Against Going by the Book: A Glance at Student Politics
In mainland India, there is ABVP for RSS/BJP, AISF for CPI, NSUI for Congress and so on. It is no surprise that we live in a different world and this is apparent from the existence of a parallel world of student organisations. If we go by the word on the street, the UNLF has AMSU, the KYKL has DESAM and the RPF has MSF, which call the shots in our town. Before we get lost in the abbreviations, I should make it clear that this write-up is not about the ideological or structural difference in the student wings of mainstream political parties and those of rebel organisations but a glance at the world of student politics.
ABVP: Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad NSUI: National Students’ Union of India AISF: All India Students Federation CPI: Communist Party of India UNLF: United National Liberation Front AMSU: All Manipur Students’ Union KYKL: Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup DESAM Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur RPF: Revolutionary People’s Front MSF: Manipur Students’ Federation
|Image courtesy: Monkeyrice / Manipur Talks|
From the very patrons we can see the stark difference of political establishment in mainland India and Manipur. The latter has all the mainstream student wings though all of them are spineless. Outside Manipur, we can also see the deviation of ideas that fuelled student politics. Just consider the narratives in the Jawaharlal University in New Delhi and the University of Hyderabad; and once again it is quite obvious that the politics of ABVP and AISF are a world apart from ours.
When we recollect the crises of the states, the role of student organisations becomes even more obvious. Some people believe that the members of these organisations are used as a pawn by bigger political groups but from that perspective we will be missing the woods for the trees.
For a hint, in Manipur, the AMSU has been commemorating 27 August as the Hunger Marchers’ Day in the memory of an agitation against artificial famine in 1965. In that year, three students lost their lives and referring to the police firing, former Professor Naorem Sanajaoba wrote: ‘The Imphal area people heard the sound of history in the making.’ [Courtesy: Revisiting Manipur Hunger March, 1965 by Professor N Sanajaoba]
A student organisation, hence, can shape the history of a land and we can say, in another word, that these organisations have been playing a crucial role in social movements, and sometimes they are leading from the front. But it would be grossly unreasonable if we consider everything that they do is legitimate or essential. Still the best feature of student politics is its progressive nature.
My first tryst with student organisations in my hometown was when I was in Class IV. By the book, we study Hindi from Class IV to VIII; however, then, there was a campaign for including Manipuri in the Eighth Schedule to the Indian Constitution. The demand was granted by the union. Years later, we found such an inclusion implies Manipuri is, amongst other, ‘entitled to representation on the Official Languages Commission...plus...a candidate appearing in a public-service examination at a higher level is entitled to use any of these (scheduled) languages as the medium in which he or she answers the paper.’ [Courtesy: the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India]
So, before the consent, a few volunteers came and take away all our Hindi books to set them on fire and we had to start Hindi from Class V. Our classmate, P— apologised to them for not bringing the textbook while adding he can definitely bring it the next day.
Nowadays, two decades later, people are wary about the participation of students and rightly so. In the early days it was merely taking ‘controversial’ books away but now, the kids have been made to take part in street demonstration.
On this issue, recently the Imphal Free Press published an editorial against the menace: ‘Bandhs, strikes and blockades have become part of their (the schoolchildren’s) vocabulary, and school closures on account of these their routine experience. Not only this, quite outrageously and meaninglessly, they are also made to participate in political protests and agitations, spending long hours in the sun, marching with flags and placards the significance of which they have no inkling, and shouting political slogans from rote.’ [Courtesy: Teaching Our Children]
Nevertheless we can see below some of the underlying currents in the world of student organisations and their politics across the globe.
By student organisations, we will be referring to those associations in a college and a university. In Manipur, those in the higher and higher secondary schools, from Class IX to XII, are also very politically active but I see their involvement is more counterproductive than necessary—theirs is just a matter of quantity and utterly lack quality; still, in the same breath, this group will be remarkable in cultural activities.
Elsewhere, we can trace the history of student organisations to that of universities. Records show the University of Bologna (Italy; established in 1088CE), the University of Oxford (United Kingdom; 1096CE) and the University of Salamanca (Spain; 1134CE) are the oldest and surviving universities in the world.
In accordance with the then existing ‘tiny’ states in Europe, groups of students representing each state formed the earliest known student organisations in these universities. But I believe such an organisation in the modern sense is not more than two centuries old at most. Besides, it is a result of the rise of democracy, which was predominantly a 20th-century phenomenon. Yet, one of the first student demonstrations in Asia, to cite an example, shows that there can be exceptions. In 1519, a large group of Sungkyunkwan students protested against the king of the erstwhile undivided Korea over political purges.
In our town, the DM College of Arts, which was established in 1946 and my alma mater, is the oldest college; while the Manipur University was set up in 1980. It was in DMC Arts that I had my second and a ringside view of the student organisations, of which AMSU and DESAM were the most prominent then. Though like organised religion, organised politics has been a big turn-off personally.
One of the gloomiest issues during the three years of graduation was the Thangjam Manorama rape and murder case of 2004. As usual during that period we had faced dozens of other crises too. At one point, we were told that those were the suitable days for introducing the concept of Year Zero that Pol Pot had devised in Cambodia decades ago. Fortunately, classes resumed in the last two months to the examinations.
A recollection from contemporary history shows that student organisations have brought about not only educational and institutional reforms but also numerous social changes. From a perspective of pop culture, we can refer to the French civil unrest of 1968. The protest spearheaded by the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF), the French national student union, resulted in a political revolution. The unrest also gave rise to some of the most memorable slogans such as: Je suis Marxiste—tendance Groucho (I’m a Marxist—of the Groucho tendency) and Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible (Be realistic, ask the impossible).
Closer to our region, we have the 8888 Uprising in Burma where the students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology first started the demonstration against the incompetent military authority. The 88 Generation Students Group is still actively participating in pro-democratic campaigns in the country. Further east, students in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been proactive in political issues and we can hear their genuine voices quite comprehensively. The only thing that is missing, in most cases, is the will/intention of the government or the authority to solve a problem.
The trend is visible in all the continents: we can refer to the University Revolution (Argentina) and the Protests of 1968 (Mexico) in South America; the students’ agitation against the Cambodian Campaign (the USA) and the Quebec student protests (Canada) in North America; the Studentenverbindung (Germany) and the student representative councils (UK) in Europe; the Hong Kong class boycott campaign and the Tiananmen Square protests (China) in Asia; the Soweto Uprising (South Africa) and the university students’ protests (of Botswana, Malawi, Cameroon, &c.) in Africa.
If we go further we can see that most of this student resistance began from universities except in a few cases that involve school-going children. In an ideal world where peace, justice and equality exist on a ‘practical’ plane and not as a chimera, the students rightfully belongs to a classroom; but in times of crisis, we cannot simply approach in a conformist and textbook style. This is regarding those righteous people amongst us who would declare that the students should be confined in a classroom or a campus. For the sake of argument, if we see them as a problem then it is just a symptom. The real cause, or the real germ, is, most of the time, again the authority or those at the helm of affairs and their incompetency.
The Last Class
However, there is one more bitter truth than the realisation of the failure of the authority. In other parts of the world, ‘successful’ protests have a beginning and an end—except maybe in the case of the current LGBTQ+ movements—while this is not so in our case. In the most recent example, Manipuri students especially from the valley have been taking part in the ongoing protests for the ILP System and one schoolboy had lost his life last year while from the opposing group nine protestors including students were killed in the anti-ILP drive. The issue is so grave that even arsonists have been declared as martyrs though it’s a different story.
|Students of TG Higher Secondary School set a police shield on fire|
Image: The Imphal Free Press
Today, we have the ILP; yesterday it was the territorial integrity; and nobody knows what’s in store for tomorrow but all of us do know the students are surely going to be involved or made to take part in the relentless life of protests of the Manipuris. In these days of uncertainty, many of us cannot see the futility of the type of people taking part in a movement, howsoever grand and comprehensive it is. But I’m yet to understand how the higher and higher secondary school students who take part in these movements are mostly from the government schools like Johnstone Higher Secondary School, CC HS School, Ibotonsana Girls’ HS School and TG HS School; all of them located in the heart of the Imphal valley.
PS: College and university students’ representatives are busy aping the lifestyle of their models. For instance, the most important thing is to look after contract works in and around college and university campuses. Many of them are no more a student but the attractive bonuses of being called a student come with certain benefits, mostly on monetary terms. What else explain the stoic silence over the existing army camp inside the Manipur University campus? Oja, leave the kids alone!
Breaking news: As police have been arresting students from protest sites every day in the last one week or so, many Manipuris in the municipality areas are busy arranging for feasts and moolah in the run-up to the Imphal Municipal Corporation election that is scheduled on 2 June 2016.