CHENNAI : In the 1967 Assembly elections, former Tamil Nadu chief minister K Kamaraj was defeated at Virudhunagar by a young student leader named P Seenivasan of the DMK. That was the impact student leaders once had on the State’s politics. However, now at a time when young leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, a former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, are leaving a mark on national politics, there are few student leaders of whom to speak in Tamil Nadu.
Observers said this has been the situation for at least three decades now. The heyday of students in politics was undoubtedly during the Dravidian movement, with young leaders like K Kalimuthu, L Ganesan, A Ravichandran, Durai Murugan and Sedapatti Muthaiah leading from the front during the anti-Hindi protests of 1965.
However, as the DMK, and later the AIADMK, came to power, the Dravidian majors started systematically cracking down on student politics. While criminalisation and law and order issues are cited as the reason for campuses disallowing student union elections, some argued that political parties had taken efforts to kill student politics as they saw emerging leaders as threats.
A former principal of a Chennai college said though no official circular or communication was issued to educational institutions by state government, administration of city colleges were orally told not to hold students union elections. Experts claim that since 2000, disallowing of union elections started.
“Violence and unrest in the campus was not the only reason for stopping students’ union election. The ruling political parties stopped it intentionally when they saw emergences of strong student leaders having affiliation to other parties,” said a former principal of a city college. Students who contested the union elections were often unofficially backed by major political parties, leading to incidents of violence at times,” added the former principal.
Experts said in at least 95 per cent of the colleges in the state elections are not held. In the few institutions where students’ union elections are held it is only for namesake as the elected representatives hardly have any say in the affairs of their college, said Ramu Manivannan, head of department of politics and public administration, University of Madras.
“Universities and higher educational institutes are where students get real lessons of life... This is where students discuss and the real issues of the society and develop their own ideology. In Tamil Nadu, such discussions have almost died out on campuses as no university holds student union elections,” Manivannan said.
Niruban Sakkaravarthi, Tamil Nadu vice-president of Students’ Federation of India (SFI) also blamed the major political parties in the State for the slow death of student activism and politics on campuses.
“Reputed universities like JNU are a cradle of political leaders, but in Tamil Nadu a well-planned conspiracy was made to root out political thinking from the campuses,” Sakkaravarthi charged.
“Initially, ruling political parties tried to influence the student union elections by politicising it and when things turned ugly, efforts were made to stop elections and disrupt political thinking on the campus,” Sakkaravarthi said. Leaders of Dravidian majors, however, dismiss this charge. “Leaders are not created, they emerge. It is wrong to say that youth leadership is not promoted or encouraged,” said former student leader and DMK propaganda secretary Tiruchi Siva.
However things did turn ugly. As recently as in September 2014, a major clash took place at Presidency College after the student union election with two rival student groups attacking each other with sharp weapons and knives. Some students sustained grievous injuries during the clash following which the College issued transfer certificates to six students, including an elected office bearer of the students’ union. In 2015 the college banned union elections.
“The College has a rich legacy, it has produced many luminaries including Nobel laureates, scientists, academicians and politicians. But the violence that occurred in the college due to the elections took away all the sheen. The college earned bad name so we had to ban elections in the campus. Now there is peace and we are working hard to regain the lost glory,” R Ravanan, Presidency College principal said.
“The University Grants Commission guidelines are clear that student union elections must be held in higher educational institutes as it gives much needed exposure to students,” argued Mohammed Ibrahim, former Presidency College principal, who successfully conducted elections on campus in 2013 and 2014.
Others, however, claim students have become less politically engaged. “Students are so overburdened with studies and other things that they have lost interest in politics,” said Siva.Sakkaravarthi disagreed, pointing out the SFI had been campaigning for years for elections to be held on campus.
Similarly, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) at IIT Madras has shown the political engagement of students and the importance of students’ unions. APSC was formed in 2014 but banned in 2015 for its alleged activities. “There was huge uproar and voices were raised against the ban, following which the ban was lifted,” said Swaminathan. “If student union elections are not allowed and students are not able to raise their voices against atrocities meted out to them then how will they respond to the issues concerning the nation and society,” asked Swaminathan.
‘clashes happen during assembly polls too’
In the few institutions where students’ union elections are held it is only for namesake as the elected representatives hardly have any say in the affairs of their college, said professor Ramu Manivannan from University of Madras. He agreed that with changing times, student politics had become synonymous with money and muscle power but believed banning elections on campuses was not the solution. “During Assembly and Lok Sabha elections also, so much violence happens, but elections are not banned. Then why are we stopping elections on the college campus” he asked. He stressed that if there is a problem then dedicated efforts are required to chalk out a solution.“By not allowing students to indulge in elections, we are driving them away from politics,” said the professor. Others concurred.