Delhi University gears up for student polls: Caste, money factors rob campus politics of level playing field

Unequal opportunities on the basis of family ties or community considerations constitute an imperfection in our collective conscience, for they undermine the democratic principle of a level playing field. The alternative to lineage and pedigree is a fair chance to meritorious and motivated people at electoral politics.

Politics at Delhi University, which goes to polls on 12 September, is dominated by caste and money. For the last five years, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s (ABVP) candidates for the post of the president of Delhi University Students’ Union have been Gujjars. To counter this, the National Students Union of India (NSUI) has fielded Jat candidates for the post of president. Other candidates have mostly been from the Jat and Gujjar communities. In 2016-17 all four posts (president, vice-president, secretary and joint secretary) were won by candidates from these communities.

Last year, Ankiv Basoya, the presidential candidate of the ABVP was seen shaking hands with people from the sun roof of his red Mustang. “One person contested from our college as an independent candidate, and he was beaten up. Politics is dirty and scary. They (student leaders) come in big cars and raid our classrooms, and classes are disrupted. There is much screaming and shouting, but we don’t know what they have promised in their manifestos,” a science student at Kirori Mal College told Firstpost. Recently, Kawalpreet Kaur of the All India Students’ Association registered a harassment complaint with the Delhi Commission of Women against two members of the ABVP. This year, AISA is contesting the DUSU polls in alliance with AAP’s student wing Chatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti (CYSS).

According to the Lyngdoh committee's guidelines, a candidate can spend a maximum of Rs 5,000 for canvassing and other election-related work. Last year, the NSUI’s poll campaign centered around an RTI that showed that the ABVP-led DUSU panel spent Rs 22 lakh on tea, photostats and other miscellaneous activities. Rain dances, trips to amusement parks in Sonepat, make-up kits and tons of free pizzas — this is what the students of north campus are getting in return for turning out on election day. Till last year, of the 22 women’s colleges in Delhi University, only five participated in the DUSU elections. These include Aditi Mahavidyalaya, Lakshmibai College, Bhagini Nivedita College, Miranda House and SP Mukherji College for Women. This means that almost 80 percent of DU’s women students don’t cast their vote.

The corrosion in the level of politics runs deep in north India, and isn't limited to Delhi University.

 Delhi University gears up for student polls: Caste, money factors rob campus politics of level playing field

Campaign posters strewn on the ground ahead of the DUSU election. Pallavi Rebbapragada/Firstpost

Close to where the river Saraswati lends spiritual depth to the waters of Ganga and Yamuna stands the Allahabad University. It is the fourth oldest modern university in India, having been established in 1876. The student politics here has given India a long list of fine leaders. Several prominent people — including former prime ministers VP Singh and Chandrashekhar, former chief justices Mohammad Hidayatullah and Kamal Narain Singh, two-time president of the Indian National Congress Madan Mohan Malaviya and former president Shankar Dayal Sharma — were first exposed to designs of governance inside the institutions’s Victorian halls.

In 2016, Richa Singh became the first woman president of the Allahabad University student union in 128 years, after decades of SUVs parading campuses, smuggling of alcohol into hostels and the use of muscle power. “We fought a simple campaign within a budget of Rs 1 lakh, as opposed to the parties contesting against us, which spent close to Rs 25 lakh. We brought in a model of alternate politics based on ‘samvaad’ or dialogue over concerns like the lack of scholarships and fading opportunities for academic researchers,” she told Firstpost. Pooja Shukla, who was arrested outside Lucknow University after she went on a hunger strike demanding the results of her entrance exams along with 25 others that were allegedly being withheld by the Vice Chancellor, said she derives her strength from Richa Singh’s victory. However, she feels that money and muscle power still dominate politics. “Lucknow University banned elections in 2016 and recently, the authorities also banned protests on campus — even on issues critical to students’ welfare. There is a lot of violence in student politics in north India, and it needs to be uprooted,” said Shukla, a former member of AISA who recently joined the Samajwadi Party.

Back in 1970, Professor Alok Pant and American political scientist Walter Anderson authored a series of articles titled ‘Student Politics in Allahabad’ in Economic and Political Weekly. On the subject of violence in politics, these articles spoke of an "intervening variable between the violence itself and the unsatisfactory creation of a new identity, resulting in a feeling of alienation and frustration." It said that the inability of students to cope with a new environment led to a disposition towards violence. A majority of the students at Allahabad came from the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh, where poverty is slowing down change in lifestyles.

“In the 80s and 90s, we used to talk about government policies and had scientific approaches. There was no role of casteism and money or power,” said Atul Kumar Anjan, a senior CPI leader and national secretary of the Communist Party of India, who was elected president of the Lucknow Student Union six times and led the movement to overthrow two chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh – Kamalapati Tripathi and Ram Naresh Yadav. He recalled the National Students’ Convention of 1936 organised at the Ganga Memorial Hall, which had Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah on the same stage for the last time.

Today, Anjan believes, student politics tries its best to mirror the bigger political game.

Several people who acquired prominence had earlier been student leaders. Former prime minister IK Gujral was at one point the secretary of the All India Student Federation. DP Dhar, chief architect of the Indian intervention in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, was earlier the president of the Lucknow University Students’ Union. Former president Shankar Dayal Sharma was an office bearer of the Lucknow University Student Union.

Subhash Kashyap, former secretary-general of the 7th, 8th and 9th Lok Sabha, was politically active at the Allahabad University in the 1950s. He spoke to Firstpost about how everybody has a role to play in reforming student politics. Describing simpler times in Allahabad, he said, “The V-C should command the respect of students and teachers and through his or her integrity and ability, become a role model. During our time, the Allahabad University used to boast of professors from around the country who moulded the characters of students through their devotion to academics. If students remain in the university longer only to contest elections repeatedly, then it is an injustice to the system.”

Unlike politics outside of educational institutions, the purpose of student politics isn’t as much the impact it creates but the electoral lessons it leaves young leaders with. Student politics is useful for democracy in terms of becoming nurseries of national-level parties, until political parties start using student cadres to campaign for them. This aspect is visible in the greater involvement of leaders in shaping college politics. At one point, the distribution of tickets in the NSUI was controlled by Congress leaders like Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and HKL Bhagat, and later by Ajay Maken and Arvinder Singh Lovely.

Equally worrisome is the trend of students giving expression to their ideologies in extreme ways. In April 2016, Rajat Chaudhary, the presidential candidate of the ABVP last year, disrupted a seminar on ‘Ambedkar on Caste and Social Justice’ at Deshbandhu College, ordering people to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ in order to let the event take place. “The institutionalisation of interference of political parties in campus politics started with the emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, after which other parties too subscribed to caste and muscle power to mobile students for support,” said Anand Pradhan, who was the president of the students union at Banaras Hindu University from 1992-1993, and is now a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. He recalled that in the 1980s and the 1990s, when the Mandal Commission and the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid issue emerged in the public discourse, student politics became divided on the basis of caste. This was coupled with the liberalisation of the 1990s, which made students career-driven, and promoted an approach of apoliticisation and depoliticisation, creating a void in student participation.

Pradhan further said, “JNU is a model through which student politics can be revived, but it is too localised for it to have an impact outside the institution."

The larger question is whether left-wing politics, which is more issue-centric and nuanced in its narrative, is putting pressure on bigger parties to reform themselves. Apoorvanand, professor at the Department of Hindi, University of Delhi, believes so. He says, “The pinjra tod campaign that seeks to make hostel and paying guest accommodation regulations less regressive and restrictive for women students is refreshing to see. In the past one year, we can see a change in the way the NSUI has conducted itself, and this could have been an influence of left-leaning groups like the All India Students' Association (AISA).”

Dynasticism isn’t new to Indian politics. From the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje, Varun Gandhi, Devendra Fadnavis, Pema Khandu, Pritam Munde, Poonam Mahajan, Heena Gavit, Raksha Khadse and Eknath Khadse to Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia of the Congress to Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal to Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, lineage makes it easier to rise through the ranks. The Left may have emerged in Delhi University's politics and shaken things up, but caste and money still dominate north Indian campuses, where most students still prefer to remain spectators to the drama of student elections.

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Updated Date: Sep 08, 2018 20:13:40 IST