Free student union election today after a violent lead-upPolling is being held while multiple campuses remain padlocked.
On Sunday, hundreds of students at TU-affiliated campuses across the country will vote to elect the members of free student unions for a two-year term.
The election is supposed to take place every two years but it hasn’t been held since 2017. That year, voting could take place in only 35 constituent campuses and some 100 community colleges. Differences among student unions, often boiling over to incidents of violence, disrupted the elections in the rest of the institutions.
Things haven’t changed much in the six intervening years. The run-up to the polls this time have also seen incidents of violence. Student organisations have padlocked administration offices of many colleges. Phenomena apparent in national politics such as factionalism and ‘unnatural’ electoral alliances have trickled down to the parties’ student wings as well. Ironically, many colleges have even witnessed clashes between student leaders from the same organisations.
In Kathmandu’s Tri Chandra Campus, which remains the hotspot of student politics historically, the election has been postponed to March 23. Student wings of the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) have accused the campus administration and Nepal Student Union, the wing of Nepali Congress, of enrolling ‘fake’ students to increase their share of votes. This has led to tensions between the student wings; on Wednesday, student leaders vandalised some of the college’s offices. On Saturday, students and police clashed at the campus when the Nepal Student Union was organising a protest against the UML-affiliated All Nepal National Free Students Union’s move to padlock the election officer’s office.
Nearby, at the Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus, the Nepal Student Union, the ANNFSU close to the Unified Socialist and the Maoist-aligned All Nepal National Independent Students Union (Revolutionary) have padlocked the campus administration. Here, too, they accuse that ‘fake’ students have been enrolled. The unions have demanded the resignation of the election officer while candidacy filing remains uncertain.
At the RR Campus, things took a concerning turn a week ago, when a member of the union close to the Unified Socialist brandished a khukuri, threatening members of rival organisations. Police had to intervene to bring the situation under control.
Things are not much better outside of the Valley. In Pokhara, the Janapriya Multiple Campus remains padlocked. So has the Biratnagar-based Mahendra Morang Campus and the Nursing College. At Dang’s Mahendra Bahumukhi Campus, which also remains padlocked, the election has been postponed to March 22.
UML’s ANNFSU has been accusing student organisations of the ruling parties of padlocking the colleges where it has better prospects. Issuing a statement on Friday, it warned of taking to the streets if the ruling parties’ student organisations continue to obstruct the election process.
While tussles between student unions have disrupted the election process in many colleges, intra-party rivalry has also trickled down to student organisations.
Two weeks back, an internal feud between student leaders from the Deuba and Shekhar camps of Congress led to a clash in Tri Chandra Campus. Some student leaders were injured in the incident.
Meanwhile, like their mother parties, the student wings are also making and breaking alliances in a jiffy.
Jhalak Subedi, a political analyst who was active in student politics until the 1990s, said the recent activities of the student organisations indicate that they don’t have the courage to contest the polls alone, take their agendas to the students and win their votes.
“Student organisations do not have good relations with the students,” Subedi said. “So they want to prove their existence by flexing their muscles.”
Tanka Karki, a UML leader and former chair of the ANNFSU, said that in a democracy, student unions should engage in debates based on ideologies and opinions instead of resorting to violence and vandalism. “It’s a pity that students are padlocking colleges,” he said.
Indra Adhikari, another political analyst, said student organisations are failing to come out of the shadows of party politics.
“Student leaders’ focus should be on speaking up regarding the quality of education, the opportunities, and the facilities,” she said. “Not on political manoeuvring and factionalism.”
Historically, student politics in Nepal has played a pivotal role in shaping national politics.
On December 15, 1960, King Mahendra dissolved the first democratically elected Parliament, sacked the prime minister and his Cabinet members, and took control of executive powers through a coup. The king’s move to ban the political parties created the ground for student politics at the university level, which eventually led to elections. When the mother parties were banned, student organisations kept the political activities alive.
Since then, they established a democratic system of leading the organisations by elected representatives. The first FSU election was held in 1962 at Tribhuvan University. Until 1974, the elections were held annually.
However, the Panchayat regime banned the elections until the 1980 referendum conducted to decide whether the people prefer partyless Panchayat or the multiparty democracy. The same year, the polls resumed, now to be held biennially.
Karki said that when political parties were banned, student organisations were naturally the flag bearers of their parties’ agendas. “But after the restoration of democracy in 1990 when political parties resumed open politics, the student organisations’ priority should have shifted towards improving the overall academic situation and the education system, showing only the required concern in politics,” he said. “The student organisations, however, have been failing to change the priority even as the country has gone through a sea change. All the current activities of the student organisations indicate their failure.”
A number of influential political leaders rose through student politics such as Nepali Congress President and former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, the party’s general secretaries Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma, CPN-UML General Secretary Shankar Pokharel and leaders Khaga Raj Adhikari and Yogesh Bhattarai.
“Today’s student leaders are tomorrow’s national leaders,” Adhikari said. “The recent activities of students and their unions have raised a serious question over the political culture wherein these same students become future leaders.”