West Bengal seems poised for a dramatic change in the forthcoming college union elections. This could well turn out to be the major campus reform in several decades. Indeed the ban on rallies in College Square is a prudent decision that ought to have been place long ago.
The students now will be required to contest union elections as ‘individuals’ with mandatory 60 per cent attendance and without being affiliated to any political party.
This will hopefully check campus conflicts between rival groups. The students’ council will be presided over by a teacher and another teacher will be its treasurer.
The St Xavier’s College model will be followed. The recommendations of the State government, if implemented seriously, will perhaps ensure peace and order in the academic circuit. Student union elections in India, including West Bengal’s centres of higher learning, have often led to ugly violence.
Despite the assurance of conducting free and fair elections, advanced by the authorities of universities and the state governments, the results have not been tangible. On the contrary, clashes between rival student groups and allegations of intimidation are frequent.
Such allegations and counter-allegations have vitiated the campus atmosphere. The ABVP, SFI, Chhatra Parishad, and Trinamul Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) have accused opponents of blocking the distribution of nomination forms. However, such allegations during student union elections in universities and colleges in West Bengal are not a new phenomenon.
The “tradition” was nurtured by the CPI-M during its 34 years in power. Political activities were remote-controlled by Alimuddin Street.
This has affected both higher education and research. The academics dutifully carried out the instructions of the party. Students were exploited by the CPI-M to strengthen the party.
No university or higher educational institution is completely free from the contagion of political influence. The violent ambience persists even after the change of dispensation. Student politics has mortal proportions. The incident at Madhav College of Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, where Professor Sabharwal was killed during the union elections, is deeply shocking. The post mortem report mentioned rib fracture. While two other teachers of the college were admitted to hospital, the former Principal, Prof Sachin Upadhyay, died of trauma.
The National Students Union of India (NSU), the students’ wing of the Congress, called a strike in protest against the alleged involvement of ABVP for manhandling the faculty. In retrospect, both the ABVP and NSUI acted at the behest of their respective political leaders. A similar incident occurred in West Bengal on September 6, 2008. At BESU (Bengal Engineering and Science University) Samik Basu, a thirdyear engineering student, died in a confrontation between Independent Consolidation (IC) and SFI.
The deaths of Professor Sabharwal and Samik Basu illustrate the sordid scenario. The existence of politicised student unions in institutions of higher learning calls for reflection. There is little doubt that a responsible union can work for the best interests of the students.
But in reality, how often does this happen? The universities and colleges are turned into battlefields during elections. The political leaders pull the strings and jeopardise academic activities. In addition, a section of teachers, with links to particular political parties, propagate political ideologies to students for self-interest.
These teachers invite students to come under the umbrella of their party, and even advise them to grab the union by any means, fair or foul. Different groups of student unions, with the blessings of their mentors both inside and outside the institutions, strain every nerve to capture power.
This often leads to violence. The Naxalite movement in the 1970s was marked by student unrest and chaos. Since then, violence during student elections has become fairly routine in many institutions of excellence, including Kolkata’s Presidency University.
Two years ago, a students’ agitation in Jadavpur University was mercilessly attacked by the police, and amidst darkness. In general, student leaders are not in favour of de-politicising their unions. They usually articulate the perceptions of the party, skirting the actual problems of the students, or larger social issues that are not of any interest to their party.
The Lyngdoh committee had advanced certain recommendations a decade ago. The committee was headed by the former Chief Election Commissioner and comprised several other dignitaries, notably Ved Prakash, now UGC chairman and former Director of the National Institute of Education Planning and Management , and Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre of Policy Research. It was expected that the committee would furnish cogent recommendations.
The Council of Principals of some of the colleges affiliated to universities in Kerala filed writ petitions against four universities in the state with regard to a judgment given by the High Court of Kerala.
They sought an order or direction from the court to not insist on college union elections on the basis of the directive issued to them by their universities to conduct elections until the existing system was transformed in keeping with the parliamentary model. At the behest of the Supreme Court, the Lyngdoh Committee submitted its valuable reports some of which are truly commendable.
These include the de-politicisation of student union activities. The committee wanted the process of elections to be streamlined. However, the ‘declaration model’ as envisaged by the committee suggests that aspiring candidates of the students’ union should furnish a declaration, stating that they have no links to any political party for the purpose of the election.
This is absurd. The invisible hand of politicians cannot be ruled out. Another “declaration model” states that the age of the contestants should not be above 27. They should have a minimum of 75 per cent attendance in class and can spend up to Rs.10,000 for the purpose of election. The restriction on the age-limit is a particularly notable recommendation.
The comments of T.V. Rajeswar, former Governor of Uttar Pradesh and Chancellor of the universities in Uttar Pradesh, are indeed remarkable. According to him, student union elections should be made optional. Universities and colleges should have the right to decide whether or not they want to hold elections. Apart from the elected members, the students’ unions should also have some nominated students from the field of academics and co-curricular activities, as members.
Amidst the political unrest and corruption, it might be difficult to de-politicise students’ unions. The academic community, the best teachers in particular, will have to ensure that the students do not become guinea pigs of political parties.
The party in power in West Bengal as well as the administrative authorities should act impartially to tackle the situation promptly. Managing higher education is a forbidding challenge, beyond the grasp of most people. The effective and meaningful implementation of public policy particularly education policy, which involves the interest and direct involvement of the students, must be tackled with sensitivity.
It calls for effective management skills, professional acumen and vision. It must not be tackled by politicians for their narrow benefits, ignoring the state.
De-politicising students’ unions is difficult to achieve at the present juncture. Yet we must strive to achieve it by all means.
The writer, a former Reader in Chemistry, Presidency College, Kolkata, was associated with UGC and UNICEF.