Turmoil on campus

A spike in violence in Bengal’s student politics speaks of larger power shifts

Updated: February 12, 2015 12:30:59 am

By: Moitree Bhattacharya

Student union elections are also considered to be tests of general political strength. No wonder, then, that parties take them so seriously. Student union elections are also considered to be tests of general political strength. No wonder, then, that parties take them so seriously.

The political culture of West Bengal is characterised by sporadic violence. The student politics of the state is no different. But a spate of clashes centred on student union elections in colleges and universities across the state in the past few weeks has raised questions. While the violence is in no way unprecedented — such incidents have been taking place since the 1960s, especially near election time — it warrants serious reflection.

In West Bengal, violent political encounters are a regular occurrence. In the days preceding student union elections, centres of higher education witness clashes because these polls determine which political group will rule the campus by proxy.
Student union elections are also considered to be tests of general political strength. No wonder, then, that parties take them so seriously. But in the process, the academic atmosphere of institutions gets vitiated. The exodus of students from West Bengal to other states is precisely due to this.

But history is testament to the fact that student violence intensifies whenever political power shifts from one party to another, ushering in a regime change. During the turbulent late 1960s and early ’70s, violent student politics was apparently aimed at changing the education system, which supposedly had a “bourgeois” character. This coincided with the period when political power in the state was shifting from the Congress to the Left. A fresh cycle of violence started in 2009-10, when West Bengal was on the cusp of another bout of paribartan. This time around, the Left was on its way out and the Trinamool Congress was slowly consolidating its power. Ahead of the assembly elections of 2016, it appears that history is repeating in campuses across the state.

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This time around, the competition on campuses is primarily between the Trinamool Congress-affiliated Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) and the BJP’s Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). West Bengal’s politics is at a peculiar juncture: the TMC is the dominant power but is threatened by an emergent BJP. Clashes between the ABVP and the TMCP, therefore, seem inevitable.

In the days of Left Front rule in Bengal, other than the CPM-affiliated Students’ Federation of India (SFI), no other outfit could make inroads during elections. Campuses were opposition-less. The Left had a total grip over institutions of higher education. But today, the SFI is languishing. With the TMC in power, the TMCP had started winning most union seats uncontested. The only group that has been able to give the TMCP some competition is the ABVP. Never before a factor in student politics in West Bengal, the ABVP has been able to make inroads thanks to the BJP’s growing footprint in the state.

In December 2014, it was announced that elections would be held in January in 488 colleges across the state. The violence that resulted —  primarily between the TMCP and the ABVP over the filing of nominations — has been widely reported. The police had resorted to lathi charges in several places, including Bankura and Birbhum. Clashes also broke out in a college in Burdwan. These districts are considered to be political hotspots. In January, when the elections actually took place, violence broke out in areas where the contest was strong. In most seats, however, TMCP candidates have been elected uncontested. In Calcutta University, for example, out of 750 seats, there was no contest in 680. Of the remaining 70, 40 were reportedly won by the TMCP, 12 by the ABVP, and four by the SFI — amid incidents of intimidation and violence. In north Bengal, the TMCP won in 75 per cent of the colleges as well as in the polls in North Bengal University.

That campuses ought to be violence-free is obvious. This is not to suggest that students insulate themselves from larger political issues or remain silent spectators in critical times. But student unions must pursue principled politics, concentrating primarily on students’ issues. The distinction between party and student organisation must not be blurred. Student organisations should pursue their own issues and not become hostage to the ups and downs of political parties.

The writer teaches political science at Daulat Ram College, University Of Delhi

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