University as the Mini-Nation
Our varsities have never been insulated from politics. But rarely have we seen student leaders become instant celebrities like they do now
Thankfully, one is not in a campus of today. It may seem one is indulging in the typically self-satisfied prattle of an old-timer, but yes, in the eighties, university elections were indeed fought on the strength of an argument. In a strange way, they were both more honestly political and yet, at the same time, partly in a world of their own, filled with vitality.
Neither was a fully utilitarian, industry-linked model of factory-like education yet born, nor did they play at being mini-versions of national politics. But yes, the ideas are what dominated. The focus was not the quality of canteen food or hostel facilities or how to get funding for the film, theatre or photography club.
We were equally engaged with World Bank policies, India’s debt situation, food and fuel policy, war and peace—even Nicaragua. Indeed, we behaved as if the world turned on its axis based on our views! Revolution was a possibility, but we were quite satisfied with the occasional rebellion.
At the coffee house in the evening, everyone shared tables irrespective of the political divide. We paid for each other’s tea, coffee and cutlets. Professors were friendly mentors, not feared. Poet Shankha Ghosh’s classes were always overcrowded, with students from all streams drawn to his mesmerising lectures. Seminars with foreign scholars were invariably well attended, not because anyone was forced to, but because we were brimming with questions to ask and never pretended to know all the answers. A good fight meant a good debate.
Are our campuses the same today? One doubts it. In institutions where there are no elections, students are busy chasing credits and improving their CVs for the job market, or applying to campuses abroad. Do they unwind? Yes, they do—fests and impromptu concerts make the evenings lively. But everything in studied portions, never losing sight of the overall credit that needs to be accrued. Thankfully, we could score just by reading and assimilating the texts and the contexts (and the Bakhtins). Whether we played basketball or were office-bearers at the university clubs did not matter much.
And our elections certainly did not bother the chief minister, nor was it a telling message on the prime minister’s popularity. Should universities be insulated from politics? Should the campuses be seen as idyllic islands of learning and intellectual growth? No, it was never the case—neither here, nor elsewhere, across geographies and time-zones. As recently as when the Telangana movement peaked, campuses showed their innate capacity to turn into protest zones.
At FTII, a ‘student agitation’ was an annual event (not devaluing the one against Gajendra Chauhan) and has always been a headache for the institute’s director. During his stint, Girish Karnad had to call up his friend Shyam Benegal to get the then firebrand student leader Naseeruddin Shah a role in Manthan (which he was shooting in Gujarat)—so as to break the campus agitation! Shah made a stunning debut in a tiny role and the rest is history. Things were far more serious during the Emergency or during the height of the Naxal movement in Bengal, or the Mandal agitation. Much of our present political leadership emerged from those zones.
But rarely have we seen student leaders become instant celebrities like they do now, thanks to social/visual media. If it seems as if it’s upon them to create the national counternarrative, the blame lies with the Opposition abdicating its job. There’s no denying there’s an intense churning, a bitter ideological battle that’s on. Take the JNU elections, for instance. The victory of a Left that had to join ranks (SFI-AISA-DSF)—and the ABVP’s emergence as the largest force despite being trounced—are read in a context far larger than the campus itself.
There are strong echoes here of the mahagathbandhans, the whispers of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati coming together, the CPM-Congress compact in Bengal—all converging against the spectre of a BJP in hyper-growth mode. In other words, the trends on the campuses almost exactly mirror national politics.
Should that occasion mirth or contemplation? Leaving that aside, we could look seriously at it and the possible interpretations.
The SFI has made inroads in campuses across Rajasthan, from Jodhpur to Sikar and Hanumangarh, too—again with the ABVP maintaining its lead in Jaipur etc. and the NSUI just putting in odd wins. The Left has retained campuses in Tripura too. But far more stunning is the rise and spread of BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association)—the Dalit student body that’s making its presence felt across campuses from Delhi to Hyderabad and elsewhere.
All of it presents a fascinating microcosmic picture. In the end, perhaps the ABVP’s hyper-nationalism, the fact that (in JNU) it appeared to be on the side of the V-C’s bit-too-shrill tank politics, went against it. And in what could be a warning sign, everywhere it’s up against not just a united Left and NSUI but also BAPSA. Similarly, the NSUI, exulting after it won two crucial posts in Delhi University (affording Congress president Sonia Gandhi a rare chance to smile after a long time), needs to be worried about the extraordinary rise of NOTA voters.
The disillusioned liberal youth are evidently still not seduced by its charms. If the NSUI is celebrating DUSU and the sweep in Punjab University polls as a sign of revival, perhaps it should also factor in Assam, whether Guwahati or Dibrugarh, where the AASU retains its hold. It’s drawing solace from the fact that Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, a former AASU leader, could not swing it for the ABVP. Does all this foretell anything about 2019? Thankfully, I’m not in the campus today and don’t have the burden of being a shadow-boxer for a national election.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express