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JNU Students' Elections and the Lyngdoh Recommendations

The Lyngdoh Committee, constituted to frame guidelines for students' union elections, saw the elections for the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union as a "model to be followed". Therefore, the recent Supreme Court stay on the JNUSU elections on the ground that they do not meet the committee recommendations is unfortunate.

COMMENTARY

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JNU Students’ Elections and the Lyngdoh Recommendations

Albeena Shakil

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order, not only stayed the election process, but also issued contempt notices to the vice chancellor and registrar of JNU. These contempt notices were issued against the authorities despite the fact that they have had no role in the JNUSU elections, which are conducted by students themselves

The Lyngdoh Committee, constituted to frame guidelines for students’ union elections, saw the elections for the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union as a “model to be followed”. Therefore, the recent Supreme Court stay on the JNUSU elections on the ground that they do not meet the committee recommendations is unfortunate.

Albeena Shakil (albeenashakil@gmail.com) is a former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president and a women’s activist based in New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 13, 2008

E
lections to the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU), scheduled for 3 November 2008, were stayed by the Supreme Court on the grounds of non-implementation of the recommendations of the Lyngdoh Committee. The stay order was issued on 24 October 2008.

Amicus curiae and Additional Solicitor General, Gopal Subramanium, had brought the matter of JNUSU elections to the notice of the Supreme Court bench, comprising justice Arijit Pasayat and justice Mukundakam Sharma. He cited two violations of the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations in his plea seeking intervention of the Supreme Court in the ongoing election process: (i) violation of the age limit of 28 years, and (ii) repetition in officebearer posts. The Supreme Court, in its through an elected Election Committee. The JNUSU took the plea in the court that since the Lyngdoh Committee report itself appreciated the JNU election process and since the JNUSU Election Committee has an unbroken record of conducting elections in a free, fair, peaceful and democratic manner, imposing a uniform model on JNU would defeat the very purpose cited by the committee report, quoting the former chief justice of India that “true democracy rests on the voluntary observance of the laws of the land and not on the enforcement thereof by authority”.1 The stay order was issued ignoring this plea.

The Supreme Court stay order has raised serious concerns, not only among the students of JNU who have been denied the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to elect their representatives in

COMMENTARY

accordance with the JNUSU constitution, but also within the larger JNU community comprising teachers, non-teaching staff and alumni. Those who know about the nature and character of student politics in JNU and the JNUSU elections have been saddened by this unfortunate development. The situation calls for an urgent discussion on the merits of the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations.

Report in Perspective

The issue of student politics has recurred repeatedly in discussions on the education policy of our country. The right of students to have students’ unions has always been upheld in principle by the State. However, with the onset of the neoliberal era, the approach towards student politics took a turn for the worse exemplified by the Birla Ambani report (2000) and the Model Act for Universities. They viewed students’ unions as an impediment in the path of implementing the privatisation and commercialisation agenda, and took refuge in the argument of preserving the academic ethos of educational institutions. Due to widespread opposition, both these reports were eventually discarded.

The issue of student politics was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court as a result of a long drawn legal battle in the Kerala courts, where prohibition of student politics by the administration/management was contemplated in the interim. The Lyngdoh Committee was constituted by the ministry of human resource development, as per the order issued by the Supreme Court on 12 December 2005, to streamline students’ union elections. The purpose of the committee was “To frame guidelines on Students’ Union Elections in Colleges/Universities” in view of the following broad aspects:

  • (a) criminalisation in student politics;
  • (b) financial transparency; (c) eligibility criteria for candidates; and (d) institution of grievance mechanisms to deal with disputes. In the course of its deliberations, the committee decided to step a little beyond its prescribed mandate “to make good the insurmountable task of balancing the interests of student democracy and political education with the larger interest of maintaining an ‘academic atmosphere’ in universities and colleges” (p 37). It submitted its report on 23 May 2006.
  • The committee admittedly faced a dilemma between prohibiting elections and enforcing elections. However, it resolved this dilemma in favour of the latter, advising flexibility in the conduct of elections.

    The Lyngdoh Committee made it mandatory for all educational institutions, including private ones, to hold students’ union elections in some form or the other. However, most educational institutions in our country continue to ignore this basic tenet of the recommendations. Even at the stage of preparing its report, the committee anticipated this problem. It felt that certain state governments prohibit political activity or students’ union elections and that it would

    be prudent for the Central Government and/ or the Hon’ble Supreme Court to lead the way in the matter, and to impress upon the concerned State Governments the need for a healthy student democracy, and, consequently, the need to amend any prohibitory statutes that may be in place.

    Unfortunately, no proactive measure has been undertaken by the judiciary against the violation of this basic recommendation, while the impeccable democratic election process of JNU has come to a standstill.

    Moreover, the only model of students’ union elections that is actually appreciated by the Lyngdoh Committee is the JNU model. Nowhere does the report mention any need for altering the JNU model. If at all, the committee laments the fact that the JNU model is difficult to replicate elsewhere. For instance, it notes:

    The JNU/University of Hyderabad mode of elections, where direct elections are held in a peaceful manner and are c onducted entirely by students, where election-related expenditure is kept to a relative minimum due to strict norms on the use of posters and election propaganda, has a major drawback inasmuch as this form of election is suitable only for small universities with the single campus type (p 42).

    Or that “The general consensus was that the model to be followed was the JNU model,

    which, however, in the Committee’s opinion is not suitable for very large universities” (p 43, emphasis added). Sadly, the committee’s approach to JNU betrays a view that tends to see JNU as a unique and admirable “island” that cannot be duplicated. This approach could have been better substituted with a deeper engagement with the precise factors that demarcate the JNUSU elections and make it a distinctly democratic model.

    Salient Features

    The unique character of the JNU students’ union, evolved during the early 1970s, rests on the JNUSU constitution, which was framed after many a deliberation among the student community, and which envisages the union as free from administrative control. The functioning of the elected students’ council is characterised by features of accountability, probity and high levels of student participation in the working process. The participation of large numbers of students in the process of student politics is the biggest deterrence against the influence of money or muscle power in the political process. Besides this, the important feature of the constitution is that the electoral process is conducted by an e lection committee comprising only s tudents, whose mandate is to oversee the conduct of the electoral process, which includes debates (the unique presidential debate in particular), discussions, postering and campaigning (all of which are regulated under strict norms). The e lection process is such that it encourages an informed choice by students.

    In contrast to this participative, self-run student election model, the administrationcontrolled model as exemplified by the neighbouring Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) suffers from myriad defects – violation of code of conduct for elections with impunity, bias in the implementation of norms, no provision for debates among candidates, etc. Administrative bodies characteristically fail because they lack a genuine will to enlarge student participation in the electoral process. The continued violation of many recommendations of the Lyngdoh Committee in DUSU elections illustrates the point that the perspective of the Lyngdoh Committee suffers fom serious lacunae.

    Specific Points of Contention

    The Supreme Court ordered a stay on the JNUSU elections on the basis of two specific violations of the recommendations of the Lyngdoh Committee pointed out by the amicus curiae – candidates exceeding the age limit of 28 years and repetition of candidates in office bearer posts. Let us examine the merits of these two conditions in the context of JNU.

    december 13, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    COMMENTARY

    The Lyngdoh Committee recommends a maximum age bar of 28 years for research students to contest elections. The question of age becomes problematic if it involves a student who takes repeated admission in different courses of a university for the sole purpose of contesting elections. This is possible in universities where the academic criterion for admissions is not very meticulous. However, given the impeccable academic standards of JNU, any student has to first pass the all India entrance examination of JNU before she/he can become a bona fide student. The solution to the problem identified by the committee lies in encouraging the adoption of more rigorous academic standards in educational institutions across the country, and not in changing the basic definition of a “student” per se.

    Besides, in JNU the average age of students is significantly different from that of other universities. Approximately 60% of all JNU students are MPhil/PhD students, another 35% are masters’ students while only about 15% are baccalaureate students. Moreover, the admission policy of JNU is based on a deprivation points scheme, which ensures that students from rural and other deprived backgrounds come to study in JNU in large numbers. Often such students overcome many challenges in life in the cause of pursuing their education including poverty, discontinuity in their academic career, change in subjects, etc. Therefore, imposing any specific age limit on contesting elections would only restrict the healthy participation of bona fide students of JNU in all aspects of the functioning of JNUSU.

    The Lyngdoh Committee also recommends that “The candidate shall have one opportunity to contest for the post of office bearer, and two opportunities to contest for the post of an executive member” (p 43),i e, if a student contests to the post of joint secretary in a year and loses, she/he cannot contest to any other post again. This is undemocratic to say the least and amounts to discouragement of student politics. If only first-timers get elected to office-bearer posts in a union, they will hardly be able to discharge their responsibilities as capable student representatives. Inexperienced student representatives would find it almost impossible to deal with serious and complex issues concerning the student

    Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    december 13, 2008

    community in important forums of JNU like the academic council, standing committee on admissions, board of studies, gender sensitisation committee against sexual harassment (GSCASH) etc, each of which has representation from the JNUSU either as invitees or members. Therefore, preventing those who have contested or won as an office bearer once from contesting again is a sure recipe for a weak JNUSU.

    The Lyngdoh Committee offers no specific logic for debarring students from contesting elections more than once. However, one can only guess that the committee wishes to safeguard against the development of vested interest or intimidation by established student leaders. JNU’s history is rife with examples, with students either failing to get elected even once in spite of contesting several times, or students losing elections after already holding the posts of councillors or office-bearers including president of the JNUSU. After all, it is up to the demo cratic consciousness of the student community to choose the elected representatives that they deem fit for themselves. Prescribing such arbitrary eligibility criteria only restrict the choice of the electorate.

    In this context, it is significant to remember that student participation is ensured in student politics in JNU through its various participatory fora, in sharp contrast to administrative bodies involving university administration. “Union advisors” representing the administration are to be held responsible for such a sorry state of affairs in universities where there is little importance paid to conversing of accountable institutions in the form of GBMS, executive meetings, etc. Therefore, the Lyngdoh Committee’s entire thrust on seeking to correct all ills of student politics by deciding upon a criterion for candidates is a misplaced one. Any genuine improvement of students’ unions in our country depends crucially on mobilising the participation of vast sections of the student community in the political pro cess. Reviving democratic forums and democratic practices that encourage an informed choice is the only means to achieve this.

    Conclusions

    Arguably, the intention of the Lyngdoh Committee vis-à-vis streamlining student elections may have been noble; but the wisdom and viability of many of its p roposals are indeed questionable. M oreover, the uniform implementation of the recommendations in all universities, without considering their specific character is totally unjustifiable and reflects a mechanical and undemocratic approach. It is noteworthy that the Lyngdoh Committee has itself adopted a cautious approach in this regard:

    [We found it] extremely difficult to settle upon a uniform system of elections for the entire country. The types, sizes, and compositions of universities are far too many to feasibly recommend a single, foolproof mode of elections (p 43).

    It also calls for periodic reviews of the functioning of students’ unions in the country on the basis of its recommendations.

    The strength of “student-teacherkarmachari” unity in JNU over the years stands testimony to the positive contribution of the JNU student movement towards university and community life. Even the JNU administration cannot deny the contributions made by the JNUSU in maintaining the university’s academic ambience and building its democratic institutions like the student-faculty committees, GSCASH, equal opportunity office, etc.

    The backbone of participatory democracy in JNU is the JNUSU constitution, which has not only stood the test of time, but has served the university well. Unfortunately, some of the guidelines proposed by the Lyngdoh Committee are at odds with the provisions of the JNUSU constitution. It has to be ensured that the unique democratic process of JNU and the JNUSU constitution are not subverted in the name of “streamlining” student elections.

    The students of JNU have constituted a struggle committee comprising representatives of all student organisations and concerned students to face the current impasse and defend the JNUSU constitution. Faculty members, alumni, past office bearers and concerned citizens are all part of a collective effort to preserve the unique democratic tradition of JNU.

    Note

    1 Y K Sabharwal, former chief justice of India, at the 55th Annual Convocation of the Panjab University, Chandigarh on 4 February 2006.

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