AISA to Hold 7th National Conference

For Education, Employment, Democracy!


In the past month (December-January), 20 students (in high school and college) committed suicide in Maharashtra; most due to intense fear of poor academic performance.  
India has the second highest suicide rate in the world and 40 per cent of the cases are in the adolescent age group. In 2006, 5,857 students — or 16 a day — committed suicide across India due to exam stress. 
Rahul Gandhi, who is touring various campuses to promote the Congress student wing NSUI’s membership drive, was asked on one campus to comment on the reason for the disturbing rise in the number of suicides among students. Known to be quite ready-witted, Rahul, who was willing to make quips about his marriage plans, however dodged the direct query about student suicides, and failed to reply, instead explaining that he was there merely to promote NSUI’s internal organisational democracy.  
Projected as a ‘role model’ and icon for ‘Young India,’ Rahul Gandhi’s silence on the question of student suicides is telling. What could he say, after all? He could blame Std. X exams and say that HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has proposed making the exam optional. And he could, in the style of the ‘Rancho’ in the recent Bollywood hit 3 Idiots, harangue parents and teachers to ease up on the pressure by giving up the obsession with grades and marks. But he would still be just as far from any true answer to the tragic problem.
‘Exam stress’ is like farmers’ debts: it is only the tip of the iceberg on which the will – of farmers and students – to live breaks. Waiving institutional debts and making exams ‘optional’ is to address only the most obvious part of the problem. Why do farmers get caught in the debt trap in the first place? Any genuine probe into that question reveals that the ‘debt trap’ is not about ‘debt’ alone: it is actually a deathly web of neoliberal policies in agriculture. Why do students take exam performance, marks and grades seriously enough to prefer death to failure? The root cause of the intense competitiveness marking education today is the shrinking and limited availability of education and employment, and the high fees and commercialised system that makes education appear to be an ‘investment’ that can be justified only by getting securing a place among the scarce college seats and jobs. As long as opportunities remain limited, and exams exist as a mode of elimination rather than evaluation, students will continue to feel stressed wondering whether they will make it to college or a good job. And education will remain mired in despair and death.                        
The rising student suicides are a reminder of the urgent issues confronting education and young people today – issues that All India Students' Association (AISA) will aim to address at its 7th National Conference, to be held at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, West Bengal, from 8-10 February 2010.
‘Education Reforms’: Privatisation by any other Name
The Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Kapil Sibal promised a ‘revolutionary’ change in education policy through massive ‘reforms’ within the first 100 days of coming to power. In keeping with these 'reforms', the central government has issued a circular (dated September 12th 2009) calling for a mandatory 15% cut in budgetary allocations to universities and institutes of higher learning. The MHRD circular states that the government will not provide funds even for basic necessities of the student community including books, library facilities and laboratories! Universities and colleges have been directed to fund their expenses through massive fee hikes, though extracting user charges for basic services like electricity and water from students and through a withdrawal of subsidies. It is evident that the intention of these 'reforms' is to free the state from any responsibility towards providing basic education to its people and to transfer higher education into private hands. As a result of this well-calculated move, students will not be able to access the facilities available in institutions of higher learning.
This intention of the UPA was also made clear from the farcical ‘Right to Education’ (RTE) Act. Circumventing the Unnikrishnan judgement which guaranteed education as a basic right, and in complete contravention of long-standing demands for a common schooling system, the RTE reinforces the existing unjust and inequitable education system. Instead of increasing the responsibility and accountability of the government towards providing basic education to children, the RTE keeps the door open for increased private intervention in education through public-private partnerships. The Yashpal Committee Report, the Foreign Universities Bill and the Knowledge Commission Recommendations have all - through overt and covert means - argued for the privatization of education. 
Undeclared Emergency in Campuses 
As the government moves towards fulfilling its agenda of privatisation and commercialisation of education, it has also launched an all-out attack on campus democracy and student movements all over the country. These attacks are the result of World Bank-IMF diktats, for whom an organized student movement and the presence of student unions is an impediment in their plans of commercialisation. Clearly, when the intention is to deprive a vast majority of students from access to education, it also becomes imperative for the powers-that-be to silence the voices of protest that will inevitably rise.
The direct result of the attempts to clamp down on campus democracy can be seen in campuses across the country. Student Union elections have been banned, and attempts are also being made to put an end to any effective student participation in all levels of the functioning of campuses. What prevails in campuses today is an undeclared emergency - where the basic rights of speech, of protest and dissent, of choice, of association and participation are all being snatched away. The Lyngdoh recommendations which were introduced with the stated aim of curbing money and muscle power in campus politics, have completely failed in their stated objectives. Though the Lyngdoh committee recommends that student union elections be conducted in all campuses, no elections have been held in majority of the central universities. Where the Lyngdoh recommendations have been implemented, they have completely failed to curb the use of money and muscle power. Not only have the recommendations failed in their stated objectives, they have been used to curtail the democratic participation of students.  For instance the JNUSU elections (which are well-known for the complete absence of money and muscle power and the democratic and responsible participation of the student community) have been stayed by the Supreme Court on the basis of the Lyngdoh committee recommendations.
In the wake of these increasing onslaughts on education and employment, the students' movement must rise to the challenge and ensure the democratization of campus spaces and the reinstatement of student unions.
Students and Youth – Increasingly Insecure
Migrant students and young workers are soft targets for attacks – be it at the hand of the MNS and Shiv Sena in Mumbai or at the hands of racists in Australia.    
Muslim students and youth – in India as part of a global trend fuelled by the US ‘war on terror’ are the victims of community profiling, and many have been illegally detained, tortured and even killed in fake ‘encounters.’ Following the Batla House encounter where three young Muslim boys were killed by the Delhi Police, the democratic forces in the country and several human right activists raised a number of questions that have gone unanswered. The demand for a Judicial enquiry has been rejected, and no action has been taken against those responsible. This despite the fact that it is now evident that the encounter killings of Sohrabuddin and Ishrat Jehan were clearly staged.
Attacks on the Freedom of Women
In Bangalore, Mangalore, Kerala, Ahmedabad, Meerut, Delhi and elsewhere, the so-called custodians of ‘culture and morality’ – like the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene - have increased their attacks on women. The myth of ‘Love Jehad’ has been created by the Hindutva forces – in collusion with some courts - to combine the profiling of Muslim youth with the attack on the rights of women to marry by choice. 

Letter from UP Campuses

The Lyngdoh Committee recommendations were introduced in the name of ridding student union elections of money-power and muscle-power. The Committee’s recommendations included regular holding of SU elections, with nomination of a ‘model student council’ as an occasional exception, not to be made the norm. However, many in the student movement had expressed the apprehension that the Lyngdoh recommendations would basically be used to get rid of elected student unions and thereby weaken the struggle and the political leadership which might lead students to resist privatisation and fee hikes.  
The experience of some UP campuses bears this out. AISA activists from these campuses report on the state of democracy:  
In Allahabad University, Lucknow University and Kashi Vidyapeeth, student union elections were last held five years back – in 2005. At Allahabad University (now a Central University), a nominated student council exists – but elections to student unions have not been held in spite of the Lyngdoh recommendations. At Lucknow University and Kashi Vidyapeeth, no manner of student body – whether elected or nominated – exists. At Banaras Hindu University (BHU), also a central university, SU elections have not been held since 1997, but for the past two years a nominated student council is in existence. 
On all these campuses, political activities are proscribed. In Allahabad University, once a vibrant political centre, not even posters can be pasted, though here students still do participate in protest actions. The situation is worse on other campuses: at BHU, any form of political activity – protest demonstrations, leaflets, posters or even study circle meetings are banned; at Lucknow University, students are severely punished if they participate in any form of protest action; at KV, show cause notices are issued to any student who participates in a protest action. Police and PAC forces are a constant presence on all these campuses.
In the wake of the crackdown on student politics, suspension of elections and introduction of ‘nominated’ councils, fee hikes have taken place on all these campuses. In Allahabad University, there was a 10-25% increase in hostel fees. Professional courses are self-financed and charge anything from Rs. 10, 000 to Rs. 50, 000. Fees were doubled in BHU this year. In Lucknow University and KV, fees have been hiked every year. Hostel fees have been doubled at LU and self-financed courses on the campus charge Rs. 10,000. The number of self-financed courses at KV has increased too.
Scholarships for SC/ST/OBC students exist, but every year there are major irregularities in disbursal and large numbers of students are deprived of their dues.

In spite of the Supreme Court directive (Visakha judgement), there is no effective complaints body against sexual harassment on these campuses. At Allahabad University, there is a ‘Women’s Advisory Board’ but this is a mere formal rather than functional structure, in which students are not represented at all. As a rule, women are able to play a very small role in the public life of these campuses.

Killings by Khaap Panchayats and similar community courts in UP, Punjab and Haryana are instances of growing attacks on the rights of women and men to make their own decisions regarding love and marriage, irrespective of caste and community. Unfortunately, police and administrative machinery have proved ready to protect the perpetrators of such attacks – be they the Sri Ram Sene, khaap panchayats, or influential men like industrialist Ashok Todi (responsible for the death of Rizwanur Rehman) and politician DP Yadav (whose sons have been convicted of killing Nitish Katara).
The Ruchika case – and the light sentence given to former DGP Rathore who molested the schoolgirl and hounded her to suicide – serve as a reminder that crimes like sexual harassment are, largely, trivialised by the judiciary and even by educational institutions. Schools, colleges and universities rarely ever have a Complaints Cell against sexual harassment as mandated by the 1996 Vishakha judgement of the Supreme Court. 
AISA has mobilised students and young people on a range of pressing issues of our times: the privatization of education and the undermining of a genuine Right to Education; the communal stereotyping of students and youth from the minorities; regional chauvinism of the MNS-Shiv Sena variety; communal violence; attacks on freedom of women by the Sangh Parivar and diktats/death sentences against young couples by caste 'panchayats'; against state repression in Kashmir, the North East and outposts of the UPA Government’s ‘Operation Greenhunt’; in solidarity with people's movements against displacement and corporate land grab.  

AISA’s 7th National Conference will see students from all over the country gathering at Jadavpur University, W Bengal, to chalk out a strategy to intensify the student movement and equip it to respond to the challenges that face it.