Debating dissent: case against apolitical campuses

The Kerala High Court's unflattering take on politics in educational institutions has come at a time when campus politics is seeing a fresh surge in the state. It's not that it needed a surge political discourse continues to be key in Kerala's colleges and student movements still have the firepower to rattle governments and influence policy-making. But the manner in which the state's campuses responded to a host of issues recently - from ragging to casteism to divisive politics - does signal a revival of sorts. The high court's October 10 interim order, by Chief Justice Navaniti Prasad Singh and Judge Raja Vijayaraghavan, held that politics or political activities cannot be permitted in academic institutions.

The court has since disposed of the case - involving a student agitation at a college in Malappuram district - which had led to the order banning politics on campuses. This renders the interim order ineffective and reaffirms the contention that it was in conflict with democratic values. The court's views on the matter, however, have also revived calls from some quarters, to check criminalisation of student politics. These are calls that have, in the past, bolstered voices that sought a ban on campus politics. In a state increasingly identified with depoliticised self-financing college campuses, the interim order is also viewed as a sign of the times.

It's not the first time that courts in the state have intervened to impose curbs on political activities in educational institutions. In 1996, the high court banned politics on school campuses and facilitated provisions for police action in the event of on-campus violence. In 2006, it held that students' unions had no place on college campuses; it also directed the police to ensure prohibition of on-campus political activities and to stop outsiders from entering the campuses. In its latest intervention, the court held that dharnas, hunger strikes and other forms of satyagraha had no place in a constitutional democracy, much less in academic institutions. It stated that anyone who indulged in these activities was liable to be expelled and/or rusticated.

The order invokes B R Ambedkar's introduction to the Constitution - "Where constitutional methods are open, there is no justification in adopting unconstitutional methods," it says. But P C Vishnunath, All India Congress Committee secretary and former MLA, points out the dangers in branding protests unconstitutional. "The protests are, of course, a means to question. That's the whole point. There are reasons that force students to take part in an agitation. Those reasons should be factored in as well," he says.

Vishnunath contends that though the high court has disposed of the case, college managements continue to win favourable verdicts against politics on campuses. "Political activities are now more or less restricted to the government colleges. Self-financing colleges have managed to systematically take politics out of the picture through these individual court petitions, typically filed by a student or a parent. A depoliticised campus suits the management's interests better - be it about providing infrastructure, appointment of teachers or decisions taken on fee hikes," he says.

The flip side

In January this year, the suicide of Jishnu Pranoy, an 18-year-old student at the Nehru College of Engineering and Research Centre in Pampady in Thrissur district, became a rallying point for protests against the functioning of self-financing colleges in the state. The incident also exposed other self-financing colleges, which adopted repressive measures on students - threats, surveillance, physical assault, torture rooms and more.

Jishnu's death revived calls to open student unions in all colleges. In February, a month-long protest by students affiliated to different political parties against the principal of the Kerala Law Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, Lekshmi Nair, led to her ouster. This week, students of the A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University successfully led a protest against the university's credit structure.

V P Sanu, national president of the CPM-affiliated Students Federation of India, says it's time courts also made observations on abysmal academic and infrastructure standards followed by many self-financing colleges. Studies have pointed out that success rates achieved by many of these colleges are extremely low. "It's also noted that drug dealers have made inroads into campuses where there are no student unions. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a series of student suicides have been reported at colleges run by two groups of educational institutions. These are alarming signs and here, we see attempts to depoliticise campuses to give a free rein to the managements," says Sanu.

Criminalisation, violence and political killings, specifically through the 1970s to 1990s, have formed the basis of the argument against campus politics in the state. It's an argument that resonates with what is often referred to in broad strokes as a "lost generation" of students engaged in intense ideological struggles during those decades.

But student leaders counter the argument - there is strife, there is dissent, but they don't lead to killings any longer. The argument against criminalisation cannot be used specifically to shut out campus politics since the issue pertains to the political system as a whole. "This is a country where political leaders and parliamentarians come with criminal backgrounds. Why target colleges alone? The argument that depoliticised campuses foster better academic standards is flawed; some of our best universities are identified with healthy political engagement," says Sanu.

Rights activists maintain that a ban on politics on campuses goes against fundamental rights recognised by Article 19 of the Constitution. Before the court observed that politics and studies "cannot go together", it stated that political parties cannot hold to ransom the educational institution or the right of the "civilised students" to receive education.

Vishnunath traces the problem also to a perception that educational institutions still provide the only platform for the young to get educated. A generation that has the world as its classroom will fight strictures on a democratic right to express itself. "Politics is also about life lessons. The standard line is "focus on your studies, your career". But who defines 'career'? We can't take politics away from the campuses; doing so will create incubated, passive generations," he says.

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