Contesting elections at the college level is often considered as a stepping stone to a career in state and national politics.
From Raj Thackeray and Sharad Pawar to Devendra Fadnavis and Nitin Gadkari, several top leaders from across political parties started their careers as student leaders in universities of Maharashtra. Gadkari, who is currently the Union Minister of Road Transport & Highways, started his political career as a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP’s student wing. He joined ABVP in 1976 while he was studying at Nagpur University. Devendra Fadnavis too started his political career as a college student and an active member of the ABVP. He went from winning his first municipal election in 1992 at the age of 22 to becoming the second-youngest mayor in the history of India just five years later.
The first article in our campus politics series introduced student politics in Indian Universities focusing mainly on elections to the Delhi University Students’ Union. The second part of the series takes a wide-angle look at campus politics in the universities and colleges of Maharashtra and its interplay with the political forces at the state level.
In an attempt to end a phase marked by violence, kidnappings, and murder in the late 80s and 90s, elections to the students’ bodies were banned from 1994 to 2016. Since then, campus politics has been recast through the Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016, and elections to the student bodies were allowed to be held again. To understand the western state’s tryst with campus politics, we take a look at student politics before the election ban and in the intervening period of 1994 to 2016. We also shed light on the role student bodies play today, now that elections are back in the fray.
History of Campus Politics in the Western State
During the 1970s, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), dominated campus politics in Maharashtra. With the decline of the peasants’ and workers’ movements, the popularity and following of SFI gave way to other political outfits in the state. The next decade (the 1980s) saw the rise of Shiv Sena’s Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS). Headed by Raj Thackeray, BVS was most active between 1990 and 2000, a period when campuses across the state were flourishing with political movements and mobilizations. Political parties since then have used campus politics as a ground to strengthen their strategic support base.
In 1989, the brutal murder and mutilation of Owen D’Souza, a student leader with the Congress-backed National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), changed the face of politics in universities and colleges. In the year following the murder, student politics across campuses became an acrimonious and disruptive affair and eventually led to a ban on elections to students’ bodies in the state. Following the incident, student politics shifted to the two dominant student organizations- NSUI and ABVP, backed by the Congress and the BJP respectively, as both fought tooth and nail to gain political space on campuses without the specter and fanfare of elections.
During the same time, the country witnessed several agitations on the Ramjanmabhoomi and Mandal issues. It acted as fuel to the fire of campus politics in Maharashtra and led to a phase of heightened political activity on campuses across the state. Elections to the students’ bodies were held again in 1990, 1991, and 1992, despite the violent incidents. However, with the passage of the Maharashtra Universities Act 1994, study body elections were eventually banned. The act, applicable across colleges and universities of Maharashtra, replaced elections to the student representative bodies with nominations for posts.
Did a ban on elections change the nature of student politics?
Between 1994 and 2018, when the elections to student bodies were reintroduced, college and university authorities nominated students to various students’ bodies. They were often hand-picked by authorities based on their academic record. Internal college polls and elections to appoint presidents and secretaries of student councils were allowed but with much less panoply.
On the campuses, the ban on elections to students’ unions did not lead to a reduction in political activity in any significant way. Student bodies with their varied political affiliations remained influential on campuses and held sway on important issues. They were often known to pressure college and university authorities to yield to their demands ranging from nominating students of their choice to student bodies to issues like fee reduction. Any move that was seen as counterproductive to the students’ welfare was vehemently opposed and students’ organizations were on the streets protesting. However, the ban on elections helped keep the campuses free from election-related violence and the disruption of academics that were endemic in the 1980s and 90s.
Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016 & Reforms to Campus Politics
Until the 1994 ban, campus politics in universities and colleges across Maharashtra mirrored mainstream politics in the state. Elections saw students and student organizations engage in everything from filing nominations, to rallying and campaigning. Political leaders at the state level would often support the candidates of their student wings through visits and rallies.
The ban on campus elections (and by extension, politics) in Maharashtra was lifted nearly two and a half decades later in 2018. The move came in light of long-pressing demands from the Nationalist Congress Party, the Indian National Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. That the three mainstream parties in Maharashtrian politics, often at loggerheads on the electoral battlefield, were unanimous in demanding re-introduction of student elections speaks of the relevance student politics holds in the larger political field of the state.
The Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016 reintroduced elections and widened their scope beyond the indirect method provided under the Bombay University Act 1974 (which continued till 1993). With the passage of the 2016 Act, students can now directly elect office bearers to the councils. Students vote to elect candidates for posts ranging from Class Representative, President, Secretary, Ladies Representative, and Reservation Representative. These office bearers then form the Students’ Council of the college and elect the chairman and the general secretaries of student bodies.
However, unlike elections in DUSU, the posts at the university councils are filled through indirect elections. The elected members of the college council vote for the University Students’ Council elections. To expand the scope of student representation in administrative affairs, the President of a University Students’ Council is also among the “invited members” of the University Management Council of each university. In 2019, following these changes, students’ elections were held in 11 state universities and affiliated colleges across Maharashtra for the first time in 25 years.
Strict rules and regulations have been put in place, to prevent a return to the 1990s, a period of spiralling violence on campuses. Political parties are no longer allowed to take part in the elections. Members of student wings of parties have to contest without declaring their affiliation to any party. The act also attempts to check hate speech during election campaigns and shuns any form of political interference by political parties. Students can run campaign processions & rallies on campuses. In order to limit political influence, political leaders are prohibited from taking part in campaigns. Election expenditure for various posts is limited to Rs 1,000–5000 per post. Candidates are also refrained from using symbols/logos/photos/images of political parties or organizations, including religious, caste, or social organizations, or persons, in the campaign.
Politics in Universities: Inherent to the Larger Political Discourse
Contesting elections at the college level is often considered a stepping stone to a career in state and national politics. Many prominent politicians currently at the helm of major political parties in Maharashtra were at one point student representatives on college campuses. 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 amongst those who began their careers as student leaders.
After the 2016 Act came into effect, student outfits backed by political parties are trying to re-establish their support base in campuses across the state. Political outfits such as ABVP, SFI, and Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) are undertaking various activities ranging from recruiting members to conducting surveys in the colleges to expand their base. Student bodies also use Whatsapp groups and local meetings to keep in touch with their constituents, apart from organizing sessions to create awareness on national issues.
Student bodies from across the left-right spectrum also organize activities to expand their ideological footprint. While the RSS-backed ABVP focused on the nationalist rhetoric, SFI, a prominent left organization, brought in the 2016 JNU issue to build on the leftist narrative. It is also trying to be more issue-based than ideology-based as its focus is shifting towards scholarship issues and problems related to exams and results. On the other hand, Students Islamic Organisation has raised issues such as demanding NEET in Urdu and conducting protests under the #Justicefornajeeb campaign. The entry of Aam Aadmi Party’s student wing, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti, and youth wing, ‘Graduate’s Forum’ in 2015 has added another player in the realm of campus politics in Maharashtra as parties seek to leverage their youth support base through campuses.
Political parties use student organizations as a mouthpiece to leverage the support of the youth. During the ban on elections, political parties and organizations continued to influence student bodies to stay relevant in campus politics. A law to limit the influence of political parties was much needed given the violent history of campus politics in the state. However, student organizations continue to mobilize students for issues and concerns relevant to them. Since the passage of the new law, active and engaging students’ bodies and the interest of college-goers has been effective in bringing back the vibrancy of elections and politics to the political playground of varsities.
Damini Mehta /New Delhi
With inputs from Abhinay Chandna, Akansha Makker, Kashish Babbar, and Kavya Sharma Interns at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.