Catch ?em young for democracy
By Raj Kumar Bhatia
The new academic year begins in the months of June and July in the universities of India. Student union elections, wherever held, start taking place beginning from the month of August. For the last few years the state of Rajasthan had been holding them first. Recently the Jaipur bench of Rajasthan High Court, responding to a PIL against the elections, banned them throughout the state. The PIL was filed in view of the objectionable and unhealthy trends observed at the time of elections. Though later on in response to a petition against the Jaipur bench'sdecision, the main bench at Jodhpur stayed the decision except for being applicable to Rajasthan University at Jaipur. The whole matter is still under active consideration of the Jodhpur bench.
Nevertheless one cannot resist the comment that the decision of Jaipur bench was yet another classic example of a patient being killed in order to kill the disease. It was not for the first time, neither in Rajasthan, nor thinking of other parts of the country, that student union elections were considered unnecessary, undesirable and dispensable. Infact in large part of the country such elections are either not held or have met the same fate as was desired by the Jaipur bench. So why find fault with the bench'sjudgment?
Judiciary taking over the task of legislature or executive, especially in view of the glaring failures of the latter in scores of matters and high expectations of the public on all and sundry affairs from it, or its overenthusiasm in taking over the role of social reformer or its getting entangled in unnecessary minor details (biryani should be served to the terrorists in Kashmir jail) are no longer a new experience for the enlightened citizens of the country who believe that one wrong should not be set right by another wrong.
But to analyse judiciary'sfunctioning is not the purpose of this write up. The question to be asked is why students? union elections are being treated as unnecessary, undesirable or dispensable? Just because we find several unhealthy and abhorring features associated with elections and functioning of the unions so do they become inessential? Just because many union leaders do not measure up to the expectations so should the unions be declared undesirable? Just because governmental or educational authorities can write off the unions with one stroke of pen so do they become dispensable? A thorough probing is warranted.
Politics and logic of Students Union election.
Do we not see the same malaise, as seen in the case of student unions, associated even to a greater extent, with elections and functioning of parliament, state legislatures or local bodies? As we look around, elections take place for large mass of social bodies such as: (i) political parties (ii) professional or occupational organisations, e.g. employees unions, traders? associations etc., (iii) religious organisations, e.g. SGPC, Ramlila committees etc. (iv) sports and cultural organisations, or clubs etc., such as BCCI, (v) service organisations which run schools, colleges, hospitals and dharamshalas etc., (vi) economic interest organisations, e.g. joint stock companies or cooperatives etc., and (vii) communities? or caste organisations etc. Do we find their elections and functioning being very healthy with no ills afflicting them? If not, should not such elections be dispensed with? When we closely observe the elections of bodies of even elite occupational groups such as industrialists, lawyers, doctors, teachers or chartered accountants etc. or of elite academic and professional institutions such as university senates or syndicates, Bar Council of India or Medical Council of India etc. we often come across one or other abhorring features associated with their elections also. So should not their elections also be dispensed with?
The desirability and importance of student unions can be appreciated only if the relevance and necessity of democracy is accepted. Though legitimate doubts can be raised about the efficacy of democracy yet it can be firmly said that only shortsighted, impatient or cynical persons consider democracy or elections as a luxury. Despite all its weaknesses democracy is considered as the best, or least harmful system that the human society has evolved for itself, especially when long run healthy and orderly growth of a society has to be taken care of. Though a long essay may be warranted to justify one'spoint yet avoiding that this write up is being proceeded with presuming that democracy'sdesirability is unquestionable.
Once the need of democracy is understood then can we think of democracy without elections? If elections are necessary, is it desirable to have them in selected cases? If national and larger social existence is comprised by variety of lower level entities then can the latter function smoothly without elected bodies?
Democracy cannot take roots if it is practised selectively. More than being a formal system and mere tool of governmental formation, democracy has to be looked at as a value of life. Democracy means a certain behavioural attitude, mindset and temperament. The more it is practiced and experienced the more its worth is understood and learnt. Practicing it once a while or in a halfhearted way only weakens democracy rather than strengthening it.
Why students? union elections are being treated as unnecessary, undesirable or dispensable? Just because we find several unhealthy and abhorring features associated with elections and functioning of the unions so do they become inessential?
Clarity about democracy leads us towards the desirability of student unions. Students? union have had a long history. Perhaps unions at college or university level used to be there even before independence. Unions along with their elections provide firstever lesson of democratic functioning to the students. Student unions, while providing opportunities to students to manage many of their own affairs themselves, have served in the past and can serve many useful purposes with regard to promotion of leadership quality, protection of legitimate interests of students, redressal of their grievances, achievement of needed amenities and conducting whole lot of programmes and activities which are of interests or are useful to them and which unfold their potentials, talents and creativities etc. Over and above such things, unions can prove useful platforms for playing of students? role in national and larger social issues. Wherever, and to the extent possible, the unions can take up service projects or schemes for the benefit of society in general also.
We should not forget that most of the college going students in India today are of the 18+ age which means they are already eligible voters for the purpose of parliamentary and assembly elections etc. If democracy is learned through practice then should not such voters get opportunity of experiencing it in their own institutions? But what about the unhealthy trends and practices that we find associated with the unions, the question may be asked.
The answer is not difficult. Controlling of malaise that afflicts student unions and their elections is not as difficult as it is made out to be. Ways and means can be found for the same by authorities provided they have vision and will power. But first a note of caution. Too many laws and restrictions can prove unimplementable and counterproductive. Healthy practices in a society can never be enforced merely by making laws or by high handedness. They are best achieved by raising the average level of social consciousness of its members.
Democracy in its present form is new to India, only 53 years old. We should not forget that England, which is presented as the best model of democracy, had to spend centuries for maturing of its democracy, that too, when it had far smaller size of population than India has and had all the resources of world at its command for very long time. Even today British democracy is found to be wanting in certain respects, at least on the front of availability of equal status and opportunities to its womenfolk.
Coming back to controlling of malaise, the first and foremost thing that needs to be done is to make the students aware of importance of democracy. Societies survive on the strength of idealism and values and if democracy is a value of life then who is most suited to uphold and protect that value? None other than students and youth. Youth are always considered as best practitioners of idealism and values and students make the easily identifiable core of youth. So country will only gain by arousing their idealism. If the student unions have become the tools of unscrupulous elements, they also provide opportunities to idealists to catch the bull by its horns. Evil is always defeated by good.
Some of the ways and means that can keep the malaise within reasonable limits can be: restrictions related to personal eligibility for contestants may be imposed such as maximum age, minimum marks obtained in the examination last passed, no failing in any examination, no conviction for any offence etc. and related to electioneering such as no use of posters, banners, hoardings, no offering of gifts to the voters, no use of loudspeakers, restricted use of vehicles etc. Being postgraduate students or having been elected leaders at college level in the past may be made eligibilities for contesting university union elections. One can think of more such things.
Students? union have had a long history. Perhaps unions at college or university level used to be there even before independence. Unions along with their elections provide firstever lesson of democratic functioning to the students.
The experience suggests that a direct election proves better than indirect election in checkmating the corrupt electoral practices. Also it has been amply proved that unions with nominated meritorious students hardly function. Elections alone bring forth the type of activism required in a leader.
In addition, serious student organisations and responsible political leaders can be urged and taken into confidence for making elections as free from vices as feasible.
(The author is former national president of ABVP and is a reader in economics at PGDAV college of Delhi University and can be contacted at C-2, Phase-I, Ashok Vihar, Delhi-110052, E-Mail: [email protected])