Published in Himal South Asian. 12 March 2012

The quiet, tree-lined walks of the academic block of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where the usual sounds are of murmuring voices and birdcalls, have for the last several weeks reverberated with purposeful footfalls, high-pitched sloganeering and counter-sloganeering. JNU has been showing all the signs of a politically rejuvenated campus. On 1 March, the rush of political activity included the widespread distribution of pamphlets, as campaigning reached a crescendo. This was a red-ticket day in the history of JNU, when nearly two-thirds of the student body voted for the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), injecting life into a body that has been in the political wilderness since the Supreme Court of India put a stay on JNU student elections, in 2008.

The ban arose because a section of students had disagreed with certain recommendations made by the 2006 J M Lyngdoh Committee. This official body had looked into the conduct of student-union elections in colleges and universities throughout India, and many of the recommendations drew student ire. These included calls for the dissociation of student groups from political parties; the prohibition of printed canvassing materials; and an age limit for graduate, postgraduate and research students. Certain sections were particularly vocal in their opposition to the recommended 10-day limit on the duration of elections, an age limit of 28 for research students, a cap on the number of times a student could contest elections, and specific attendance requirements that could disqualify individuals from being considered students – and hence from contesting or voting in student elections.

Despite the ban, JNU students kept up efforts to restore the JNUSU. Their struggle culminated in December 2011, when the Supreme Court agreed to reinstate union elections, provided they adhered to the spirit of the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations. The Supreme Court also agreed to certain relaxations; the age limit for research students was extended up to 30, for instance, while permission was granted to circulate photocopied campaigning materials within a stipulated budget. The much-contested attendance requirements were also relaxed.

So, over the course of the subsequent three months and amidst great enthusiasm, the recent elections saw a rush to politicise current students. After all, most had never witnessed a JNUSU election and had only passing familiarity with the various student organisations and their ideologies. When the vote finally took place, the student mandate was overwhelmingly in favour of the All India Students’ Association (AISA), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. The AISA clinched the JNUSU’s top four offices as well as 14 councillor seats in the various schools. Coming in second for the office positions was the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and its partner the All India Students Federation. But they still trailed the AISA candidates by margins of 500 to 1300 votes, and could clinch only three councillor seats. Finally, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), won six councillor seats, while the Congress-affiliated National Students’ Union of India managed just four.

The biggest surprise was the poor showing by the SFI. Barring these elections and the last elections, in 2007, SFI members have always won office-bearing positions in the JNUSU since its establishment in 1973. For election watchers who were expecting a neck-and-neck contest between the AISA and the SFI, the former’s clean sweep of the central panel and its impressive tally in the various schools came as a surprise, as did the popularity of the rightwing ABVP in a university that has traditionally been a leftist bastion, though the ABVP’s performance is roughly the same as it was in the 2007 elections. The failure of the National Students’ Union of India reflects the wider systemic anger against the Congress’s performance and policies in the central government, and came just ahead of the party’s own drubbing in the Uttar Pradesh elections.

‘Banning is not democratic’
Large sections of the JNU student community say they have been keenly aware of the absence of a union over the last four years. In a hotly contested presidential debate on 28 February, candidates focused particular attention on institutional concerns that they said had received little attention during the JNUSU’s silence. These included an ongoing infrastructural crisis, particularly the urgent need to improve and expand library and hostel facilities. Candidate after candidate highlighted the decline of gender sensitivity on the campus, citing increased reports of sexual harassment and the weakening of the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment. There was also evident resentment against periodic fee hikes, attempts to curtail student liberties, and a failure to usher in an inclusive recruitment and admissions policy.

Amidst the calls for ‘struggle’, ‘revolution’ and ‘change’ – a prominent part of this year’s election discussions – students also raised concerns over a difficult job market. While JNU’s emphasis has long been on imparting education for education’s sake, students have long stressed the need for the university to take a greater role in improving graduates’ employment prospects. Students Ayesha Khanyari and Syndhya recently noted the need for institutionalised guidance and counselling. In the run-up to the elections, many students urged candidates to make this a key point in their election agendas, and expressed the desire for a union that could also work specifically on this front.

Echoing concerns voiced by former JNUSU leaders such as Sandeep Singh, Dhananjay Tripathi and Rohit Azad, this year’s candidates were also apprehensive about the depoliticisation of the student body in the absence of a union. With a reduced level of political awareness, several warned, the influence of student opinion upon the university’s administrative decisions had been greatly reduced. JNUSU’s new president, Sucheta De, the third woman to hold the post, puts it simply: ‘The absence of a union created the lack of a forum for student participation.’

AISA’s De won the presidency with 2102 votes, defeating her nearest rival, the SFI’s Zico Dasgupta, by 1351 votes. At 28, Sucheta is no stranger to politics. Hailing from the restive Medinipur district in West Bengal, Sucheta says that as a child she witnessed atrocities perpetrated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI (M). ‘Being a witness to such incidents, coupled with the dictates of my family, school and society that as a girl I had to be a certain way, created anger against the system. This anger was articulated in the form of politics when I came to the Presidency College in Kolkata, where I joined a student organisation critical of the [CPI (M)-affiliated] SFI in West Bengal.’ Sucheta says she encountered multiple kinds of opposition as a female politician. ‘Your parents can be threatened when you are a woman,’ she notes. ‘The general belief is that women shouldn’t be talking too much. And if you are not docile and oppose the power structure, your character is slandered and maligned and you are labelled a “male” sort of woman.’

In May 2011, the administration imposed a restraint on the JNU Forum Against War on People, a collective of individuals perceived to be supporting the Indian Maoists. AISA members had supported the forum, which opposed Operation Green Hunt, the government’s crackdown on Maoist forces. The restraint was subsequently lifted in November after prolonged student agitation, and after the Forum’s leaders came forward to assume responsibility. ‘A few of us may have attended the public meetings of the forum, but AISA is not at all pro-Maoist,’ Sucheta says. ‘We have very strong differences with Maoist politics. But we oppose the banning of the CPI (Maoist), since banning an organisation is not democratic. We are opposed to the banning of any organisation.’

SFI’s presidential candidate Zico, an economics PhD student, also hails from West Bengal. ‘My politicisation began in JNU,’ he says. ‘In 2004, an agitation for [better] hostels was going on in the university and students had sat for a relay hunger strike, which is how I came in contact with the left and the JNU students’ union. The SFI was more active than other leftist organisations on the campus. Even in the national polity, the left democratic movement was more relevant than other streams of left movement, and so I joined SFI.’

Meanwhile, questions surrounding the 2007 anti-industrialisation violence in Nandigram and Singur, which greatly undermined the standing of the CPI (M) and was a key factor in its overthrow after more than 30 years in power in West Bengal, refuse to die down, including on the JNU campus. Many questions thrown at the SFI candidates during the various election debates related to the Nandigram and Singur incidents. But, Zico says, ‘These questions were posed by the various rival organisations’ candidates. JNU students in general have moved beyond the debate on Nandigram. Much more does not need to be stated on the issue – JNU students have a whole new set of issues to debate.’ He emphasises that the SFI aims to move beyond mere rhetoric to ensure a well-functioning JNUSU, which can concretely address student issues. He adds that the SFI had played a major role in restoring the student union.

The SFI may have lost the election, but in a post-election statement its leaders promised ‘to work within and outside the JNUSU as a constructive left opposition,’ and to investigate the political and organisational causes of its electoral defeat. The AISA, on the other hand, said that its victory ‘is a mandate against the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations and privatisation of education, and a vindication of the vision of a socially inclusive, accessible and affordable campus.’ Explaining the opposition to the Lyngdoh recommendations, Sucheta says, ‘Some of the clauses curb the democratic space of students. For instance, if one is expected to campaign on the bases of ideologies, ideas and agendas, and not personal networking and glamour, how can there be a ban on pamphlets and printed material? Our aim is to restore the JNUSU constitution, which does not contain these curbs.’

A different politics
There is much that makes the JNUSU elections remarkable. The absence of the large sums of money and the physical intimidation that tend to dominate student elections on the country’s other campuses, the space for a range of ideas, campaigning on the basis of concretely defined ideologies, and the sway of leftist forces even when the left’s reach at the national level is confined to a small handful of states – these give the JNUSU elections a distinct character.

JNU has always been important in the broader context of the Indian left. Leftist stalwarts Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat were both JNUSU presidents in their time. Roshan Kishore, a student leader, explains: ‘The left considers the university to be a site where individuals will come forward to contribute to the movement. Different generations of JNU students have contributed. From opposing the Emergency in the 1970s to exposing the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign in 2004, the university has always been part of the larger struggle, and not an isolated island.’ He continues: ‘This year’s student elections mandate has also been for [leftist] forces, while other players have been completely sidelined.’

The JNU students’ movement has also influenced student politics elsewhere in India. ‘The JNU student movement has its own history and character,’ Kishore says, ‘which have been shaped by collective struggle.’ He lauds the movement’s ability to consistently stave off interference by the university administration, and its lasting presence on the campus. ‘Usually, it is the void in politics which attracts money and muscle power. This void is missing from JNU student politics. The JNUSU model of elections has been widely appreciated, and student leaders in other parts of the country take their lead from JNU student politics.’

For context, one need only look to Delhi University, where student elections are heavily influenced by financial and physical power; or to Allahabad University, where student elections have been marred by physical violence and even murder. Yet while the Lyngdoh recommendations were meant to address these issues, they have also significantly curtailed student politics across the country’s campuses, and diminished the authority of student-elected bodies.

Students from other parts of Southasia have noted the uniqueness of the political exercise at JNU. Manjima, from Bangladesh, observes that JNU student elections were dominated by campus issues – ironically, a difference from some other universities. ‘Campus politics in Bangladesh has less to do with student welfare and more to do with central politics,’ she says. ‘The two main student organisations are the Chhatro League and the Chatrodol, of the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, respectively. The political parties have killed each other’s leaders, and this reflects on student politics, too.’ She continues: ‘Violence is common in the university. The Chhatra Shibir of the Jamaat-e-Islami is also known for its violence. The problem with Bangladeshi student politics is that the student leaders do not work for the institution. Their main aim is to get a parliamentary seat.’

Nepali student Pramod Jaiswal finds the elections praiseworthy in other aspects. ‘In other Indian universities, such as Delhi University, and also in Nepali universities, money and muscle power is evident,’ Jaiswal says. Left ideologies also dominate Nepali universities, where Jaiswal says ‘the students are radical and revolutionary.’ Jaiswal notes that the strongest student unions in Nepal are Maoist, though Nepal’s Maoists are now part of the parliamentary process. He adds that, compared to India, Nepali student politics tend to have greater influence upon the central government. ‘The Nepali Congress was supporting the monarchy,’ he says, ‘but the students put pressure on them to fight for a republic. The youth are far more politically vibrant and active compared to India.’

Mansoor Ehsan, an Afghan student, rues the absence of student politics in Afghanistan. He says Afghan president Hamid Karzai has forbidden student politics. ‘Afghan youths have a high level of political understanding and consciousness, but there are no structures for activating this understanding. We need student politics that can struggle for a secular polity rather than one which is dominated by religion.’

Meanwhile, in south Delhi, all eyes are on the new JNUSU, which has become the focus for the students’ collective – and at times contradictory – aspirations. However, the union will have to work doubly hard to prove its mettle, since it has only a short tenure before the next union elections in September 2012.

Cover photo: Urvashi Sarkar

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