Economic liberalisation was barely a year old when Shakeel Ahmed Khan became Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president, and 15 more student leaders held the post after him before incumbent Kanhaiya Kumar.
Of Kanhaiya Kumar’s 16 predecessors, three are active in national politics. All three were with Students Federation of India (SFI) at JNU, but joined the Congress later. Two others moved up the ranks and now head organisations associated with their parent party. Barring one, others were Left-leaning on a campus known to be a Left stronghold. Here is what they have to say.
Shakeel Ahmed Khan
Now: Congress MLA, Kadwa, Bihar
He recalls his time in JNU students’ union as one of turmoil, study and struggle. The union was out on the streets protesting after Babri Masjid demolition and discussing the economic policies threadbare. He moved away from the SFI as he felt “dejected”. Khan said he used to argue a lot with the SFI leadership on various issues. Differences started growing and in 1994, while still at JNU, he dissociated himself from the SFI. After leaving JNU in 1996, Khan completed his PhD in Urdu Literature. He taught at Dyal Singh College before going back to his village in Katihar, Bihar. He formally joined the Congress in 1999. “I joined the Congress when Sonia Gandhi became president. The Congress attracted me because of a culture of collective thinking within the party,” he said. Khan added joining the Congress at that point was the only way of fighting the BJP. As All India Congress Committee secretary, he is at present in charge of West Bengal and Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Pranay Kumar Srivastava
1993-94, All India Students Association (AISA)
Now: Professor at Allahabad University, and General Secretary, Jan Sanskriti Manch
He enrolled for an MPhil course in the School of Languages in 1990 and stayed in JNU until 1995. An AISA member, he participated in the movement for restoring deprivation points in JNU admissions after 10 years. “The communal forces in the campus were decisively beaten back at a time when they thought they were most equipped to grab JNUSU, riding on the wave of communal frenzy generated in the wake of Babri Masjid demolition,” he said.
He has been teaching at Allahabad University since 1996, and is also associated with CPI(ML). Srivastava is also the general secretary of Jan Sanskriti Manch, a cultural organisation.
Under his leadership, JNUSU aligned with several movements such as Narmada Bachao Andolan, Bharat Jan Andolan, anti-Tehri dam movement, Uttarakhand state movement, as well as anti-caste, anti-communal and anti-state repression drives. “I personally led two delegations of JNUSU, one to support Uttarakhand movement and the other to Odisha to investigate caste atrocities on Dalits in Sambalpur district and rape of tribal women in Jagatsinghpur district.”
1994-96, All India Students’ Association
Shot dead on March 31, 1997
Chandrashekhar led delegations of JNU students to Rajasthan in support of a movement for justice to rape victim Saathin Bhanwari Devi, and to Muzaffarnagar to investigate the alleged mass rape of women activists of Uttarakhand movement at Rampur Tiraha by Uttar Pradesh Police. He was shot dead on March 31, 1997, while addressing a street corner meeting in the north-Bihar district town of Siwan. In election campaigns at JNU, AISA activists always remind students of his sacrifice.
Batti Lal Bairwa
Now: Congress, and Professor, Aurobindo College, DU
He spent 12 years on campus between 1989 and 2001. Bairwa was elected president twice and conducted 17 University General Body Meetings (UGBMs) during his tenure. This is the highest for any JNUSU president. The UGBM is the highest decision making body at JNU, taking issues directly to the students. During his second term, Bairwa was rusticated over and alleged altercation with a university guard.
Those around him say this is when his problems with the SFI started. He went on to join the Congress and was made chairman of the All India SC/ST/OBC Youth Congress. Bairwa was also in-charge of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, and Youth Congress secretary. Now, he is a Professor of Hindi at Aurobindo College, Delhi University. He also campaigned for the Congress in Rajasthan.
Now: Joint Secretary, All India Kisan Sabha
Of his 10 years in JNU, half were spent in various positions in the union. Issues of fee hike and hostel crisis were new to the university and it is during his tenure that the JNU administration was forced to rent a hotel outside the campus and also pay students for the transit.
This is an an example of student activism still quoted on campus. He was also a member of the first Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) after the the union amended the JNUSU constitution for the first time since 1978.
Not only did this union take up the issue of inclusion in admission policy, it also trained those from marginalised sections and disadvantaged backgrounds for JNU entrance examinations.
Krishnan was made Head of Department of the Political Science department at St Joseph’s College, Bangalore, where he taught for four years even as he continued his engagement with the public as an active member of the Students Federation of India .
He was then called to become a member of the Delhi State Committee of the SFI. Krishnan is now the Joint Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, which has more than 20 million members.
Now: Congress, and Chairman, Beedi and Cigar Labour Workers Welfare Board
Hussain quit SFI when it split over differences with the leadership. “Many senior activists left the SFI and joined the Congress. We supported it for taking along every section of the society and its practical approach for inclusive growth in the country,” he said. In his student days, he led a struggle for 27 per cent OBC reservation. “We started the struggle for implementation of the OBC reservation and future unions took the struggle further. Institutions of higher learning were not implementing the reservation policy at that time. Later, I coordinated between the students and the government during the medical students’ reservation struggle,” he said. Now, Hussain is Chairman of the Beedi and Cigar Labour Workers Welfare Board.
Now: Advocate, New Delhi
Quite the jewel in Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s crown in JNU, Mahapatra is the only candidate to win the JNUSU top post. ABVP student activists recall his achievements during their election campaigns even now. He started at the university as an MA student and spent five of his six years at JNU as an office-bearer in the students’ union. To his credit is a railway reservation counter inside the campus. “My politics was very inclusive and campus centric,” said Mahapatra. He added that though three of four central panel members were Left-leaning, he was able to provide tangible results to students. Being associated with the ABVP for the last 20 years, Mahapatra did not venture into mainstream politics. After leaving JNU, he started practising law. He is at present a partner in a law firm and wants to keep profession and politics separate. “Politics is on the horizon. I’m from Kalahandi in Odisha and want to go back and work there, but not immediately.”
Now: Lecturer, Bharati College, DU
She spent 15 years in the party working her way up the ranks to become a state committee member of CPM, till she was expelled by the Delhi State Committee in 2012 for “indulging in anti-party activities and violating party discipline” soon after her husband Prosenjit Bose resigned from the CPM. She spent five years in the union and occupied almost every post. She was at the forefront of several students’ union agitations including the resistance to the tenth plan’s alleged “saffronisation of the curriculum” during the time when JNU did not have a full time vice chancellor. “The BJP was in power and they tried to introduce courses like the human consciousness and water as an element for ritual purity in the sciences. These courses didn’t make any sense. Nobody knew what these courses would entail. Thus, we opposed this and these were rolled back.” Also at the end of this movement a new vice chancellor was appointed. As the state secretary of the SFI between 2007 and 2011, Shakil worked with women in the unorganised sector in Delhi. Now, she teaches at Bharati College and has completely dissociated herself from the party.
Now: Professor, JNU
This two-time president is also one of the three activists expelled from SFI for alleged involvement in anti-party activities and supporting the dissolved JNU unit, the SFI-JNU or what is now called the Democratic Students’ Federation. Rohit spent four years in the JNU students’ union and led movements against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. During his tenure, the union “ensured that contractual workers were paid by the university”. Rohit taught at the South Asian University before coming back to teach at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, from where he had received his PhD.
After expulsion from the party in 2012, Rohit chose not to support any political party. “A political person will remain political but in terms of association with any political party, no,” he said.
NOW: Lecturer, Satyawati College, DU
Between 2000 and 2007, the years that she was on campus, many important issues were beginning to come forth. It was during this time that Nestle was asked to leave the campus so as to preserve the dhabas of JNU.
“We challenged the corporatisation of campus space as it was one of the few spaces left in Delhi where students from all backgrounds felt comfortable,” said Das.
She is connected with AISA and teaches Political Science at Satyawati College, Delhi University. Das has registered for a direct PhD and is back on JNU campus.
NOW: Lecturer, South Asian University
He dissociated himself from the party soon after leaving the campus in 2009 to join a think tank. Dhananjay spent 10 years on the JNU campus starting as a master’s student and finishing with a PhD in International Relations. He now teaches International Relations at South Asian University. During his time in JUNSU, first as vice-president and then president, he led the students’ struggle for OBC reservation and increasing scholarships. “We took our struggles to conclusion and that is how we got the mandate in 2006-07,” he said. He was one of the three SFI members expelled by CPM leadership for supporting its disbanded JNU unit’s stand questioning the party backing Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature for President.
NOW: Delhi state committee member, CPI(ML)
Singh fought many policy level battles for JNU, including leading the student agitation responsible for an apex court order concerning OBC reservation and the “cut-off”. Another major issue of his time was the recognition of the madrasa certificates in JNU admissions. “We questioned the administration regarding the fact that if students with Sanskrit backgrounds could sit for JNU entrance exams why not those from madrasas,” he said. He was rusticated over his role in the struggle for workers’ rights on the campus. Singh is a former national president of the AISA and is also a Delhi State Committee member of the CPI(ML). He works for workers’ front movement in Jharkhand and Bihar. He is also involved in the present student’s movement for the release of Kanhaiya Kumar.
2012, AISA (Interim Union)
NOW: National president, AISA
After the Supreme Court banned elections in the university for at least four years for refusing to comply with the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations for conducting students’ union elections, De and other students, as a part of the Joint Struggle Committee, continued to protest the imposition of the recommendations both within and outside court.
She was elected interim president in the first elections held mid-session at the university in February 2012. She is now the national president of AISA and still mentors the JNU unit of AISA as she works on her PhD. De led a solidarity march for the release of Kanhaiya Kumar and has been active in the present students’ movement.
V Lenin Kumar
2012-13, Democratic Students’ Federation
Now: Activist, Pursuing PhD in International Studies, JNU
After serving 14 years in the Students’ Federation of India, Lenin Kumar was expelled by CPM leadership along with three others for criticising the party’s decision to back Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature for President.
The party’s JNU unit was also dissolved, alienating activists and supporters. This resulted in the formation of a new student front on campus called the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF). In the following election DSF came into power with Lenin as the president of the union and at least five councillors. While the SFI secured a single councillor seat.
In the latest election held in the campus, SFI did not even manage that. Many speculated on the wipeout of the oldest Left party on campus that gave JNU 18 of its 33 presidents. Comrades, however believe that the party is likely to spring back in the next election. While the DSF continues to function without any party backing.
Lenin is still on campus pursuing his PhD in International Studies. He is now the organising committee convener of the party and is trying to build the organisation beyond JNU.
Now: Research scholar, JNU
Chawdhary has been associated with the student’s wing of the CPI(ML) for the last five years, since he joined JNU for a Master’s degree in Philosophy. After a clean sweep of the student’s union election, Akbar led the AISA and the university on several important issues such as scholarships, recognition of certificates given by madrasas. Ensuring a barrier-free campus and gender neutral admissions forms were also part of the union’s achievements.
Originally from Meerut, he came to JNU after graduation at Aligarh Muslim University. He was part of a “solidarity team” of students to Muzaffarnagar who studied the area in the aftermath of the riots in 2013. The fight against Lyngdoh Committee recommendations also continued under Chawdhary.
Now: Research scholar, JNU
Active in campus politics since 2009, Kumar came to JNU after his bachelor’s at Banaras Hindu University. With increasing student intake at JNU and hostels failing to match capacity, he led protests.
Following a 15-day hunger strike, the administration added dormitories to accommodate students. Ashutosh is now a second year PhD scholar at JNU’s Centre for Russian Studies.
Elections from 1971, with a blip in between
JNU Established in 1969
In the year’s since, 33 students headed the union, 18 of them representing the CPM’s student wing, the SFI. The university produced leaders such as Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury.
JNU has held only one convocation so far and that has never been an issue of debate on the campus, but when elections were banned for non-compliance with the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations in 2008, students protested and the matter was taken up by the Supreme Court.
An all-party Joint Struggle Committee fought the case for four years till, in February 2012, it was decided that students’ union elections would be allowed in JNU. Certain concessions were given from the Lyngdoh report as JNU elections were considered a model for elections in other campuses across the country. Such is the political fervour of the campus, a bastion of the Left for more than 40 years in the capital of the country.