IITs should be role models in university politics

By Saurabh Chandra

The last thing we need in this country is for politics to become a ‘dirty’ word and people pleading to keep elite institutions away from it.

The recent controversy sparked by the suspension of a little known student group called the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT-Madras has again brought to fore the question of allowing politics in universities. The worst fears of the detractors seem to be in revisiting the horrors of the 80s when student politics often led to violence between factions, even leading to murders. Many a times students were used as muscle men by mainstream parties and the local university politics became a proxy for a larger game play.

The concerns are not unfounded but the solution that got employed has been most stifling – complete ban on all political activities on campus. In many cases, the student unions have been dissolved too. My alma mater BHU is a good example where University politics had simply overwhelmed the campus culture. Student politicians would decide not to pass their courses so that they could continue to stand for elections or continue to enroll in masters and then PhD courses in departments where faculty members were also more inclined towards politics than academics. Things went to a boil in the 90s and two students died, post which the student union was dissolved and politics banished from the campus. In the following years, the university got back its academic mojo with multiple faculties climbing various nationwide rankings. In parallel, we created a sterile atmosphere in the university when it came to political engagement and the number of politician alumni from the university is on a fast decline.

This is typical of the blunt knife approach often seen in India. To prevent crimes at night, the recommended approach is to close all shops and advise people to stay indoors. Taken to its logical conclusion: if there were no people then we would have no problems in life. The challenges of university politics need to be solved rather than throwing the baby with the bath water. Violence was an issue in the past and the solution is to impose the rule of law. If academic excellence is the goal of a particular institution then there are many ways to impose that too – mandatory attendance, minimum marks to be a candidate and so on. There is no one size fits all and each university should evolve rules and norms that fit with its culture. Mostly, politics should be like an extra-curricular activity in college that should compete with cultural, sports, literary and other activities in capturing a student’s attention. A bold faculty could even craft its instructional design around political activities.

University politics also provides an easy ramp for new talent to come into the system. For a country so young, it is tragic that the average age of the political class is more than twice the average age of the country. The young politicians are mainly family members of older politicians since genuine challengers from below are in short supply.

The last few years have seen a huge engagement from the student community in the India Against Corruption campaign and then as volunteers for various political parties in the general elections. Both of these events demonstrated the potential that youngsters have in India to contribute to the national political agenda. However, in the absence of politics in the iniversities, we will only see this community in support roles and being utilised by the larger parties or activist groups as ‘man-power’. Genuine leadership will emerge only through the competition and tussle of student politics leading to fresh ideas that provide relief from the same-old of current Indian politics.

The last thing we need in this country is for politics to become a ‘dirty’ word and people pleading to keep elite institutions away from it. If anything, elite institutions should be role models on how politics should be done.

Saurabh Chandra is a tech entrepreneur with an interest in policy.