The Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) administration’s decision to restore the students union got a lot of news coverage in today’s newspapers and it, indeed, made the students of JMI let out a collective sigh, not of relief but of exhaustion that the years’ struggle had brought them to. Ever since the students union was disbanded in JMI in 2006, students have been fighting for its revival but were suppressed by the administration. Even now, the officials have just agreed to the demand ‘in principle’.
Though this year’s struggle began on October 5 when students marched to Vice-Chancellor Talat Ahmad’s office and submitted a memorandum, the demand is not new. Between 2006 and 2017, efforts to lift this ban were made by students in demonstrations in front of the Vice-Chancellor’s office and the University Grants Commission.
Even before 2006, the union in Jamia had a checkered history with the administration curbing students’ democratic rights. For instance, in December 2005, a JMI Students Union (JMISU) president was elected for the first time in eight years only to turn out to be the last as the administration scrapped the union after the president was beaten up by some outsiders. Moreover, the students of M. Phil and Ph.D. never had any representation in the union.
In 2011, the students belonging to a non-party organisation, Forum for Student Democracy (FSD), started writing on various forums, demanding a students’ union which eventually led to several students facing disciplinary action from the administration. Subsequently, a few FSD members also filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court. But the administration refused to respond to the plea claiming the petitioners were ex-students and they are not students anymore.
In 2012, a Bachelor’s student, Hamidur Rahman, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the high court raising the same demand. Due to this, Rahman was denied admission in Master’s courses despite clearing the entrance examination and being a rank holder in graduation and winning several national level awards. Moreover, the character certificate issued by the university described him as “litigious” and “argumentative”.
Responding to the petition, the court asked the university to explain why union elections had not taken place. In response to that, the then Vice-Chancellor constituted a committee to look into the matter which proposed Subject Associations in every department to fool students. The Subject Associations have ever since acted as cultural committees of their respective departments as the role of president was given to the Head of Department, a faculty member and, therefore, not a student.
The administration’s efforts to stifle students’ voices continued. In March 2017, the varsity made a move to extend the Subject Association as a pan-university Subject Association under the name, “Students’ Council”, a clear ploy to confuse students. The proposed council was to have no autonomy and could be dissolved any time by the Vice-Chancellor.
The students rejected the nominated council and demanded an autonomous and independent students’ union. A huge movement built up as around 16 student groups, including the National Students’ Union of India, All India Students’ Association, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal United and Peoples’ Democratic Party and Dayar-i-Shauq Students Charter came under one umbrella and formed the Joint Action Committee. The slogans, such as ‘council vouncil dhokha hai, Union maango mauka hai’ (Council etc. is a lie, demand a union instead), reverberated across the campus.
Whenever students demanded an elected students’ union, the JMI administration refuted it arguing that unionisation will lead to unwanted politicisation in the campus implying that student politics is a dangerous thing. At the same time, the administration has had no problem in inviting ministers and politicians to the campus. A senior professor was given a show-cause notice in 2016 for speaking up against the invitation sent by the university to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the annual convocation. The residents of new women’s hostel were warned through mass show-cause notices for refusing to attend one such visit by the HRD minister last year. Following intense protests, the administration was later forced to withdraw the show-cause notices.
Student unions can be an empowering tool for students, giving them a say in matters affecting them. However, unions in several universities are hijacked by student wings of large political parties with money and muscle power. Student politics is indeed dangerous to those who hold power, precisely because it has the potential to challenge privatisation and saffronisation of education. The Birla-Ambani report on education that came out in 2000 recognised that to privatise education, it is necessary to curb student politics. And it is clear that this disenfranchisement of students and de-politicisation of the campuses are meant to pave the way for privatisation and other such anti-student policies.