It's in the air once again. There is anticipation and excitement, some butterflies too but an overall optimism prevails. Jawaharlal Nehru University students are gearing up to hold their students' union elections after a gap of more than three years, during which elections had stood banned.
Student politics has been a launch pad for a host of national level politicians from Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury to Nationalist Congress Party leader D.P. Tripathi, all of who were Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union presidents. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley too was a Delhi University Students' Union president.
An awareness of this tradition, spurred by a drive to improve student and university life, coupled with the grant of a new lease of life to the JNUSU, student organizations have stepped up their preparations for the elections. Campaigning plans are afoot, scores of pamphlets are being prepared and support is being mobilized. The students are hoping to conduct elections by January end or February beginning.
Disagreement between students and some Lyngdoh Committee recommendations led to the ban on elections by the Supreme Court in 2008. Numerous petitions and several court appearances later the students were granted some reprieve when the Supreme Court in a judgment dated December 8, 2011 recognized the “…right to exercise the vitally important liberty of the students to choose their representative through election.” The Court sought to “strike a balance” between the spirit of the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations and extended some relaxations for the conduct of the JNUSU election. These recommendations made in 2006, provide guidelines for students' union elections in colleges and universities.
The absence of a students' union has been sorely felt by large sections of the student community. JNUSU's last president prior to the ban, Sandeep Singh says: “A major achievement of the union has been to usher in a democratic decision-making process in which all the constituents of the university including the students, teachers and karamcharis participate. In the absence of the union, the grammar of the functioning of the university has changed and students have been sidelined from the decision making process.” Noting that of the 40 plus Central Universities, only a handful have student unions, Sandeep says: “Student elections are often criticised for the predominant role of money and muscle power. But we must reflect on the source of this power -- usually the bigger and powerful national level political players.”
Another former JNUSU president Dhananjay Tripathi also expresses his apprehensions: “The establishment of the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment, inclusive admissions and the equal opportunities cell are achievements of the students' union. These gains could be squandered.” There are also fears about the depoliticisation of the university.
While student politics obviously help in addressing collective issues, students also undergo a personal transformation. “If you're active in student politics, you know not only about the problems in Africa, Egypt and Iraq but also those of your own hostel mess,” says Dhananjay. Ditto for Rohit Azad; another former JNUSU president. A graduate from an elite Delhi University college, Rohit was set for a corporate job. “Participation in student politics made me realise that my real interest lay in academics,” says Rohit.
Students of Allahabad University too are hoping for the revival of their students' union. A Ph. D. scholar at the university, Vishwadeepak Tripathi recalls that the Allahabad University students' union elections were banned when a trail of violence, including a candidate's murder, marred the 2005 elections.
“Money and muscle power have often figured in our student elections. Students are keen on elections only if it does not become a platform for bad elements and strongmen,” says Vishwadeepak.He points out that a students' union can, however, help address issues such as irregular classes, discrepancies in fellowships' distribution and improvement of library facilities. The Allahabad University Academic Council recently approved fresh regulations governing the election of a new students' union. “Some students fear that if the union is not revived by the time of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, interest might fade and students will have to renew their efforts,” says Vishwadeepak.
Following prolonged student agitations, the Aligarh Muslim University students' union was revived in 2011 after a gap of four years. The union had been dissolved on account of student violence.Though the influence of money and muscle power has been visible in Delhi University Students' Union elections, former DUSU president and L.L.M. graduate from the London School of Economics Nupur Sharma observes that in recent times, this influence seems to have declined.
Regarding the lack of concrete political agendas and absence of ideology-based contests in the DUSU elections, Nupur notes: “These elections are greatly influenced by the number of parties and freebies candidates give.” Prior to the implementation of the Lyngdoh recommendations, airbrushed and touched up pictures of candidates would dot the DU campus especially around election time. Ruing the fact that many student voters chose their leaders based on their glossy pictures, Nupur points out: “. Since the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations were implemented, the glamour quotient has somewhat receded, paving the way for ideological debates.”
Summing it up rather aptly, former JNU Vice-Chancellor and current South Asian University president Prof. G.K. Chadha says: “Student unions present the best organized way of building understanding between the students and the administration.”