JNUSU election 2018: Independent candidate says students are most-ignored subject in party-dominated university polls

"The battleground may be this campus, but the battle doesn't seem to be about the campus at all. We need to change that," argues 26-year-old Saib Bilaval, one of the two independent candidates for the President's post in this year's students' union elections at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

The much talked-about polls, which are being fought amongst four large student parties (or coalition of parties) this year, will take place on 14 September. The frontline contestants include the 'Left Unity' (a coalition of four left parties), the Dalit-centric Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association (BAPSA), the Congress-affiliated National Students' Union of India (NSUI), and the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

Fighting sectarian campus politics

Saib, who is currently a doctoral scholar of modern Indian history at the university's Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), remains firmly out of the partisan rubric. In terms of the conventional political spectrum, he sits far into the left and vehemently opposes the politics of the Right, particularly the belligerent campus politics of the ABVP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS') student wing.

Saib has been in JNU since 2013. He first arrived in CHS as a Masters student, and four years later, submitted an MPhil thesis on the 'propaganda of the Hindu Far Right' in early postcolonial India — an academic background that arguably positions him well to criticise the current political dispensation at the national level.

However, more than the national politics, Saib is most concerned about the "sectarian" and "anti-student" politics practiced by dominant student parties within the campus, who according to him, have collectively kept the focus away from day-to-day issues plaguing the student community.

File image of students protesting in 2016 at the JNU. Reuters

File image of students protesting in 2016 at the JNU. Reuters

Between flicking his hair and kicking a post-rock riff on his Carvin TL-60 in his boxy Jhelum Hostel room, he tells me, "JNU's politics is heavily misdirected. Whether Left, Ambedkarite, Centrist, or the Ultra Right or Ultra Left, the mainstream student parties have one foot in national politics and the other in campus. Where is that genuine representation that students here need to address immediate campus-level priorities?"

Saib is confident that he can fill this void as an independent candidate who doesn't have to toe party lines while taking decisions on key issues.

"The common students will be my party," he quips.

But, he also reminds me how he's been persistently pressured to drop out of the Presidential race. In a university where mainstream parties with solid cadre bases and political capital, like the All India Students' Association (AISA), All India Students' Federation (AISF), the Students' Federation of India (SFI), NSUI, and ABVP, have dominated student union elections year after year, the President's post can indeed be a tall summit to scale for an independent candidate.

Yet, Saib, who idolises American social democrat and frontrunner in the last Presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders, is hopeful of making it through as he believes that only a popular agenda like his can restore the original mandate of the students' union i.e. working for student welfare.

Restoring the popular agenda

From installing more street lights in the campus roads to making sure common rooms remain open through the day, Saib's manifesto is replete with agenda points that aim to make a difference in the everyday life of an ordinary student. In that sense, his political blueprint is heavily set around popular agendas that all but appear radical within the prevailing context. The frustration against elitist, high-horse politics by dominant Left parties is palpable.

"JNU students are educated and aware enough to not be patronisingly schooled by parties on how authoritarian or communal or anti-student the ABVP/BJP/RSS is. Voters want their issues addressed," he says.

One key component of Saib's campaign is gender justice. In fact, his first tête-à-tête with electoral campus politics was when he independently contested last year's Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) elections as the sole male candidate. This year, Saib hopes to revive the GSCASH, which was replaced by the administration-driven Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) last year September. More importantly, he aims to gender sensitise all party cadres and students.

Saib, who has a penchant for making political memes and has established himself as one of the most-published student commentators in JNU over the past two years, is also unapologetically critical of how dominant student parties have traditionally treated the wider fraternities they claim to represent.

"Parties tend to invisibilise the role of the common student in their movements, so that only their people are tagged as "activists" when election time comes. If we don't ask the common students of JNU for solutions, then our "movement" is fatally flawed," he says.

This is a daunting argument, one that has the potential to challenge the very foundations of JNU's mainstream, traditionalist politics. But, it is also an ambitious brief: for an independent like Saib, negotiating the massive political capital that parties like AISA and SFI enjoy within the campus can be a herculean task.

After all, a fight against the establishment is almost always an implausible battle against Goliath. Saib certainly hopes the story gets the end as we know it.

What is it like to run as an independent for the President's post in an university traditionally dominated by mainstream cadre-based student parties?

It is certainly an uphill task. Big parties often call their senior leaders as their 'star campaigners' on campus. For example, this year, the ABVP invited three sitting Chief Ministers from the northeast to address the students, and the NSUI invited P Chidambaram and Shashi Tharoor. So, of course, its not an equal battle.

Besides, this is a massive campus; it is spread out over a large area. So distributing parchas (pamphlets) and campaigning requires solid manpower, in which the big parties obviously have an advantage.

What does an independent election campaign like yours mean for the campus and the common students?

Saib, who is currently a doctoral scholar of modern Indian history at the university's Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), remains firmly out of the partisan rubric.

Saib, who is currently a doctoral scholar of modern Indian history at JNU's Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), remains firmly out of the partisan rubric.

It means that there is someone who is not ready to stand for the sectarianism of party politics. Whenever a movement comes knocking, the parties begin to bicker amongst themselves, and the students get left behind. People are sick and tired of vested political interests sabotaging movements.

What are your key sources of inspiration in politics?

I have many - Bernie Sanders, Subhadra Joshi, BR Ambedkar, P Sundarayya (leader of the Telangana peasants' struggle). I particularly don't think that there can be any critique of the Indian society and caste system without falling back to Ambedkar's contributions. I even somewhat admire Mani Shankar Aiyar as a minister.

What is the biggest concern for you this election season?

Student unity in the face of a repressive administration.

In the past few years, we have seen that the mainstream parties have been unable to achieve that because most of their priorities are 'national', and not campus-level. We need to ensure unity of common students in the face of any attacks by the administration and thus, reform campus politics as a whole.

Where do you think JNU stands today, particularly with regard to the current political dispensation and narrative?

JNU used to be the main academic centre of Delhi, and now it has become the main political centre of the city in many ways. That's because the media and government chose to label it as the 'anti-national university'; that's because the left still has a bastion here; that's because the sharpest academic and political critiques of the BJP government tend to come from JNU, its alumni, and the larger circle of activism that it fosters.

We have seen some prominent faces emerge from the campus over the past four years. How have they fared in representing the university's interests?

Yes, we have seen several prominent faces using the university as a political launchpad. They ask for votes in the name of opposing fascism and then go ahead to praise the same people they once branded as fascists. These people have conducted national-level politics in the name of campus politics.

While that isn't wrong, since JNU is an university with a strong focus on the social sciences and we are allowed to have bigger ideological debates about national-level politics, you no more remain union leaders if securing tickets for the next Lok Sabha elections and appearing on TV debates is your priority. You are just politicians then.

What do you think is the future of student politics (or student-led politics) in this country?

The future of student politics in this country will be decided by how ordinary students align with student leaders, and not by any party per se. But of course, big parties like the ABVP and NSUI won't fall in this trajectory.

That is because: one, they follow larger political interests (like the orders of the BJP and Congress); and two, the fact that they don't need popular student support as most of their political influencing is achieved through lobbying and lumpenism. So, in fact, these parties will continue to thrive on reducing student participation.

Disclosure: Saib Bilaval has contributed for Firstpost


Updated Date: Sep 12, 2018 12:57 PM

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