Old heads on young shouldersStudent elections have become no more than an extension of the patronage politics on the national stage
Election season is upon us. No, I am not talking about the long-overdue elections to local bodies that the government finally announced for mid-May. My reference is to the one coming up next week—the one that will provide new leaders to college unions all across Nepal. What a joust it always is! It is enough to warm the cockles of your heart, seeing all those committed young leaders vying with each other to improve the lot of Nepali students.
If only that had been the case.
Consider the spectacle represented by these elections. UML-affiliated students allied to KP Oli clash with UML-affiliated students allied to Madhav Kumar Nepal. The home minister directs the chiefs of the army (yes, the army), the police and the armed police to make the necessary security arrangements for the elections. The Nepali Congress leader, Ram Chandra Poudel, calls up the prime minister and asks for a review of the new provision that only those under the age of 28 can stand for elections. The Netra Bikram Chand Maoists ask for a postponement of the election because it coincides with their party convention.
Panchayat-era student politics
There is no doubt that in the struggle for democracy, the country owes a lot to the students. Our SLC batch of 1980 had first-hand experience of this. In our transition from school to college, we lived through what is perhaps the most significant
political event of the Panchayat era. Just a few months into our Class 10 studies, in April 1979, came the student protests against the hanging of former Pakistani prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, by that country’s military dictatorship. The larger subtext of the protests, however, was the execution of two Nepali Congress activists, Yagya Bahadur Thapa and Bhim Narayan Shrestha, a couple of months earlier by King Birendra’s regime. And, soon, the protests snowballed into one against the Panchayat regime itself, leading to a royal call for a national referendum to decide its fate.
Thus, our final year in school and afterwards was punctuated by street demonstrations, open organising by political leaders who had been operating only in the shadows for nearly two decades (itself a treat for us), the national referendum itself, and, on the student front, the concession by the government to allow student unions once more on college campuses, and the associated disturbances that came with it. All in all, it resulted in a long gap between our SLC exams and entry into college—exactly 11 months. But we had the privilege of witnessing a time in history when ordinary students were able to bring an authoritarian regime to its knees, and nearly knock it over.
Whereas in the pre-referendum period, students’ union activities were focused more on the concerns of the students themselves, thereafter student politics began to serve as an outright proxy for political parties’ ambitions against the Panchayat system. As a young reporter in the mid-1980s, I covered one of the union elections. The results had been in favour of the ‘democrats’ and the ‘progressives’, and against the ‘Mandalays’, the pro-Panchayat student outfit founded by Kamal Thapa (last seen enjoying a lovefest with the likes of Prachanda, Deuba and Oli).
The rally brought out by victorious students was a sight to behold. That particular year, thousands marched around the centre of Kathmandu in a deliberately slow shuffle. Union flags aflutter, a vehicle with loudspeakers surrounded by a sea of humanity led the chant—‘Down with the Panchayat system’, ‘Long Live the Nepali Congress’ and so on.
Remember, that was a time when the king ruled supreme and the Panchayat system had an iron grip on the state—so much so that the office of the zonal commissioner issued a warning to my editor the day my story was printed, pointing out the use of ‘Nepali Congress’ without the regulatory ‘banned’ prefixed to it. Arguing that the sloganeers were not shouting ‘Long Live the (banned) Nepali Congress’ would have cut no ice, and so the paper duly put out a notice ‘regretting the error’ the very next day.
In such an environment, it made a lot of sense for students to take on what the parties themselves could not do openly. But it has failed reason that student activity in colleges should continue to adopt the same political hue in the post-1990 period as well, even granting the fact that the country should perhaps be thankful that the students were thus organised and could once again take to the streets during Gyanendra’s power grab and maintain the opposition momentum against the king.
All for reforms
We are well aware that student elections have become no more than an extension of the kind of patronage politics we see on the national stage. Reading the interviews of the current presidents of the three main students’ unions, the ones affiliated to the Nepali Congress, the UML and the Maoists, there is no doubt that they all know where the problems are—politicisation. And all three promise that a cleaning of the house is their main agenda.
I would argue that they are barking up the wrong tree. Let’s take the age bar. It was necessary because the unions were in the grip of ‘professional student politicians’, those enrolled in academic programmes for the sake of engaging in politics and the perks that come with it, even in colleges. Staying on as students may have been necessary in the absence of any upward mobility in the party ranks where the seniors never retire, and the one sure way to attain any kind of prominence was to be elected to one of the posts in the national executive of the unions. Introducing the age limit was seen as a way of ensuring that only bona fide students are able to participate in union politics. But that is nothing but age-ism. What about a student in her 40s who goes back to college for her edification but also wants to be engaged in the students’ union to introduce some changes in the college’s sanitation situation?
A better way out would have been to ensure that colleges retain only genuine students, those who come to class regularly, submit assignments, take part in academic discussions, etc, etc. I doubt if any of the student union hopefuls would agree to the adoption of such criteria. Instead, we will continue to get lip service about politics being the bane of the education system and all the while politicising education through their own actions.
It is also from among the ranks of these student activists that a new generation of leaders have arisen and some of them also give us hope for the future. To name but a couple, Gagan Thapa of the Nepali Congress is the most famous, but equally so is Rabindra Adhikari of the UML. But one does wonder if the complete dysfunction of the higher education system is worth it all.