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Campuses must be free and fair for all

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Summary

Too often, there are suggestions to confer some kind of elevated moral standing to student politics. This is insulting both to students and to other citizens of India. This is because fundamental rights by their very definition apply to every citizen and no one citizen can claim that their fundamental rights are morally superior to that of another.

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Recent events have resulted in a lively debate on the place of student politics in modern India. Let me summarize my views in five simple points.

 

1. Students on campuses of public universities have an inalienable right to freely express themselves on all matters, including politics.

This derives from their fundamental rights as citizens of India. A thriving democracy such as ours cannot afford anything else.

 

2. Disruption of academic activities for political expression is unacceptable

Too often, there are suggestions to confer some kind of elevated moral standing to student politics. This is insulting both to students and to other citizens of India. This is because fundamental rights by their very definition apply to every citizen and no one citizen can claim that their fundamental rights are morally superior to that of another.

 

Simply put, this means that classes, examinations and research activity cannot be disrupted, nor rescheduled in any way due to ongoing political activity. For instance, an examination boycott should lead to an uncompromising zero for every student who refuses to show up. Any case of physical violence, littering of campus, preventing others from going about their work, no matter how small, should be dealt with as per law.

 

This uncompromising attitude is important because student politics can pose serious threats to academic standards. For instance, one of the first moves made by Mulayam Singh Yadav after becoming Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1993 was to repeal the Anti-Copying Law passed by the previous government. A section of students rejoiced and the percentage of candidates passing exams jumped by almost 20 percent that year (see here and here). Such politics can only be seen as unfortunate and damaging for the future of the nation.

 

3. What happens when it is not clear whether the campus is actually a public university?

This is where it gets really topical in the context of recent anti-CAA protests and anti-CAA riots that have happened in many parts of the country.

 

Some of the most vocal protests were held at campuses whose “public university status” seems confusing at the very least. While these universities are publicly funded, many of them also have the status of “minority institution”. At first glance, it is not clear whether this is constitutional.

 

For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s that Aligarh Muslim University is not a minority institution. An act of Parliament in 1981 restored the minority status of the university. This provision of the act was later declared unconstitutional by the Allahabad High Court in the 2000s. As of now, the matter appears to be sub judice.

 

In the meanwhile, what principles apply when it is not clear whether the campus is a public university at all? Due to my limited legal knowledge, I am unable to comment.

 

4. There is a compelling public interest in making sure that students of all backgrounds are heard

As with any other form of political activity in India, there is a real danger of a vocal and/or powerful minority usurping a space where all voices must be free. In order to avoid this, the Lok Sabha and Assemblies of states and union territories have provided reservations for disadvantaged castes and tribal groups. At the level of local self-governance, one-third of offices have also been reserved for women in Panchayati Raj institutions.

 

I believe that campuses should seriously consider extending the same principles to student organizations. People might remember the case of one student politician at a renowned university in Delhi who had exposed himself before a woman in a threatening and lewd manner. It is obvious that such behavior would be enabled by a sense of power in campus politics. The same person went on to win national adulation as a student leader. His fame would have emboldened many other potential predators among student political activists everywhere. This is just one example of how campus politics can create an intimidating atmosphere for members of certain sections. Unless everyone feels welcome, we cannot have a thriving democratic culture.

 

In the case of CAA, a large number of potential beneficiaries of the new law would be from disadvantaged castes. For instance, it is estimated that as much as 80 percent of the Pakistani Hindu population could be Dalits. As such, it is particularly important that campuses ensure that students of all backgrounds are heard.

 

5. Some amount of precautionary security measures might be needed on particularly sensitive campuses with a history of violence

As with most things about India, we have to strike a balance. On a case by case basis, it should be up to administrators to judge the potential for harm and curtail some student political activity if necessary. This applies especially to campuses with a history of violence.

 

In fact, a 2019 report by Retd. High Court Justice P K Shamsuddin found that many colleges in Kerala have torture rooms, where dissenters are forced to comply with student unions, often the CPI(M) affiliated Students’ Federation of India (SFI).

 

Another disturbing example is that of a nationally renowned university in Bengal where a Vice Chancellor had been murdered on campus by members of a certain political persuasion. On a campus such as that, it would be understandable if the administrators put some curbs on political activity as a precautionary measure. We cannot judge them.

 

Abhishek Banerjee is a faculty member of the department of Mathematics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The above views were written in a strictly personal capacity. The writer also wishes to emphasize that he is not a legal expert and has talked about law and constitution on a best effort basis.

 

This article is part of a Confluence series on Students and Political Protests. The remaining articles in this series can be found here.

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