It is not the case that students aren’t required in the field of politics.
It is student politics, especially of the vicious, destructive kind that are unwarranted.
In 2011, in a then lesser-known part of Himachal Pradesh, a private university, merely three years in existence, witnessed a strike. The university, with a student strength of around 2,500, had over 1,500 students from engineering camping outside classes on a sunny winter afternoon.
There were no protests, no sloganeering, no whining, and no vandalising of any sorts. The 1,500 students merely refused to go back to the lectures. The subject of the strike was a cess of Rs. 900 for a semester that the university was charging over a fee of Rs. 60,000.
A couple of students, in a loud but respectable voice, asked the reason for the cess. The dean, before answering, requested everyone to move to the auditorium. Everyone did. The same students again asked the questions, and a discussion followed.
Three hours later, a resolution was reached, and everyone went back to their business. The author was one of the two students involved in the questioning.
Compare this with the protests that occurred in JNU over a relatively small fee hike a few weeks ago. The faculty was held hostage, the university operations were obstructed, and sincere students wanting no part of the politics were forced to not attend their lectures.
A similar situation was witnessed during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 (CAA) as well. Vandalisation, violence, destruction of university property, and clashes with the police were witnessed.
What differentiates the behavioural outcomes in the two situations? Student politics.
Private universities have been in operation for more than a decade in many states now. Thus, there is an entire generation of students who have graduated from universities without any student bodies or unions, are working in the services industry today, and across the globe, and are equally politically aware as their counterparts in the likes of JNU or Jamia.
In private universities, mostly engineering and management programmes are offered, and therefore, time is of utmost importance. Student bodies are there, yes, but they are more focussed on co-curricular activities and not reciting obsolete poems or making heroes out of convicted terrorists.
However, the likes of JNU or Jamia are starting to be known more for their student politics than the programmes they offer. In some instances, the students of these universities have attained such high-headedness that they have questioned the jurisdiction of the police itself, as the latter tried suppressing the violence on the campus.
Until a few years ago, student clashes in Panjab University used to be common during student body elections. The polarising atmosphere of the campus resulted in a security nightmare, so much so that canteens had to stop stocking soda glass bottles as they were used to smash heads. Even today, during the election season, the security is robust due to the fear of clashes.
Students in private universities seek solutions, if ever, on any rare occasion there is a disagreement with the administration. However, students in public universities are now seeking momentum for the national or state parties they are affiliated to for a narrative.
Resolutions or rationality is alien to their routine campus disruptions.
This needs to end. This kind of fear has no place in today’s time. This is not about one student body, but about what university culture are we willing to create if we are wishing for a $5 trillion economy by 2025.
Public universities in India must ban student politics at the earliest. While there can be no doubt over the freedom of expression of young minds, it is time we stopped confusing immaturity and intolerance with youthful exuberance.
However, student politics should not mean the end of students in politics, and thus, politically motivated students can channelise their energy in either of the following manners.
Firstly, instead of student bodies, unions, or parties, the trend must shift to recruitment drives, similar to those by IT and management companies.
Students aspiring for a political career at an early age can choose to intern or be part-time or full-time employed with political parties. Colleges, depending on the programmes, can offer credits for the same internships and jobs pursued during the course of the programme.
Two, given how integral student bodies are when it comes to addressing the concerns of students on campus, the HRD ministry, in collaboration with UGC, must come forward with a set of guidelines and a single-window redress system for all possible grievances.
This will ensure that concerns of students are addressed even without student unions, thus negating their need in the long run.
Three, given that most of these universities are funded by the taxpayer, a cue from the private university is warranted for the funding to be justified. For starters, 75 per cent attendance must be made compulsory for all the programmes. Even at 75 per cent attendance, sufficient room remains for students to participate in any extra activities.
Every 3 or 5 years, there must be a third-party independent committee appointed to look into the research and publication outcomes of the university. Any university failing to produce any tangible, progressive, or profitable research over a period of 15-18 years must be shut down for good. Also, a peer review mechanism must be put in place for thesis evaluation of students pursuing their doctorate.
One cannot doubt that student politics has indeed given this country some great thinkers and leaders. However, the relevance of such politics is now over. The digital age has enabled multiple avenues for students, aspiring for a political career, to be noted, and eventually, be made part of a political party’s ecosystem.
At the government’s disposal are case studies from private universities across India, since the late 2000s and early 2010s, where students have thrived without any of this hooliganism, and yet, have managed to become a part of the political ecosystem.
Students in politics are essential, but student politics, the kind public universities in India are descending to, is too high a cost to pay for it.
Let’s make our universities great again.