Campus politics

Saffron setback

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Supporters of the united Left celebrate their candidates’ victory in the JNUSU elections in New Delhi on September 10. Photo: PTI

(From left) Newly elected JNUSU president Geeta Kumari with vice president Simone Zoya Khan, general secretary Duggirala Srikrishna and joint secretary Shubhanshu Singh. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The NSUI’s Rocky Tuseed (right) and Kunal Sehrawat after winning the election for the posts of president and vice president respectively in Delhi University. Photo: PTI

Across campuses, students reject the brand of divisive and conservative politics practised by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

THE campus was tense. A progressive students’ organisation had organised a seminar titled “Rising Head of Fascism”. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) had threatened to use “swords or lathis” in case the seminar was allowed to go ahead. Anticipating violence, the district administration had deployed scores of police personnel at the varsity.

If you thought this was Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Delhi University (DU), think again. But the script is always the same. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre, the ABVP, its students’ wing, has gained prominence on campuses across India through communal polarisation and violent tactics. The above incident occurred in Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh. In March this year, the Students for Society (SFS), a left-wing organisation, conducted the seminar and invited the social activist Seema Azad to deliver a lecture. The ABVP, along with the police, kept a close watch on the seminar. Seema Azad came disguised as a Sikh woman in a blue turban, gave the lecture and sped away on a scooter, sitting behind an SFS activist, foiling the ABVP’s plans.

In February, ABVP activists brutally beat up students and professors at Ramjas College in Delhi. The issue there too was similar: the ABVP was protesting against an invitation given to Umar Khalid of JNU to speak in a seminar.

On February 27, in order to protest the violence in Ramjas College, the SFS in PU had organised a demonstration. One of the speakers at the demonstration mentioned a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on the rape of tribal women by security personnel in Chhattisgarh. Hundreds of ABVP supporters, who had gathered to protest against the seminar, took umbrage at this and started a brawl with SFS members. The situation escalated and eight activists, four from each group, were arrested by the police.

Panjab University

Even as the ripples caused by this incident were settling down, PU decided to hike student fees by 40 to 110 per cent, resulting in an increase of Rs.2,000 to Rs.82,000. For the dental course, for instance, students would have to pay up to Rs.1.50 lakh. The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the SFS and the PU Students’ Union (PUSU) opposed this move through sustained agitations. On April 12, the protests turned violent with the police lathi-charging and using tear gas and water cannons. The students responded using the flower pots and stones outside the Vice Chancellor’s office. Several students and police personnel were injured in the violence. Sedition charges were slapped on the students à la JNU, but they were later withdrawn. Many students took refuge in a nearby gurdwara but later surrendered and were taken into preventive custody.

Even after this, the protests continued in various forms, including members of the NSUI polishing the shoes of students and passers-by. Finally, after protests that went on for months, the PU senate took a decision to restrict the fee hike to just 10 per cent for the academic year 2017-18. It was a resounding victory for the students’ movement against privatisation of education.

All these incidents played a major role in the campus elections that took place in September. The ABVP was nowhere in the race while the NSUI reaped the benefits of the progressive struggles, winning the posts of president (Jashan Kamboj), vice president (Karanvir S. Mahal) and secretary (Vani Sood). The post of joint secretary was won by the PUSU’s Karanbir Randhawa. While the SFS did not win any seats, its rising prominence marked the emergence of an anti-fascist politics on the PU campus.

Delhi University

A similar scenario played out in the DU election. DU had a direct role in the violence in Ramjas College earlier this year. The students had not forgotten the war-like situation unleashed by ABVP activists on students and teachers alike. Even journalists had not been spared in the indiscriminate violence. While local issues concerning hostels and facilities were a part of all the parties’ campaign, the influence of the ideological and larger political battles playing out in the country was all too palpable. For the All India Students’ Association (AISA), backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, this was one of the main issues. The contest was primarily seen as one between the AISA and the ABVP, but it was the NSUI that benefited. After winning the president’s post for four consecutive years, the ABVP lost it to the NSUI’s Rocky Tuseed. It also lost the vice president’s post to the NSUI but managed to retain the secretary and joint secretary posts. Nevertheless, it was seen as a loss for the ABVP. While the progressive students’ organisations were happy at the outcome, they were mindful of the fact that on DU campus, there is not much difference between the ABVP and the NSUI, with both making a show of “muscle and money power”.

Soon after the victory, even as the successful candidates from the NSUI were meeting Sonia Gandhi, other members roamed the streets outside DU blaring music from cars plastered with stickers that proclaimed “Jat and Gujjar” pride. “Nevertheless, NSUI is not ABVP and that is good enough for now,” said a student.

In Tripura too, the elections were highly charged affairs, marked by sporadic clashes and lathi-charges, with activists, students, journalists and police personnel sustaining injuries. The Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the Tribal Students’ Union (TSU), both student wings of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), swept the elections. Of the total of 778 seats in 22 college students’ councils, the SFI and the TSU together won 530 seats unopposed in nine colleges. For the first time, however, the ABVP won 27 seats and the NSUI could not win even a single seat. The elections were seen as significant, coming before the Assembly elections in February 2018.

In Gauhati University, the ABVP managed to win only two seats in the Post-Graduate Students’ Union (PGSU) election. Candidates backed by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) won eight out of 15 posts, including that of the president and general secretary. The Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti (SMSS), the students’ wing of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), and the NSUI won two seats each. On campus after campus, the winning candidates saw their win as a victory against the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

Elections in JNU

In JNU, there was no doubt about who the vote was against. All the Left organisations, barring the All India Students’ Federation (the student wing of the Communist Party of India) which nominated its own candidate for the president’s post, came together to contest the elections. The Left alliance swept the polls, with the ABVP drawing a blank. While the ABVP bagged the second position on all the four central panel posts, the Birsa, Ambedkar, Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) increased its vote share substantially, signalling its growing relevance in campus politics.

The elections in JNU, considered more liberal and progressive than many other campuses in India, saw women candidates being fielded by all the organisations. It is still heartening to see that fielding women candidates has become a political compulsion on this campus. Certain incidents, such as Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance after a murderous assault by the ABVP and the Vice Chancellor’s foolhardy initiatives to install a tank on the campus and potted plants on the steps of the academic block to prevent students from staging protests there, played a role in the elections. The ABVP fielded a candidate, Ankit Roy, who was directly involved in the attack on Najeeb Ahmed the night before he disappeared.

Over the past three years, several students across organisations were subjected to inquiries and suspended for participating in protests. “If a student is not allowed to study in a university, what else is he/she supposed to do?” asked a student. The ABVP siding with the JNU authorities against fellow students on numerous issues over the past three years was not forgotten. Reduction in the number of seats in MPhil and PhD courses, which directly impacted the lives of hundreds, was not forgiven. Although the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) was replaced by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the subsequent elections to the committee successfully led by the students was a message to the JNU authorities that they cannot mess with well-established processes. The GSCASH was set up as per the Vishaka guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court.

While all the student organisations recognised the threat of the ABVP and campaigned against it, they could not forge an electoral alliance as had happened in the University of Hyderabad where organisations with different ideologies came together against the ABVP. In JNU, local and sectarian issues took precedence.

An incident during the GSCASH elections exposed the fault lines in the anti-fascist front. Bhupali Magare of the BAPSA won with an overwhelming majority. The Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), the students’ wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, raised slogans such as Inshallah (If God willing), Assalaam (Peace be upon you) and Neel Salaam (blue salute). Students’ associations backed by the Left took offence and a face-off between the various parties involved followed. For the SFI cadre, the SIO was as much a bigoted organisation as the ABVP while for the BAPSA, Dalit-Muslim unity was the immediate political compulsion. These organisations clashed at the level of ideas, nuances of words and their appropriate usage, and who could or could not use them. The routing of the ABVP ensured that the debate culture between opposing viewpoints continued to thrive on the campus, but at some point it would be incumbent upon the various organisations to come to a common understanding.

Across campuses, students voted against the ABVP’s brand of politics. All possible colours (red, green and blue) united against the saffron of the BJP and the RSS, throwing a direct challenge to the ruling party at the Centre. Campuses separated by geographies united in ideology to assert democratic and secular ideals. If campus politics is an indication of the mood of the youth of a nation and its voting patterns, the BJP should be worried.