No Politics Please!
It was supposed to rid student politics of criminal elements, corruption, muscle power and all other ills and illegalities that had seeped into the campus unions over the years. Its mandate was to suggest a code of conduct, eligibility criteria and limits for expenditure during the student polls and thus prepare ground for training of ideal torchbearers for the Indian democracy. Yet thanks to some of its unviable and sweeping recommendations, it has ended up triggering the opposite!
The implementation of James Michael Lyngdoh Committee report coupled with unfettered growth of private institutions and increasing political intolerance in States, the student politics in the country is gasping for breath with over half of the Universities and institutions of higher education in the country having banned student union polls and put in their place a rule by proxy.
From Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Delhi to Maharashtra, a large number of Universities and institutes of excellence have suspended student unions in recent years and are refusing to conduct elections on one pretext or the other.
“There are around 245 Universities in the country, fifty per cent of them do not conduct elections,” claims Sunil Bansal, secretary (Northwest) in Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Thakkar’s counterpart in National Students Union of India
(NSUI) Hibi Eden finds the situation alarming. “Every other University is banning elections. This is not a positive signal. NSUI had to agitate in Rajasthan which is ruled by our party for resumption of student elections. The government has accepted to hold elections this year,” he discloses.
The six-member Lyngdoh Committee was the fall out of a Supreme Court case involving Sojan Francis, a BA IInd year student of St Thomas College in Kerala, a member of his college union, who claimed duty leave for sitting in the examination saying that he had to stay off classes to attend to organisational work.
Set up by Union Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry on the direction of the apex court, the Committee was asked to look into the entire gamut of student elections including criminalisation, expenditure limits for individual candidates and eligibility criteria. It recommended a ceiling of Rs 5000 on the election expenses, ban on use of printed posters and banners (for hand-made posters), fixed age limit (17-28 years) and made 75 per cent attendance mandatory for contesting elections. More importantly, it banned interference from political parties into the student union polls.
The SC approved the committee report in October 2006 days after a mob of students in Madhav College, Ujjain, protesting against deferment of student union polls beat a political science professor H S Sabharwal to death.
Since then a number of Universities including three central Universities – Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Allahabad University and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) – have banned the student elections.
AMU Vice Chancellor P K Abdul Azis suspended the student union in 2007 after the University campus was rocked by murder of a student. When student leaders opposed the decision through sit-ins and other forms of protest, Azis suspended 18 students including then AMU student union secretary Sulaiman Mohd Khan and closed the University sine die. The University, which produced in the past leaders like Zakir Hussain (former Indian President), over half a dozen cabinet ministers including Arif Mohd Khan and Saleem Sherwani and at least three Chief Ministers of Jammu & Kashmir including Sheikh Abdullah, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Azis is facing serious allegations of financial irregularity and the death of a modern language professor S R Siras, who was suspended for being gay, is yet to be accounted for.
Yet the University seems to have no inclination to restore student elections in the near future. “The situation is not normal even now. The students (suspended and reinstated later) trying to disturb peace again,” says AMU registrar V K Abdul Jaleel. Jaleel claims that a high-level five-member committee headed by former AMU Vice Chancellor Prof M Saleemuddin is examining the feasibility of holding student elections within Lyngdoh Committee recommendations.
Allahabad University, the fourth oldest University in the country, which had two former Indian Prime Ministers – late Viashwanath Pratap Singh and Chandra Sekhar – and several central ministers, state chief Ministers and ministers among its alumnus, has not had elections for two years. “No election has been held. It should not be held either because the union leaders misuse their office and get examinations postponed,” says A K Kannaujia, Allahabad University Deputy Registrar and PRO. The University, he claims, has put a grievance cell in place to redress problems of the students.
Allahabad University’s neighbour BHU has replaced Students’ Union with a Students’ Council, headed by University Vice Chancellor D P Singh where members are nominated by deans in different faculties. The basic criterion, according to BHU additional PRO R Singh, is excellence in academics, culture and sports. The 15-member council elects a secretary and seven joint secretaries and also selects from among its constituents members for an interview committee which selects students for temporary jobs in the
University under a scheme called ‘earn-while-you-learn’.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), another central University, has not witnessed a student polls since the Supreme Court ordered implementation of Lyngdoh Committee guidelines. Students from the University have approached the apex court seeking quashing of Lyngdoh Committee’s clause on age limit. “JNU is basically a research institute. The age limit (17-28) should not apply to research scholars,” says Alok Kumar, ABVP secretary in charge of National Capital Region (NCR).
The ban on student elections has put the leaders of youth wings of political parties in a quandary as it has an adverse impact on their recruitment. It is to be noted that in the past a number of national leaders – Sitaram Yechuri, Prakash Karat, (CPI (M) Arun Jaitely, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Vijay Goel, Sushil Kumar Modi (BJP), D P Tripathi (NCP), Salman Khurshid, Ashok Gehlot, Ashok Tanwar (Congress), Lalu Prasad Yadav (Rashtriya Janata Dal) and Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal (United) Prafulla Mahanta (AGP)– emerged from the Universities.
“No new leadership is emerging because the laboratories of student politics are defunct. We are not getting any recruits from there. Sooner or later we may also have to conduct elections like the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) to get new members,” laments BJP youth morcha president Amit Thakkar who was part of a student union in Gujarat.
Ironically, despite being ruled by BJP, the colleges in Gujarat have not conducted elections since 1990s when the then State government banned them. Thakkar does not spare his party seniors. “Hamam mein hum sab nange hain (All are birds of same feather). All politicians fear the challenge from students,” he quips.
Lyngdoh Committee’s Recommendations
The Lyngdoh Committee was appointed by Government of India in 2005 under the chairmanship of the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, James Michael Lyngdoh, to frame the guidelines on students’ union elections in colleges/universities as per the directions issued by the Supreme Court of India. Its report was submitted by the Committee on May 23, 2006. The Supreme Court in October 2006 ordered that the Lyngdoh Committee report be implemented in the students’ union elections to establish accountability, transparency and discipline.
Highlights of Recommendations
- a) Time Duration: The Committee’s recommendations have clearly mentioned about the time duration for holding the Union elections. It has recommended that elections be held on a yearly basis and between six-to-eight weeks from the date of commencement of the academic session.
- b) Age: The eligibility criteria have been strictly laid down in order to prioritise educational activities. Undergraduate students between the ages of 17 and 22 may contest elections. This age range may be appropriately relaxed in the case of professional Colleges, where courses often range from four to five years. For Postgraduate Students the maximum age limit to legitimately contest an election would be 24 to 25 years. For research students the maximum age limit to legitimately contest an election would be 28 years. Marks are also a criterion because the student’s priority must be given to his/her studies. The candidate should in no event have any academic arrears in the year of contesting the election. The candidate shall have one opportunity to contest for the post of an office-bearer, and two opportunities to contest for the post of an executive member.
- c) Attendance: The candidate should have attained the minimum percentage of attendance as prescribed by the University or 75 per cent attendance, whichever is higher.
- d) Previous Criminal Record: The candidate shall not have a previous criminal record, that is to say, he should not have been tried and/or convicted of any criminal offence or misdemeanour. The candidate shall also not have been subject to any disciplinary action by the University authorities.
- e) Expenditure: The maximum permitted expenditure per candidate shall be Rs 5000.
All the recommendations were aimed at giving the first priority to academic activities as the Committee was clear that the academic institutions are meant for educational activities, not for politics. From the day the Lyngdoh Committee’s recommendations came into force it has ensued a wide-ranging debate on what has to be followed by the respective students’ union’s constitution or the Lyngdoh Committee’s recommendations? The differences between various students’ union’s constitutions of the respective universities and the Lyngdoh Committee report has allegedly led to the curtailment of the democratic processes in different universities.
The student leaders, in particular, have objected to Lyngdoh Committee’s recommendations on expenditure limit, age limit (17-28) and 75 per cent attendance.
“The Rs 5000 expenditure limit for a candidate may be alright in JNU, a smaller university. But in Delhi University which has 60 campuses, it will be ridiculously inadequate,” says Sunil Bansal, an ABVP office-bearer.
The students oppose the 75 per cent attendance clause too saying that it was erroneous to have two different yardsticks for sitting in examination (66 per cent attendance) and contesting an election. They also disagree with the ‘age barrier’ and ‘repeat clause’ saying that this deprived the JNU of experienced leadership. They do not concur with the ban on printed posters and banners either. “Anybody can print posters with your photograph. This is what happened in Delhi University (DU).” NSUI chief Hibi Eden points out.
The youth leaders of the mainstream political parties allege that the universities have a bias for little-known student outfits and against groups affiliated to them. “Why do they fear us? And why shouldn’t our senior leaders interfere when they do something wrong?” a NSUI leader asked.
By Uday India Bureau
The case of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh bears testimony to Thakkar’s claim. In Haryana, former Chief Minister late Bansi Lal banned elections in the four Universities of the state – Mahrishi Dayanand, Kurukshetra, Guru Jambheshwar and Chaudhary Charan Singh Agriculture University – in the mid nineties. A violent incident in Kurukshetra University was the official trigger for the ban. But there was also a political reason – Bansi Lal’s fledgling outfit Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) hardly had presence in the Universities and colleges in the state. ABVP’s Sunil Bansal accuses Mayawati government of having banned student elections in the state for the same reasons.
Unlike Central Universities where the central government and University Vice Chancellor are empowered to suspend student unions, in state Universities the ball is strictly in the court of the state governments and the University authorities. Maharashtra government
banned elections in all state Universities including Mumbai University three years back. Recently a committee appointed by the Supreme Court on prevention of ragging wrote to the state Universities asking them to make necessary amendments (keeping Lyngdoh Committee guidelines in mind) in their laws and conduct student elections.
In the absence of the elected Unions, the students, particularly in private institutions, are at the whims of their authorities. They have no one to turn to when their institutes arbitrarily hike fees and do not honour commitments made in their prospectuses. Even for basic facilities like proper food and coolers in hostels, they have to run from pillar to post. “The university does not allow coolers in hostel rooms even during searing heat. We would like to raise it with the management but there is no direct communication,” complains Salfiya Hakeem, a 2nd year student of masters in Mass Communication in the AMU. In Kurukshetra University, students want wi-fi in their hostel rooms and transport from commuting between hostel and departments but do not know who to approach for this.
Stay on “Great October Revolution”!
JNUSU elections, also called the great October Revolution praised by Lyngdoh and incorporated as the model of student elections in Lyngdoh committee in 2006. The student union in JNU by an election commission comprising students. It regards the “general body”, as an assembly of all students, the supreme. No muscle or money power plays any role in the elections of JNUSU. It was observed as the great celebration of democracy which is not witnessed in any campuses of India. Then what happened in 2007, when Supreme Court put a stay on the elections in JNU?
The model itself got into the snap-knot of the Lyngdoh committee’s recommendations. It was for violating two pointsage limit of participants (17-28) and repetition of candidates to be elected on the panel.
“We have filed a writ petition against the Supreme Court’s stay on the JNUSU elections. It came as a shock, it is extremely unfortunate that the apex court gave such kind of decision and has failed to appreciate this inherent democratic strength of JNUSU and its constitution, which has been built up by generations of students and sustained without any administrative interference. We want that the Honourable Supreme Court should take a relook at its decision of staying of JNUSU elections and remove the stay order so that not only the age old democratic norms of this premier institute are upheld, but also a time-tested model of truly democratic student politics is legitimised ” said Meera, student coordinator for JNUSU.
JNU’s election culture can be imbibed by one by entering the campus only—there are hand-made posters and the graffiti on the walls. Hand-written appeals on a kaleidoscope of social issues are posted on notice boards. Pamphlets made with stencil on mess tables, cyclostyled with money quickly collected from friends and foes. Students hold long discussions and public meetings in canteens. Guest speakers: from Govindacharaya to Tariq Ali to Kanu Sanyal. The world turned upside down, the revolutionary bonds across geographies and twilight zones. The internal struggle inside eclectic minds; that poster of ‘the thinker’ – inspired by Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture – with that amazing slogan: I might not agree with you, but I will fight for your right to express.
The recommendations of the Lyngdoh Committee were to curb the blatant use of money and muscle power in the students’ union election in different campuses of the country. And if we look back into the history of JNUSU elections we can see that elections have remained non-violent, non-commercial and highly participatory, just opposite to those of its counterpart universities.
The take of JNU students is that they appreciate these recommendations on the whole, but certain clause should be reconsidered and reconstructed according to different campuses.
Lyngdoh committee is not based on ground reality. It wants that all should wear the same shoe. How is it possible that a candidate electing from Delhi University, with more than 80 colleges could campaign an election with mere Rs 5000? And by implementing age barrier it wants immature candidates to be elected, and in universities like JNU, which is a research institute, students generally come after 24 or 26 years of their age. They need some time to settle and create a base and to get mature political grounds. So how much would be the acceptance to this kind of suggestions. JNU has no particular attendance criteria for students, and professors does not bother to mark the attendance of students. So how would Mr Lyngdoh draw a line that a student should have more than 75 per cent of attendance, and if a person will attend 75 per cent of class how would he address the grievances of the students for which he has been appointed? The committee, however has several positive points which are relevant for universities like Kerala University and Kurukshetra University, where there should be a curb on muscle and money power involved in the student elections.
—Abdul Hafiz Gandhi
National Secretary, Youth Congress
By Sachin Kaushik
Most of the Universities – Kurukshetra and AMU are examples of it—which have banned student unions have tried to provide an alternate mechanism for redressal of students’ grievances. The AMU has set up a 3-tiered grievance redressal cell where the top tier is headed by the Vice Chancellor. But students do not raise uncomfortable questions for fear of retribution.
The universities oppose the resumption of student unions saying that they bring political interference into campus, vitiate the academic atmosphere, pressurise for admissions and other undue favours and cause postponement of examinations. Kurukshetra University’s Dean Students’ Welfare Nafa Singh says the Union leaders kidnap students, are free loaders and indulge in violence against the teachers. There are also students who feel better off without elections.
Yet the situation looks ill-omened as all major movements of the world emanated from the corridors of institutes of higher learning. Right from the French movement of 1968 when university students hit the streets against President Charles de Gaulle’s government to 1989’s Tiananmen Square in Beijing when Chinese students rose in revolt against the death of a pro-democracy activist – students have always led from the front.
Even in India, the ‘total revolution’ of Jai Parkash Narayan against imposition of emergency by then Prime Minister late Indira Gandhi pivoted around institutes of higher learning. In Assam, the first Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta ruled from Guwahati University for first three months in 1985 where its parent body All Assam Students’ Union was born. The AASU successfully fought against Bangladeshi migrants and signed an accord with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paving way for AGP’s first government.
By Narendra Kaushik