The physical harassment of the Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University by students reaffirms the malaise in institutions of higher learning. While the incident is extremely unfortunate, it is not unprecedented. There appears to be a systematic pattern, one that has been shrewdly nurtured by political parties to serve their vested interest. They have used students as puppets.

Students of Jadavpur University are agitating over the holding of students’ union elections Some student leaders alleged that the VC took no decision even after a meeting with the higher education minister. Though they have denied the charge of violence, the injured VC had to be admitted to a private hospital. The latest incident, ugly in itself, has happened after the students organised a referendum in the last week of January over the issue of a non-political student union or a students’ council. The outcome showed that the overwhelming majority were in favour of a union. The demand, even the timing, could well have been settled through talks. The attack on the VC must be severely condemned.

The government of West Bengal is poised to witness a dramatic and significant change in the forthcoming students union elections. The ban on rallies at College Square has been a prudent decision, long overdue. The students now will be required to contest union elections as ‘individuals’ with mandatory 60 per cent attendance and without membership of any student affiliated political organisation. This, it is hoped, will minimise the possibility of clashes 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 envisaged by the State government, if implemented sincerely, will perhaps ensure order and peace in the campuses. Student union elections in India have almost inevitably sparked violence, when not killings. Despite the assurance of conducting free and fair elections by the university authorities and the government, there has been no tangible change in the situation. On the contrary, clashes between rival student groups and allegations of intimidation by supporters of the ruling party are frequent. Allegations and counter-allegations have vitiated the atmosphere since the nomination stage.

During Left Front rule, political activities on the campus were remote controlled by the Alimuddin Street, and to the detriment of higher education and research. The intervention of the CPI-M was palpable. The academics dutifully carried out the instructions of the party. Students suffered, but they were routinely utilised by the CPI-M. The union was central to party in power, and the so-called ‘student movement’ revolved around it. The brilliant book ‘Red hammer over Calcutta University’ written by the vice-chancellor Professor Santosh Kumar Bhattacharya vividly described its decadence. The voters have shown the door to the CPI-M.

No university and higher educational institution is completely free from political influence. Teachers are politicised and administrators inept. Campus violence persists unabated. There is anarchy in higher education even after the so-called paribartan in West Bengal. Student politics in universities and other educational institutions has assumed alarming proportions in our country. The incident at Madhav College in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, about a decade ago, when professors were manhandled by some students during the college union election ~ leading to the death of Professor Sabharwal ~ is appalling. The former Principal, Mr Sachin Upadhyay, died of trauma. The student union election was cancelled. The National Students Union of India (NSU), the students’ wing of the Congress, called a strike to protest against the alleged involvement of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharat Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The mortal violence was an act of sacrilege masquerading as college union election. Both student unions were allegedly instructed by their respective political leaders. A similar incident occurred on 6 September 2008 at BESU (Bengal Engineering and Science University). Samik Basu, a thirdy ear engineering student, died during a clash between two rival groups ~ Independent Consolidation (IC) and the Students Federation of India (SFI) in their competitive anxiety to capture power.

The deaths of Professor Sabharwal and Saumik Basu reveal the sordid campus scenario in the country. We need to take a call on the necessity of politicised student unions. There is little doubt that a responsible union can work for the best interests of the students while reinforcing legitimate academic demands. Actually, however, universities and colleges have degenerated to turfs in the struggle for the master of unions. The political leaders pull the strings from the wings, and jeopardise academic activity. Besides, some teachers connected with particular political parties, propagate political ideologies to students. Different groups of student unions, with blessings from their mentors both inside and outside the institutions, strain every nerve to capture power, resulting in violence.

Student leaders are not in favour of depoliticising their unions. They endorse the party’s perception as the view of the students. In the process, they ignore the larger issues in the society that do not come under the purview of their party’s interest.

It bears recall that the J M Lyngdoh committee had recommended that student unions be delinked from politics. Regretfully this has been observed in the breach. Amidst political unrest and random corruption, it might look difficult to depoliticise 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 administration should act sagaciously and impartially to tackle the situation immediately. Managing higher education is a supreme management challenge, beyond the grasp of most people. Effective and meaningful implementation of public policy, particularly in relation to education which involves the direct involvement of the students must be dealt with due sensitivity.

It calls for efficient management skills, profound professional acumen and vision. It must not be tackled by politicians for their narrow benefit, ignoring the country’s long-term prospects. De-politicising students’ unions may be difficult to achieve in the present social scenario, but it is not impossible to accomplish. We should strive hard to achieve it by all means.

(The writer, a former Reader in Chemistry, Presidency College, Kolkata was associated with UGC and UNICEF)