Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations:
Divorcing Student Unions from Movements

The Lyngdoh Committee (henceforth LC) was set up by the UPA Government last year, in response to a directive by the Supreme Court, ostensibly to curb lavish spending of money, and violence in Students Union polls. Since the LC stipulates that all institutions of higher education, both private and public, should conduct Student Union elections every year, the recommendations have been appreciated in campuses where SU polls have been hanging in limbo for long.

But the LC recommendations subject students' democratic rights to certain conditions. While suggesting that Universities and colleges “must ordinarily conduct elections”, they add that “where the atmosphere of the University campus is adverse to the conduct of peaceful, free and fair election”, a Union may be “nominated” by the institution, as an interim measure, for up to 5 years. The SC, while accepting the recommendations, seemed to suggest that the LC recommendations, were a punishment for the Ujjain incident: “ There should be a moratorium on student union elections for five years. Without student unions also the colleges can function.”

The student movement needs to ask: how does the LC view students' rights? What is the role of the Student Unions they visualise? What, in the LC's view, is the relationship of the SUs with authority (be it the Administration or the State)?

In the words of the LC, the purpose of SUs is to voice students' “grievances”, take up issues of “student welfare”, and be a “healthy” ground for “training future leaders”. In fact, the universities are encouraged to organise “leadership-training programmes with the help of professional organisation so as to groom and instil in students leadership qualities”! Here lies the crunch. For the LC, students must be taught to be ‘leaders' of society as it exists today. Whereas, we in the student movement struggle to make Student Unions the leadership of students' struggle to change society and challenge Government policy.

The LC prescribes an apolitical model of ‘leadership', and sees democratic political contention among students as undesirable. It observes, “organizations like NSUI, ABVP, AISF, SFI, etc…had a tendency, more often than not, to unnecessarily politicize the election process . The involvement of these organizations in student elections leads to the creation of rival factions within the students, which in turn leads to the subservience of the ultimate goal of democratic student representation ”. So, according to the LC, ‘democratic student representation' has nothing to do with the political views or choices of the students! In keeping with this view, the LC states that the “primary function of a university is after all education, not political indoctrination”, and that students are entitled to only a “certain basic standard of teaching and infrastructure”.

This apolitical definition of Students' Unions is actually extremely political. In times of privatization of education and fee hikes, even “basic standard of teaching and infrastructure” are being denied by the Government. In the face of this assault, student movements and Unions have often galvanized the student community into spirited agitations – often braving severe crackdowns. The LC laments, “gone are the days when the student movement was an integral cog in the Satyagraha machine” and observes that universities have instead become “feeder devices” for political parties. But the LC is surely hypersensitive to the fact that campuses in independent India have been and continue to be nerve centres for people's movements – providing vital ideological energy and new generations of activists for the Naxalbari movement, the JP movement, for the Left parties, the ML movement, and the Narmada Bachao movement. Embedded in the LC recommendations, masked by the concern to curb money- and muscle-power, are ‘safeguards' to ensure that Student Unions and student politics can no longer serve such a radical function. For instance, among the eligibility criteria for candidates is a stipulation that the students should never have been “tried/convicted” for any criminal offence, not should he or she have been “subjected to any disciplinary action by the University authorities”. In the same vein, “disrupting” or “missing” classes is the ultimate crime in the LC's eyes. We all know that student protests and strikes are routinely branded as ‘disruptive' and ‘criminal', and criminal cases and ‘disciplinary action' are routine weapons deployed against leaders of student movements –now they will be used to disqualify such leaders from being elected to Student Unions! The restrictions on the number of times a student can contest for a post (once for the post of office bearer, and twice for that of an executive member) is also designed to curtail the democratic rights of students, and prevent Unions from having an experienced leadership.

A basic question of democracy also arises. Students of colleges and universities are adults – and enjoy, under universal adult franchise, the right to vote for political representatives in Parliamentary and other polls. They also have the right to belong to political parties. How can their right to function as party activists and their right to form political organisations be curbed, simply because of the paternalistic view that ‘education' and ‘studies' can flourish only when kept free from ‘disruptive' and politics? In the LC's eyes, academics, education, and universities are to be a “cog” in the machine of capitalism; they are not to serve a radical social function of dissenting against the status quo, and questioning and exposing the unjust and hierarchical foundations of our society.

Finally, we must ask: can the LC recommendations work – even to curb violence and overspending? The LC recommendations are after all, nothing better than a ‘code of conduct'. Such a ‘code of conduct' (regarding age restrictions, poll expenditure, etc…) exists in DUSU polls – and are observed only in breach. At Ujjain , the system was one of nominations, not elections, yet violence occurred. The ‘code of conduct' in Parliamentary and Assembly polls are routinely violated. But in a democracy, the voters are not penalised by imposing restrictions on their franchise!

So, does rejecting the LC amount to defending Student Union polls as they now stand? Must we resign ourselves to the spectacle of 54-year-old candidates contesting SU polls in Allahabad , candidates distributing booze to woo voters in DU, and rivals shooting each other during polls? Most certainly not – but the change must be effected by guaranteeing absolute democracy for students. The LC notes that the “JNU model” was uniformly appreciated and recommended by all, but claims it is “impracticable” for large campuses. But the essence of the JNU model does not lie in the details (which are suited to a small campus) – but rather in the fact that the rules are framed, and changed, by students themselves; that democratic processes are monitored by students themselves, and not by a paternalistic authority; that the students themselves have evolved a consensus against violence and garish show of money. Only when students have total freedom to unfettered political activities and mobilisation throughout the year (not just during elections), only when they organise student struggles and evolve a leadership for such struggles, can they challenge and reject the culture of money and muscle-power bred by the student groups of ruling parties.

Of course, criminal elements and candidates who can spend the maximum amount of money may still tend to win SU polls. But students can't be ‘protected' from reality by keeping them ‘safe' in well-policed confines! Messy democracy is better than neat, ‘disciplined' authoritarianism, - and more conducive to real learning too! The challenge to such forces can emerge only from among students –by making the ability to lead student movements the real criterion for leadership. By making docility and obedience to authority the criterion, and disqualifying those who are in the bad books of Administration and Government, the LC is cannot curb the criminal and corrupt forces, but they will most certainly work to ‘discipline' and penalise activists of student movements!