Assembly polls: Why is student politics almost non-existent in Tamil Nadu?

Tamil Nadu has largely been lagging on creating student leaders. The reason? A widespread notion that campus politics affects academic performance.
Students at a protest in Tamil Nadu.  (File Photo | Debadatta Mallick)
Students at a protest in Tamil Nadu. (File Photo | Debadatta Mallick)

CHENNAI: Going by history, campus politics has always provided platforms for students to rise to prominence and eventually emerge as politicians.

Even as student leaders in Kerala and West Bengal have gone/going to contest in the 2021 Assembly elections, Tamil Nadu has largely been lagging on this front. The reason?

A widespread notion that campus politics affects academic performance.

Various student activists accused educational institutions, political parties, governments, policies, and the common people for decimating the fledgling student politics in the State under the garb of avoiding violence on campuses.

The result? Tamil Nadu is losing out some of the best minds and ending up depoliticising them, a conducive space for totalitarian State to thrive, SFI TN State Secretary V Mariappan said.

The past

Though anti-Hindi agitation in 1965, which birthed student leaders, is een as one of the major events in student politics, not much is talked about various other agitations students carried out in the State on issues pertaining to access to affordability of commodities to women, workers, during Emergency  and against the Vietnam war.

It was December 30, 1971. In a meeting held in Chennai, student leaders passed a resolution to offer their support to around 17,000 employees of Simpsons Group protesting for their rights.

The students vowed to take part in protests, meetings, and offer ground support. Among the students who backed the resolution was K Chandru, who was then a student of Madras Christian College and an active member of SFI.

He, who went on to become a judge of the Madras High Court, said that 1967 to 75 was a golden period for student movement despite many repressions.

"Also, politics of the 1960s were majorly a fight against Congress and central issues. Propaganda of DMK and Dravida Kazhagam and other Dravidian groups started right from school and college days. Students were actively made to realise that they were somehow linked to central policies," he said, adding that students were ideologically strong then.

The beginning of the decline?

Attributing the decline of student politics to devaluation of students as a distinct group by political parties, Chandru said, "That was done due to student militancy and insecurities of political parties."

An MA student of Pachaiyappa's College between 1969-71, Dr E J Sundar, Chief Editor of World Tamil Encyclopedia, said that even educational institutions have their own share in derecognising students and crushing dissent on campuses.

He cited an instance in which a Tamil department student was not allowed to write exams just because he voiced his grievances caused by one of his professors during a College Day event.

"Selvaraj moved the court, got a stay, and secured a gold medal for his performance in exams," he said.

According to various sources, both the political parties that have run the governments in the State have effectively used the police as a tool to dismantle student movements.

Similarly, globalisation, privatisation, and other neo-liberal policies have also been said to have given rise to different kinds of aspirations among students.

The boom in the IT sector, including BPOs and KPOs along with the mushrooming of technical educational institutions fast-tracked the process by providing various career options to students.

"As many of the private institutions are run by politicians and for profits, various restrictions were imposed on students on various aspects. As colleges were lacking politics and major upheavals,
parents of students in other states sent their kids here. That created a different culture on campuses," Chandru said, adding that even middle class people believe students do not need politics.

The contemporary

While many of the colleges in the State do not have student unions, those that are existing are largely toothless and their activities largely confined to conducting cultural events.

However, students' wings of political organisations like RSS' Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Congress' National Students' Union of India (NSUI), CPI's All India Students Federation (AISF), CPI(M)'s Students' Federation of India (SFI) and those of DMK and AIADMK continue to function in the State and have been taking up various issues concerning students.

It may be noted that Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) and Chinta Bar, formed in 2014 in IIT-Madras, carved themselves a prominent space for being one of the few student groups to function from a technical educational institution.

According to former ABVP National President S Subbiah, every year the organisation raises a demand in all the colleges and universities to conduct elections for students union.

However, there are student outfits who are also demanding for student elections without the participation of any political organisations.

Apart from carrying out agitations on various students issues, Tamil Nadu NSUI Vice President K Naresh Kumar said that the wing's members presently are working in all the 234 constituencies for the win of DMK alliance.

Kumar however said that there are some candidates contesting elections who were once part of NSUI.

Issues that students fought for in the past:

1. Workers rights.

2. Women's rights.

3. Against Emergency.

4. Against Vietnam War.

5. For Sri Lankan Tamils.

6. Reservations.

Leaders who shot to prominence after activism in student days:

S Duraimurugan.

P Seenivasan (DMK candidate who won against Congress leader Kamaraj).

L Ganesan.

Prakash Karat.

K Balakrishnan.

G Ramakrishnan.

D Raja.


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