End of student unions

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Members of the SFI and other student unions during a protest in front of Calcutta University, a file picture.

Members of the SFI and other student unions during a protest in front of Calcutta University, a file picture.

THE Trinamool Congress government has brought out an order that will not only curb the powers of student union bodies in colleges and universities but also make them apolitical and with no financial powers. The move is also aimed at checking campus violence. The order has come as a huge shock to academic circles because it can break the backbone of the students’ movement in the State’s politics.

The West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Composition, Functions and Procedure for Elections to Students’ Council) Rules, 2017, issued by the Department of Higher Education, lays down a uniform system for elections to student bodies and for their composition and functioning. The rules say that “the Students’ Council of colleges and universities shall not use any banner or emblem of any political party in any manner during election or campaigning” and that “every student contesting in the election... shall be identified by his own name, class or section and roll number and nothing else”. The term student union has been replaced by student council.

Election to these councils will be held every two years instead of every year. The notification brings about huge changes in the composition of student bodies. In the case of colleges, the president and vice president of the council will be nominated by the principal/vice principal/teacher in charge of the college from amongst other teachers. The general secretary, two assistant general secretaries and a maximum of five assistant secretaries will be elected by the class representatives who will be elected directly by the students of all classes.

For universities, the president and two vice presidents will be nominated by the Vice Chancellor from amongst the teachers of the university. The general secretary, assistant general secretaries and not more than 10 assistant secretaries will be elected by the class representatives. The notification makes it clear that the elected student representatives will have no say in financial matters, as the treasurer both at the college and university levels will be a teacher or an official nominated by the principal or the Vice Chancellor respectively.

The new rules are based on the system St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, follows. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had on one occasion said: “I think holding elections every year [in colleges and universities] is a waste of energy. I will ask the Education Minister to find out whether the St. Xavier’s model can be adopted.”

The new rules did not go down well with a large section of the student community. Madhuja Sen Roy, president of the West Bengal unit of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), believes that in the present socio-economic scenario nothing can be apolitical and that this is nothing but another way to silence the opposition’s voice within a college campus. “It is no secret that over the last few years the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad [or TMCP, the Trinamool’s student wing] has been causing mayhem over collection of funds in colleges, particularly during admission time. This they could do only by forcefully capturing the unions. Instead of taking action against those students, the whole student community is being denied the right to control union funds. This is an insult to the student community. The students’ union is the platform for students to express their views and opinions. The union’s main work is to place the demands of the students to the authorities. Under these new rules, that space for the students will not be there,” Madhuja told Frontline.

It is an undeniable fact that barring a few colleges and universities, the TMCP has complete control in most institutions in the State. Time and again, there have been allegations of rigged elections on campuses, and in many instances, opposition student unions have not even been allowed to contest. Violence on the campus has been on the rise steadily, and in places where the opposition is absent, vicious infighting within the TMCP has been a constant source of embarrassment for the ruling party. In fact, many political observers feel that the notification is also aimed at keeping in check the factional feuds within the ruling party.

Many feel that the State government’s move to remove politics from colleges to address the issue of violence during college elections is just a way for it to obtain total hegemony over student politics. “While it is good that a much-needed uniformity is being brought about in the composition, function and elections of student councils, this notification is not enough to address the issue of political violence within the campus. That channel still remains open for criminalisation of politics within the campus as mainstream political parties can still indirectly pull strings from behind,” Debasish Sarkar, Principal of Chandannagar College and a national executive committee member of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation, told Frontline.

In the culture of West Bengal’s politics, student movements have been crucial in creating and grooming the political leaders of the future. Some of the important political figures in the State, including Mamata Banerjee and former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, made their bones initially in student politics. Many feel that denying those who are of voting age the right to exercise their political freedom does not bode well for society. “We are the young generation. If at this impressionable age we remain disassociated with politics and our political thoughts and ideas are not allowed to find expression, then how do we speak for ourselves later in life?” said Gitashree Sarkar, an SFI leader at Jadavpur University.

“This is a social engineering measure, which along with the new West Bengal Higher Education Act, 2017, seeks to destroy higher education in the State and strip teachers and students of their dignity and the right to dissent. The latent agenda is to dismantle and privatise the education sector,” said Suchetana Chattopadhyay, an assistant professor at Jadavpur University.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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