, what difference remains between student representatives and politicians?

For Kanhaiya Kumar to raise the issue of bedbugs in JNU hostels, need he be a candidate from a political front?

The recent round of Student Union elections, and the results (along with allegations of "discrepancies in voting), has, once again, resurrected the two old and distinct debates -- one around the nature of saffronization in educational institutions and the other mulling the extent of electoral malpractices in university politics. What's missed is the larger issue, the fact that the saffron is already baked into the cake; the students' union envisioned under the current system is a competing space for political ideologies. And no matter what the verdict of the DU Grievance Cell, we must not pretend that the university or the student is served by a process which relies upon political divisions.

An elected officer of a students' union may seek to ensure that their university does not overcharge their students or face huge budget cuts from the government, but it isn't their place to propound an economic ideology. They needn't be concerned, in their official capacity, with a student's opinion on nationhood, for their job is to ensure that the university is an open space where everything can be debated and discussed. It is a fact that organizations such as AISA, ABVP, NSUI etc. are fronts for political parties, and logically it isn't the student body that they serve. On the contrary, their only job is to strengthen the hold of a particular political camp over an educational institution. Like politicians, they may sometimes do nice things for their constituents in their quest for power. Like politicians, they aren't afraid to vandalize that which they are sworn to serve and protect. Like politicians, they butt in where they have no business and foster artificial divisions amongst their constituents.

Though at the risk of exemplifying something foreign over something Indian, it may serve us well to study some of the active and extensive student union systems abroad. The below examples come from developed countries, but the change we require need not wait, in this case. It will not take decades of double-digit economic growth for us to be able to rethink the role of politics inside universities and revamping the system of electing student representatives.

Like politicians, [student unions] butt in where they have no business and foster artificial divisions amongst their constituents.

Far from discouraging political debate, student unions in countries such as the US and UK subsume student political societies, even funding them in the same manner they fund all student groups. But in contrast to groups such as SFI, NSUI, ABVP and others, these student-run clubs are based around an interest or subject matter. This provides students with exposure beyond the classroom and an avenue for all-round development. They may seek to evangelize an ideology or certain political views amongst interested students, but they do not field candidates for student union elections. The student government is not their competing space, which means that they do not influence the running of the university.

The Labour Students Society of Cardiff University in the UK, for instance, is as much a part of the Students' Union as the Conservative Future Society or the anthropology society or a student dance group. When an individual runs for student government, they aren't the Labour, Tory, or Green candidate; they are only Ms./Mr. X from the class of xx studying in one of the academic departments, and they hopefully have a vision of how the university community -- not the nation -- could be made to work better for everyone.

It should be no surprise that the antisocial behavior which is rampant in Indian politics also finds its way into colleges.

In the US, too, while student assemblies often liaise with local and national governments on behalf of the students, they aren't composed of members of ideological groups attached to political parties. Their membership draws from elected students of each individual school or academic department, as well as elected representatives of international students. When I campaigned to be elected as a student representative at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I had to accumulate a certain number of signatures from my fellow students to first get nominated, after which each of the nominees ran a small-scale campaign designed to reach those we sought to represent. Nobody asked for my opinion on Obama, since the concerns of the students revolved around the soaring costs of books, visitor parking space, inadequate libraries or labs, and a dysfunctional college wifi service. One's political views are irrelevant to how well the individual can serve the university community.

Dirty politics in our colleges, and to some extent the issue of saffronization, thus, are only symptoms of a larger issue -- we have propped up a structure of student government which has little to do with students or the university, and which only serves as one more arena for political battles. It should be no surprise that the antisocial behavior which is rampant in Indian politics also finds its way into colleges. And since our kind of student government is based upon partisan politics, there will always be a saffron camp and a camp that seeks to vanquish it, each necessitating the existence of the other and legitimizing it.

Most of all, as long as political parties contest student elections, we cannot rescue higher education from the hands of central governments, given that there is obvious conflict of interest for those elected to governments, student or otherwise. Just ask Deepender Hooda, who is an MP and who, on 11 September, went on hunger strike with members of the NSUI over university election results.

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