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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 6, February 4, 2023

In Defence of Student Politics | Soumodip Sinha

Saturday 4 February 2023


by Soumodip Sinha *

The term student politics carries manifold conceptions. Student activists I have interacted with during the course of my doctoral fieldwork in Delhi University seek to avoid the category politics and prefer to use the term student activism. Such a phenomenon draws its roots from commonsensical notions about politics itself that has lent it a pejorative connotation with labels such as ‘dirty politics’ being commonplace. Typically, middle class households in India do not foresee politics as a respectable profession, rather less as a vocation for their offspring. However, most are happy to complain about the fact with phrases and remarks that our political class is not ‘educated enough’. Such a situation puts us in a double-bind.

With Covid-19 wreaking havoc globally, like other sectors, higher education has been at the receiving end too. Perennial shutdowns on account of unwarranted yet necessary lockdowns have seriously affected the teaching-learning milieu in colleges and universities where teaching and learning transcend the boundaries and ambit of classrooms and textbooks. Student leadership is one such exercise that higher education has instilled among and across generations. On account of bans on student political activism across various campuses in the Indian context, together with the Pandemic restricting such interactive exercises or contact programmes, budding student leaders and activists have been in a state of limbo. A spectacle among student union elections—the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) Election has not been held after September 2019. With such setbacks, we are losing out on prospective and ‘well-educated’ student leaders.

Throughout the course of my interactions with student activists in the University, one striking element was their passion to aspire for a holistic and higher level of higher education. Many of who were in their undergraduate programmes expressed an interest to at least complete postgraduate studies and some even wished to get into a research programme. Such a phenomenon, they emphasised was supposed to continue parallelly with their participation in student activism. Again, while popular notions would dismiss such a claim as a hop-skip and jump from one academic programme to another in order to attain the privileges of campus life leading to a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’, this generation of student leaders and activists particularly believe that the field of politics is a competitive one too and that ‘higher’ education would give them the distinction and ability to compete. They do not perceive themselves as doing timepass.

The higher education sector in India has witnessed a massive expansion since Independence, leading to a pattern of massification over the last two decades with Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of students coming second only to China. However, has the number of student leaders and activists increased along such a proportion and pace? How many of them have become parliamentarians or legislators in correspondence to doctors, engineers, lawyers or academics within such a context of massification? With the National Education Policy (NEP, 2020) making inroads and interventions into the curriculum, is there any scope for leadership training programmes for our young and can student politics then not serve as practical lessons for the makings of politics as a career option?

The politicization of universities has been a longstanding trend that has developed in simultaneity to alterations in the landscape of higher education both before and after Independence. Historically an exclusive space for elite reproduction and class privilege, democratization of access to such spaces has been an ongoing project for a while now. Against this background, socialization of students into forms and processes of political participation as well as political assertions has continued steadily and the case of Delhi University or other similar spaces stands testimony to the same. Despite the neoliberal interventions into the sector of higher education and consequent talk of the emergence of political apathy among students, a section of students in public sector universities continue to remain active in campus politics and thereby make their foray into mainstream politics.

That student politics serves as a ‘steeping stone’, ‘ladder’ or a ‘kindergarten’ for entering electoral politics or other variants of activism is a longstanding phenomenon and has been demonstrated historically and empirically. Student leaders from various parts of the globe have made their mark in a similar field. For instance, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a prominent face of the student movement in the 1960s has represented Germany in the European Parliament. Similarly, in the Indian context a significant number of parliamentarians and legislators have had their baptism into politics via such a platform and the list only continues to grow with time.

Using the CSDS Youth and Politics Survey published in 2014, eminent political scientist Sanjay Kumar has shown that 54 percent youth declined to take up a career in politics when compared to 34 percent who were willing and 12 percent had no opinion in this regard. He attributes such a cause to the general ‘educational system’ as well as ‘lack of avenues and incentives to make it a career’. Among them, the urban middle class youth were more inclined as compared to their rural counterparts. That the survey also throws light on the fact that almost one-fourth of women interviewed were keen to take up a career in politics, is noteworthy. Kumar concludes with the idea that although socio-economic background (money, access, political connections) and a political background are essential for career-making in politics, ‘exceptional individuals’ have also made it to this field. That a negligible proportion, yet substantial number of youth aspire for a career in this field is centrally argued. However, with spaces of higher education discouraging or postponing such a phenomenon will further lower the number of aspirants.

At a juncture when there has been popular talk of distancing dynasty from electoral politics and giving opportunities to first-generation learners, the least that can be done is to revisit the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations on student union elections in colleges and universities, fine-tune it with the need of the times and encourage participation of the student-youth within such processes. While there can be several points of defence for or against student politics in the sphere of higher education, one can only aspire for the aspirants of a career in politics by hoping that leadership-building exercises such as student union elections are held often and regularly.

* (Author: Soumodip Sinha teaches Sociology at Lloyd Law College in Greater Noida, Delhi-NCR. He has recently submitted his doctoral thesis in the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi)

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