A few months back, after the brutal rape and murder of the young lady in New Delhi, young people across communities took to the streets. Their rage was directed at the political class. Most of the people gathered in New Delhi to protest against the largely passive reaction of the political personalities and lengthy judicial proceedings of India belonged to the student community. Their reactions to the brutality as aired through media reveal a strange interplay between the student community and the political class at large. Besides this, some recent phenomena circling around colleges’ union-body elections in West Bengal bring to surface a debate on the nature of students’ involvement to politics. In this context, this article tries to look back to the celebrated tradition of students’ association with politics and its significance in India.
Philip Altbach, an US based political scientist, in his 1968 book describes student movements as either normative or value oriented, and according to him, all the political actions by students either focus on an etudialist or a societal issue. The normative course of a movement revolves around a specific and micro issue and the value orientation centres on broader ideological motives like breaking down class barriers and so.
In India, organized student movement developed as an integral part of the anti-colonial struggle. In 1928, during the visit of the Simon Commission, Indian National Congress leaders organized students to demand the recommendation for political independence. Later on, student movement in India started operating through separate bodies led and organized by students. It achieved a different dimension with the growing political strength of the leftist movement in pre-independence India. The All India Student Federation (AISF) was formed in 1936 under the guidance of CPI. This organization acquires a glorious part of the organized student movement in Indian history. It had a radical and loosely national agenda initially; the primary demand was the freedom India from the colonial yoke. AISF had very active cultural fronts which worked in the grassroots to reach the rural population. Later on, it essayed a pivotal role in the formation of IPTA. The first conference of AISF was held in Lucknow and adopted 25 resolutions and a 23-points charter of demands. A students’ organ called The Students’ Tribune was planned to be initiated. Reduction of fees, democratization and reformation of the colonial education system, adapting to a student-friendly language policy and many other issues involving a number of social, economic and cultural dimensions were among the resolutions and the charter.
The more or less unified structure of the Indian student movement suffered a considerable blow with the formation of All-India Muslim Student Federation (AIMSF) in 1937. AIMSF demanded a separate Muslim state and contributed immensely to the formation of Pakistan in 1947.
The Second World War is a decisive as well as divisive turnaround in Indian student movements’ history. Internal conflict of opinion within AISF led to a rift which resulted in the formation of All India Student Congress (AISC) in early 1940s. The rift surfaced because of a debate on the issue of USSR’s participation in the war. AISC went on to become one of the preeminent student organizations in pre-independence India.
Indian independence and partition brought in more fractionalization within the student movement. Many nationalist student leaders were disenchanted with Indian National Congress for its alleged compromises for independence. The Socialist Congress Party and its youth organizations suffered heavy blow for this kind of disillusionment. The communists were dissatisfied with the declaration of partition and following independence. Leftist leaders, across the nation, took to the streets with slogans like Yeh Aazaadi Jhoota hai (This Is a False Independence). The Communist Party, in the years immediately subsequent to the independence, went into underground. As a result, the leftist student movement was put to disarray in the late 40s and early 50s.
The newly independent nation and its government adopted an education policy that stresses on the massive expansion of the education sector. Number of university graduates rapidly increased in the years following independence. So did the number of unemployed young men and women. Discrimination on the basis of political ideology gained currency in the domain of civil service and other public sector recruitment. A generation of students became disillusioned with the dream of an independent and secured nation. The seeds of the extremist and ultra-leftist student movements were being sown in during the course of the late 50s and 60s.
The political landscape of international politics was bipolar. With the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, cold war between the USA and the USSR reached a zenith. AISF used to receive financial aids from the USSR by upholding its traditional support for the cause of a supposed communist world revolution. AISC got dissolved in 1948. In this context, an effort was initiated to build a non-political student body by the students opposed to AISF. Formed in 1950, National Union of Students (NUS) was a precursor to this idea. But owing to internal disputes, NSU stopped operating in 1958. Then in the early 1960s, anti-communist and anti-AISF students formed an organization called National Council of University Students of India (NCUSI). The international forces opposed to the USSR wanted to use this organization to balance the Soviet influence in Indian student politics.
Internal conflicts within both AISF and NCUSI weakened the student movement to a great extent and student movement, for the time being, lost its macro goal and got involved with only campus related micro issues. In 1970, as a result of the official split in CPI half a decade back over the question of loyalty to the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties, Student Federation of India (SFI) was formed out of AISF. It is the largest student organization in India today. With its slogan of independence, democracy and socialism, SFI is a self-proclaimed crusader against imperialism and oppression of the global capital.
Then came the 70s. With the annihilation of feudal powers and nationalization of the banking sector across the nation, peasants and labourers were filled in with new optimism. On the other hand, growing unemployment, inflation and social disparity gave birth to a kind of agitation in the minds of urban educated middle class. University students, mostly in states with a considerable communist presence, dreamt of changing the systems of bourgeoisie liberal democracy. In interior rural pockets like Naxalbari in north Bengal, fresh university graduates under the leadership of seasoned extremist politicians built political base and tried to organize a large scale mass movement with the help of peasants and labourers. The state apparatus came down heavily upon this extremist politics and within a decade, the movement started being remembered and studied only as a failed, misguided and romanticized attempt by a frustrated and educated student community.
In April 1977, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was formed in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Its declared agenda was to free Indian students from the influence of western materialistic culture and establish a Muslim code of conduct. Allegations of spreading terrorist ideology have repeatedly been made against SIMI in the subsequent years. The Supreme Court marked it as a secessionist movement in 2007 and prior to that, the government of India banned the organization in 2001. A CBI report recently claims that SIMI operates in India in the name of Indian Mujahedeen which is a declared terrorist organization.
Parallel to that Islamist extremism, there is a moderate extremist Hindu ideology of student politics propagated by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate to BJP and RSS. It was formed right after the independence in 1948. It upholds the traditional Indian Vedic values and avowedly communal in some respects. In the campuses where ABVP holds sway, one finds a different kind of cultural practice. Bowing down to the seniors and keeping a safe distance from the opposite gender is two of the dictates of ABVP. It is organizationally strong in JNU, Banaras Hindu University and many universities of north and south India.
Student movements in the north-eastern states of India merit a different article on its own. Ethnic politics and distance from the rest of India have made the north-eastern states a sensitive battleground of student movements. I shall possibly be back with an article on the student movement in the north-east in near future.
Once upon a time, in the tapovanas of ancient India, students used to chant Vedic mantras and when someone like Satyakama entered the forest in pursuit of knowledge, the caste-ridden social hierarchy used to laugh at them. We have left it behind long ago and we don’t need another Ekalavya who would not be able to join in because of his social standing. The sooner Indian student movements come to terms with this realization, better would it be for the nation.