Young forceA silent battle continues among political parties to divert the potency of student unions to their advantage
I look at the huge meetings, jamborees and elections of the tertiary level students’ organisations with a mixture of joy and dismay. Such dual response stems from my background as a Tribhuvan University teacher for several decades that spanned three major phases of political hegemony in this country marked by the Panchayati, the democratic and the republican rules. The reason to link history with political times is that during these phases, students overtly reacted to the political systems by either opposing or supporting them. Students always opposed the non-party autocratic Panchayat system, whereas they participated in the political organisational structures of the two other systems by pledging allegiances to their principles and methods of working. In that process, they even allowed their identities to be bandied about by the major political parties, which found the students’ organisations handy to bolster their political image and spread their ideology.
The current Nepal Students’ Union (NSU) historical meeting, and the conundrums of adjusting factions of the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the present ruling coalition, has propelled my observations. I have been following the developments with some sense of closeness, loss and anger. Closeness, because it is the students’ mega event. I began to feel angry when the entire historical, powerful students’ union was factionalised around the images of not-quite-charismatic leaders of the party. The discourses that emanate from this are not related to students, but to the party and the factions. Leaders look at the student factions as agencies to bolster their image in the intra-party feuds of no consequence. But this is not just limited to the ongoing students’ event. This is just a template that repeats with every other student group associated with a certain party.
Dying of the soul
I have spent four decades of my life teaching university students. That is a plain statement. The next word that a student writing a thesis would write after the statement is ‘hypothesis’, which is what I would think about a phenomenon in my terms, and charge my plain statement with what I claim to be a novel idea. I have written many essays and commentaries about students and published them in various dailies and student magazines over the decades. But I realise now I could never put my hypothesis appropriately because the days of Tribhuvan University, where I have worked, have transformed very clearly from being a purely academic place to one with confusion of politics and power game.
But my association with students is purely academic. I have always linked values, historicity and subjectivities in my formulation of theories regarding the right kind of pedagogy. Subjectivity is important because it is related to the soul that goes into the shaping of the students’ personal ambitions and the teacher’s educational dreams. Values are born out of this very spirit of charging education with the poetics of knowledge. I am writing about this subject once again especially in a context when academics and media writers have begun to speak about a shared sense of remorse insofar as education is going out of steps with the creative times. The latest commentary that comes from a media person and political scientist Dhruba Simkhada, struck me deeply. He says, and I translate, “if we delay the task of reforming Tribhuvan University, we will find that despite the presence of enough property, buildings, chairs, professors, students as they exist now, the very soul of this institution will have already evaporated. The reason I am saying this is that the soul of any university is the sum total of academic values, principles and excellence” (Kantipur, August 17). The dying of the soul of a university is a very big subject, and a very eloquent one. One important character of students uprising and organisational activism has always shown that they have released creative energy, sometimes of semi-anarchic nature like the French uprising of 1968, and movements of students in South Asia at different times. Such creative cyclones have blown away the age-old dirt accumulating round the corners of history.
Misusing creative energy
My focus is on the students and their activities. I am not an advocate of the idea that students should not be politically oriented. On the contrary, though a maverick, I have always remained in favour of students rising above the daily wallow created by the obscurantist social and political values and structures, and making their calls for new awareness loud and effective. I was personally very inspired by the student movements of the 1960s projected in different forms and modalities. The waves of change came down to us through books, visiting youths and education, making youth movement a global phenomenon.
The underlying strength of the student awakening was political, but the crux of the matter was that the so-called politics had a different orientation. It was anarchic, revolutionary and poetic. Such a combination of energy has always given strength and meaning to political parties. The major focus of the students’ movements, however, was to play a constructive role in the formation of policies that would have an affect on the structure of the educational institution itself. In Nepal a silent battle among political parties to divert the potency of student unions to their advantage has continued for quite sometime. During the Panchayat era, students were able to stay united against the autocracy in politics and education. Students’ battle with the polity was between pluralism and monolithism because Panchayat saw its power in suppressing pluralistic voices in favour of a single party system.
I do not want to sound as though I am not in favour of students’ unions. Far from it. What I am saying as a university teacher, and as a creative writer, is that Nepali political parties are misusing the students creative energy. Students who should be the source of creative energy are being turned into the cogs of the political party machine. That is what makes me so sad!