Mayawati’s decision to ban students union elections in universities and colleges in UP to improve the academic environment and lessen the drain on the law and order machinery, must initiate a new debate on the form and substance of democratic politics in educational institutions. Her predecessor Mulayam Singh Yadav had made it compulsory for universities and colleges to hold annual elections to students unions, failing which their annual financial grants would stop.
The Mayawati government’s order coincided with strong observations by the Supreme Court, where the honourable justices observed that the country needs good students, not those who indulge in goondagiri and dadagiri. Mayawati seeks to impose the ban, notwithstanding the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations that approved of elections with certain riders. Interestingly, those recommendations had been earlier accepted by the SC. Recently, the UGC chairman observed that there was not even a single state university of excellence in UP.
Is the government totally against representation to students? Or does it mean that the government is visualising some alternative form of democratic representation to students that may synchronise with academic excellence?
In their present form, elections in educational institutions harm students the most. Due to deterioration in the academic environment, students are ill-equipped to compete with the best outside the university. In states like Maharashtra, a State University Act 1994 vide section 40(1) provides the setting up of university students councils, but bars elections.
The question then is: should educational institutions be the sole training grounds for democratic activities? Is there a dearth of alternative political avenues? The question also is: have universities and colleges motivated good students, barring a few exceptions, to take to politics during the last 60 years? What about the commitment of society and government to develop institutions of higher education as benchmarks of excellence?
There is neither excellence nor politics in our universities and colleges. Politics is a conflict resolution mechanism, but student politics has so vitiated campuses that conflicts among student groups have been aggravated. This is illustrated by the perpetual presence of police and paramilitary forces in the campuses of most of our universities and colleges.
Universities and colleges have become dens of corruption and exploitation. The minimum infrastructure of education like the library, electricity in classrooms, a canteen for students and teachers, and places to study is missing. There is no accountability of the heads of the institutions. In most cases, students’ representatives are not so much interested in the welfare of students as in sharing the booty with the university and college administration. Our campuses are being used as breeding grounds for criminals, thanks to massive unemployment. With entire cities held to ransom during students’ elections, one wonders wherefrom the huge amount of money spent by the candidates comes. Why should they be spending so much? What returns do they expect?
The frequent bandhs, hartals, loss of teaching hours and campus-terror have worried people, demoralised academics, and nonplussed students in UP. In 1967, Chaudhary Charan Singh had made membership of students unions voluntary. In January 2000, the BJP Minister of Higher Education Om Prakash Singh had put some riders on students elections which put an end to elections, leading to the normalisation of academic sessions in UP after 25 years!
In UP, the Congress, BJP and SP have strong student outfits — the NSUI, ABVP and the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha respectively. But, the student leadership is not the BSP’s constituency. Hence, in taking a hard decision in respect of the students unions, Mayawati has no big stakes. Yet, it is hoped that the government will revise its policy to amalgamate its desire for excellence with the legitimate demand of the students for representation.
Is it not possible for excellence and democratic representation to coexist in our universities and colleges? Why not make political representation the responsibility of the best brains in our centres of academic excellence? While there is a strong case for students’ participation in campus politics, criminals and ruffians cannot be allowed to masquerade in the guise of students.
The writer teaches politics in Christ Church College, Kanpur