As political parties step up campaigning for the bye-election to the sole Lok Sabha seat in Nagaland on May 28, students in the state have threatened to boycott the polls to protest against the condition of education in the state. The All Nagaland College Students’ Union, which is spearheading the movement, claims that nearly one lakh people, including students and well-wishers, will abstain from voting.

The bye-election was necessitated after Neiphiu Rio resigned from the seat on February 16. He contested as a candidate of the newly-formed National Democratic Progressive Party in the Assembly elections held later that month, and is now the chief minister.

“We are very upset that the government has refused to listen to us in spite of several reminders to improve the education sector of Nagaland,” said Katho P Awomi, the president of the union, which claims to represent 42 colleges across the state.

The Naga Students Federation, the apex students’ body in the state, has also thrown its weight behind the union’s call to boycott the elections. “Their demands are very genuine and we support them,” said the federation’s president, Kesosul Christopher Ltu. “The government should take cognizance of the problems.”

‘Attachment of teachers to VIPs’

Awomi said the union has three primary grievances. The most pressing of them was the tradition of attaching primary and middle school teachers to ministries, sub-divisional offices and directorate offices. Awomi said that the practice had led to a shortage of teachers in the state’s government schools in spite of a large number of people being appointed as teaching staff. “There are no teachers in our schools,” said Awomi in a telephonic interview from state capital Kohima. “People are recruited as teachers, but they are attached to VIPs [Very Important People].”

Awomi said that many groups had raised this concern several times, but the government was “reluctant to detach them from these VIP postings because they are attached to policymakers”.

The deputation of teachers to non-teaching postings has long been a tradition in Nagaland. Several groups have objected to this practice. Ponchulo Wangth, president of the All Nagaland School Teachers Association, said that “schools in Nagaland are suffering” as a large chunk of teachers are not engaged in teaching. “They should be detached and allowed to do what they have been hired to do: teach,” said Wangth.

Another government teacher echoed Wangth. “The constant deputation of teachers has led to a serious teacher shortage in our schools,” said the teacher, who did not want to be identified. “Ministers know how to read and write, I do not understand why they need teachers to help them. Teachers should be in school helping students.”

The state’s minister for higher and technical education, Temjen Imna Along, admitted that Nagaland followed the practice of deputing teachers to other departments, but insisted that it was not widespread. “It is not in hundreds and thousands, it may have happened in the past, but not now,” said Along. “But if someone’s service is needed by a minister to do a certain job, we have to allow [it].”

Wangth disagreed with Along’s contention, saying that the previous state government had sent many teachers back to schools after the teachers’ association had expressed its disapproval at their deployment for non-teaching jobs. “But now the new government has again begun attaching [teachers],” he said.

In November, the previous government – an alliance led by the Naga People’s Front – had sent over 500 teachers who were attached to other state government departments back to classrooms.

‘Streamline scholarships’

The second reason for the discontent is the apparent lack of a streamlined process for students to avail of various central and state scholarships.

According to Awomi, the state education department does not do a good job of disseminating information about scholarships available. “They do not bring the news of scholarships to the notice of the students,” he alleged. The All Nagaland College Students’ Union has demanded a separate “nodal cell or department” to deal with scholarships – a request it claims has fallen on deaf ears.

But Along defended the education department. “All our scholarship issues are normal,” he said.

Finally, the students’ group pointed out that the only science college in the state, the Kohima Science College, is facing an infrastructure crisis because a significant portion of land allotted to it when it was set up in 1961 has been encroached upon over the years. Minister Along conceded that encroachment was indeed a problem. “But this has been happening for almost 10-15 years,” he said. “The new government is trying to tackle the issue. The government is only two months old. The people who have encroached upon the area have made big, big houses, we are sure that we will be able to come to some sort of solution by this year.”

‘Voting boycott wrong’

Not everyone is convinced that abstaining from voting is the way to bring about change. Rozelle Mero, a social entrepreneur who was closely associated with the Clean Election campaign during February’s Assembly polls in Nagaland, said that the students should find other ways to engage with the government. “The reasons for being upset are genuine, but abstaining from voting is wrong,” she said. She said the boycott strategy made it seem as if a politician was behind it “to ensure a particular candidate is favoured”.

She added that the youth ought to participate in the elections to choose the right representative for the state in the Lok Sabha.

Another activist from Dimapur said that while the demands were “fair enough”, the method of protest could have been different. “I am not condemning the students’ union, their cause is genuine, and they are all young kids,” she said. “But it is sad that it has come to this in our state.”