Reforming campus politics

By Ramesh Kumar Raja
In Education
August 4, 2016
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After JNU episode, the draft national education policy envisages curbs on political activities in university campuses

Now that students’ union elections are approaching in various universities of the country with the  beginning of the new academic session, campus politics is going to be the new buzzword for freshers joining colleges. Although it is not bad to hold polls on campus as it gives students an opportunity to exercise their franchise for the first time (for many) and make them mature as a citizen to participate in the democratic electoral process, recently whatever happened in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Hyderabad Central University (HCU) paints a negative picture of the campus politics. The nationalism debate, under the garb of freedom of speech and expression, erupted at JNU followed by arrests, sedition charge on anti-India slogan shouting students snowballed into a broader political drama at the national level. On the other hand, dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide at  HCU rocked the nation like never before putting in focus the Human Resource Development Ministry’s role in handling the crisis.

Although these things are not new on the campus in India (they keep happening in one form or the other), in these cases the issues went beyond college level politics. The controversies led to frequent disruptions during the Budget session of Parliament this year, prompting the Centre to take a note of negative politics dominating the campuses. Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu even went on to say (about JNU agitation), “They are all studying at a central university where public money is involved. So they must do justice to the cause and they must study, that’s all. If they are interested in politics, they can leave studies and join politics.”

Months after these two condemned incidents, a government committee entrusted with making suggestions for the new national education policy (NEP) has recommended restrictions on political activities in universities  and colleges across the country. The panel, headed by former cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian, has also said that educational institutions should consider derecognising student groups based “explicitly on caste and religion” and also restrict the period for which students can stay on campus. These are somewhat akin to years’ old JM Lyngdoh committee’s recommendations on students’ union elections in universities. These recommendations are unwelcoming for those who treat campus politics as a stepping stone for their political career.

The Subramanian Committee in its report talks about how most students in colleges and universities enrol themselves for studies in courses of their choice and spend a precious part of their young life in the pursuit of their education.While most students in almost all colleges and universities could be classified in the above category, there are those whose priorities lie firmly outside academic realm.

Expressing serious concerns against party politics in the campus, the report discusses how many national parties have their own chapters in nearly every university in India. Many campuses also have caste or community-based organizations. Thus, one finds unions or associations of subsets of students, or teachers, or other employees, who aggressively pursue their special political or other interests, on campus. It is not infrequent that two or more of such groups of students or faculty members come into serious opposition with each other, and have no hesitation in blocking the main-line work of the university. They may have real or imagined grievances, but the collateral damage to the serious students can be heavy indeed. The report says that because of agitation politics one frequently hears of agitations, disturbances, gheraos and movements of one sort or the other in various campuses from time to time. Often examinations need to be postponed or in some cases the student even loses a year or more due to unsettled conditions.

Although restricting politics in campuses means curbing free speech and expression, the report countering this argument states that while the Constitution provides every citizen with the right to form groups or associations it should also be kept in mind that “every right has a corresponding duty implicitly attached to it, that every right is circumscribed to ensure that it shall not adversely affect the interest of others.”

Drawing a comparison with western universities, the report states, “Traditionally, universities in the US and the western world have encouraged new ideas to flourish, and have never placed any restriction of any kind on freedom of speech or association within their campuses. It should also, however, be noted that one has rarely heard in the context of US or Europe or other educationally developed countries of postponement of examinations or disruption of academic activities, arising out of groups of students pursuing their ‘right’ to free speech and association. Thus, while intense political activity takes place nationally during an election year in US, like in 2016, and the student groups discuss these issues with much animation, one has never heard of disruption of the academic atmosphere in these universities.”

The report also emphasises that the universities should not to lend themselves as play grounds for the larger national rivalries, inequalities, inequities, and social or cultural fault-lines as these need to be tackled by society as a whole. “The point in short is that it is now essential to review the current situation, and find the balance between free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the Constitution, the needs of various sections of society, and balance them with the primary purpose for which the universities and institutions of higher learning have been established”, the report suggests.

The report makes some strong observations of the JNU row, after which it was argued that many students stay in campuses for long years by enrolling themselves in one course or another and get into unnecessary politics. It states, “One frequently hears of ‘students’ who continue for 7 or 8 years or more, enrolled in the university, and occupying the hostels – in general should there not be some guidelines or time limits for enrollment in a particular course or for occupation of hostels; those who stay for long periods start ‘owning’ the universities, and frequently have an undue influence on the course of non-academic activities in campuses.” The panel’s suggestion of capping the period for which a student can stay on campus could end the use of institutes’ resources to nurse political ambitions.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to understand why the government was so wary about making the TSR Subramanian committee report public, given the progressive  recommendations made in it. The Committee backs the setting up of a standing Education Commission to continually assess the changing circumstances of the education sector and advise the HRD Ministry on the need to upgrade or change policy.

Some points of the draft national education policy have been put on the ministry website for the public to see and offer suggestions. The ministry is set to reach out to individuals across the country on the policy through over 2.75 lakh direct consultations besides taking citizens’ input online. The last date for sharing inputs on the Draft National Education Policy is August16.

 Corrigendum

This is with reference to the article, “Unofficial Education on Social Media” in our last issue. The actual author of the article is Dr Rakhi Tripathi and not Dr Jitendra K Das. She is an Assistant Professor, Information Technology and Head, Center for Digital Innovation, FORE School of Management, Delhi. The mistake is regretted.

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