Amit Singh and Harshavardhan Shyam exchange repartee at a wayside eatery outside Tapti hostel at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a 1,000-acre campus with 6,000 students on its rolls.
There’s no hint of hostility in the banter, but that could well have been deceptive.
Shyam and his team, activists of the Congress party’s students wing, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), had spent the previous day plastering campus walls with leaflets.
The leaflets condemn Varun Gandhi, 29, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is in the news for allegedly delivering a hate speech targeting the Muslim community at a rally in Uttar Pradesh.
There is a footnote: NSUI is also critical of a physical skirmish in one of the university hostels where, it claims, a rival students’ grouping of which Singh is a member, beat up a Muslim student.
This is how student politics is practised across India. Campus issues merge with topics of national importance for activists who treat the time they spend in college as the first step towards a bigger political role—perhaps as a member of Parliament, perhaps as a minister.
As the April-May general election approaches, the pitch of on-campus political rhetoric is rising as student politicians try their skills at oratory and vote garnering, and attempt to get noticed by senior party leaders who may groom them for that bigger role.
JNU has fostered a culture of political debate and discussion, giving rise to politicians who have occupied the national stage. Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, Left leaders who broke away from the current Manmohan Singh government over differences on the India-US nuclear deal, fought and won university elections.
The student community at JNU is aware of this, but some say they resent the campus being used for political gain not often translated into benefits for the university.
They want their leaders not to lose focus of college issues, such as a recent strike by students against allowing ad films to be shot at Parthasarthy Rock, an on-campus romantic idyll, or the more serious proposed fee for use of electricity by students who pay Rs300 as hostel fees every semester.
“Many students use laptops for a lot of their work, they cannot pay for electricity,” said Munni Bharti, a master’s student of Hindi, who, along with her peers, is sitting outside one of the ubiquitous dhabas (wayside eateries) for an in-between-classes break.
Some of the students’ demands, which they want their leaders to pursue, seem simply a resistance to change, change which they term a commercialization of the campus such as putting up concrete benches outside dhabas.
But deeper concerns—the preservation of the university’s open debate culture—also prevail, which students say gets affected if political parties take too direct an interest on-campus or if student leaders use campus incidents for political gain.
“Politics (at JNU) till now was without outside interference. Now that has changed,” said Vishesh Rai, a master’s student of Hindi, who says he leans left in ideology.
The outside influence that Rai is referring to is political party activists, who are not students, living on campus at the time of political rallies. He said he has twice talked to political party workers living in campus hostels.
Rai and Bharti see this off-campus influence as translating into violence, typified by the hostel skirmish or a fight at a dhaba earlier.
“JNU was never known for any physical fights, but fights of ideology. Now physical fights have started on campus,” said Rai.
Student leaders such as Roshan Kishore, expelled from campus earlier this month for opposing an increase in the price of the JNU prospectus and then reinstated, say aspiring for the national stage is a natural progression.
Campus politics, they say, is one of the ways young people can get attracted to politics as a career.
“Among young politicians, there is a large section who were born in politicians’ families and got politics as an inheritance,” said Kishore, a member of the Students Federation of India, the students’ unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “If instead of Rahul Gandhi, you or I were born in Sonia Gandhi’s family, we would be politicians. That’s a wrong trend; politicians should come up by practising politics among people.”
Kishore, who is hanging out at his party’s central office in New Delhi, slits open a bundle of pamphlets which take on the present government’s policies on education. The pamphlets will be distributed on campuses. The on-campus student leaders will canvass for votes in the general election for candidates fielded by their parent organizations.
NSUI’s Shyam, who helped paste the anti-Varun Gandhi posters on the campus, says he will campaign for the Congress party.
“I am personally going to Bulandshahar (in Uttar Pradesh). There is a retired IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer, his name is Devi Dayal. He is contesting from there. I will be going and canvassing for him,” said Shyam, who did his post-graduation from the Delhi School of Economics and is a research scholar at JNU.
Almost in a two-way process, political parties are reaching out to campuses to swing young voters their way.
The BJP launched an ambitious “Advani@Campus” programme last month, beginning at JNU, where volunteers will spread prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani’s message in 500 colleges.
National leaders who trace their roots to student politics say they don’t forget their alma mater on the national stage.
“We never forget college problems, the shortfalls of educational institutions. (From) time to time we raise these problems,” said Vijay Goel, a BJP member who fought and won elections of Delhi University in his student days, and is contesting for the New Delhi constituency in the general election.
Though the various student factions are bitter rivals, they have been known to drop their ideologies on a few college issues such as opposition to the Lyngdoh committee on campus elections.
Singh, who belongs to the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, allied to the BJP, said students united to oppose a stipulation that a candidate cannot contest elections twice, and an age limit on candidates. The case is now in the Supreme Court.
“It is an attempt not to let experienced leaders come up. Experienced leaders know how to deal with (college) administration,” said Singh, who did his master’s in international relations at JNU and is now a research scholar.
Singh is dismissive of the brouhaha over Varun Gandhi. “Sometimes during a speech, two or four aggressive words are used,” said Singh, who calls the reaction to the speech a “mountain made out of a molehill”.