In Telangana and West Bengal, student activists are up in protest against what they call attempts by the state governments to clip their wings and muffle their voices. At Osmania University in Hyderabad, the public relations officer, through a note issued on Wednesday, has proscribed all political activity, including public meetings. And the West Bengal government, according to a Times of India report published the same day, is framing a new policy for student elections that will drastically alter the nature of student politics in the state – most notably through the inclusion of teachers in student unions.

Efforts to undermine student politics in the country, its practitioners say, began in 2006 with the recommendations of a Supreme Court-appointed committee, headed by former election commissioner JM Lyngdoh, tasked with framing guidelines on student union elections in colleges and universities. Student groups believe these recommendations weakened student politics by not allowing experienced leaders to contest a second time, altering the election schedule, and through a range of other restrictions. For instance, an age limit for contestants disqualified many researchers.

These recommendations were never implemented in West Bengal. But the changes now proposed by the state – which are yet to be notified – will bring its system closer to the one endorsed by the Lyngdoh committee.

Osmania University, for its part, has not had a student union since 1985 and its students had moved court to get one. But despite getting the court’s green signal, they, too, have refused to set up a union if it means following the Lyngdoh committee recommendations.

Teachers in student council

The changes proposed by the West Bengal government include a minimum attendance rate of 60% for candidates, whereas the Lyngdoh committee demanded 75%. Both policies require candidates to be disciplined and have no criminal records, and restrict the number of terms a student can serve as an office-bearer of a union. The state government has allowed two terms. The Lyngdoh committee was stricter, forbidding students from contesting a central union seat a second time even if they had lost the first time round.

But the “most dangerous” proposal to emerge from the West Bengal government, student activists say, is entirely new – the inclusion of a teacher as treasurer and another senior teacher as president of the student council.

“Bringing teachers into the union is a dangerous move,” said Deborshi Chakraborty, who was an independent student representative in Presidency University’s union from 2009 to 2014. “It will place the union or council under the administration, reduced to holding cultural programmes. The depoliticisation of students will be complete.”

Chaktraborty said the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad – the student wing of the ruling Trinamool Congress – had resisted the implementation of the Lyngdoh committee recommendations, and now stands to lose the most if the new policy is implemented. “They control most of the unions in Kolkata,” he explained. “The state government must have done this because the violence was getting out of hand. There were constant fights between its different factions, mostly over control of the treasury. In most colleges, there is practically no opposition.”

What little opposition remains will be decimated after the new rules kick in, fear students. “Where will you find a student leader without any charges against them?” asked Chakraborty. “I had seven cases against me when I was in Presidency. And the police always favour the party in power. There will be a shortage of contestants in opposition parties.”

Ban on political activity

At Osmania University, protests followed the statement of the public relations office saying “all activities which are unrelated to academics and research such as political and public meetings will not be permitted on campus”. Students met the vice-chancellor on Thursday but the note has not been withdrawn. They are convinced the university was strong-armed by the state government.

Osmania University statement on political activity on campus. (Credit: Shashidhar Vuppala)

Politics has long been an inherent part of Osmania University’s identity. It was at the centre of the agitation for a separate Telangana from 2009 till the new state was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014. “The university was with KCR [Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao] then, now it stands in opposition to the government,” said Arunank (he does not use a last name), a member of the Democratic Students Union who is pursuing a masters in law at the university.

“The state government wants to ban dissent because we were exposing the failure of the Telangana government,” he added. “Rao’s party had promised 1.5 lakh government jobs at the time of election but only a few were created and there is corruption in appointments.”

While students of the university are alarmed at the attempt to muzzle politics on campus, those from other institutions in the state are also worried. “Osmania students would be at the forefront of all movements, a bit like JNU,” said Shashidhar Vuppala, who graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad, in 2015 but is still a member of the Telangana Students Joint Action Committee, which had fought for Telangana’s statehood. “Students outside look to Osmania for leadership,” he added.

Surender Thallapelly, an MTech student at the same institution, said a ban at Osmania is as good as a ban on student activism in Telangana.

Students protest the ban on public meetings at Osmania University on Thursday. (Credit: Arunank)

Not without a fight

The university’s students are not willing to give in. Arunank said a talk by Vasantha Saibaba – wife of Delhi University teacher GN Saibaba, who in March received a life sentence for alleged Maoist links – scheduled for Saturday would go on as planned. And the Democratic Cultural Forum’s beef-pork festival on June 28 is also on, he added. The forum includes Left, democratic and Dalit students’ organisations.

And while students here have been trying to reinstate student elections for a while now, they now refuse to do so if it is not on their terms. “There was a case in the High Court and over a year ago, the court ruled that elections should be restarted, but following the Lyngdoh committee recommendations,” said Arunank. “We will resist that.”

Similarly, students in West Bengal are gearing up for battle against the state’s proposed policy, with the Left-wing Students’ Federation of India issuing a statement that it will protest on the streets if the new rules are notified.

Leadership crisis?

Their struggles are a continuation of the opposition to the Lyngdoh committee guidelines, which remain contentious even in Delhi, where they have been implemented. Students of Jawaharlal Nehru University have challenged the rules in court. In 2008, the Supreme Court had punished the university for breaking the rules set by the committee by staying the JNU students’ union elections for four years. Although the elections resumed in March 2012, the university’s veteran student activists believe it permanently affected the quality of leadership on campus.

“It made elections all about money and muscle power,” said V Lenin Kumar, who was elected president of the JNU student union in September 2012.

Traditionally, polls in Jawaharlal Nehru University were conducted in the winter. They were shifted to September as the new policy required them to be conducted within six weeks to eight weeks of the start of the academic session. “New students who come in July have no time to get to know the candidate,” Kumar said.

Winning a student election, thus, became “all about organising and mobilising resources” effectively within a few weeks, according to Kumar. The new policy “affected the quality of leadership and experience” on campus too, he said.

“Senior leaders cannot re-contest even if they perform well,” he explained. “This eventually leads to a point where there is no experienced candidate in the fray and the administration takes advantage of the gradual weakening of the students’ movement.”