Empowering Student Unions in Indian Education: Challenges and Opportunities for Democratic Participation

Empowering Student Unions in Indian Education: Challenges and Opportunities for Democratic Participation

Indian students’ role in politics goes back to the freedom struggle, where students emerged as trailblazers in the Swadeshi Movement, leading picketing campaigns against foreign goods to ignite a spirit of economic self-reliance and national pride. After independence, the activism continued,  and  colleges and student unions became grounds for the birth and advocacy of various movements throughout India.

Take the case of Karnataka, which, although banned student unions in 1989, is an example of a state that saw numerous student uprisings. From anti-nuclear movements to Dalit protests, the 1970s especially saw many Dalit student figures emerging from different regions of Karnataka. Many politicians in Karnataka like DK Shivakumar, Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri, Roshan Baig, Shobha Karndlaje, B K Hariprasad, and others started out as student leaders in the ’70s and ’80s, rose in the ranks within these student unions, and went on to become state level and even national level political leaders.

What made these student unions successful was primarily the fact that they acted as pressure groups, influencing decisions made by governing authorities for student welfare. Student unions act as representative bodies, holding university management and the government accountable and voicing the concerns of students. India is home to one of the largest groups of young voters in the world. Student Unions form platforms for student grievances and participate in the democratic process from early on.

They help students get familiarised with political participation and act as platforms for moulding future leaders. Citing cases of caste-based violence, the state of Karnataka, under Chief Minister Veerendra Patil, brought forth the ban based on a court order that held campus politics as the main culprit for caste-based violence in colleges. Today, while some campuses in the state still have student councils, they are often representative bodies of the management with a limited role in decision-making, abiding by the rules of the administration. For instance, from 2001 to 2016, no student representative was included in Bangalore University’s academic council.

One of the main arguments against student unions is that they deviate and disrupt students from education. However, true education is built on holistic participation and development. When the state is keen on promoting only the utilitarian role of education based on economic mobility, the functional role of education as a tool for democracy-building is forgotten.

As stated by Giroux, education in universities should not be geared only towards meeting industrial needs; instead, student unions are an opportunity for students to perform functional roles of education, such as active participation in society.

Globally, student unions play a dynamic role, from being advocacy groups to representative bodies. Student unions at prestigious institutions like Oxford and the Ivy League maintain their independence and are free from direct political affiliations. In present India’s educational landscape, political hegemony continues to subtly infiltrate academic institutions.

The choice of the management, the professor’s political ideology, and even the syllabus are used as tools for political control. Unfortunately, the backdoor entry of political outfits into educational institutes has been noted to have serious repercussions, such as radicalization and extreme student violence.

Yet a complete ban isn’t a comprehensive solution. The ban on student unions in Karnataka has had evident and provable impacts on the political fabric of the state. It has led to an absence of emerging leaders and isolated students from direct political participation.

Student unions were once platforms for young individuals to engage in political activities and develop leadership skills. In its absence, the state has experienced a dearth of new and dynamic leaders. As a result, political parties are dependent on political dynasties and businessmen for younger candidates. A report by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) states that in the 2023 Karnataka elections, nearly half of the candidates (42% or 1,087 out of 2,586) were crorepatis.

This percentage represents a stark increase compared to the 35% reported in the previous 2018 elections. Elections are an expensive affair in the state, forcing parties to inject young blood, mostly from political families or businessmen. Many prominent leaders of Karnataka were products of campus politics. However, a vibrant environment churning out young leaders is now missing in the state. In a state with a considerable youth population in the range of 18 to 35, only around 16 percent of the 2,587 recent state election candidates belonged to this age group.

The youth generation, from humble beginnings, neither has the family connections nor the financial power to propel them to the political stage. The ban has created a political vacuum favouring contractor candidates and perpetuating family dynastic rule. In the 2023 state legislative elections, the average assets of a Congress candidate stand at Rs 37.94 crore, while a JDS candidate has an average of Rs 12.28 crore per candidate, and the BJP averaging at Rs 12.21 crore per candidate.

Many politicians in Karnataka have business empires spanning the realm of education, advancing their political interests. If politics is already prevalent in colleges, legitimising student voices will shift the spotlight back to student welfare.

The lack of autonomy for individuals in private institutions is another serious issue that needs to be addressed. Students at many private universities do not have the right to form an association or union. In contrast  to Lyngdoh Committee recommendations, students are often selected on the basis of academic merit alone. Under the guise of education, private colleges often enforce depoliticized campuses, controlling students into docile and fully obedient bodies.

Any voice of dissent is met with student suspension and sometimes even expulsion. The recent case of student suicides in Kerala and the ensuing conflicts in private institutes highlight the need for better grievance cells in these institutions. The student council present lacks real authority, acting on the directives of the management.

Student unions should be revived by granting democratic elections and autonomy, which enable representation and advocacy of student interests. Inclusive representation, student grievance cells, and leadership  development programmes should be established to promote diverse participation. Furthermore, transparent fund allocation and the conduct of civic educational programmes will ensure accountability and foster responsibility.

Effective implementation of these measures necessitates mutual cooperation and open dialogue among educational institutions, student unions, alumni associations, and government authorities. Empowering students through these approaches will cultivate informed and engaged citizens, reshaping India’s educational landscape.

In conclusion, having strong institutional procedures in place is essential for dealing with problems like campus violence and the imbalance of political power. Politics ultimately permeates every part of our lives. While completely banning student unions goes against the democratic spirit of our nation, universities can set up structures to control and stop radicalization.

Moreover, private universities must delegate authority and offer forums for students to voice their concerns. Robust frameworks need to be created to promote leadership development and address students’ concerns. These institutional mechanisms, in collaboration with the educational management, need to have adequate authority, support, and resources to ensure democratic decision-making, transparency, and academic integrity.


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