Students Politics in India: A historical perspective
On the question of students participation in politics, one of the first student leaders in India, a moderate, Sir Surendra Nath Banerjee, had declared in no uncertain terms, “Students must, on one hand be stirred out of indifference to politics … and on the other hand be protected from fanatical views” where as Nehru was evasive in his answer that participation in the national movement was a “sacred duty”. In the modern history of human kind, the youth in general and the students in particular, have played pivotal role in revolutionary changes. Therefore I am for the politicization of the students with radical consciousness emanating through study to comprehend the social contradictions and struggles to eradicate them. Aware of that, the forces of statuesque, the ruling classes, the global finance oligarchy at present, give special consideration to and take special precautions against the politicization of the campus under the WTO directed educational reforms. The powers that be are so apprehensive of politicization of the campuses that they are doing the needful to ensure the shrinking of the public spaces for students even for general socialization and cultural activities, leave aside the political activities. The Delhi University’s campuses are its glaring examples. University and College campuses have been fortified with ubiquitous presence of Police and even bouncers. The Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) is not allowed to hold its meetings in any Hall or auditorium in the university or its colleges, not even at Vivekananda statue in the Arts faculty. The level of teachers’ consciousness and their consequent united strength is not enough to gatecrash and hold the meetings. The level of students’ consciousness is still more depressing. Space is just one side of story. More worrying side is lack of radicalization of student consciousness. This is confirmed by the fact that unlike JNU or other universities of the country, Delhi University does not have any history of any radical student movement since the aftermath of the emergency. This is a matter of serious concern.Karl Marx wrote in the Poverty of Philosophy that the workers are class in itself by definition vis-a-vis the capitalist but remains the lump of mass until it is able to comprehend the contradictions and organize itself on the basis of common class interest. The same is true about the students. One becomes a student by joining any college or the university but can become a class for itself, the active historic agent of the change, by acquiring students’ consciousness through scientific education and organize themselves on the basis of common interest of comprehension of the history and participation in the struggles of radical changes. The immediate danger to education is from the new educational changes being brought about on the behest of the imperialist global capital and hence the immediate task before the student movement is to oppose the draconian systems like CBCS aimed at commercialization of education. But as mentioned above, Delhi University students politics, led by DUSU under the leadership of either ABVP, the students front of RSS and the NSUI, the movement means Lumpenism like disturbing the theatre performances and film screening as witnessed in the recent past or ransacking the history department, manhandling the teachers against the inclusion of Ramanjun’s essay on Ramayana. The only known and publicized activity of DUSU and the College Students’ unions are organization of annual festivals and cornering the commission from the sponsorship. It needs to be reversed if the students’ movement has to perform its historic role of pioneering the revolutionary changes. The student movement, any movement for that matter, has to give adequate consideration to immediate and long term goals. Presently the immediate goal before the students’ movement is to create nationwide movement against the disastrous educational policies and the long term goal is, of course, a pro-people, participatory education system with democratic and healthy academic atmosphere of scientific discourse.
The history of organized student movement goes back to 1936 when on the behest of the CSP the formation of mass fronts started as a matter of policy. seventy years old. It was in 1936 that the efforts to form an all India student organization bore fruit, along with the All India Kisan Congress (later renamed as All India Kisan Sabha) and the Progressive Writers’ Association.I have been asked by my students to write an article at an atrociously short notice on a serious issue like students’ movement in India. Therefore a comprehensive analysis and references to the sources is beyond the scope of this article, I shall try to put the current state of affairs in historic perspective. I deliberately have titled this piece as students’ politics and not the movement. The movements are result of political understanding of history and ideological commitment to comprehend and change the society or other way round. The student wings of ruling class parties act as the fifth column of their respective parties and provide platform of training of future leaders for them. Student’s participation in nationalist movement goes back to the last decade of 19th century. Under the influence of the radical nationalists, known as Congress extremists, like Tilak, Aurbindo and Bipan ChandraPal many students had joined revolutionary movements that became more prominently visible with the formation of underground armed groups like Jugantar and Anushilan in Bengal in the aftermath of the Swadeshi movement in the aftermath of the Bengal partition. Large number of students had left their studies and joined Gandhi led non-cooperation movement, the withdrawal of which witnessed the regrouping of early revolutionaries to form HRA to liberate the country and create an exploitation free society who subsequently regrouped themselves to form HSRA under the leadership of Chandrashekhar Azad with Bhagat Singh and Bhagavati Charan Vohra as it main ideologues. Many students were attracted to the revolutionary activities. A large number of students joined the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930s and many joined the Congress Socialist Party(CSP) formed in 1934 by such “Congress men and women who had come under the influence of the ideology of Marxism. But there was no student organization and thereby there was no organized student movement. These organizations emerged out of the quest of the people for means to put an end to the British rule in India. The suspension of the civil disobedience movement and the situation thereafter, the influence of the ideas of Bhagat Singh and his comrades propagated widely through their arguments in the court, their subsequent martyrdom, the influence of the developments taking place at the international level –– rapid progress of the USSR through planned economy, anti-colonial struggles across the world, had all contributed to the formation of organizations to mobilize different sections of the people in the freedom struggle.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the president of Congress, who had inaugurated the conference, spoke at length about the merits of socialism. He had urged upon the students to view the Indian struggle for independence as a part of the struggle against colonialism taking place throughout the world. Nehru had specifically brought the Palestinian liberation struggle and the fight against fascism in Spain to the notice of the conference. The maturity and sensitivity of the student movement organizers of those times, their keen observation of the international developments can be understood from another resolution that the conference passed on the growth of fascist forces.The programme of the AISF had combined the aim of achieving freedom and other social problems faced by the students. A call was given to observe November 20 as all India students’ day to propagate the program of the organization along with a charter of demands. The first conference of the AISF held in Lucknow adopted 25 resolutions and a 23-point charter of demands. The very first resolution adopted at the conference on what necessitated the formation of a student organization states: “It has been resolved that a permanent all-India organization of students be formed with a view (a) to encourage cultural and intellectual cooperation on equal terms between the students of various provinces and Indian states (b) to suggest improvements in the present educational systems (c) to safeguard the rights of the student community and (d) to prepare the students for citizenship in order to take their due share in the struggle for complete national freedom by arousing their social, political and economic consciousness.” The conference also decided to start an official organ, The Students’ Tribune, to propagate its views. Apart from the resolutions concerned with education system like demanding the reduction of fee, changes in the examination system, democratization of education system, language policy etc, the conference also passed resolutions concerned with the economic, social and political situation of the country. It appealed to the students “to acquaint themselves with the problems of Indian masses, to study their coming problems and come in contact with rural and industrial India.” Through its resolutions the conference drew the attention of the students to the economic hardships of the Indian masses, unemployment, poverty and starvation. The pioneers of Indian student movement never visualized it as a strand by itself, cut-off from the other concerns of the society at large. They sought to integrate the students in the national movement by organizing them first on the issues that are of immediate concern to them and then slowly developing their political consciousness. They were driven by an indomitable urge to free the country from all kinds of shackles and not just the foreign rule. It is all the more imperative and necessary to remember all these ideas in today’s neo-liberal era when there is an attack on students’ involvement in politics. The proponents of neo-liberal policies and the ruling classes preach that students should not bother themselves with the problems of the society. Even the courts these days are sermonizing against student politics. It may be important to note that Lala Lajpat Rai emphatically answered this question. In his presidential address to the first All India Students’ Conference, held in December 1920 (precursor to the formation of AISF) he had said, “I am not one of those who believe that students ought not to meddle in politics. I think it is a most stupid theory and an impossible theory too. It is the creation not of confused brains but of dishonest brains.” Dishonest because they want to monopolize the political domain and thus continue with their loot. They do not want the students, who have the advantage of access to knowledge, to understand this, educate and mobilize the people against them.
The fourth demand was ‘there shall be complete freedom of speech and organization to the students within the schools and colleges as well as outside’ and related to this was another demand ‘the universities shall recognize student unions and allow their representatives the right to submit their demands and grievances to the authorities’. Another demand was ‘no student shall be victimized for taking part in politics’. In many states in our country there are no student unions in the campuses and in many of the private institutions they are not even allowed to enter the premises. This is true even in some of the so-called ‘elite centers of excellence’ run by the government. Victimization of the students who question the injustices in the education system is a common phenomenon in many education institutes. The vice-chancellor of Punjabi University in Patiala who has expelled many students for this very reason and is acting as a dictator in the campus is a recent example. The same was and is the experience in Benaras Hindu University, Andhra University and many other universities, not to speak of the private education institutes. In Delhi University, the Vice Chancellor is acting like a feudal lord with casteist intent.There is another section that resists the entry of students into politics out of “genuine concern for the future of the students”. They think that instead of bothering about the problems of the society, students should utilize their time for studies and concentrate on their career. In their love for their children and students they forget that an individual cannot live unaffected by the policies pursued by the government. As Nehru had put it “Is the examination hall or the counting house dearer to you than India’s freedom…what shall it profit you to get your empty degrees if the millions starve and your motherland continues in bondage! Who lives if India dies? Who dies if India lives?” Some counter this by arguing that those were the days of freedom struggle when India was under colonial yoke and that now we are living in a free and independent country that does not necessitate the participation of students in the political arena. It is true that we have achieved political independence but we are still not economically independent. The grand visions and dreams that our freedom fighters had fought for, suffered and gave their lives for are yet to be achieved. In the 23-point charter of demands that the formative conference of AISF had adopted, many are still pending even in independent India. Let us evaluate a few of them. The first point in the charter underlines the need for ‘considerably reducing the general cost of education’. Instead of reducing the cost of education today we have commercialized education to such an extent that according to the government appointed CABE committee report, India is one of the few countries where the fee collected is the highest, more than what is collected in developed countries. Many children are left out of the education system as the high cost of education is acting as a deterrent in parents sending their children to even a government school that is supposed to provide ‘free’ education. The second demand in the charter was ‘provision of free and compulsory primary education’. We are approaching sixtieth year of our independence, committed ourselves in many national and international forums to achieve this target. The goal posts of the timeframe have shifted but the target is still eluding us forcing the UN to comment that the gender disparity in education is so high that India will be a defaulter of this millennium development goal. Even today the government is dillydallying on the introduction of the right to education bill in the parliament as they feel the money that needs to be invested in granting such a right would be a burden on the exchequer. The third demand was ‘the textbooks shall be so chosen that they are free from anti-national or anti-democratic ideas’. The communalized and plagiarized textbooks of the NDA era, not to forget about the fate of the textbooks in the BJP-ruled states depict the glaring failure in achieving this demand till date. To top it all the present Jharkhand government led by the BJP is refusing to supply history textbooks that the present UPA government has prepared by correcting the distortions created by the previous central government. This shows to what extent these inherently anti-national and anti-democratic communal forces can go in this matter.
The time has come for the students and youth of our country to question whether the dreams of our freedom fighters are realized. It is the time when students read the letter of Bhagat Singh’s letter to students from jail appealing them and involve themselves with extensive studies in order to be able to comprehend the history and when the need arises, plunge into the struggle to change it.The same is the case about the situation of unemployment that the freedom fighters wanted to eradicate. In spite of the economic growth and boom, large sections of our youth are unemployed and under employed. It took these many years to guarantee employment for the youth and even that too has been limited to only 200 districts in rural areas alone. Reports of starvation deaths, farmers’ suicides have become daily news – news for statistics but not humanitarian concern. People are asked not to bother much about the malnutrition deaths but see the ‘prosperity’ in the growing number of malls. This only shows that the rich are enjoying the fruits of labour while the poor are going down the economic ladder. Even internationally, Palestine is still fighting the Israeli aggression that is openly supported by the imperialist powers. The imperialist wars are continuing in another form. The attack on Afghanistan, Iraq and now Israel’s attack on Lebanon are all wars of aggression and crimes on humanity. Innocent children in our country and across the world are dying for no fault of theirs. Wars, hunger, famines, poverty, destitution, unemployment surround us. Doesn’t all this appeal to our sensitivities? Is it not our responsibility to address these concerns? If addressing these issues is what politics is all about should we shy away from politics? We should remember that it is not a messiah who has brought us freedom nor was it a gift of benevolence by the colonial rulers. It is the struggle carried out by multitudes of students and the masses that were inspired by a vision of free India bereft of socio-economic injustices that brought us independence.
In the independence era other political parties formed their student fronts to carry forward the paqrty agenda as mentioned above.