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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 41, September 28, 2013

Campus Space in the Age of Clicktivism: Exploring JNU Students Union Elections

Tuesday 1 October 2013

by Gaurav J. Pathania

Student union elections in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are festivals of ideological debates and democratic exuberance. This year’s election on September 13 gave a clear mandate to the radical Left group, the All India Students Association (AISA), with its victory over all four posts of the central panel. It defeated its main opponent, the Democratic Students Federation (DSF), with a margin of around a thousand votes. The National Students Union of India (NSUI) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarathi Parishad (ABVP) were both strong contenders for the central panel posts. Interestingly, for the first time in the history of the JNU, the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), has completely lost its base in this election. The All India Students Federation (AISF) preserved its existence by winning one councillor’s post.

The shocking fact in this election was that only 51 per cent of the total student population voted in the election. Compared to the last two elections, this is a drastic decrease. Similarly, there is a decline of student participation in strikes, debates and public meetings. Spaces previously used for social interaction on campus are fading in their use and importance. Activists do not seem to be capturing the students’ imagi-nation as they did before. In such a historically vibrant campus, this points to transformations in the campus culture.

The election results for the past two years indicate that the ‘moderate Left’ (SFI) is losing its ground on the campus. On the other hand, parties of the radical Left and Right—AISA and ABVP—are strengthening their base. Since the past two elections the ABVP is gaining a higher vote percentage. Similarly, a newly formed group ‘Concerned Students’, is also gaining a voice by exposing the moderate politics of the Left parties. What’s more, the SFI fielded its first gay candidate for the post of the General Secretary. This explains the progressive space created by the students unions for liberal and anti-traditional ideas.

Changing Configuration

The social composition of the campus politics has changed in recent years. Since last year’s election, students from the minority and marginal communities have won the central panel posts. One of the reasons behind this is sufficient number of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) students’ inclusion since 2007 when reservation in higher education was imple-mented by the government. The JNU students unions have worked hard to implement the complete 27 per cent reservation in admissions. Apart from that, OBCs are also making their entry in the general merit category. Thus, their number has increased to more than 30 per cent —which can be a deciding factor in elections. But this element does not explain the decline in the overall student participation.

The AISA owes its victory to its continuous activism both on and off the campus. The organi-sation has actively participated in various issues concerning fee-hikes in the JNU and Jamia Milia Islamia, the month long Bekhauf Azadi campaign against the Delhi rape case on December 16, 2012, the ‘Anti-Modi’ protest at Delhi University (DU) and boycotting the Four Year Degree Programme (FYUP) in the DU, among others. Regarding youth employment issues they protested in Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country. In this way, the AISA kept itself visible and stayed fixed in the limelight though this activism failed to explain the substantial decline in the total polling.

The Changing Campus Space in the
Age of Clicktivism

Today’s students are living in the age of technology and virtual communication. In many ways, the world of Facebook has taken over the real space of interaction, and, not surprisingly, is the most popular social networking site. Student activism is now characterised by writing blurbs, linking to different signature campaigns, liking or sharing pictures and news of agitations, rallies or movements. As a result, the numbers who actually go out and participate in the marches and protests is dwindling.

In any campus, the hostel and dining-hall, tea-shops and library are the spaces where students can interact and share their ideas and feelings. The hostel is an important place for students as they experience campus life. In the hostel dining halls of the JNU, students consume ideas through pamphlets while having their meal. Hostels also organise night talks and debates on various socio-political issues inviting key activists and experts to lead discussions. The frequency of these talks has, however, decreased in the last few years.

There is little conversation between room-mates, as their laptops and mobile phones consume their attention. Thus, a vital aspect of the hostel community has disappeared. More-over, the culture of senior students sharing a room with juniors is now a practice of the past. Instead of making the effort to know others, now students of the same State, caste, or class prefer to live together. Regionalism is replacing the space for diversity. Accessing internet in their rooms facilitates connection with the world at large, while making it more of an effort to connect with the person next door. With the omnipresence of virtual communication, students are not always fully participating or communicating in their immediate life-worlds. Similarly, the unique dhaba (tea-shop) culture, famous for its night long debates, is losing its popularity. The relatively low election participation is symptomatic of these changes.

How ‘Social’ is our Social Media?

In the present time, no student organisation can survive without the social media. Every student union has a facebook page and blog wherein they continue posting and debating with students. What is left of activism is turning into “clicktivism”. Students’ personal struggle is minimised to a level where desires and emotions find their outlet through the social media. The sphere of facebook offers myriad options but ultimately it does not promote the organic connections between human beings. Thus, the “social” is losing its relevance through the social media. At this juncture, student unions need to strengthen their ideological commitment to socialise students on the campus. It is a challenging task at a time where “slacktivism” and “clickti-vism” are defining the university space.

Thus, the vibrant culture of the JNU is passing through a perilous phase in the age of technology. The revolutionary slogans and graffiti on the red campus walls compete with the posts on facebook ‘walls’. Participation in protests, marches, or campaigns is achieved with just a single mouse click on ‘like’. This ‘clicktivism’ is replacing real activism. The declining partici-pation in the recent union elections hints to a danger for the campus community culture built by the ideological student unions over the last four decades.

The author is a Research Scholar, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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