Repeat court verdict
By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
A Division Bench of the Kerala High Court decisively banned student politics in college campuses and declared that anyone indulging in political activities in educational institutions would become liable for expulsion or rustication. The verdict is reiteration of 14 years’ old judgement given in 2003 by the same court.
The Bench headed by Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court was hearing a Contempt of Court petition filed by a college principal against the Secretary of the Kerala unit of the Students Federation of India (SFI) for violating 2003 court ban on campus politics.
The landmark verdict of 2003 asked the State to come out with suitable steps to ban political activities in all college campuses, and permit college principals to install CCTV cameras on the campuses. The freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution will not include political activities going on in the campuses. The court held that college discipline was to be maintained by colleges by rules and regulations and strict adherence to them. Discipline was considered by the court as no contravention of any fundamental right to freedom.
In the present case, the court observed: “Students and politics cannot go together”, and told colleges that they were free to expel students who indulged in politics in educational institutions. Dharna, hunger strike, and satyagraha were mentioned as political activities that would only vitiate the atmosphere and had no place in a constitutional democracy, much less in educational institutions meant for imparting education. The court went ahead and ordered removal of all arrangements like tents, sheds, stalls, etc, around the colleges to hold dharnas. It also advised the organiser of dharnas to concentrate on his studies rather than indulging in politics.
This is not the first contempt of court petition in the matter. And the present verdict is but re-emphasis of 2013 decision of a Division Bench in a case filed by a student against the Kerala Government for failure to implement the court order of 2003. The court then observed that “if student politics can’t be controlled to enable proper functioning of educational institutions, the State Government should ban such politics”.
In response, the Kerala Government informed the court in 2014 that no student organisation would be allowed to function on college campus without the permission of the principal. No formal recognition was granted to student organisations of political parties.
As campus politics was getting more aggressive and spoiling the academic atmosphere, a committee under former Chief Election Commissioner, Lyngdoh was appointed on the advice of the Supreme Court by the HRD Ministry in 2006 primarily to provide a framework for student union elections. It made several recommendations regarding eligibility, affiliation, transparency, and grievance redressal of student unions. It proposed a structured model for student body elections and complete disassociation of student union election and student representation from political parties.
However, court verdicts and committee recommendations have not been sufficient to contain student politics within democratic limits though they are not without any impact. Reaction of students in different States, are varied.
Most States in southern India are found responsive. Kerala and Maharashtra have banned student union elections which invariably provoke political clashes in the campuses. In Andhra Pradesh, such ban worked for more than two decades since 1988. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu permit elections to student unions with the permission of college management.
In Tamil Nadu, a wholly peaceful agitation for reintroducing Jallikattu took place early this year demonstrating the possibility of spontaneous and peaceful non-party movement with dominant student participation. In Rajasthan and Jammu Universities, political parties are actively involved in student union elections. On the other hand, West Bengal CM has directed that no political party could participate. In Bihar student union elections are back nearly after three decades and in Haryana after about two decades.
In Delhi and Punjab, student union election has become a contest between political parties. IITs and IIMs have banned politics of student unions. Cultural clubs are encouraged in several institutions of higher learning. Almost all States in the North-East are subject to student politics with student bodies taking prominent part in resolving political issues.
Two major events brought to the fore serious developments in student politics in academic institutions in 2016-17. One is the suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad and another, the arrest of a student on sedition charges in JNU. The first case raised Dalit question, and the second gave rise to furious debates on nationalism and anti-nationalism and bitter exchanges on patriotism. Whatever be the truth behind the incidents, these are unwanted political controversies spoiling academic atmosphere and need to be dealt with in the light of court views.
True, blanket prohibition of student politics is neither possible nor desirable as voting age has been reduced to 18 years – the age of entry into colleges. Those who are considered mature enough to choose their representatives to legislatures and Parliament should be politically alive, alert and well-informed.
There is a mine of difference between political debates and active party politics in the campus. Unfortunately, every issue in this country divides people on political party lines. Even syllabus, examinations, teacher selection, food items bring in politics in which students most disinclined to get into politics are forced to join and take a position. There are also political parties that instantly twist issues to polarise opinions on party lines and communal divisions.
When ideological debates intended for political education turn into practical warfare, control and disciplinary action become necessary. Forcing students to adopt identity politics and reducing colleges and student union elections as battle grounds are almost invariably the handiwork of political parties competing for group support. The line must be drawn between political knowledge and practical politics.
Student politics and student union activism within and outside educational institutions are common in many countries especially new democracies facing serious political problems. Powerful student unions operate in many places.
In Australia, the UK and US, membership in student union is voluntary and activities are confined to student welfare promoting the general interests of the members as students. Comprehensive laws and regulations govern their functioning. Their ability to campaign and get involved in national and international issues is limited.
The UK Education Act 1994 set the status and direction of student unions and laid down a democratic framework for their operation. It provides for fairness and accountability in their functioning. Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in 1992, John Major is reported to have said “we have already blown the whistle on one of the last bastion of the closed shop – student unions. The day in which they march and demonstrate at the taxpayers’ expense are numbered”.
Indonesia, China and Egypt stand foremost for extraordinary student activism determining national politics, while long history of student movements and series of protests mark development of many countries in all continents — France, Greece, Argentina, Chile, etc. Most of these are part of national movements with some collective objective.
The problem in our country is growing divisive politics corroding every institution. Politicisation of campuses and non-political issues is a dangerous trend and courts have to step in if students fail to help themselves and safeguard their institutions. —INFA