This is a guest post by RINA RAMDEV
Public discourse on Delhi University’s staging of student union elections typically picks the ubiquitary narratives of money, muscle power and its floutings of Lyngdoh guidelines, year after clamorous year. College campuses, arterial roads and their flooding by posters, both in excess of their expenditure limit (Rs 5000 per candidate) and their prescribed nature (printed, as against handmade), as also the prohibited yet brazen processioneering of SUV armies, are experiences annually played out in tedious familiarity. Mainly configured as a contest between the NSUI and the ABVP (even as the AISA has in its recent resurgence, negotiated a space for Left politics beyond the two party dominance), the Presidential wins and panel sweeps are usually congruent with the dips and surges experienced by their parent political party on the national stage.
An easy equivalence reads this as the hollowing out of radical space from the University, one that concomitantly nullifies the potential for other political imaginaries to exist and thrive. This has over time allowed for a storing of tired indifference within Left progressive circles against the political fates that student elections carve out at DU. And yet, in effecting a telos thus, the lacunae — viz. certain unaccounted details that could have created shifts in vote shares and electoral patterns — stay largely unfactored and unchallenged. What remains is a graveyard of potential political alternatives signified through absences.
Delhi University’s federal structure comprises 80 odd colleges, of which 50 affiliatively vote in the University’s Students Union election, and while there are 22 women’s colleges, only 6 have membership of the Union, making it more than 75% of women who are not allowed to vote. Interestingly as far back as 1974, T.K Oommen’s “Student Politics in India: The Case of Delhi University”, had flagged with some urgency a directive from the Dean of Colleges in 1970-71 to “both teachers’ and students’ bodies according to which membership in the Union would be compulsory for all colleges affiliated with the University”. This, it was argued, “would change the structure of the Union in terms of its composition, for the ‘prestige colleges’ hitherto not affiliated with the Union may become members”. This prescient valuing of unionism and its adumbrative logic towards a compulsory political conscription of students is clearly seen as de rigueur to life at the university. An unalloyed student life, permitted only into charades of political participation at the university through administrative indulgences like nominated student councils, as against elected, democratically arrived roles through processes of elections and Unions, is roundly rejected. And yet decades later, the NDA government’s ‘Draft National Education Policy 2016’ creates caveats and a dissuasive logic in its attempt to restrict and police students’ political participation on campus. In light of recent university unrest and student activism critical of the government’s crackdown on free speech and dissent, ideas of sanitizing campuses and ridding them of political activism have predictably proliferated and found popular public appeal.
In all this, what has become of those “prestige colleges”, sought to be brought into the fold of the University’s Students Union? Along with St Stephen’s, it is the many women’s colleges like Lady Shri Ram, Jesus and Mary, Indraprastha, Kamala Nehru, Gargi, Lady Irwin and Daulat Ram who in their continuing disaffiliative Union status pragmatically distance themselves from the avowed ‘murkiness’ of DUSU politics. Part of the self-marketing mobilized by these colleges is incumbent upon an imagination of education that separates studying/learning from politics. The meritocratic economy of ‘prestige’ extrapolates an order of elitism that values advancement over the adventure of activism. This is quite in tandem with the assertions of the NEP, and its much vaunted project of nation building through technocratic ideals mounted on the backs of depoliticized university campuses. It further finds currency in the insidiously nurtured ‘potential for excellence’ – a conceptual precondition for autonomy! – that colleges mobilize for their separation from an unruly mainstream. An exit is thus carved out of a wilful, pragmatic cleaving; and a politics of forced exclusion is turned into a ground for eminence. In their pursuit of excellence, narratives of a corrupt, hypermasculinist politics visibilized at election time allow for the construction of a discourse of exceptionalism for women’s colleges to retreat into.
When a women’s college student is quoted as saying, “The campus becomes quite unsafe during the elections and it is good that my college is not a part of such propaganda politics. We have our own little world in which our independent college union works for the students without any chaos” (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/only-pre-poll-chaos-no-real-work-done-by-dusu/article19616875.ece), what is being established in its many privilegings, is the gated security of a well-oiled, ‘efficiently-run’ system. Even as the fear and disgust of ‘dirty politics’ excludes certain other imaginations of politics, it sanctions the propagation of new forms of sociality. In the case of women’s colleges, the logic of exemption encourages an insular homosociality that can dangerously disequip women from imagining and negotiating difference. From within the cushioning and comfort of a sequestered space arises the danger of an apolitical idea of womanhood, one that does not address questions of political subjectivity and that stays inalert to many other forms of politics. In segregative socialities women students see each other through cloned, mirrored experiences. Politics is pared down to an individualism that rests on solidarities premised upon uniform homosocial experiences, which could preemptively disable all possibilities of intersectionality and alliancing. In the privileging of the individual and the affirmation of her agency, politics remains predicated upon individual acts of ‘doing’ hypothesized upon a disavowal of the outside and the collective.
In the necessary self-separation of classroom varieties of critique from structures of political apprenticeship at the university, the practice of politics is made to rest on cognitive distinctions of ‘virtue’. As a result, the ‘real’ of politics is reduced to a class-consciousness of moral choice – one that would prefer an enlightened voice of conscience over everyday acts of organizing. The student-subject at most of Delhi University’s women’s colleges is trained into an ethnographic suspicion of ‘politics’ as default subalternity, while every practice of its average everydayness claims access to an obscene surplus funded by the state. This is the cognitive aporia of ‘apolitical’ citizenship, consisting in deliberate fantasies around the bankruptcy of the state. It alternately translates into a demand for depoliticisation of university campuses as well as the withdrawal of the polluting state from public education altogether – till a metropolitan civil society, practiced in the forfeiture of citizenship rights, can measure life in a corporate moralism of charity and self-help.
In all this, the exceptionalism that looks at unionism and student politics with suspicion, concessionally allows the creation of alternate frames of student engagement. These are moderated via permissible, benign forms of activism, mandated through an appointing/nominating of student councils that reward merit and conformity. In turn, these associations are ably run by a zealous student body that transcribes its many efficiencies on to an exemplary, trouble free campus, ridding it of the disorderly enervations of student politics.
In this eschewing of politics and the structural disbarring of students from unionizing, is the relaying of the collateral gain of excellence. Methodized through rigorous pedagogy and its classroom lessons that train young students into polemics and criticality, these could also dangerously initiate a programmed aversion to the very materiality of politics and an indifference to its lived praxis. Within the hallowed spaces of these colleges, we discipline and rear our students into sharp, estimable scholars even as we deliberately cut them off from the world of messy, rowdy intractabilities. And therein the hubris of exceptionalism needs calling out, as much for its stunted lessons, as its relinquishing of the political spaces of unionization at the university that its students could perhaps interrogate and occupy differently. The loss is both the students’, who are absented from hybrid forms of a collectivized politics, as it is the university’s, that could see a change from the tried/tired approaches to organizing and politics.
Rina Ramdev is Associate Professor, Department of English. Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University. She is the co-editor of Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurt. New Delhi: Sage India, 2016.