At a time when the entire world is grappling with a deep economic crisis in the face of a ravaging global pandemic, the All Nyishi Students’ Union’s (ANSU) grandiloquent election being held in state capital Itanagar was marked by sporadic violence on 5 April, catching everyone’s attention.
Needless to say, the ANSU election has put the law enforcement department and the district administration on their toes. Two companies consisting of nearly 100 security forces have been deployed to maintain law and order during the election. The violence of 5 April left a trail of destruction, the ANSU office wall was hammered, cars were torched, police personnel were attacked, and the highway was blocked for hours.
Ever since the ANSU’s 15th general conference was announced, one must have noticed that the twin capital towns have been embellished with larger-than-life size posters of the aspirant candidates in every nook and corner. Hotels are being booked to accommodate the voters, there are long cavalcades of bikes, car rallies, etc. These activities testify that the non-political student organizations’ elections in Arunachal are a costly affair.
Unverified sources said the presidential candidates are spending nearly Rs 2 crores, and so are the general secretary candidates. It is said that the vice president candidates and the candidates for other head posts must have spent not less than Rs 30-50 lakhs. It is also alleged that the candidates are distributing Rs 15,000 to each voter.
How do the would-be representatives of a student community manage to splurge so much money just to get elected? From where is the money coming? How would they recover it?
The more unanswered questions emerge, the more it would spark a chicken/egg debate in terms of whom to blame for this endemic money culture rooted in student politics.
Former ANSU president Kipa Babu in an interview to a local channel expressed dismay over the report of students demanding that the candidates pay their rent house bills and provide them with high-end mobile phones or scooters in return for their votes. Babu claimed that some contractors, politicians and corrupt officers are funding the student leaders, so that they could use them as a tool and control them.
According to former ANSU president Niglar Veo, the student leaders cannot buy the voters if the voters are not up for sale. Veo claimed that there is a huge behavioural shift among the current students.
“The students don’t want to go to the conference by bus but by a private SUV. They prefer putting up in comfortable private rooms equipped with air conditioning,” Veo stated. He also claimed that the university students (both boys and girls) are more aggressive than school and college delegates in taking money from the candidates.
A research scholar at Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) and student activist Prem Taba defended the students against the blame of promoting money culture. “Involvement of money in student election goes two ways. On the one hand, there might be a few students who are willing to sell their votes; on the other hand, there are candidates who out of their insecurity direct their workers to distribute money,” Taba stated, and claimed that there are many students in RGU “who outright rejected cash or kind in any form.” He said that putting all the blame on the students alone is not justified.
Involving clan members and relatives in donation drives and seeking help from relatives and local MLAs is a common phenomenon in the Nyishi community. Each clan takes the student election as a prestige issue. Thus, money culture has long remained a holy cow, at least in my community.
In Arunachal, student organizations like the AAPSU and the ANSU are engaged in the fundamental core of the state’s politics. In the absence of a vocal opposition leader in the legislative assembly, the student organizations have always been considered as the principal opposition parties who stand for the common people.
If student leaders, who are supposed to be the representatives of the student community, are dipping their beaks in corruption, the future can be easily foreseen. He would either be a pliant leader or a caged parrot, resulting in cherry picking on issues and going for the low hanging fruits.
“It has already damaged the basic fabric of the student organizations,” said APCC general secretary Chera Taya, who had contested for the post of ANSU president in 1994. Taya alleged that corrupt government officers are behind the money culture by sponsoring student leaders to cover up their wrong deeds.
The Nyishi Elite Society (NES) attempted to reform the ANSU’s electoral process through the Joram Begi Committee, which recommended four key points, such as age bar for the candidates, marital status, past credentials and regular students, etc. However, the ANSU has outright rejected the recommendations, stating that the NES was attempting to interfere in the ANSU’s autonomy and dictating terms.
Age bar, marital status and having to be regular students have always been hotly contested topics in terms of electoral reformation in student politics. It is said that there are some candidates who graduated 10-15 years ago but enrolled themselves as regular students just to contest the election, resulting in the involvement of huge amounts of money.
It is said that the money culture is eroding the core values of the AAPSU too.
The sense of belongingness and participation among the delegates is hardly seen nowadays. “Money culture, as per my experience in AAPSU, started in the year 2009 at Aalo conference. Before that, it was the bare minimum: just the travel and food expenses, unlike now, where every delegate is being paid,” said AAPSU GS Tobom Dai.
Former GS Biru Nasi argued that the endemic money culture in student politics would eventually weaken the non-political student organizations like the ANSU and the AAPSU in Arunachal.
“The money culture in student politics would pave the way for political parties’ student wings, like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the National Students’ Union of India and the Students’ Federation of India, etc, in making inroads into Arunachal,” Nasi opined.
“Each time a student union election takes place in our state, it reminds us how fragile our foundation is. Here a student leader is elected based on two major factors – money culture and clan-based politics,” said Taya Bagang, a senior journalist and associate editor of The Independent Review.
“In the assembly, panchayat and municipal polls, the voters come from myriad backgrounds, whereas in student union polls, the voters are educated. But despite this variation, both the groups are identical when it comes to taking money from candidates. Unless we break this dichotomy between what we preach and practice, things will remain the same,” Bagang added.
As the ANSU has almost concluded its electoral process, the onus is on the new leadership and the students – especially postgraduate students who have the larger stake in reforming the money culture in student politics – to ensure that the student organizations’ movement in the state does not fail.