The Mandate from JNU Students: AISA, March on!

After a gap of four years, Jawaharlal Nehru University students voted on March 1 to elect their union, and the verdict could not have been more emphatic in favour of AISA, the flag-bearer of radical student politics in the campus. For the second successive term, AISA candidates swept the central panel. What was more, they all won by a thumping margin with the Presidential candidate polling more than 2000 votes leaving her SFI rival way behind, and for the first time AISA also secured a clear majority in the council, its candidates dominating the three biggest centres accounting for the largest number of students in the campus.

On one level, the outcome of the JNUSU election may be seen as just yet another corroboration of the well-known and deeply entrenched Left tradition of the JNU campus. For the last two decades AISA has had a fairly prominent presence in the campus, winning as many as seven presidential elections since its first historic rise in 1993. If it was the SFI-AISF combine which dominated the campus in the 1970s and 1980s, it is AISA which has been the main contender since the 1990s; and over the last several years AISA has also succeeded in reinforcing its ideological-political influence with adequate organisational network and sustained initiatives on every major issue that mattered for the students.

But if we look at the outcome in the context of the ongoing neo-liberal assault on and restructuring of higher education and the developing political situation in the country, the victory clearly sends out a much bigger message than a mere reiteration of JNU’s traditional preference for the Left. The arena of higher education has been witnessing massive commercialisation making it increasingly impossible for students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds to receive quality education or pursue careers of their choice. This implicit pro-rich and elitist bias is now being sought to be reinforced by a targeted truncation of campus democracy and student participation in politics. The Lyngdoh recommendations are essentially aimed at insulating the student community from the larger socio-political environment in the country. The JNU verdict has come as a resounding rebuff to this neoliberal restructuring of higher education.

AISA has been consistently campaigning against the neoliberal assault on higher education and within JNU AISA has emerged as the rallying centre for students fighting against the implicit elitist bias as well as the explicit authoritarian agenda of this neoliberal design. It is significant that the emphatic mandate for AISA has effectively marginalised every rightwing trend in student politics, be it the RSS-affiliated ABVP, the pro-Congress NSUI or the anti-reservation platform Youth for Equality.

The election of the JNUSU coincided on the one hand with the Assembly elections in the five states of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and Uttar Pradesh and the February 28 all-India industrial and rural strike called by trade unions and agricultural labour organisations. The AISA campaign in JNU, which clearly marked the leading voice in JNUSU election, effectively combined the immediate concerns of JNU students with the democratic demands and aspirations of the people joining the February 28 strike and participating in these Assembly elections. The campaign pulsated with the spirit of the growing popular resistance to corporate land-grab and illegal mining, mega scams and rampant loot of development funds, and repressive steps like Operation Greenhunt and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that are propelling the Indian state’s war on human rights.

The mandate for AISA also meant a clear rejection of SFI/CPI(M) in the celebrated citadel of Leftwing student politics. After West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, JNU is known as the fourth key bastion of the CPI(M). In 2007 in the wake of Singur and Nandigram, JNU had rejected the SFI/CPI(M) attempt to defend the indefensible. As the CPI(M) gets ready for its 20th Congress, it is quite clear that the CPI(M) remains adamant and refuses to acknowledge the disgrace it has brought to the glorious history of communist-led peasant movement in the country and learn any real lesson from the debacle it has suffered in West Bengal. The JNU verdict clearly suggests that the CPI(M)’s own ranks, let alone the broader intelligentsia, remain unconvinced and critical of the CPI(M) leadership’s arrogant refusal to acknowledge its basic mistakes.

It is indeed inspiring to note that while the corporate media have been busy peddling the likes of Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav as youth icons for the new generation, the student community in JNU has reiterated its overwhelming commitment to the legacy of Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar. AISA must now consolidate the gains and use this mandate to strengthen and radicalise the student-youth movement and forge stronger links with the broader democratic movement in the country. That can be the only true tribute to the legacy of Bhagat Singh, modern India’s greatest youth icon, and our very own Chandrasekhar who was killed simply because he tried to connect the student radicalism of JNU to the peasant militancy in Bihar. AISA must march on.

Landslide Victory for AISA in JNUSU Elections

In the elections to the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, held on 1st March 2012, AISA was elected with a landslide mandate. The AISA panel of candidates – including the four main office-bearers and the councillors in the various Schools – won a clear majority in the council, routing not only the right-wing student outfits, but also the SFI-AISF combine.

In the President’s post, Sucheta De from AISA polled 2102 votes – probably the highest ever by a JNUSU candidate – defeating her nearest contender, Zico Dasgupta from SFI (who got 751 votes) with a colossal margin of 1351 votes. In the Vice President’s post, Abhishek Kumar Yadav from AISA polled 1997 votes, defeating Anagha Ingole from SFI who got 1357 votes. In the post of General Secretary, Ravi Prakash of AISA polled 1908 votes as against the AISF candidate Durgesh Tripathi who got 989 votes. For the post of Joint Secretary, AISA’s Mohd. Firoz Ahamed polled 1778 votes, as against Mohd. Altamash from SFI who got 1199 votes. The candidates from Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) polled a distant third on most posts.

In JNUSU, students directly elect the entire Students’ Council, comprising the four office-bearers and Councillors representing various Schools or Centres. This time, AISA won 14 of the 29 Councillor seats in different Schools and Centres of JNU. The three biggest Schools in JNU, each with 5 Councillor posts, are the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies (SLL&CS), School of Social Sciences (SSS), and School of International Studies (SIS). By winning a majority of Councillor posts, AISA secured the post of School Convenor in each of these Schools. In SLL&CS, AISA candidates defeated ABVP to sweep all 5 Councillor posts. In SIS and SSS, AISA won four of the 5 seats, with the fifth seat going to SFI. This is the first time the SFI has lost the Convenor-ship of the School of Social Sciences in the past two decades, possibly much longer. AISA also won the post of Convenor in the School of Arts and Aesthetics.

Against the Ploy to Depoliticise Students

The previous JNUSU elected in 2007 was also led by AISA in all the office bearer posts. In the past four years, JNUSU elections were stayed by the Supreme Court, on the pretext that JNU’s democratic method of elections (conducted fully by students without administrative interference) violated the recommendations of the Supreme Court-appointed Lyngdoh Committee. Ironically, JNUSU elections are probably the only elections which are entirely free of money-power and violence – the very problems the Lyngdoh recommendations claim to combat – and where students vote overwhelmingly on ideological and political grounds after intense and serious debates on issues facing the student movement. Not surprisingly, the Left student groups have always dominated JNU student politics, and since the 1990s, the main contest has often been between the SFI-AISF and the AISA. The student movement here has always resisted the privatisation policies of the governments. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the establishment sought to attack the JNU model of Students’ Union, by imposing the Lyngdoh Committee norms, which include an arbitrary age barrier, a restriction on the number of times a student can contest (just once on any central panel post, and twice on councillor posts) and which prevent the candidature of students who have faced any disciplinary action. The JNU students have challenged these norms in the Supreme Court, but as an interim measure, decided on holding the elections this year after negotiating with the Court for some partial relaxations of some of the Lyngdoh norms.

The Lyngdoh norms and suspension of elections for the past four years was a deliberate ploy on part of the ruling establishment to foster depoliticisation among JNU students. Indeed, the stay on elections had led to disarray and passivity among other student groups in JNU. AISA, though, had remained very active – mobilising students in several landmark struggles in this period, in spite of there being no elected JNUSU. Key struggles in recent times, in which AISA played a leading role, include a sustained struggle against the Lyngdoh recommendations; a massive agitation against attempts to commercialise various facilities like electricity and levy ‘user charges’; a long and successful struggle resulting in a landmark Supreme Court verdict with national implications, correcting the faulty definition of ‘cut-off’ marks in implementation of quotas for Other Backward Classes; and a successful struggle for recognition of madarsa certificates in JNU admissions.

Other significant struggles between 2004-2006, with a lasting impact, in which AISA played a leading role, include an agitation for the rights of contract workers on the JNU campus, and a struggle to get rid of a Nestle outlet on the campus, which threatened the livelihood of small tea vendors.

AISA has also campaigned and mobilised students in large numbers to challenge the UPA Government’s package of education-related legislation that are a blueprint of privatisation. Hundreds of JNU students participated in AISA’s August 2011 barricade at Parliament Street against corruption and corporate plunder. AISA stood in solidarity with people’s movements at Jagatsinghpur against the POSCO steel plant, at Jaitapur and Koodankulam against nuclear plants, and mobilised students against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, communal violence, state repression, fake encounters and custodial killings in the North East, Kashmir, forest areas, and other parts of the country.

AISA’s re-election in 2012 is therefore a resounding rebuff to the attempts to depoliticise JNU and weaken the student movement, and an overwhelming indication of students’ support for AISA’s political agenda and initiatives. It is a befitting reply to those in the media and ruling establishment who spell the ‘end of ideology’ and decline of support for the Left among young people. The mandate is also a strong rejection by students of the Lyngdoh recommendations that attempt to strangle campus democracy.

Decimation of Right-Wing Outfits

One of the most striking features of the JNUSU elections this time is that right-wing outfits like Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Youth for Equality (YFE) have been cut down to size. (The Congress-affiliated NSUI has always had very little presence in JNU.) ABVP emerged as a serious challenge to the Left in the 1990s, but in 2006, the YFE, with its plank of opposing reservation for deprived castes, eroded ABVP’s base, polling at second place in the 2007 elections. In 2012, however, the YFE stands thoroughly marginalised, while the ABVP too is yet to make any serious comeback. The AISA panel polled high votes from the science schools (traditionally bastions of the ABVP and YFE) and the ABVP failed to win a single Councillor seat in SLL&CS, where it continues to have some presence. This shrinking of right-wing space is a tribute to AISA’s imaginative campaign that has isolated the communal ABVP and casteist YFE, uniting students on a progressive agenda.

ABVP is known on campus for its complete silence and absence from any struggle on students’ issues, and its periodic attempts to whip up communal sentiments against minorities. The YFE has been the only force in JNU actively campaigning for Lyngdoh recommendations. In 2006, the YFE had brought out a leaflet branding students availing of reservation as ‘inferior mortals.’ Not long ago, a YFE leaflet termed two AISA activists – including Abhishek Yadav who won the Vice President post – as ‘village bumpkins’ and ‘buffalo-ish’ – in an obvious offensive reference to their caste origins. The JNU students have firmly rejected the communal politics of ABVP, and the anti-democratic, elitist, and casteist politics of YFE.

Decisive Rout of SFI

In 2007, AISA’s victory was also a mandate against the SFI’s defence of the CPI(M) Government’s policies of corporate land grab and repression on peasants at Singur and Nandigram, and CPI(M)’s support for the UPA Government. On campus too, SFI had alienated democratic opinion with its defence of the Nestle outfit, and its pro-administration position on the struggle for workers’ rights.

This time, the SFI no longer had any unpopular Government in West Bengal or Kerala to defend, and so in fact, the political situation was relatively more favourable for it to recover some ground. However, pro-Left students in JNU did note that the CPI(M) was yet to learn any lesson from its debacle in West Bengal, and yet to go for any serious course-correction. They also noted that AISA has been vocal and active against the undemocratic and anti-people actions of the TMC Government in West Bengal.

Above all, the SFI’s and CPI(M)’s stand on crucial issues of democracy came up for considerable criticism. For Left-leaning students, the CPI(M)’s support for Operation Green Hunt (the state’s war on people in forest areas), and its ambivalence on AFSPA, were completely at odds with any Left principles. In the Presidential debate in JNU, AISA candidate Sucheta asked the SFI candidate, “The SFI in JNU pastes posters demanding repeal of AFSPA. But CPI(M)’s political resolution on AFSPA speaks merely of ‘withdrawal’ of AFSPA from selected areas, and does not demand ‘repeal.’ And the CPI(M) Government has failed even to recommend withdrawal of AFSPA in Tripura! Why?” The SFI candidate’s reply was that AFSPA should only be withdrawn from areas where it has been misused for human rights violations! His reply avoided endorsing the principled demand for repeal of AFSPA based on its draconian character, and also implied that AFSPA could continue in CPI(M)-ruled Tripura, where CPI(M) claims human rights violations do not take place!

Similarly, Sucheta also asked the SFI candidate how a party that speaks of a “left, democratic” alternative can support Operation Green Hunt, and why SFI boycotted the movement against the JNU administration’s ban of a student outfit in JNU which had been accused of Maoist sympathies. The SFI candidate reply supported bans on outfits with ‘Maoist’ ideology.

On the question of the Lyngdoh recommendations, too, SFI’s stance was ambiguous. In JNU, they opposed the imposition of the Lyngdoh norms – but the SFI’s National President, in a piece in the PD, had hailed the same norms. The SFI seemed to view JNU as an exceptional instance, failing to recognise and resist the Lyngdoh recommendations nationally as a threat to campus democracy.

The JNU mandate signals the declining ability of right-wing outfits to mobilise young people on a divisive plank of communalism and caste hatred, and students’ strong mood against the Government’s policies of promoting corporate plunder and corruption.

It underlines that, contrary to the picture painted by the media, Left ideology and revolutionary, socially-committed politics has the potential to fire the imagination of young people in this country. AISA’s victory in JNU was celebrated spontaneously in campuses across the country – by students who demanded that elections in their own campuses be held on the JNU model, with an emphasis on ideological and substantial debates.

The overwhelming mandate for AISA and rout of SFI, in JNU which has traditionally been an SFI stronghold, also indicates that the CPI(M)’s politics fails to enthuse or convince Left, democratic, progressive young people. Students who are deeply critical of the CPI(M)’s surrender to neoliberal and pro-corporate policies and its advocacy of state repression, have embraced AISA as a consistent and inspiring Left leadership for the student movement.

Recent JNUSU Initiatives

JNU is often ridiculed by right-wing commentators in the media as a place where student politics is restricted to abstract ‘national and international’ issues, rather than bread-and-butter issues of students. The truth, of course, is that the student movement in JNU is consistent in fighting for, and winning, students’ rights, precisely because it is guided by a progressive vision on economic and political issues that affect students as well as the world beyond the campus.

Students all over the country are not different from JNU students – they too are equally concerned about the government’s policies that affect them, about corruption, about injustice, and they too would like a Union that actually takes up students’ and people’s issues in a meaningful and genuine way. Students all over the world are the same – as we have seen in the student agitations against fee hikes, privatisation and corporate plunder and corruption, in Chile, the UK, USA, Greece, France, etc. But in most other campuses in India, students are denied the freedom for progressive political activity, (though right-wing outfits and groups backed by ruling class parties enjoy more freedom), and students’ union elections, if at all they do take place, are deliberately depoliticised and dominated by money power and violence, with little space for meaningful issues. Those who jeer at the political awareness and activism of JNU students, seek to dumb down student politics in other campuses of the country. But students all over the country welcomed AISA’s victory in JNUSU, because they too aspire to electing a Union like the JNUSU, committed to students’ rights and to equality and justice in India and the world.

The agitation launched by the JNUSU soon after being elected, is an instance of the kind of issues for which students in JNU struggle. The JNUSU launched a 6 day-long indefinite and relay Hunger Strike, which saw massive and spirited participation of students, and won some significant victories, culminating on 20 March. The agitation demanded that the Academic Council of the University, which had a meeting on 19 March, take up some crucial issues of students’ rights, including reduction in weightage for viva-voce, increase in Merit-cum-means (MCM) fellowship amounts, and rights of differently-abled students.

34 students sat on indefinite hunger strike for 6 days, including the JNUSU General Secretary and Joint Secretary, and four Councillors (including the SSS Convenor and two others from AISA). Several hundreds of students turned out for the protest. The hunger strike was called off after the JNU administration agreed to several key demands.

Thanks to students’ protest, and the JNUSU’s painstaking research and analysis of students’ written and viva marks, to show that viva was liable to become a tool of discrimination and exclusion, the issue of viva weightage was added to the agenda for the Academic Council. And the AC agreed to set up a committee with representation from JNUSU and JNU Teachers’ Association to review the policy of existing weightage of viva-voce in the entrance examination, and submit its report within 2 months. According to the agreement with the Union, the Escort/Readers allowance for the differently abled students will be increased at par the UGC rate, and immediate steps will be taken to make the campus barrier free for differently-abled people. The University also principally agreed that the MCM for B.A./M.A. students should be increased and the time-period for the research scholarship should be extended to cover the entire research duration. The University will incorporate these proposals in the proposal for 12th plan that is being submitted to the UGC.

The JNUSU has also called for a protest demonstration at the Tamil Nadu Bhawan on 22 March in Delhi, to protest the TN Government’s decision to commission the Koodankulam plant, and unleash repression on protestors.

Box 1

Jadavpur University Arts Faculty Elections

In the recently concluded elections to the Jadavpur University Arts Faculty Students’ Union (AFSU), AISA won the post of Class Representative in the Film Studies department, and increased its vote substantially.

In the elections, the combine of the Forum for Arts Students (FAS) and AIDSO won three office bearer posts of Chairperson, General Secretary and Assistant GS (Day), defeating SFI by a margin of around 130 votes, while SFI won the post of AGS (Evening). AISA had contested three posts [barring the AGS (E) post], and polled 65, 69 and 60 on the Chairperson, GS and AGS (D) posts respectively – nearly double of what AISA has ever polled before on these posts.

The FAS is known to enjoy the covert backing of the ruling TMC. One of the main issues in the elections was the TMC Government’s decision to dissolve the elected governing body of the University and replace it with government nominees. The FAS-DSO combine had only demanded student nominees on the body, while AISA along with other groups had agitated to demand restoration of elected representation on the Governing Body.

Campus democracy and violence on campuses in W Bengal was another issue. AISA carved out a space for itself, by firmly resisting the TMC Government and its student outfits which are unleashing terror on many campuses, while also demanding expansion of genuine campus democracy rather than a mere return to the old regime when CPIM-SFI dominated campus spaces and unleashed violence on political dissenters. AISA, which has been at the receiving end of violence by SFI activists in W Bengal before, has faced attacks by TMC’s goons recently in Dhaniakali and other places in the state.

Box 2

Verdict in Murder of Former JNUSU President Comrade Chandrashekhar

Why Has Main Conspirator Mohd. Shahabuddin Been Spared?

In the context of the verdict of the CBI court in the murder case of former JNUSU President Comrade Chandrashekhar, the All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Revolutionary Youth Association (RYA) demanded exemplary punishment to the killers of Chandrashekhar, including the key conspirator and mastermind, former RJD MP Mohd. Shahabuddin.

The CBI court pronounced three people – Dhruv Jaiswal, Sheikh Munna and Iliyas Warsi – guilty for the murder of Comrade Chandrashekhar and two others. Sentence is to be pronounced in the case on 23 March. CPI(ML) activists Comrade Chandrashekhar and Comrade Shyam Narain Yadav, were shot dead in Siwan at the behest of criminal politician Mohd. Shahabuddin, on 31 March 1997 when campaigning for a Bihar Bandh. A street vendor also lost his life in the firing.

The verdict raises the question: why is there no punishment for the man named as the main conspirator in the case: Mohd Shahabuddin, former RJD MP, who is now in jail convicted in other cases of murder and kidnapping of CPI(ML) activists? Witnesses, including CPI(ML) leader Satyadev Ram, testified to Shahabuddin’s role as a conspirator, and to the fact that the shooters were known to be Shahabuddin’s goons. Why then has the CBI failed to demand punishment for Shahabuddin, and why is the verdict silent on Shahabuddin?

Recently, another young CPI(ML) leader, Comrade Bhaiyaram Yadav, has been shot dead by criminals enjoying patronage of ruling politicians. Comrade Chandrashekhar was killed in Laloo Prasad’s regime at the behest of Shahabuddin, and now, in Nitish’s regime, Comrade Bhaiyyaram has been killed by BJP-JD(U)’s goons.

The AISA and the RYA demanded exemplary punishment for the killers of Comrades Chandrashekhar and Comrade Bhaiyyaram, and demand that the case against Shahabuddin as a conspirator in Comrade Chandrashekhar’s killing be pursued to ensure punishment for Shahabuddin.

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