Monday, February 06, 2006

India Moves to Control Campus Politics

By Shailaja Neelakantan

(Chronicle of Higher Education cover-dated February 10, 2006)

Concerned about the increase in violence in student elections at Indian universities, the government formed a committee in January to bring order to the chaotic process.

James Michael Lyngdoh, a former chief election commissioner of India, will lead the committee, which was created in response to a Supreme Court order in December striking down a lower-court ruling that forbade universities in the State of Kerala to direct the way in which students are elected to college unions, as student governments are called in India.

"It needs no emphasis that while making the recommendations, the committee shall also focus on the need to ensure that undesirable elements do not enter into the unions," the order said.

Throughout India, student elections are seen as steppingstones to national politics, and therefore as a route to wealth and power. But over the past two decades, campus politics have been beset with violence, intimidation, and corruption. Clashes among student groups, and even murders, have become commonplace during election season.

The six-member committee will investigate concerns about criminal activities during the election process, student-campaign financing, and candidates' eligibility criteria. The committee will also set up a forum to resolve disputes about procedural fairness and violations of election rules.

While some universities have banned student elections or tried to do so, some academics say that goes too far. "We must not throw the baby out with the bath water," said Anand Kumar, a former student leader who is a professor of political sociology at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

He welcomed the creation of the committee. "Student elections are a good way to educate the youth on the art and science of elected representation," Mr. Kumar said. "But the process is getting more and more polluted with the engagement of money and muscle power."

The committee is to make its recommendations by May.

"There has to be a balance between the clear need for student representation and the discretion that university authorities should be allowed to exercise in the conduct of elections," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of India's Centre for Policy Research, a public-policy group, who is a committee member.

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