Shreya Urvashi
IJDTSA Vol.3, Issue 3, No.3 pp.22 to 31, December, 2018

Student Political Movement In India

Published On: Saturday, January 12, 2019


The paper traces the history of student political activity in India since during the struggle for independence till the present time to contextualize how the campus political atmosphere has changed through the years, as well as how the student community has responded to it and vice versa. The aims of politics and activism in campus has undergone many changes temporally and spatially in terms of focus and direction. Till independence in 1947, more-or-less all student groups, however different ideologically, had the common goal of attaining national freedom. However, post-1947, the enthusiasm and rigour died down, and the activism became sporadic and pertaining to local issues like better hostel facilities and infrastructure. The revival came in the 1970s when a National Emergency was imposed by the government then in power. After a few movements again in the 1980s-90s, the next big and contemporary event in student political discourse can be considered the emergence of student associations that affiliate themselves to an Ambedkarite ideology, i.e. the belief that neither the right-winged government nor the left-winged Marxist academics are empathetic enough to understand the role and implicit character of caste in everyday Indian life. These groups are formed by the ‘under-represented’ Dalit students, along with students from other minority communities like Muslims and tribals. Unlike the general trend in the country, these associations are not student bodies of any of the national political parties, neither are they backed up by any of them. While the changing demography of campus and a rise in Dalit consciousness in society are seen as main influencing factors; the fact that they have been standing against the established parties in annual student union elections and even otherwise, and have been continuously increasing their support-base, makes for a significant event in the political history of the Indian campus.


The University Campus cannot be studied in physical and social isolation with the rest of the society. It is needed to be understood as comprising a significant as well as influential population that affects the society in multiple ways. It has undergone many changes to reach to the form that it exists in today. This change can be attributed to the change in the concept of education through the years. In the earlier times, education was thought of as interaction between teacher and student, to preserve in the child the natural goodness with which one is born. (Rousseau, 1979) However, this was countered by various scholars who argued that in modern societies, education is used as a tool to reproduce the existing socio-cultural and economic inequality. (Bourdieu, 1976 and Ogbu, 1982). Thus, while education has always been discriminatory in nature, now it has furthermore turned into something more professional, something whose aim is to do with “nation-building”, or even with building society, a capitalist society perhaps, in general.

According to Bourdieu (1973), education contributes to the reproduction of structure of distribution of cultural capital among the groups. The science of the reproduction of structures, as a system of objective relations which impart their relation properties to individuals with their analytical recording of relations within a given population. “The relationships between the overt and covert knowledge taught in schools, the principles of selection and organization of that knowledge, and the criteria and modes of evaluation used to “measure success” in teaching.” (Apple, 1990)- all play a very important role when one sits to evaluate the different factors that impact educational equality. Along with economic property, there also seems to be symbolic property—cultural capital—which education preserves and distributes. Thus, “institutions of cultural preservation and distribution like schools… (and universities) create and recreate forms of consciousness that enable social control to be maintained without the necessity of dominant groups having to resort to overt mechanisms of domination.” (ibid.)

One of the biggest features of universities today is the participation of students in political activity. Although this has gathered immense curiosity, the academic work in this field has been less. Students, in higher education, constitute “a significant proportion of the rebellious elements in their respective societies. As such they play an important part in political life.” (Lipset, 1964) Students, being part of a potential elite, play a significant role as agents of social and political development, especially in the developing world where they constitute a vital and vocal segment of the population. They, despite being a numerically small population, constitute an intellectual elite which plays a vital role in influencing as well as modernizing “traditional” societies. (Hazary, 1987) The short span of time that students of higher education have in university, coupled with a critical thinking discourse especially in students of social sciences, instills in them an urgency to critically analyze and better the society. What differentiates students (in higher education) from rest of the society is that students are comparatively more spontaneous and assertive in their demands as they only stay in university for a few years. This can only be achieved by being in power or pressurizing and influencing those in power. Thus, in constant debates and discussions with peers and academic superiors, ideas of leadership and autonomy, questioning of merit coupled with concepts like social and cultural reproduction become daily parlance.

Student Political Participation in India

In India, as in many other parts of the world, students in higher education constitute a miniscule numerical population that is considered an elite both in terms of intellect as well as power to form or influence state decisions. Youth have played a significant role in politics in pre-independence as well as post-independence times. In many of the previously colonized nations, students have had a long and highly articulated tradition of participation in political events. While on one hand, youth who had access to education became pioneers of Europeanization in their acceptance of progressive and radical standards of morality and social life; on the other hand, there was an inherent rejection of European imperialism which lent content to zealous nationalism. (Hazary, 1987). India, being no exception, also has had a long and chequered history of student activism. Since the colonizers regulated political activity immensely, strikes, demonstrations and terrorism became major forms of political activity for the youth in general and students in particular. Moreover, till 1947, by and large, despite the existence of a number of competing student organizations founded on ideological lines, the goal of national freedom remained common to all groups. The first All-India College Students’ Conference (AICSC) was held in Nagpur in December 1920 under the presidency of Lala Lajpat Rai to provide coordination for the growing student political movement. Similar national student conferences were held throughout the 1920s and helped to keep the spark of the student movement alive. The AICSC provided Congressmen with leftist orientation with a platform and “the student movement was probably the most radical element in Indian political life during this period.” (Altbach, 1974) The first national organization of students was founded in 1936, with the formation of All-India Students’ Federation (AISF). It addressed a host of academic demands to the seven State Governments that were then under Congress control. The All-India Muslim Students’ Federation (AIMSF), founded in 1937 under the All-India Muslim League, was a counter to the nationalist and radical AISF . The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was formed as a student wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on July 9, 1949. “The political tradition then [i.e. pre-independence] engendered has persisted into independence.” (Lipset, 1964) Even after independence, students continue to be politically active despite many changes in the focus, direction, intensity and character of their politics. After 1947, the Congress leadership called upon students to depoliticise themselves by severing affiliation with political parties and harnessing their energy for constructive nation-building activities. While the Congress Party and Jan Sangh were in favour of keeping students away from party politics, leaders like Ram Manohar Lohia strongly advocated for campus politics and the role of students in bringing about social transformation. Eager to push students out of politics and into development work, Congress lost ground to the other parties, which in the meantime were winning student participation for electioneering work against the government and support for various movements against existing authorities. Post-Independence student activism in India has generally been based on sporadic regional or local and non-ideological issues. “In addition, when students have agitated about societal issues, these questions have also been of a relatively limited scope and did not have implications for basic social change in Indian society.” (Altbach, 2012) ABVP became a significant force in campuses in the 1970s and at present is associated with the Ruling Party at the Centre.

The revival of student activism took place during the period of emergency, when students responded to Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for total revolution. The students involved themselves in the huge number to fight against emergency. At that time, Student Unions were silenced and many activist student leaders were arrested and tortured by the police. But as soon as Emergency was relaxed, a sizeable part of unrest in most of the campuses centred on emergency excesses. Since then, there was mass participation of students during the Mandal Commission Report and recently in the Anti-Corruption Movement and the ongoing Anti-Caste discrimination movements as well as the protests with the government on issues of Nationalism and Secularism. SFI was established in 1970 and is the student wing of CPI(M) and AISA, the student wing of CPI-ML in 1990. The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) is the student wing of the Indian National Congress party, established on 9 April 1971. “Student politics has a programmatic dimension through its connections with political parties.” (Rudolph et al, 1971) Student groups are divided on party lines and “the syndrome of the politics of mass violence which has characterized Indian politics is truly mirrored in campus politics.” The involvement of outside political parties inside universities and colleges has destroyed their autonomy and academic atmosphere and stimulated political activism among students.

In the Indian context, campus, or university, politics does not come out of a monolithic base. Owing to the pluralistic society that is India, the number of operating groups become many and so do the number of their demands and priorities. Arising out of varied necessities thus, the student parties tend to have different ideologies. They may also be backed, ideologically and/or for other vested interest , by mainstream political parties (that contest elections at the regional or national level).

To understand this phenomenon better, variations in the university demography over the years also need to be looked at. Since the 1980s, primarily due to government policies, there have been many changes in universities. The number of Dalit-OBC students has grown. According to 2008 data, of the total number of students in higher education in the country, 4 per cent were Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 percent Scheduled Castes (SC), and 35 per cent Other Backward Classes (OBC). Hindus accounted for about 85 percent of students, followed by Muslims (8 percent) and Christians (3 percent).1 However, the presence of students’ organizations associated with political parties and led by these students on university campuses is still marginal and the reason for this is that most of these political parties are confined to one or two states. In contrast, the BJP, the Congress and the Left have a nationwide presence and that is why, their students’ organizations are active on campuses all over the nation. However, very recently, Dalit student communities, under the umbrella of an Ambedkarite ideology, have started coming up in various colleges throughout the country. Such parties provide a challenge to the existing parties in that they come up from an ethnic base and represent a community which cannot find a voice in any of the other parties.

One of such associations include BAPSA-JNU in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. BAPSA (Birsa-Ambedkar-Phule Student Association), in its own words, “is an independent student organization committed to unite socially, economically, politically and culturally oppressed students to fight uncompromisingly against Brahmanism and Capitalism, and to establish a society based on Equality, Liberty and Fraternity.” One of the earliest of such associations is the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) in Hyderabad Central University. It was founded in 1993 by a small group of Dalit students at Hyderabad Central University. Although not stemming out from the same base as ASA Hyderabad Central University, Ambedkarite Students Association- Tata Institute of Social Sciences (ASA-TISS), Mumbai, Ambedkar University Dalit Student’s Union (AUDSU), BBAU, Lucknow and other student organizations following an “Ambedkarite” ideology do consider themselves part of an alliance. Such groups are now in various campuses across the country, including the IITs.

In terms of aims, all the aforementioned want to mobilize a certain section of the student population in such a way that they can stand for themselves and fight for what they believe is rightfully theirs. This also implies questioning the existing education system, which they allege is Brahmanical in nature, and contradictory to the betterment of their lives. According to them, the present education system, at least in India, believes in consolidating the caste structure that exists in society. Thus, it is structured in a manner that cements the existing inequalities in society, much in agreement to the social and cultural reproduction in education theory as proposed by Bourdieu.

As most student associations in India tend to be more-or-less all student wings of political parties and are aimed at influencing their ideology and making students conform to them rather than critique the prevalent education system, the associations in question can be referred to as a change in the scene. For instance, BAPSA counters all existing parties; it has been independent and tries to be independent in the coming time too. Their reason is that the other parties do not represent them or their demands appropriately and thus they need leadership to come up from within them. Owing their origins to such background, this student association aims to break the hegemonic barrier created by the left and right wing intellectuals. The supposed reasons for the coming up of BAPSA, as mentioned by students (in news interviews and other online material), can be summed up in the following points:

Disillusionment with left politics on campus

Right-wing sympathies among left-wingers

The inability of existing bodies to tackle growing casteism on campus

The failure to fill up seats for reserved category students

Lesser scores of students from lower castes in interviews and viva exams despite their otherwise good academic performance

The association is premised on the argument that both the above mentioned never cater to the needs of the Dalit (and other marginalized) community and “the campus still suffers from the casteist brand of student politics which is advocated by both left and right”. They mention the reason such an association had to come up as under-representation of the marginalized sections by the existing Leftist and Right Wing parties. “The Right Wing which projects and propagates regressive and inhuman ideology has always distorted the reality and history of marginalized sections in order to preserve and protect Brahminism. The so-called Leftist- Progressive movements which always have claimed as the vanguards and liberating forces of the oppressed sections have failed to address the question of caste both ideologically and politically and also refused to see the injustice that emanates from caste system.”

BAPSA emphasises the importance of lived experiences of the oppressed unity. The people belonging to this student organization believe in uniting the people from the oppressed and marginalized sections who for them are “the victims of the larger political structure and discrimination” of which women constituted an important part. Further they also emphasize the importance of giving both men and women within their party an equal political platform to showcase their activism and dedication and commitment to issues that are espoused by the party.

As part of their Ambedkarite politics, they feel that Western feminism cannot be representative of the issues and challenges faced by women in the Indian context where women possess heterogeneous identities of belonging to different religions, castes and regions. Hence for BAPSA, the need is to look at issues in their contextual and not in universal form.

The intellectuals and academicians affiliated to an Ambedkarite ideology question the existing knowledge system dominated by Caste Hindus. One of these include Dalit sociologists arguing that Indian social reality depicted till then by Indian sociologists was Brahminical and have been developing an alternative perspective i.e. ‘Perspective from Below’. Dalit literature has its own historicity, continuity and dynamism, and thus have been changing their nature and scope with the changes in the socio-political conditions in the country and of the Dalits. Others advocate that Dalit consciousness in contemporary India is the manifestation of Dalit’s search for modernization whereas Dalit consciousness in traditional India was a challenge to orthodox Brahmanism and Hindu values. “Dalit consciousness is a complex and compound consciousness which encapsulates deprivations stemming from inhuman conditions of material existence, powerlessness and ideological hegemony.” (Oommen 1990:256) During 1920s -1950s Dalit mobilization was greatly concerned about forcible entry to Hindu temples, burning copies of Manusmriti, abandoning the services of indigenous priests governed by brahmanic values, production and the circulation of caste literatures; but in contemporary India, Dalit identity is more a matter of search for right, justice and equality.

Conclusively, it is interesting to note how the influence, or rather the perception, of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, as a person, has also seen a change in the process. Every student group in JNU- Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), Left groups such as AISA, AISF, SFI and DSF, the Congress’s NSUI and even the ABVP- has its own understanding of Ambedkar and what he stands for. While the Left believes Ambedkar’s thoughts had nothing in counter with their ideology, they further argue that students belonging to the discussed Ambedkarite parties are themselves pseudo-Ambedkarites and lack a theoretical knowledge of the same. On the other hand, the Ambedkarite party members counter the aforementioned saying that till they brought Dr. Ambedkar into the picture, the other parties were blissfully ignorant of his existence. The extent of his influence can be seen by looking at BASO- Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organization- who aim to see caste as a problem, within a class framework. Lastly, even ABVP uses Ambedkar’s pictures in their posters. For them, Ambedkar being considered the Father of the Constitution is a nationalist icon, someone who believed in rashtrabhakti.



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