Student groups— including the Congress’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI)— have also been holding sit-ins to register their protest at the elections, originally slated for the end of August, not being held.
But while BJP leaders are lobbying for the “democratic process” in Rajasthan’s universities, it’s a different story in Gujarat.
There, the BJP-led government is on the brink of introducing a bill that will abolish elected governing bodies in state universities, replacing them with government-appointed members. The opposition Congress alleges that this move jeopardises university autonomy and seeks to consolidate state control.
The Gujarat Common Universities Bill 2023, expected to be discussed in the monsoon session of the state assembly in September, proposes doing away with the elected syndicate and senate managing university affairs.
Last month, when inviting discussion on the draft bill, the state education department also noted that “more focus should be on studies, instead of politics and elections” in universities, reported the Indian Express.
The draft bill has been criticised by the opposition Congress as well as some members of academia for undermining democratic representation within academic institutions.
Here is a look at both controversies and the concerns they have aroused about tightening government control on universities.
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‘Fear of defeat’ in Rajasthan?
Rajasthan CM Gehlot has of late been critical of how student elections are conducted in the state, reportedly claiming that candidates were spending money as if they were contesting for state or Lok Sabha elections. He has also noted that such practices went against the recommendations outlined for student polls by the Lyngdoh committee in 2006.
The Rajasthan government’s Saturday order, which postponed student elections, also cited violations of the Lyngdoh Committee’s guidelines against monetary and physical clout, along with delays in exam declarations and the admission process.
Soon after the announcement, the NSUI as well as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, held dharnas to register their protest. For the ABVP, which has already been protesting against paper leaks, the postponement has become another rallying point.
Meanwhile, the opposition BJP has also targeted the Gehlot government over the issue.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rajendra Singh Rathore, Leader of the Opposition in Rajasthan, said the decision was driven by the Gehlot government’s “fear” that the NSUI would face defeat, which could dent the Congress’s image at large ahead of assembly polls.
“Last time, the NSUI did not win in any university. This time, to avoid defeat, the dictatorial government has banned the student union election. They are merely making excuses in the name of Lyngdoh committee recommendations,” he said.
“It’s a diversionary tactic since if they are defeated it will expose them before assembly elections. Leaders in politics come from student unions and universities,” he added.
The student union elections in Rajasthan last August saw NSUI drawing a blank across 14 universities, while the ABVP won seven. The Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of CPI(M), registered two victories, while Independents won the remaining five.
Preparations for this year’s student elections have been in full swing for at least a month.
“Even NSUI state president Abhishek Choudhary has said that elections should be held since students were already in the midst of preparation. We demand the government to hold elections as it is the first step of involving students in elections and the democratic process,” Rathore said.
BJP MLA Ashok Kumar Lahoti, a former president of the Rajasthan University student union, echoed many of the same concerns as Rathore, citing “fear” on the part of the Congress government.
“The Congress did not want to take a chance since losing the student union election would have gone against the party narrative,” he said.
“Secondly, the Gehlot government has not delivered properly on the promised unemployment allowance, and has instead imposed various conditions. They have figured that since students are angry over paper leaks and the unemployment allowance, the NSUI is not going to perform, and so it is better to avoid an election,” Lahoti added.
He also conjectured that the government may have factored in objections from university teachers over a condition in the reinstituted Old Pension Scheme (OPS) of depositing back employers’ contributions to the scrapped New Pension Scheme.
“A protest from professors can impact youth voters ahead of assembly elections,” he said.
‘Tightening govt control on Gujarat universities’
Even as the Rajasthan BJP champions ‘democracy’ in universities, the BJP government in Gujarat is mulling over eliminating elected university governing bodies, namely senates and syndicates.
While a senate typically comprises professors, students, and other stakeholders and is responsible for the policies and direction of the university, the syndicate is essentially an executive council, comprising appointed members like the VC as well as elected ones.
In a statement, the Gujarat education department last month said that sans these bodies, universities could solve issues “without any influences” and “could focus more on institutional activities where syndicate shall be constituted on the basis of nomination only”, reported the Indian Express on 30 July.
Out of the state’s 16 public universities, eight that were formed before 2004 come under the ambit of the Gujarat Common Universities Bill 2023. These include two of the state’s biggest institutions of higher learning: Gujarat University and Maharaja Sayajirao (MS) University of Baroda.
The draft bill also proposes various measures giving the government more powers over universities.
“The government shall also have the power to inspect the university and its affiliated colleges by an official not below rank of joint director as well as conduct their audit as and when deemed fit,” states the draft bill.
Another provision allows the state government to depute an official in posts such as registrar, finance officer, and controller of examinations “if the university officials fail to perform their duties”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Gujarat University professor told ThePrint that the “real reason” for the bill was to tighten government control on universities.
“They plan to make universities like government departments. There is a provision in the bill that they (university officials and teachers) will have to follow rules like in the civil services— they will have to take permission to talk to the media or express an opinion, as prescribed for civil servants,” the professor said.
He added that no student union election has happened in Gujarat University for several years and now the government wants to “capture teachers and end resistance”.
“Through this bill they can appoint their officers to investigate and control finances, exams, and administration without any resistance from students,” he added.
Expressing worries about universities losing “academic autonomy”, the professor said that an ideological agenda could be at play.
“The government earlier wanted to appoint their person in Gujarat University, which was resisted by the university administration. The government may have thought that public universities have been slipping from their hands. Universities have a huge potential for the BJP to use their machinery for the promotion of ideology,” he said.
However, Amit Dholakia, professor of political science at MS Baroda University, said that the bill brought advantages as well as disadvantages.
“Through this bill, the government can bring uniformity in regulating university affairs. The disadvantage is that since there will be no elected members and only those selected by the government or VC will be appointed, university autonomy will be hampered,” he told ThePrint.
The Gujarat Congress has claimed that the Common Universities Bill has a more pernicious purpose at its heart.
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Amit Chavda, Congress leader in the assembly, alleged that the bill was part of a “conspiracy” to take over “Rs 50,000 crore” worth of university land in the state. He also that the proposed law threatened the autonomy of grant-in-aid universities that benefited students from underprivileged families.
“They want to curb opposition though doing away with elected bodies,” he added.
The state government was quick to counter these claims as “baseless” in a statement.
“No lease, sale, or transfer of university property shall be made without the prior written consent of the state government,” the statement said.
It also said that universities’ autonomy would not be adversely impacted. “[A]ll academic, administrative, and financial autonomy shall be provided to the university and its affiliated educational institutions as per UGC norms,” the statement claimed.
Notably, Gujarat has a rich history of political movements driven by student activism. For instance, the Navnirman protest in 1974, sparked by the issue of hostel mess fees at an Ahmedabad engineering college, changed the course of national politics, leading to the resignation of CM Chimanbhai Patel and strengthening the JP movement against Indira Gandhi.
Even today, many prominent Gujarat politicians have emerged from university and senate bodies, such as BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Narhari Amin, who was once a syndicate member of Gujarat University.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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