Campus democracy

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RULE by the people is invariably resented by those who feel threatened by the onward march of political democracy. A powerful section of the ruling elite in India, like their counterparts in western democracies, have always been critical of the electoral and participatory system of governance in the country. Their attitude can best be summed up in the reaction of Winston Churchill on the victory of Labour Party in the elections held just after the end of World War II: ‘May the almighty save His Majesty’s Empire from the children of street vendors.’ They are also worried about the growing political empowerment of diverse social strata of society and they express this ‘so-called’ concern by projecting themselves as Democratic Reformists.

The agenda of all these non-elected reformist elites is quite comprehensive and the latest to join the bandwagon for reforming student elections in colleges and universities are J.M. Lyngdoh and company. Incidentally, the Indian judiciary is also troubled by the purported ills of ‘student democracy’ on the campus, and the Lyngdoh Committee of eminent persons has provided a manifesto of such reforms at the behest of the honourable judges. The very fact that it has recommended that political parties be kept away from campus elections reveals its ‘anti-democratic’ thinking. It bears recollection that all military dictators have justified their coup d’ etat against democratically elected leaders by not only blaming the political party system but by banning elections in themselves. Hence it is essential we closely scrutinize the reforms suggested by the Lyngdoh Committee to substantiate our argument that democracy has to be saved from such reformists.

The Lyngdoh Committee on electoral reforms has shown a woeful lack of comprehension about the philosophical postulates which underlie the real meaning and significance of democratic elections in Indian universities and colleges. Its recommendations for the cleansing of electoral democracy as practiced by students are not only peripheral and superficial, they also reveal that its members have little idea about the goals and purposes of participatory democracy in educational institutions. Higher education in a democratic country is expected to perform multiple and diverse intellectual and social goals of which one of the most important goals is to train young students in the theory and praxis of democratic citizenship. The primary lesson for citizenship is that young and educated students should learn to exercise their democratic rights, and for this purpose, develop the capacity to make decisions for themselves.

This is the raison d’etre for the prevailing system of electoral democracy in educational institutions. The existing model of elections is a reflection of the prevailing political culture of democracy in the country. The Indian political class decided to lower the age of voters from 21 to 18 years on the rationale that ‘adults of the age of 18 are capable of shouldering their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.’ Ironically, we seem to have forgotten to treat young adults as trustworthy and responsible for any social role, including questioning their capacity to mange their own electoral democracy in their own institutions.

Not only this. It is not only political parties who are villains; it is often forgotten that faculty members, principals and vice-chancellors are also actively involved in the supervision and management of student elections. Often, educational functionaries are themselves interested parties in the student elections and it is thus not without reason that students often challenge the integrity of their own teachers whom they perceive to be involved in behind-the-scene activities during elections. How can such suspect teachers inspire confidence among their own students? Elections should be for, by and of the students if the purpose is to train them for citizenship in a democracy. Adult students should be left to their own resources to manage their own affairs outside the classroom. What is the point of teaching that vigilance is a pre-requisite for the functioning of a healthy democracy? The Indian educational system is not only based on a trust deficit, it encourages values of passivity among the students. Little do we realize that a democratically active student community is the best safeguard against distortions in their own electoral democracy, and if a thinking group of educated citizens cannot protect their own freedom of choice, no palliatives can prove effective.

The model of elections by students themselves suggested here is meant to achieve a gradual enhancement in the spirit of civic consciousness among educated adults. Students elections are a school for future citizens of a democracy. If students cannot elect their own representatives on the basis of their own free choice, it only proves that the educational system has failed to create inquiring minds in society. A system of self-management and self-regulation of student elections may have its own pitfalls but has not been tried because student elections are considered a suspect activity. The public policy-makers and academic administrators have to answer a basic question: If students cannot manage their own internal affairs, they cannot also be trusted to manage the public affairs of a vast democratic country. If India is advertised as a knowledge society, those pursuing knowledge cannot be treated as incapable in the art of self-governance.

Further, elections in any democracy are an exercise in the making of ideological choices by the participants, including students. If Indian society has become a battleground between the ideologues of secularism and Hindu Rashtravadis, the campuses should not be insulated from such a great contest. Democratic politics is an arena of conflict and contestation and the educated youth of India have to be active participants in such politics of ideology versus ideology.

Political parties with their respective ideologies cannot be precluded from democratic debate on the campuses because this is the only route for imparting ideological training to the future citizens of India. How can campus and community politics be segregated and compartmentalized? The Lyngdoh Committee wants to keep students insulated from the ongoing political controversies and debates in the country because its suggestions, if accepted, will keep students from engaging with political parties during the elections. Regular elections on the campuses are an integral part of the ideological upbringing of students and political parties, as carriers of different ideologies get exposed during their active involvement in student elections. The above narrative clearly shows that the committee does not just want to reform student elections, it has its own ideology which is based on a deep distrust of ideological party politics in the country.

Nevertheless it will be wrong to ignore the Lyngdoh Committee per se because many such reformists in India have advocated non-party or partyless democracy. After all both M.N. Roy and Jaiprakash Narayan were tall leaders who also advocated a system of partyless democracy with a view to eradicate the infirmities associated with party-based democracy. We should beware of advocates of partyless politics, whether in the country as a whole or at micro-levels like campus elections, panchayat elections or elections for trade unions. Partyless politics is only another name for a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime.

C.P. Bhambhri