Student Unions – An Outdated Concept?

Whenever one talks of Unions, be it student or industrial or any other body, terms like strikes, unrest, violence, unreasonable demands and mob mentality come to the fore straight away

Once again both Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are in the news because of the recent student union elections. If one was to go by reports in the media it would seem as if it was a mini national election with BJP on one side and Left Front on the other. The results have been poles apart in the two institutions. The predominantly below 21 years old youth in DU voted for candidates from Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) affiliated to RSS and BJP while the over 26 year old youth in JNU voted for left oriented candidates belonging to All India Students Association (AISA) and Student Federation of India (SFI) alliance.

Left gloats over JNU sweep” screamed a headline in a national daily on 12 September 2016. A total of about 5000 votes were cast and for anyone to assume that these 5000 voters reflect the mood of the nation is being rather naive. Left’s claims that this is a mandate against the stifling of freedom of speech by the central government are even more absurd. The President of the JNU Teachers Association went on to say that this was a mandate against the government for portraying students of the university as anti nationals. Given that a large part of the student body in JNU continues to be influenced by the outdated ideology of the left, is it any surprise that a large section of their teachers too lean towards the left? It also shows clearly that the JNU teaching environment is still stuck in the era of late sixties and early seventies while the whole world seems to have moved on to more liberated ideologies that focus on empowerment of the individual that in turn empowers the society as a whole. Why the nation spends huge amounts of money and resources to keep such outdated and meaningless teaching environment alive is a question that begs for answers. A look at the results from JNU in terms of its alumni or research contribution over the past 46 years clearly shows the dismal returns received at the national level from this supposedly premier institution that is pampered by the state in more ways than one.

BJP was not far behind in celebrating the win of ABVP in DU elections. Only 36.9% votes were cast in DU amounting to about 48000 votes. To presume that this youth segment in Delhi is a true representation of the entire nation will certainly be an erroneous assumption. It may also be pertinent to note that for each of the four positions on offer, there was a significant percentage of voters, ranging from 6.3% to 12.6%, that chose none of the above (NOTA) option. Equally significant is the fact that over 60% of youth in DU was either not interested in student politics (since they chose to remain away) or does not subscribe to its present format.

One of the biggest fallouts of the JNU incident in February this year was the discussion on how to keep misplaced student activism under check and minimise political influence in educational establishments. There was a fairly healthy discussion in the aftermath but obviously nothing concrete came up finally. It cannot be denied that giving student elections a national fervour is certainly counterproductive. Left Front’s influence in JNU by design or Congress and BJP’s direct interference in DU are certainly not desirable. Why should a student union election in one part of the nation become a national event to be discussed by leading television channels at prime time? Young twenty year olds from ABVP in DU talked of political victory against other political parties instead of focussing on student affairs. Senior political leaders have made sweeping statements in media and to top it all Congress backed NSUI in DU has filed complaints of rigging and lodged complaints in this regards. Senior Congress leader Deepender Hooda chose to join the agitating students to lend his weight to their agitation. Can there be a greater proof of how the national parties get deeply involved with these union elections when actually they have no business to be there in the first place. It is a known fact that for DU elections huge amounts of money and resources are contributed by these parties. The run up to the election looks like a mini national election scene where posters and hoarding with political symbols stare at common citizens from every pillar, pole and wall in the city of Delhi. To JNU’s credit the election scene remains primarily within the campus as their funds are limited to student contributions mostly.

The moot point is have any of these student unions delivered in real terms as far as student issues are concerned. It is obvious JNU unions are more interested in political ideology and anti establishment stand on national issues rather than student related issues. In DU it is all about drama, hype and a mix of money and muscle power since political parties are directly involved. Here too the delivery related to student causes by the elected leaders has always been questionable. Therefore it is anybody’s guess if these elections meet the desired goals which primarily relate to student affairs like libraries, placements, sports, welfare, cultural activities and hostel facilities. In both JNU and DU the ultimate focus is on a few individuals with political aspirations who use the system to further their own agenda.

Whenever one talks of Unions, be it student or industrial or any other body, terms like strikes, unrest, violence, unreasonable demands and mob mentality come to the fore straight away. Without a doubt most of these are linked with negative vibes. If this be so maybe it is time to review the whole system related to Student politics and formation of unions in educational institutions. It may be more prudent to have individual college or institution focussed ‘student committees’ with specific charters to operate within their respective colleges or institutions. There could be a system for an annual meet of these committees at University level to exchange notes and learn from each other’s experience. This will give more autonomy to individual institutions and offer scope for larger student participation instead of limiting it to a few elected representatives at the university level. In addition it will ensure greater involvement of the management of each college and institution too since they will have to interact with their respective committees. Such a move will help to keep student bodies in their correct perspective instead of giving them an over the top exalted status that is neither needed nor warranted.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

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