Age and agility in student politicsPolitical parties should stop calling their youth politicians’ wing the students’ wing
An age-ceiling row that occurred at a Nepali Congress (NC) meeting the other day evoked my apprenticeship in theatricality. Out of this entire repertoire, the word ‘absurd’ that is often used in drama criticism came up most prominently. Martin Esslin’s book Absurd Theatre followed by other critical titles not least the ‘creative destructions’ on the stage come up here. Putting an age limit on students who have dissolved studentship or anything that has to do with it in the NC, the oldest democratic party, gave rise to my above feelings.
Those who have crossed 35 will not be eligible to contest elections for any position in the Nepal Students’ Union, a provision stipulated in a charter drafted not by the students themselves but by senior party leaders. Those opposed to the party president saw it as a last-ditch effort to ameliorate the otherwise dwindling support for him in the NC’s other organisations. To tell you the truth, what impelled me to consider this conundrum ‘absurd’ is the following.
It is absurd to see ‘students’ being a wing of a political party and becoming vulnerable in such a way that they wait for the party leaders to ameliorate their condition. Frankly, that hurts my feelings because I am a teacher and a witness to how the students became silent martyrs in the hands of the political parties for nearly half a century. The narrative can be extended to other parities, mainly to the Nepali Communist Party, which is an avatar savvy political organisation that changes its shape and karma from one level of nomenclature and declarations to another. The creative crowd, the talented people, the students whom I saw and taught became imperceptibly the cogs in the party machineries. A number of them became party leaders and ministers. Good, no dispute there. But what I find problematic is the way the country’s educational establishments had to sacrifice their academic and pedagogic norms for that. There are phases for that, which I saw evolve as below.
During the first phase or in the Panchayat era or a period of non-party political system with the king at the helm of affairs, students were the creative forces. They were also the resistant forces who, according to French philosopher Foucault who has written in different works how resistance can be made within non-democratic societies, created shapes of activities within the given spaces. Students did exactly the same; they created small spaces within the given spaces on the educational premises to resist Panchayat. They very successfully chose the names and principles of the banned political parties—the Nepali Congress and the Communist. That phase was productive albeit a little disruptive at times. Students assumed two avatars glibly, but they were the champions of freedom and resistance. I saw that personally through my teaching years. We were comfortably managing the academics with the students’ vigilance.
The next phase came when the political parties expanded their influence over the students for two reasons. First, the students, as discussed by Foucault, were active and resistant within the limited space. Second, the political parties wanted to enter that space which they saw as a contact zone. The political parties were good strategists. They created these zones more easily and productively than they would by going out to the society among the people, which was risky and difficult. Students could come out in protest and shut the educational institutions and create slogans that would clearly accommodate some principles of the political parties. That was the most coveted mode of operation for the political parties who had poor operational spaces. The students fulfilled that for them.
The parties became free in 1990 after defeating the Panchayat system. Political leaders moved freely inside the university compounds and gave lectures. But even then there were some borders separating political activity from academic exercise. I recall one incident. Once at the Central Department of English, I was lecturing in a classroom. I had seen students creating a stage for a certain programme outside. I had told the leaders not to turn on the speakers while I was lecturing. But that covenant was broken when an elderly statesman started lecturing loudly outside.
I continued to teach. I recognised the voice of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, alias Kisunji. After the class and after the lecture, I went to meet Kisunji and said how I felt disturbed by the lecture, with my respect to him intact. Kisunji called the student leaders and chided them for disrupting the classes and not informing him about that. I saw a commitment among political leaders until then. I thanked Kisunji and discussed how the lines should be maintained. He agreed. I was surprised by the degree of his understanding of the problem.
Stormy and anarchic
The final phases were stormy and anarchic. The students sacrificed their academic engagements, their golden times, their modes of inspiration, and in some cases, their very careers to help the political parties who saw nothing but their own aggrandisements, their own agendas. Parties were dishonest. They made their encroachments without any shame and an iota of regret. They invaded the universities and educational institutions via the self-same students. They completely controlled them. They divided what should have been made freer, the educational institutions, among themselves. They divided the shares. They occupied everything. They filled up all the posts and positions with party workers. Not only that, reports have said time and again how they developed methods of plundering the universities. Tribhuvan University being the largest was the greatest victim.
The final and current phase is the condition that I indicated in the first paragraph itself. The name student is still glibly used. For god’s sake, the NC and Communist parties, stop calling your youth politicians’ wing the students’ wing of your parties. That breaks our hearts, though there are not many weak-hearted teachers and academics like a few of us. They have become strong-hearted by wearing your talisman around their necks. The story is too long to write here.
The word ‘absurd’ is taken from theatre. It may also be called hegemony by using Antonio Gramsci’s coinage. It makes us sad when they signify the students’ situation.