Change is the challenge, and students are impatient for it. They are frustrated with the culture of vendetta politics. Deadly violence used to quell their protests has sparked a backlash in the campuses.
University and college campuses have always been, and will always be, important nurseries for politicians. But these are not the only ones. Political leaders emerge also from militant struggles of various sections of the people like trade unions, the peasantry and so on. Like there are people and people, there is politics and politics. Naturally, therefore, universities nurse politicians of various hues ranging from the political left to the right.
The country’s conscience has been stunned by the death of a student leader under police custody in Kolkata recently. Sudipta Gupta was arrested when the students were protesting against the prevarication of the West Bengal government in holding regular elections to the student unions. The founders of our Constitution did not merely recognise that the students must have democratic rights of unions but also underlined the fact that such rights will equip the students to become better citizens healthily contributing to the general good of society.
Campuses are the places where young minds are exposed to new and different ideas that shape their consciousness. It is during the course of such interactions, debates and discussions that political opinions are formed which have a lasting impact in the life of an individual. In the early seventies, universities like the JNU had posters saying: “when politics decides your career, your future; you decide your politics” and urging the students to “study and struggle.” After all, it is the government’s policies that determine both the quantity and quality of higher education. It is the government’s policies that determine the magnitude of employment opportunities, and therefore, the future of a student. And these are based on politics that can either be supported or mostly opposed.
Campuses always reflect the major conflicts and debates that are currently ongoing in society. Young energetic minds looking for a better future seek answers to uncomfortable questions such as the continued prevalence of poverty, malnutrition, unfulfilled promises and assurances. The search for such answers and the consequent manner in which the current policies must be changed is the nursery that produces political activists. In the early years of independent India, a statement of Jawaharlal Nehru, which is the motif of JNU today, says: “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the university discharges its duties adequately, then it is well with the people and the nation.”
This acquires a greater significance in today’s context where politics is being seen as a lucrative career. A growing number of people, including industrialists, are cynically seeing entry into politics as the fastest money making option. The current growing moral degeneration of politicians feeds political cynicism which is dangerous for the health of parliamentary democracy itself.
In this context, campuses cannot remain merely as nurseries for politicians but must more importantly restore to politics its essential agenda – social change and public welfare. As overall politics degenerates so does campus politics with the growth of anarchy and violence. The social divisions in our society based on caste, creed or gender also naturally find reflection.
The answer to erase such negative tendencies like anarchy and violence does not lie in trying to keep students away from politics and denying them their legitimate democratic rights to form unions. Following from what Nehru said, such efforts will only deform our civilisational advance. Wrong trends will have to be tackled and defeated by the students themselves. Surely, any spillover effect of campus politics on society affecting the law and order situation will have to be seriously dealt with. However, legitimate student protests on national and societal issues must never be prevented or persecuted in the larger interests of societal advance.
Notwithstanding some aberrations, Indian campuses have had a healthy and glorious record of politically participating in major contemporary developments. They played an important role in our freedom struggle and subsequently, post-independence, they made (like in the struggle against Emergency) and continue to make important contributions for consolidating the secular democratic foundations of the modern Indian Republic.
This is true globally as well. The 1968 student movement, spearheaded from the Sorbonne University, France shook the foundations of many an establishment and brought about radical changes across Europe. In today’s world, the student movements in England against the fee hikes and all across Latin America have profoundly overhauled the political establishment. The Chilean student movement forced several concessions in the struggle for greater access to education.
Campuses are the theatres for the battle of ideas and without a battle of ideas, no civilization can advance, no problem being faced by the people can be resolved, no vision for a better future for country and people can emerge.
(Sitaram Yechury is a member of the CPI(M) Politburo and Member of Parliament)