After being banned in state in 1994 following incidents of violence, students elections will now return with new rules
After 24 years, campus elections will return to colleges in the state. With the Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016 progressively coming into effect, student elections can now be held in universities across the state. On one hand, this means students can actively participate in how these institutions of higher learning are run, by weighing in on issues like fee hikes. It also means a more active presence of political parties on campus.
While universities in Delhi, Kerala and West Bengal are known for being hotbeds of political activism, campus politics in Mumbai has been a low-key affair historically, barring the phase in the late 1980s that saw spiralling violence between student unions, which led to campus elections being banned in the state.
“In Mumbai, students are more career-oriented. Even those who participate in elections are motivated more by the recognition they get among their peers. They take pride in heading cultural and other activities ,” said Sanjay Vairal, a former senate member of the University of Mumbai’s student council who has remained active in campus politics for the past 30 years.
The late 1980s saw incidents of kidnapping and other criminal activity on campuses across the state, culminating in the brutal murder of Owen D’Souza in October 1989. The last student elections were held in 1993. Indirect elections – in which students elected class representatives who went on to elect chairpersons and other functionaries – continued till 1993, after which elections in state universities were banned in 1994. For the intervening 24 years, student representatives were chosen on the basis of their academic record and nominated for positions by college and university authorities. The only elections that were allowed were internal college polls and those to appoint presidents and secretaries of student councils.
From this year, students may once again be involved in university affairs. “It’s a very good move. For more than two decades, the students were deprived of elections. They will now have a stronger voice in the university senate,” said Dharmesh Vyas, a former state general secretary of National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) and ex-chairman of University of Mumbai’s student council. Remembering his years as a student, Vyas said, “Whenever there was a proposal for fee hike, we were on the streets. The vice-chancellor would give weightage to student organisations. There was unity amongst the student community.”The campus has long been the training ground for future politicians. Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vinod Tawde, Congress’s late Gurudas Kamat, Nationalist Congress Party’s Jitendra Avhad and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s Raj Thackeray are just a few examples of politicians whose careers began as student leaders.
“The student leaders entered these organisations for better political prospects in the future,” said Harshad Bhosale, an associate professor at Kirti College who has done his research on student movements and politics in Maharashtra.Although elections weren’t allowed and internal polls were a subdued affair, these student unions with their varied political affiliations remained influential on campus.
“The student groups would pressurise college administrations to nominate the students of their choice [for councils and administrative positions],” said Dinesh Panjwani, principal of RD National College in Bandra.
Bhosale said the strength of student organisations is tied to the strength of the parent political party. The prominent players are the Congress-backed NSUI and BJP’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). “If a particular political party is in power, the morale of its student wing is boosted and it tends to become more active. With the strategic support of their parent body, they tend to become more dominant,” said Bhosale.
In the 1970s, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Students’ Federation of India (SFI), was influential in universities in Mumbai, Pune and Marathwada. “They would regularly contest elections and stage agitations. But, as the peasants’ and workers’ movements started weakening in Mumbai, the political fortunes of SFI also started dwindling,” said Bhosale.
The 1980s saw the rise of Shiv Sena’s Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS), headed by Raj Thackeray.
“Between 1990 and 2000, BVS was very active,” said Bhosale. When Thackeray started his own political party in 2006, his MNS also launched its student wing, Maharashtra Navnirman Vidyarthi Sena (MNVS).
“Political parties give much weightage to student politics. The dominance of their student wing in college bodies is a great way to send a message that the hold sway over the youth vote,” said Vairal.
Opinion is divided on whether the ban has had any real impact. “Instead of parties recruiting real leaders, dynastic politics got a push,” Bhosale said, but Panjwani doesn’t agree.
“Around 50% leaders in political parties were educated in the last 20 years. We can’t argue that they are inferior to their seniors,” said Panjwani. With elections returning to campuses on the eve of general elections, politics will be in the spotlight in universities.