Tuesday, November 30, 2004

corruption, mayhem, and murder on india's campuses

Student-government campaigns, following the lead of the national parties, take politics to a new low

(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in December 2004).

Lucknow, India

Rajpal Kashyap, a candidate for president of the Lucknow University Students' Union, arrived on the campus one sunny afternoon in October with an armed guard at his side.

Stepping out of a blue sport-utility vehicle, he walked confidently into a classroom and greeted about 40 supporters with a wide smile, his palms pressed together before him in the traditional Indian style.

A few paces away some 50 policemen, armed with rifles and long wooden staves called lathis, used for crowd control, stood near a jeep and a police van. The campaign season had already claimed two lives at Lucknow in three months -- including one just the night before -- and intimidation and harassment were rife on the campus. Elections were just 48 hours away.

Before the day was out, the officers had closed the campus to all nonstudents, locking the gates to prevent outsiders from entering. Then they checked ID's and allegedly roughed up at least one person who couldn't produce identification.

In India student-government elections are not for the faint of heart.

Beset with violence, intimidation, and corruption, campus politics have become increasingly dangerous. Historically, such problems have been most acute in the poorest states, like Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, where Lucknow is located. But even the wealthier regions are not immune.

On many campuses, it is not uncommon for student politicians to stay year after year, earning multiple degrees, so that they can continue to run for office. Nor is it rare to find candidates with lengthy criminal records involving illegal weapons and violence.

Clashes between student groups, and even murders, have become part of the political fabric during election season. Voter bribery is common, supported by the deep pockets of national political parties eager to make inroads among college students. It has gotten so bad that some states, in desperate attempts to restore order on campuses, have banned student elections.

Why have campus politics become so cutthroat? Primarily because throughout India, student elections are seen as steppingstones to national politics, and therefore a route to wealth and power. Scores of important political figures, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former prime minister, got their start in university campaigns.

That has been especially true since 1989, when the federal government reduced the minimum voting age for national elections from 21 to 18, the age at which most Indian students enter college. That made political parties even more interested in involving students, because they became a vital source of votes.

"The situation was already deteriorating on many campuses, and after that it really went downhill," says M.K. Desai, dean of N.M. College, in Bombay, where the Maharashtra State government banned campus elections in 1994, five years after the murder of a student leader.

Death Threats

One of 90 candidates for student body president at Lucknow, Mr. Kashyap, 28, a soft-spoken, mustachioed man of medium build, says he was provided an armed escort by the Lucknow police because rival candidates, and even rivals from within his own party, had threatened his life.

In July another student leader at the university, Upendra Singh was shot dead at point-blank range in a dormitory, apparently for reasons related to campus politics. His alleged killer, Aditya Mishra, another presidential aspirant, later surrendered to police. One day before Mr. Kashyap's campaign appearance with an armed guard, Manish Rai, a 23-year-old journalism student, was shot and killed when he was caught in the crossfire between supporters of two rival student leaders.

Mr. Rai's death marked the climax of three and a half months of fear unleashed on Lucknow by members of various student groups, who defaced public property, extorted money from businessmen and doctors at gunpoint, and forced the university to shut down classes with threats of violence. The only beneficiaries, it seems, were local suppliers of firearms.

Mr. Kashyap, who said he was worried but was not going to withdraw under threats, represents the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, which is affiliated with the Samajwadi Party, currently the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh.

With graduate degrees in social work and law, and currently enrolled in a graduate social-science program, Mr. Kashyap said his main goal was to end violence on campus. He plans to continue studying until he gets the nod from his parent party to stand for office at the state level.

Other candidates running for election also said they were campaigning for an end to the violence, as well as for better facilities. But in campaign speeches they rarely talked about those issues. Instead they engaged mainly in name-calling and criticizing their opponents about issues unrelated to the university. They also plastered building walls, buses, even private cars with posters, and traveled around the city in vans and buses with their supporters shouting into bullhorns.

Unlike Mr. Kashyap, many student-government candidates here have a history of run-ins with the police. Charges against them include attempted murder, rioting, illegal possession of firearms, and violations of the Uttar Pradesh Gangsters & Anti Social Elements Prevention Act and the Uttar Pradesh Control of Goondas Act. (Goonda is the Hindi word for thug or hooligan).

Like Mr. Kashyap, many other candidates here have received financial backing from major national political parties, which often provide muscle power for their activities, legal and otherwise.

"Politics is a full-time profession" in Uttar Pradesh, "and preparation for politics is a full-time profession in the universities here," says the Lucknow district's chief administrator, Aradhana Shukla. She should know. In the month leading up to the election, the feisty bureaucrat tried to stem criminal activity at Lucknow University by ordering raids on dormitories to confiscate arms and ammunition collected by some student leaders.

No Worries

Despite the bloodshed at Lucknow and on other campuses, India's politicians don't seem particularly worried. Though the annual ritual of student elections occasions soul-searching on television talk shows and in the local press, there has been no concerted effort to reform student politics.

In fact, last year, Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, ended a ban on student elections at Lucknow that had been imposed by a former chief minister in 1999. Speaking to a gathering of students, faculty members, and reporters, he said that he, too, had begun his political career as a student.

Turning to the university's vice chancellor, he asked rhetorically, "Do I look like a goonda to you?" It was a risky question, given that he, like many other politicians, has long been known to consort with suspected criminals.

If Lucknow officials had their way, they would ban elections on the campus for good. But that power, just as in the rest of India, is reserved for the state governments.

"When the [Uttar Pradesh] government banned elections, it was really peaceful on campus," says V.D. Mishra, the university's proctor, or president. "This year alone we have lost more than two months of study, as campaigning began at the beginning of the term itself in late July. ... But nobody asks us, of course."

While political corruption in the state is directly linked to poverty and low literacy levels, wealthier states, with higher literacy rates, are also plagued by campus violence. Kerala, the country's most literate state, finally forbade political activity on its campuses in July 2003.

Academics say the ban was long overdue. Since 1970 some 50 students have died and hundreds have been badly injured because of the violence endemic to campus politics in Kerala.

Meanwhile, party politics rules the day at universities in states without bans on campus campaigns.

In Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, an attack on a candidate and the murder of a former student-union leader in September forced the police to deploy more than 100 officers in riot gear until the elections were held.

This year, even in the Delhi University student-union elections, which are normally free of violence, campus officials were roughed up.

Though violence is rare, student campaigns at the elite university in India's capital are plagued by other problems. Financed by their national affiliates, student parties spend thousands of dollars on campaigns that disrupt campus life, mimicking the bribery and corruption that mar national politics.

Student elections "are a complete waste of money and time and other resources. I am not in favor of it. College life is meant for education," says Divya Dhar, a senior at the university's Sri Venkateshwara College.

Four years ago Rajiv Khanna, a Delhi law professor who is also the university's commissioner of student elections, helped create a code of conduct that declared that no candidate should spend more than about $200. Although the code was created in consultation with student groups, "that has not stopped anyone from spending much more than that," he says. In this year's elections, he estimates, the competing student groups spent a total of $133,000. "There is nothing we can do," he says.

During the September elections, Mr. Khanna says, he saw student groups giving away mobile-phone cards, chocolates, and coupons for liquor, among other freebies.

At Lucknow University, student leaders spent an estimated $444,000 on the elections this year.

Robbed of Educational Value

Despite such enormous sums in a country where the average annual urban family income is $2,800, student politicians in Lucknow and elsewhere deny that they receive outside assistance.

"We don't get money. We get support and nonmonetary resources to mobilize students," says Ashok Tanwar, president of the National Students Union of India, which is affiliated with the Congress (I) Party. "Candidates spend their own money." He was evasive as to what he meant by nonmonetary resources.

Mr. Khanna himself doesn't go so far as to condemn student politics. "We know that these students directly report to their political bigwigs and bosses and take directions and contributions from them, both of the monetary kind as well as strategic guidance," he says. "But we don't say anything, because then they would be disqualified from running for elections, and we don't want that. Elections are a healthy democratic process."

Others support university politics but believe that the money and violent tactics associated with student campaigns have robbed the experience of much of its educational value.

"Universities are nurseries for future politicians, and there is nothing wrong with them starting off at that level with the aim of joining mainstream politics," says Manish Tiwari, a doctoral student at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University who is conducting research on how voters' and candidates' castes influence election outcomes in the State of Rajasthan. "But, unfortunately, in the last decade the nurseries' crop has spoiled. Students' groups are blank in ideology and never address issues of national concern. These students have to ultimately deal with problems at the national level -- but they are woefully unequipped to do so."

Longtime observers say that in addition to money, outside political parties also give tacit approval to their student affiliates to indulge in extortion, as happened during the Lucknow elections. In return, the parties use their student wings during national and state elections, both for conventional canvassing and for more dubious purposes, like taking over polling booths to intimidate voters into choosing specific candidates.

Given their intimate connections with national politics, it is not surprising that student political parties pursue platforms virtually identical to those of their national counterparts. They rarely raise issues of direct concern to students, like housing shortages and the quality of cafeteria food. Instead, as national candidates do, they often urge students to vote for them because of their caste or religion. Indeed, student political parties often nominate candidates based on those attributes.

"In Rajasthan University's student-union elections, every nomination is decided on the basis of castes and even subcastes, just like in their state-level nominations," says Mr. Tiwari. "In the newspapers there, come election time you will see full-page advertisements by caste-based students' parties that are affiliated to political parties."

In 1990, in one of the more notorious incidents of caste-based politics on campus, a Delhi student, Rajiv Goswami, set himself on fire to protest the expansion of quotas to the backward castes. Mr. Goswami, who died last February after suffering over a decade of complications resulting from his burns -- and inspiring many copycats over the years -- won his campaign for a student-union post that year.

And if India's national parties don't seem to see anything wrong with known lawbreakers running for office -- in May's parliamentary elections, 16 percent of the candidates had criminal records -- why should students?

Bajrangi (Bajju) Singh, a presidential contender in Lucknow's student-union election, who represents a breakaway faction of the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, has eight cases pending against him, involving the detonation of crude bombs on the campus and attempted murder, according to police officials.

"I have taken part in serious students' struggles, and so I have been falsely charged," he says, echoing the defense commonly made by politicians at the national level. "That doesn't mean I am a criminal."

Likewise, Vijay (Tintoo) Singh, a candidate with a similar record, calls the charges against him "politically motivated."

Some Lucknow candidates have been at the university for as long as 13 years, earning not only bachelor's but also numerous master's degrees in order to continue their involvement in university politics while they wait to advance to the national level of their parties.

Once Idealistic

It was not always so. In the 1960s and the '70s, idealism pervaded campus politics. Just as in the United States, where the antiwar movement on campuses led to the building of public opinion against the Vietnam War, Indian students rose together in 1974 to protest corruption and the connections between politicians and black marketeers, who hoarded essential goods and sold them at exorbitant prices.

"The movement arose in the university dormitories of Gujarat and spread nationwide, so much so that former prime minister Indira Gandhi was forced to declare a state of emergency a year later, so threatened was she that she would be unseated," says Anand Kumar, a professor of political sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Mr. Kumar was president of the student union at Benaras Hindu University in 1972 and at Nehru in 1974.

The situation he refers to is considered by many to be Indian democracy's darkest hour. "It was classic anti-establishment politics then, because one political party, the Congress, dominated politics," says Mr. Kumar. "From 1977 onwards, when Indians voted in India's first non-Congress government, the quality of student politics began to decline. The classic anti-establishment position was no longer valid."

Ironically, then, the success of student idealism led indirectly to its decline, he says.

"Political parties, astonished by the students' successes, then started co-opting students to the point where students no longer represent a subculture," says Mr. Kumar. At the same time, he adds, nonpartisan solidarity has vanished over the years because of cleavages caused by caste politics, religious divisiveness, and the commercialization of education.

"The political parties are responsible for this," says Mr. Kumar.

And what of Mr. Kashyap? He won the election without harm befalling him or anyone else at Lucknow. Whether he can keep his promise to end election-related violence on the campus remains to be seen.