Indian Student Unions have been functioning since Independence, attracting the influence of political parties and the participation of a widespread student populace, especially in the national capital. With their extensive exercise of power within governmental universities and frequent controversies accompanied by public demonstrations, it is imperative to question the necessity of their existence.
In recent years, the public opinion regarding student unions has been inclined towards unfavorability. A popular argument holds that the institution of student politics is not how it used to be when it was conceived. Student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid have garnered widespread media attention while being labelled 'anti-nationalists', 'terrorists', and 'brainwashed kids' for their approach to student politics. Although such labels may not have been applied to student leaders in the past, the contribution of the continuously-changing political atmosphere of the nation cannot be ignored. Many believe that an attempt to curb student politics and free speech in educational institutions is an attempt to propagate nationalism and security in disguise. It is, therefore, vital to examine the arguments that support and reprimand student politics.
One of the principal reasons quoted by groups that advocate against student unions is their involvement with academic institutions. Colleges and universities exist to impart education. This education is multidisciplinary; in most cases of student politics-engulfed universities, politics or political sciences merely is one among the many fields of study. If such an educational institution is consumed by protests, public demonstrations, and mass propaganda, the imparting of education may become secondary. Furthermore, those students who do not wish to be affiliated with student unions may invariably be drawn into the collateral damage caused by the institutional disruption at the hands of student politicians. To provide a safe, unhindered space for other fields of study, there could be a further argument for the establishment of universities dedicated to politics. The establishment of such a university would carry with itself various negative implications. Firstly, the students who wish to take part in politics and those students who wish to study in their respective fields may not be mutually exclusive. A politics-dedicated university system would effectively reduce these students to a narrow scope of opportunity for voicing their opinions. Furthermore, these newly-established universities may become a safe space for proxy battles to thrive. In this manner, political parties may exercise extensive propaganda spreading and manipulation. In either case, the existence of student unions does not appear as a favorable notion.
A further significant problem associated with student politics is their violent demonstrations. The grave nature of the violent rallies that occurred around the period of Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest in early 2016 shook the foundations of the institution of student politics. The protests were a reminder of how caste, history, and culture are the foremost battlegrounds in the struggle for dominance between India’s secular left and Hindu nationalists. Due to the rigid nature of the relationship between student unions and political parties, it is impractical to expect a future which does not see a reflection of the events of February 2016. While politics may not cause hooliganism, the two are unquestionably correlated, especially in the Indian political atmosphere. While all politicians may not be hooligans, the propagation of political identities and views in India has on many occasions seen the involvement of hooliganism.
It is also imperative to take into consideration the ground reality of an institution while arguing for or against its abolition. About the case in point, student-run political organizations and parties have established a strong foundation that is deeply entangled with the history and development of the nation. For instance, the National Students' Union of India (NSUI) has been functioning since 1971 as the student wing of the Indian National Congress. Regardless of whether it should exist or not, it does; one is forced to consider the great role that student organizations played in both pre and post-independence periods. Prior to 1950, the political sphere saw the strong participation of students from all sections of society during the struggle for independence, and subsequently, in 1971, Indira Gandhi merged Kerala Students Union and West Bengal State Chhatra Parishad into the NSUI that exists today (NSUI). To call for the abrupt abolition of organizations of likewise historical significance and deep-seated ties with political parties is not only impractical but also dangerous. Kerala High Court, in October 2017, tried to ban political activism in the form of protests and satyagrahas from the state (Krishnan, 2017). The decision was met with widespread protests and slogans highlighting the anti-democratic notions of the decision. The resistance that the HC's decision faced can be partly attributed to the crude and repressive articulation of the court's decision. The HC's verdict reportedly declared, “If they have a legitimate grievance, avenues for ventilating them are legally available. There is students’ council, academic council and there are courts including this Court where appropriate grievances can be raised. Dharnas have no place which would only vitiate the academic atmosphere” (Krishnan, 2017). The stand of the HC against dharnas/satyagrahas/protests is a conspicuous contradiction of Article 19 - our beloved Fundamental Right of freedom to speech and expression. Furthermore, our Constitution lists peaceful assembly and the freedom to form associations and unions as a fundamental right. The Kerala HC's decision thus appeared arbitrary in its restriction of the students' rights.
There is, hence, no right or easy way to merely abolish an institution on a national scale. The ideal course of action would be to adhere to Socrates' theory of the Golden Mean - to avoid the extremes (of abolition and unchecked freedom) and to settle for the middle ground. While student associations should provide a platform for open debate and expression, they shouldn't perpetuate hate speech or propagate extremist temperaments. While student unions should attempt to hold the administration responsible for its decisions and push forth agendas that favour the student population, it shouldn't keep the administration hostage and should avoid violent public demonstrations. Similar to any other form of social security that our constitution guarantees, student politics as an institution has been ensured various freedoms. It is now the responsibility of the institution to responsibly exercise those freedoms without violating the values of the very constitution that facilitated its existence.
Krishnan, K. (2017, October 23). Kerala High Court's Ban on Student Protests Poses Serious Threat to Democracy. The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/politics/kerala-high-court-ban-student-protest
National Students’Union of India. History. Retrieved from http://nsui.in/en/about-us/history
Image credit: Al Jazeera
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