Do Not Enter— On Politically Affiliated Student Unions at Ashoka
By Aggam Walia, Undergraduate Batch of 2022
Given the growing intensity of political engagement in India, especially in the past few months, several Ashokans rightly feel that the student body needs to step out of its political inertia and fulfil its civic responsibilities. Merely recognizing our privilege amounts to nothing unless we make use of it. There is no doubt that Ashokans need to address the politically ‘sanitized’ atmosphere on campus and their unwillingness to take a stand when it matters. There have been sincere efforts by a few on-campus collectives to mobilize the Ashokan populace, but many feel that a lot more needs to be done. There have been suggestions in certain quarters to consider allowing politically-affiliated student unions like the ABVP, SFI, NSUI, etc., to operate on campus in order to make it politically vibrant. It has been argued that such unions would make campus politics real and more relevant by bursting its political bubble and connecting it with the rest of the country.
This election season saw strong calls for the unionization of the Student Government, thus it increases the urgency to address the possibility of all allowing such unions on campus. (It must be noted, however, that the coming-in of these unions doesn’t have to be a result of unionisation; it can happen in our current political system also.) While the ambit of this op-ed is not to comment on the need for unionization, it is not wise to overlook a possible consequence of such an initiative. Unionisation of the Student Government would make student representation independent from the OSL, and not a part of it, as is the case right now. It would become possible for the SG to negotiate with the admin on an equal-footing. Generally, unionisation of students on a university campus makes it possible for all kinds of student unions, including those backed by political parties, to get involved in that campus’ politics. However, such a consequence is not inevitable; it is possible to unionize without opening our gates to such organizations. The question we must ask, however, is what would be the implications of such an outcome, however distant it might be, and whether it would really serve its purpose in encouraging political engagement on campus.
I find it difficult to convince myself that opening our campus’ political scene to such unions would be beneficial for the Ashokan community. Firstly, it may help to understand that these unions function as grassroots workers for their parent organizations. They are each, in many ways, carriers of a particular political agenda, and are required to mobilize students around it. They each reflect a deep institutional bias towards their parent organization and are often expected to carry out its orders like faithful ‘soldiers’. I would normally caution against such generalizations, but I have found this to be largely true. In such a scenario, will it be possible to accommodate these bodies in the larger Ashokan vision of liberal values and critical thinking? Will their loyalty to their agendas not hinder them from genuinely engaging in discussion and dialogue?
I strongly believe that the rigidity of ideas that these bodies will bring with them would be disastrous for Ashokan culture. It would create a partisan environment which wouldn’t only be ideologically divisive but would also fracture the community spirit on campus. Such a scenario would be unsafe for honest discourse and would alter the nature of our community for the worse. Some may feel that I am exaggerating at this point (and that might be true to an extent) but having seen the repercussions of divisive politics the past few months, I think my exaggeration is justified.
Another implication of such an outcome might be the downplaying of Ashokan issues on campus politics, followed by an overemphasis on national issues. Please keep in mind that Ashokan issues include the trans-friendly nature of this campus, worker’s rights, and chinks in the “unassailable” nature of various campus policies. Having taken into account the pertinence of these, my views are a bit ambivalent. While national problems can certainly be more important that Ashokan problems, will the latter by unnecessarily diluted to an extent that they become irrelevant? Besides, “overemphasis on national issues” might not lead to productive discussions at all; it may only contain unnecessary rhetoric. In addition to that, for some unions, national issues are limited to problems motivated solely by religion and other such divisive and distracting issues. But this particular analysis rests too much on assumptions and may not be true. Nevertheless, such concerns must be addressed with regard to the central question.
With recent events of harassment and violence on different college campuses in Delhi, the question of whether such bodies are inherently violent is an important one to ask while engaging in these deliberations. These kinds of instances highlight the dangers associated with having such bodies operating within an academic space. Some have argued that CASH/CADI policies will be sufficient to deter violence, however these policies are applicable on only our campus and in other Ashoka-related spaces. Imagine, for instance, if such a body is complicit in some kind of violence in a space outside of Ashoka. In these cases, it would be naïve to let it operate on our campus without any kind of retribution. But CASH/CADI policies won’t help our case. An alternative is to draft a comprehensive policy to monitor such bodies on campus. But if a considerable number of people on campus feel that this kind of politically-motivated violence is unavoidable, then what effect would that policy have?
As I mentioned in the beginning, the Ashokan student body has a serious problem with respect to the nature of its political engagements, or rather the lack of it. The question we must ask is whether letting such unions operate on campus would be the most effective way to deal with that problem. Do we want to compromise on our freedoms at the cost of having politically-affiliated bodies on campus? Or do we want to retain those freedoms and look at alternative ways to increase political engagement? This article doesn’t aim to present itself as a final verdict on the central question. Instead, I do hope that it sparks a conversation around it and motivates the Ashokan student body to think about the future of political engagement in this university.