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Where is the right balance?

Campus politics cannot be shunned completely, but wholesale party politics need to be stemmed

Where is the right balance?

There have been recent cases of campus violence during students' union elections in both Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University during the counting of the votes, following which, the results were declared late and questions have been raised about the credibility of the election and the nature of violence-ridden students' politics.

In Delhi, earlier, over the last two years, there have been several cases of conflicts with left students' wings on one side and usually the right wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) on the other side. It has become a turf war between the Left and the Right, and more often than not the outsiders have entered the scene to vitiate the atmosphere.

Earlier, in 2017, the Kerala High Court had imposed a blanket ban on campus politics and posed pointed questions about the relevance of allowing politics on college campuses. The High Court had then said that studies and strikes cannot go together, and Dharna or Satyagraha have no place in the constitutional democracy, more so in academic institutes.

The Delhi campus violence has again raised the question about politics and violence on campuses. Undoubtedly, a state of joblessness is leading to a spiralling of frustration on campuses. Learners do not see a value of education at the end of the journey and have lost faith in the hackneyed way education is being delivered through brick and mortar structures in the public education system today.

But more significantly, campus politics as an easy and definite method to hone leadership and crowd gathering skills and be noticed by the powers that be. Many ministers today from Centre to states are those who first got noticed on campuses, from Sitaram Yechury, to Mamata Banerjee, to Arun Jaitley, to Ravishankar Prasad, all are products of campus politics which remains a leading source of politicians in India next only to dynasties. Recently enough, Kanhaiya Kumar, a product of JNU campus politics, is all set to get the joint opposition election ticket for Begusarai Lok Sabha seat.

For political parties, campuses have long been a boot camp for enlisting students as their sympathisers. Overt and divisive political activities on the campus do pollute young minds, and students' unions are often used by politicians to do their 'dirty works'. In many states, student politics has always been synonymous with violence and destruction of public property. Excessive campus politics is a possible reason for us to perform so poorly at the higher-education level.

It is often seen that there is a lot of power with many student leaders, dispensing money and patronage, etc., controlling admissions in many universities and colleges. Even business permits and licences are often procured through political patronage and linkages, as student leaders.

There is a strong argument in favour of student politics cultivating a democratic mindset and the threat of hardliners and mafia occupying the vacuum created by the exit of campus politics. However, many consider this as just manufactured paranoia by politicians and believe that Indian democracy would be better served if qualified, humane, and disciplined graduates, not unruly hooligans come out of our campuses.

It has been seen that classes are frequently disrupted by unwanted strikes. Backed by political parties, student unions unleash havoc, turning campuses into proxy zones instead of centres of learning. Elections fought on party lines turn colleges into battlefields. Students go to college with knives and cycle chains. Murders have become common occurrences there. However, we have a rich tradition of campus politics during the freedom movement too, and leaders such as Subhas Chandra Basu were products of campus-based politics first. There was a strong anti-India anti-emergency students' movement during the 1970s too.

Politics on college campuses is very much relevant as a subject of open discussion on campuses, and a blanket ban is not the solution for the unhealthy practices being reported recently. The healthy side of politics needs to be encouraged in the formative years of an individual's personality development. Students need to be sensitised and educated in politics. Debates and discussions need to be organised on all relevant topics. But a blind following or a forceful push to follow an ideology of a particular political party should be discouraged.

Students should be enlightened to choose the political party of their choice after knowing their ideologies. A total ban on campus politics, if implemented by force, will result in a leadership vacuum in the future and the leaders will be insensitive to society.

Also many believe that campus politics is a marked feature that clearly draws a distinction between school life and college days of every student. Putting a ban on such politics, by raising questions like whether or not a student goes to college to indulge in political activities, is not an end in itself. One asserts the spirit of democracy, that goes by the watchwords of freedom of speech and expression, by questioning rather than by confining oneself to accepted norms.

The apprehension that the violent nature of student politics is detrimental to academic ambience doesn't hold water in the absence of a proper overhauling of political system within college campuses, which may prove more beneficial than an outright prohibition.

"To let politics become a cesspool and then avoid it because it is a cesspool is a double crime." These words of Howard Crosby ring truer in the case of campus politics and they serve as a befitting rejoinder to the 'blanket ban.' Both the damned-if-you-do and the damned-if-you-don't schools of thought in campus politics are not entirely right or outrightly wrong. Campuses are the nurseries to nurture tomorrow's citizens on whom the destiny of the nation is irrevocably conjoined.

They cannot, and must not, remain immune to or oblivious of the political realities of the day. That said, one cannot hold brief for today's campus politics that has degenerated into disgusting party-politics playing as pawns in the hands of nit-wit politicians. What is needed is not a 'blanket ban' but healthy campus politics that shuns over-dependence on party-politics.

(The author is a media academic. Views expressed are strictly personal)

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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