Revise Student Union for Student Welfare in Kashmir

By Nasheem Ashraf & Haris Rashid

KASHMIR University has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. A local newspaper has been publishing stories on the issues university students have been facing. To begin with, there had been no discussion with students on National Education Policy-2020. The two battery-operated vehicles for specially-abled students and research scholars had been put out of use because the university had failed to maintain the vehicles. These are just some of the issues that were brought to attention by the local newspaper. There are numerous other issues also that didn’t make it to the media.

All these are essentially student issues that make them fundamental to the functioning of a good education system. Not to mention that the students are the primary stakeholders in the university. They should not have to go to media outlets to get their grievances redressed. There should be a mechanism within the university where the collective and individual grievances of students are heard. If students have to make a university hold discussion on NEP-2020 by informing the university authorities through a newspaper, it points out a sad state of affairs within the university. One can only assume that the university administration is not accessible to its students.

Since Kashmir University is a public university, the question raised here is, how does a public university become accessible to its students? One of the time-tested policies followed by universities in India and across the world is student unions. In this case, rather than the media, it is the students’ that act as a bridge between students and the university administration. These unions aid university administrations in better governing the campus and resolving student concerns.

In the case of Kashmir, the state government has always crushed students’ political activities. Student movements in Kashmir began in the early 1960s. It is said that in April 1964, when Sheikh Abdullah was released from prison, members of the Jammu and Kashmir Students’ and Youth League joined the crowds that welcomed him. The league had put up a banner in support of Abdullah that read “Your Lead, Our Struggle”. When he saw it, “he used his walking stick to pull it down as he passed by”. Therefore, after Abdullah’s release from jail, his “first action was this, against the students”. The act says a lot about how Kashmiri politicians view student politics. This move clearly stated that even when in support, student politics should be discouraged.

As far as the contemporary context of student politics in Kashmir is concerned, it was banned after the onset of insurgency in Kashmir. However, after a long battle with authorities, Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU) was finally formed in 2007. After the 2008 agitation, the state pressured the university to curb political activities on its campus. Subsequently, the KUSU office was sealed in 2009. In 2010, Kashmir University demolished the KUSU office. The varsity made it clear that whatever little student politics existed before would not be allowed to exist on the campus anymore. Ironically, the action came when Riyaz Punjabi was the Vice Chancellor of the university. He had been formerly associated with JNU, which is known to be the hub of student politics in India.

In October 2017, in an RTI reply, the university disclosed that it had not officially banned the student union. No order or circular was ever issued by the varsity to ban KUSU. However, on November 15, 2017, an order issued by the Chief Proctor’s Office ordered students not to hold any political or religious debates inside the campus.

It is often argued that students should focus on education rather than politics. However, the facts point out that universities with solid student unions perform better. Take JNU for instance, which is one of the top-most ranked universities in India and produced brilliant scholars in multiple fields. It’s no surprise that it also has a strong students’ union. The positions its students hold- from ministers in the current ruling central government to the administration, speak for themselves.

A Student Union at Kashmir University would provide the students with a systematic and efficient way of asking for their basic rights as students. These rights are not necessarily always political in nature like the previous governments have feared. But it would at least allow the students to report any sort of exploitation or discrimination at the hands of a superior or at the minimum rightfully demanding of the basic amenities in the hostels and classrooms.

The ban on student politics on university campuses has deprived Kashmir of its rightful share of intellectual mainstream politicians. A look at the list of all the politicians in Kashmir reveals very few of them might have chosen politics for the general well-being of the society. A majority of them are in politics because either their families were in politics (PDP and NC) or because of their “electability”.

The current administration has often repeated that it is working to foster grassroots democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. While it has held elections for the urban and rural bodies of J&K, it would be interesting to see what the government thinks about the grassroots democracy in universities and colleges across Kashmir.

The main goal of Article 370, as stated by the government, was to bring Jammu and Kashmir on par with India. If that is true, the J&K administration should also bring its universities and colleges on par with Indian universities and colleges. It is high time that legitimate forms of student activities be allowed in Kashmir.

Views expressed in the article are the authors own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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