The speech was stirring and the "likes" on Facebook were growing by the thousands every minute. In response to Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist Sadhvi Prachi’s offer of Rs 5 lakh to anyone who beheaded Muslim evangelist Zakir Naik, Shahzad Alam Barni, a leader of the Samajwadi Party, had offered Rs 5 to anyone who brought Prachi’s head. The paltry amount would be compensation for the knife used in the act, Barni said.

Observing the competitive politics in the middle of July from his curio-filled drawing room in Aligarh, Syed Mohsin Raza, a surgeon who practiced mostly overseas, was disturbed.

“Yeh kya ho gaya hai Barni ko? What has happened to Barni?” Dr Raza asked. “He should criticise the Sadhvi but not say this.”

Raza felt personally aggrieved because Barni and he had something in common: both had been elected the president of the students union of Aligarh Muslim University, albeit 40 years apart.

Barni, a doctorate scholar, had created a splash in February 2013 when as the president of the union, he had pitched a tent outside the gates of the university to demand a hostel for engineering students. Sonia Gandhi, whose party was in power in the union government, was due for a visit to the campus then.

Three months later, he was suspended on charges of misusing union funds. The PhD scholar faced a disciplinary committee and was eventually rusticated. The students union was itself dissolved. It was re-elected once but wound up again. This is the eighth time that the university finds itself without a students union.

The vice-Chancellor of university, Zameer Uddin Shah, said he is keen to revive the union, but only when the atmosphere is conducive. Shah, whose office had charged Barni with misuse of union funds, was not able to show this Scroll reporter the union audit, though the finance officer’s entire team was pressed to locate the file.

An old conflict

The century-old seat of learning has seen many historic face-offs between student union presidents and vice-chancellors.

Pulling out booklets and photographs from the numerous cupboards lining his drawing room, Raza described with relish how in 1965 students beat up vice-chancellor Nawab Ali Yavar Jung for allowing police on the campus. Jung was found hiding under a table with Nurul Hasan – the professor who later became a Congress leader and India’s education minister.

In 1977, a fiery, young secretary of the students union, Azam Khan, faced off with vice-chancellor AM Khusro over being arrested from the VC’s lodge during the emergency. Khan is now one of the most powerful leaders of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and a minister in the present state government.

In that sense, by joining the Samajwadi Party, Barni has continued the tradition of using student politics as the springboard for a career in mainstream politics. He now has an office and a car with a driver.

Shahzad Alam Barni at Aligarh Muslim University. Photo by Aparna Kalra.
Shahzad Alam Barni at Aligarh Muslim University. Photo by Aparna Kalra.

The young leader sees no problem with this. “When you are doing something, do it with good intention," Barni said. "When I was union president, I worked for students. I never associated with national politics though many overtures were made.”

He described the students union president’s post as the high point of his career. After his rustication, he claimed he did not step out of his house for two months. “I got suicidal thoughts,” he said.

When a close aide of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Sanjay Lathar, offered him a place in the Samajwadi party, and arranged a meeting with the CM, Barni could not resist.

Another leader, same story

In October last year, Richa Singh stood as an independent candidate in the Allahabad University Students Union election. The 28-year-old wanted to show that “money and muscle power” were not needed to win a campus election.

As a student, all she had seen were posses of cars accompanying the candidates belonging to the student wings of political parties – Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad associated with the BJP, National Students Union of India of the Congress, or the Samajwadi Party's Chatra Sabha.

Politics was seen as the preserve of male students. Young women on campus would not venture in the union office, wary of its power or the “comments” they would have to face. “Women can reach the moon, but they cannot become president of Allahabad University union,” was the common refrain, Singh recalled.

By winning the election, Singh brought down a glass ceiling. But she could not break free of Uttar Pradesh’s entrenched politics.

Her initial efforts were focused on securing around the clock Wi-Fi for the students, along with functioning toilets in every department. Some ridiculed the efforts but most considered them harmless. The backlash came when she opposed the entry of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yogi Adityanath on the campus for a function.

The ABVP had invited Adityanath, who is known for communal politics. “He gives hate speeches against minorities, against women, against Dalits,” said Singh. “I did not want minority students to feel hurt.”

Singh believes her opposition to Adityanath came at a price. Soon after, the university questioned her election, her right to a seat, her hostel admission and her financial dealings.

“I am a president who has created history, so far seven-eight committees have been formed to look into me, and I have innumerable notices,” said Singh, especially rueing Allahabad University’s constant questioning of her PhD guide who was asked to say that Singh is a poor scholar.

As the University bore down on her, she joined Samajwadi Party in April, doggedly fighting to retain her union post – as well as her seat in the university. “I needed a back-up,” she said, admitting that she was concerned about her safety on the campus.

The only time uncertainty crept into her voice was when she was asked about any potential loss of identity or idealism at joining a large, mainstream political party. She said she will try to stick to what she believes in.

Unsavoury politics

In a country known for ageing leaders, Barni, 29, and Singh, 28, are precious for political parties desperate for young voices which resonate with the youth but do not carry the baggage of dynasties.

For student leaders, in turn, university student unions offer an excellent training ground in political management. While some choose to align with a political party, others are pushed into the vortex by vindictive university authorities who seem to successfully isolate and punish them for doing what they were chosen for – fighting for student rights or articulating an opinion. Even autonomous student leaders often find themselves reduced to being a slave to the party’s ideology and cannon fodder to be tactically deployed in any form by their political bosses.

This breeds cynicism among students, many of whom hold a dismal view of campus politics.

“If you are writing that the union be brought back, you are doing the university a disservice,” said Yasir Arafat Turk, a doctorate scholar at Aligarh Muslim University.

Turk, who writes on politics and is a persuasive speaker, has campaigned tirelessly for revival of a debating club at the university. He wants the culture of debate to come back before the union makes a comeback. Otherwise, he says, student politics will continue to be hijacked by political parties and student leaders will be reduced to nothing but pawns.

Sociologist Satish Deshpande explains the general wariness with student politics: “In a certain context, for a certain audience, politics itself is dirty, because for that group, they have never had to use politics to get what they want.” Those who don't have to worry about getting an electricity connection, water, telephone, can afford to ignore the political process, he said. "Whereas for people who have to get what they need through the political process, they have to mobilise the political process because they have no other assets. They don’t have social capital, they don’t have property."

Despite the hostility she faced on campus, Richa Singh of Allahabad University still thinks politics is necessary. “Most students do not want to associate with politics,” she said. "But to change a system, you have to enter it.”

With Uttar Pradesh headed for a bitter election next year, the idealism and change that these young leaders can bring is not something that can be bet on.