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Gujarat turns the page on student politics, Bill to end elected bodies in most state universities

HOME TO one of the largest student movements the country has seen, which led to the ouster of a chief minister, Gujarat is set to implement a law diluting the powers of student leaders across most of its public universities.

On September 16, the state Assembly passed the Gujarat Public Universities Bill, 2023, which calls for ending all elected bodies on campuses of 11 out of 18 state public universities in the state, including student unions wherever they exist. The Bill now awaits the Governor’s nod.

Among the 11 are Saurashtra University and Gujarat University, whose students came together over canteen bill prices in an agitation that snowballed into the state-wide Navnirman Andolan of 1974, which finally led to the ouster of then CM Chimanbhai Patel of the Congress on charges of corruption.

One of the oldest universities in the state, set up in 1949, Gujarat University has among its alumni many political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One of the grounds on which the Opposition voted against the Bill in the House was the number of leaders who had risen from student union ranks in the state.

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Introducing the Bill in the Assembly, Rushikesh Patel, Minister of Higher and Technical Education, called it “historic” and said it “laid the foundation for a strong education system for the next 100 years”.

“While this Bill was prepared keeping in mind the provisions of the National Education Policy 2020,” Patel said, “with autonomy given to state public universities in administration and management, Gujarat will emerge as an education hub on the world stage. This (Bill) will provide quality education to students, and unnecessary interference in the functioning of administrators will be avoided… There are many misconceptions that universities will lose autonomy, cultural identity. But that is not the case.”

Opposing the Bill, the Congress said it would “curb the autonomy” of state universities and lead to “sarkarikaran of education” in Gujarat.

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The changes envisaged in the Bill include replacing the elected Senate and Syndicate bodies in universities – which include student representatives – with a Board of Management, nominated by the government. Of the 11 universities, 10 will have the Governor as Chancellor, while Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda’s chancellery will remain with the head of the erstwhile royal family of Gaekwad.

One of the most contentious provisions is that the vice-chancellor of a university – who would be the chairperson of its Board of Management, Academic Council, Executive Council and Board of Examinations and Evaluation – can be removed if found to be “a member of or otherwise associated with any political party or any organisation which takes part in politics”. The Bill states that the decision of the state government would be final regarding this.

Opposing the Bill, the Congress leader in the Assembly, Amit Chavda, said in the House: “There are many friends sitting here who started their public life as student leaders. The Minister (Patel) was talking about less interference from students and student leaders and their organisations. The freedom of expression and the enthusiasm to see something new, to know, to learn and to fight against anything that is wrong, gradually brings out a leader from among youth. Due to this, people join different party organisations while still in their student days. Many of them have gone on to reach higher positions.”

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Speaking to The Indian Express, Chavda said the Bill would kill “originality” in the education system and harm students’ future. “The BJP had already stopped conducting student elections in universities. But with this new Bill, future leadership (arising from student ranks) and freedom (of expression) is completely abolished. It is not just student politics, but also the potential leadership emerging from teaching and non-teaching staff who could speak without fear and fight for their rights. With this, the ‘Yes Man’ system will develop,” Chavda said.

PM Modi’s biography on his website highlights his involvement with student protests. “The Navnirman Movement was Narendra Modi’s first encounter with mass protest and led to a significant broadening of his worldview on social issues. It also propelled Narendra to the first post of his political career, General Secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti in Gujarat in 1975. During the movement, he particularly got the opportunity to understand student issues from close quarters, which proved to be a major asset once he became Chief Minister,” says the biography.

But the shrinking of student unions in Gujarat has been on for a while, starting with the Congress administration. In 1992, the Chimanbhai Patel government of the Congress scrapped all posts in student unions, restricting elections to only Senate and Syndicate in universities. Since then, college elections have almost never been conducted in the state.

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The last student body elections were held in Gujarat in 2020 – before the pandemic – at Gujarat University Ahmedabad, Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda and Veer Narmad South Gujarat University Surat. Elections in others were delayed for some reason or the other. Only MSU currently has a proper student body whose members are part of the university Senate.

The last Senate election was held back in 2017, at Saurashtra University, Rajkot. Before the Bill, these polls were to be held every five years.

According to BJP Vejalpur MLA Amit Thaker, himself a product of student union politics at Gujarat University, the Bill was “the need of the hour”. “The election process has been pre-decided for the last 15 years. At Gujarat University, the process of forming the Senate and Syndicate is corrupted. They are full of ‘registered student leaders’, who use money to get votes,” Thaker said.

He added that the Bill was reflective as much of the change in the nature of politics, as of students themselves. General Secretary of the union at L J College in Ahmedabad from 1988 till 1991, and a Syndicate followed by a Senate member at Gujarat University, Thaker had in September 1993 led an agitation that drew around 30,000 students from across the state on students’ issues.

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However, Thaker said, today’s students do not like “danga-fasaad (violence)”. “Earlier the education environment was different and today’s university needs are different. The old establishment doesn’t exist any longer. Earlier, people would need to prove their popularity, but now it is through aashirwad (benevolence). A true student leader and movement have not happened in Gujarat in 15-20 years… Now the definition of a university has changed. Students’ politics is replaced with MUN (Model United Nations)… Students are more creative.”

According to Thaker, in order for universities “to compete with world universities”, “contemporary people need to come forward with good thoughts which can help vice-chancellors take sound decisions in the boards of management”. “We want such leaders. This decision (Bill) is very important for the coming generations amid the changed times.”

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Among those opposing the Bill are teaching as well as non-teaching employees of state universities, who have called it “complete annihilation of autonomy of the university body, and accessible education” and accused it of making “the right to dissent undemocratic”.

A PhD student of Political Science at MSU and a member of the All India Democratic Student Organisation (AIDSO) that has been actively opposing the Bill, Ayush Kulshreshtha, said, “Among all the universities MSU was the only university with direct elections, with fair campaigning. Even if the BJP ruled the municipal corporation, it would lose MSU student council elections. But for the last three years, even these have not been conducted. Further, with this Bill, a democratic set-up of students will be stalled. In the coming days, except the ruling party, nobody will be seen on campuses.”

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Parthiv Kathwadiya, former Senate member, Gujarat University, and a Congress spokesperson, said: “The students at these universities can choose their PM, MLAs and MPs but not their college leaders. Senior leaders like Narhari Amin, Chimanbhai Patel, Arun Jaitley, Ashok Gehlot, Shaktisinh Gohil, Vijay Rupani and even Hardik Patel, who fought for his caste, all rose due to student politics.”

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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