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To Speak or Not to Speak: ‘Political’ Students in ‘Apolitical’ Indian Campuses

Apart from being a social commentary on the clearly apparent imposition of a culture of political apathy in Indian universities and the aggressive and deliberate depoliticisation of university campuses, this article aims to discuss the possible consequences of such circumstances, written from a fellow student’s point of view. In light of the recent suspension of a PhD candidate at TISS for “anti-national activities”, the author has attempted to analyze how constructing a dissonance between political participation and work life (work/studies) essentially leads to indifferentism among citizens and dilutes in turn, our democratic structure.

The demand for ‘apolitical’ spaces is accelerating at an unprecedented rate in our society, perhaps with an intent to curb aggressive politicization of trivial issues in hand and in turn, mitigate polarization between individuals or communities that we are so used to witnessing on the wider canvas. Or worse, these seemingly ‘apolitical’ spaces are carefully constructed to diminish any possibility of demurring and the ‘apolitical’ is just another term for acquiescence and conformity to the prevailing socio-political order. 

Institutions of higher education in particular, are working tirelessly to furnish an atmosphere of political apathy in campuses across the nation which is reflected in the administrative policies that are aimed towards silencing the cacophony of protests to make our academic institutions ‘conducive’ to learning and research. 

The recent case of Mr. Ramadasa Prini Srinivasan, a Dalit student, who was issued a suspension order for ‘repetitive misconduct’ and ‘anti-national’ student activities has again sparked the debate on student politics. Ramadas (aged 30) is a PhD candidate pursuing his doctorate in Development Studies and is also associated with the Progressive Students’ Forum (PSF) and has been accused of screening documentaries such as ‘Ram ke Naam’, ‘India: The Modi Question’, organizing the Bhagat Singh Memorial Lecture and inviting ‘controversial guest speakers’ for the same. 

Credits: HT

He allegedly participated in a demonstration outside the Indian Parliament as well. Having passed the UGC NET Exam with flying colors, Ramadasa is also a recipient of the National Fellowship for the Scheduled Castes which roughly amounts to Ra. 48,000/month. Not only will his fellowship be discontinued, but he is now also barred from all the four campuses of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for two years.

The administration’s attempt to target a student leader from a marginalized community in a public-funded university has once again fueled the issue of structural casteism prevalent in the institutions of higher education. Such an attitude is also reflective of the sheer desperateness of these intellectual hubs to appease the ruling dispensation by severely punishing the non-conformists. 

The demand from these progressive administrative bodies to the students participating in political lives is generally to devote their time entirely to academics and maintain order in the university and not tarnish the reputation of the institutions. While the foremost task of a student is to learn, it must be noted that a student is left with no choice but to be ‘political’ when the institutional apparatus, curriculum structure as well as the administrative offices impede their act of learning. The administration is unfortunately not all ears to the inherent discrimination faced in campuses by students lacking in resources, network, and cultural capital by their own classmates, teachers, and peer groups. 

These students belonging to the weaker sections of society carry their identities with them all through their lives and not necessarily by their own will. They are reminded of their position in society either overtly or covertly every now and then and run the risk of being ostracized in these educational campuses far from their home. When the marginalized communities are persecuted by their forward caste counterparts for drinking water from the well, then it becomes necessary for these students to speak and question and demand justice.

Idleness in this case is bound to induce moral culpability in their conscience. When the government brings out a policy such as New Education Policy (NEP 2020), then the onus rests upon the students to discuss, critique, analyze the policies designed by the government simply because the effect of such policies will reverberate in the university campuses. To crackdown on criticism and narrow down all the scope of debate is to demand absolute submission before the government and therefore, accept the society with all its flaws and shortcomings. On one hand, we expect students to prepare ornamental presentations on economic landscape of the country, read abstruse academic texts on social stratification, learn about social evils, and on the other hand we want to fetter the aspirations of all those who are willing to eliminate the gap between theory and praxis by participating in the political process, holding the rulers accountable to citizens and standing for their rights. 

Credits: The Hindu

The seemingly noble act of fostering political apathy in the campus to orient students towards pure academics and prevent chaos often culminates in the disempowerment of the underprivileged students’ community. There have been numerous instances where the monthly scholarship of a student is not credited either due to corrupt bureaucratic practices or indolence on the part of administration. In a university without an active student union, it is likely that the abuse of power by the administrative officials would go unpunished and without a strong collective, the student might feel intimidated. In this case, he might even let go of the scholarship amount of a particular month after some nuisance with the officials on the assurance that the next month’s amount will be credited to their account without delay.

This act of ‘letting go’ however is a privilege that a student from a weaker economic background cannot afford, for their stipend is that through which their sustenance in the university is made possible. In the absence of a robust union, a student might also be forced to discontinue his studies and even drop out in extreme cases. This is just one example of the many fraudulent practices that are enshrined in the ‘working ethos’ of many prestigious universities of India. 

It is ironic that the majority of ruling ministers who have themselves climbed their way to the Parliament through student politics nowadays loathe the participation of students in political affairs of the country and find it anathematic to encourage youth activism and leadership. It is imperative to note however that universities are places where diversity is celebrated, debates and discussions are supplemented with empirical insights along with an ideological perception. University politics has historically provided impetus to emerging young leaders who have led the nation from the front when we were faced with the tumult of a crisis. To condemn student politics and gentrifying the campus to focus entirely on ‘academics’ is bound to entail disastrous consequences for a nation where the young working-age group makes up for more than sixty percent of the total population. 

An indifferent and submissive student might be a university topper but their indifference and docility are harmful for a healthy democracy. A politically aware and well-informed student is an ideal citizen for they are not afraid to hold the government accountable and are absolutely unwilling to compromise on their rights. A reasonable attitude of recalcitrance among the students is necessary for the betterment of the nation and attempts to silence voices on the campus reek of the malicious intention of the incumbent government to create a class of insular degree holders who live in posh apartments with restricted access, emit large amount of carbon dioxide from their sedan while commuting to their workplace and organize poojas in their building but when asked for an opinion, expediently label themselves as ‘Apolitical’

Ashay Raj is a student pursuing Sociology (Hons) from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Yash Mittal

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Written by Ashay Raj

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