On January 3, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth (MGKVP), Varanasi, had its 43rd convocation ceremony, which was attended by the governor of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Anandiben Patel. On the same day, several students participating in student union elections of MGKVP were placed under house arrest. They had been protesting since the end of last year against the “unjustifiable” delays by the university administration to hold student elections.
Abhishek Sonkar, who is running for the position of mahamantri from Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha (SCS), the student wing of Samajwadi Party, said he and other candidates were treated like criminals.
“We had been placed under house arrest for several days after we protested against the college administration. We wanted to meet the governor to register our grievances. But, we were put under arrest at Sigra police chowki as if we are criminals,” said Sonkar.
Sanjay Yadav, running for vice-president from the Congress-backed National Students' Union of India (NSUI), alleged he too had been placed under house arrest, and the police even went to his home in Chandauli to warn his parents.
“I live in the university hostel, but the police went to the length of visiting my home to ask my parents to stop me from registering my protest. The police threatened many other candidates to not go around the campus or be fined lakhs of rupees. All are measures to curb our protests against the administration,” he added.
Degree colleges and universities in UP hold student union elections every year between September and December. At MGKVP, a state university, many candidates were expecting the elections to be held soon, but observed several delays in the process.
“Months passed, and it was November, but there was no communication from the administration regarding the election. We were confused about why there was such a delay,” said Yadav, adding, “we were waiting to file our nominations and were finally allowed to do so on December 17. The nominations went on hassle-free.”
But the first step of the nominations was followed by what students are calling “excuses” of the administration to delay the one-day elections.
“The university is not in the mood to conduct elections. We know the administration is being pressured by the government to not proceed with the elections,” alleged Yadav.
The Government PG College, Obra, in Sonbhadra district has a similar story. After filing his nomination, Prashant Yadav, SCS’s presidential candidate in the college, was prepared to campaign further, but found himself protesting against the college administration with his fellow students.
“We did an anshan (sit-in fast) against the postponement. The elections were supposed to take place in early January, but the administration gave the excuse of corona,” said Prashant Yadav. He and his friends were arrested for participating in the sit-in protest.
“We were taken to the police chowki and held up there overnight. They are trying to scare the students, but we will keep fighting,” he said.
Prashant Yadav alleges the postponement is at the behest of the state government, as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) has not been able to field a presidential candidate.
“They are afraid that if they lose or are not able to get an ABVP candidate for the position, it will send a bad message about the youth and may pull them away from ABVP and the ruling BJP. The upcoming Assembly elections will definitely be affected by this,” said Prashant Yadav, alleging that “the district magistrate is under a lot of political pressure to cancel our elections.”
In both the colleges, in the past five years ABVP has won zero posts in student union elections. Their losing stride started in 2017. It has mainly been a competition between NSUI and SCS, with SCS having a stronghold in most colleges. These are the two major student organisations that have been winning most union posts in UP. Sanjay Yadav and other students too backed the claim of alleged government interference in MGKVP to “save its face.’
“ABVP has been very weak. This year was its worst. They were not able to field any candidates to contest the elections for any of the posts,” said Sanjay Yadav.
Similar postponement or cancellation of elections after filing of nominations has been reported in several other colleges.
Sakaldiha PG College, in Chandauli district, Lal Bahadur Shastri College, Mughalsarai, which is affiliated to MGKVP, Varanasi, saw postponement of student union elections. Colleges in Balia, too, have observed a similar trend. Harishchandra Post Graduate College, Varanasi, too, saw protests by students against similar issues. Sampurnanand Sanskrit University (SSU), another major university in Varanasi, hopes to conduct elections only after February. Last year, SSU student elections were swept by NSUI, which won all seven seats and leaving ABVP a humiliating zero seats.
Accounts from several student leaders across various colleges add weight to the allegations against the state government about pressuring college administrations to not hold elections. Some students also alleged “blatant use of force” against students and student leaders to stop them from protesting. Heavy deployment of the UP Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in the campus was seen in MGKVP to curb student protests.
Abhishek Mishra, district president of SCS, supporting the claim that the state government has postponed elections for its “sinister ends”, condemned the deployment of security forces and for converting a place of education into ‘barracks’.
“University should be a place of studies. But the MGKVP administration has allowed PAC security forces to enter our campus. The Sampurnanand Chatra Awas, which is meant to be a hostel for research students, has been converted into a barrack for PAC. Around 500 PAC personnel have been staying at the hostel right now,” said Mishra. This deployment can be seen in the light of what the college administration has been saying as one of the reasons for postponing elections.
Notice served to students notifying the postponement of elections
After the nominations were filed in MGKVP on December 17, the date for the elections was fixed as December 24. But on December 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city for an election yatra, hence the administration postponed the elections. The authorities claimed that 'VIP movement' in the city was on the rise throughout the rest of December and early January. Hence, deploying adequate security forces on the campus to peacefully conduct the one-day elections was not possible.
Student leaders, however, have called out this hypocrisy after seeing the deployment of PAC in large numbers on the campus.
"The number of security personnel they have deployed in our college to curb our protests could have been used for a day to conduct elections," said Mishra. A new date of elections was announced as January 13. The vice-chancellor Anand Kumar Tyagi had given his reassurance that the elections would be conducted. Come January 13, the administration once again postponed the polls, citing rising COVID-19 cases in the city.
It is not unprecedented for student union elections to be postponed or cancelled in the light of state polls. In November 2017, the state government of UP officially postponed the student union elections due to civic polls, citing 'disruption of peace.' The actions of the current state government just before the Assembly elections are being seen as a bid to build political pressure across universities and colleges and "unofficially" sabotage elections ahead of the upcoming Assembly polls.
The current president of MGKVP, Vimlesh Yadav, explained how postponement of elections in MGKVP affects colleges across the state.
"There are more than 200 colleges affiliated to our university across the state. If we don't have elections, the other colleges do not as well, as this is the central hub for all the affiliated colleges," he said.
Other major universities in UP, such as Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Allahabad University (AU) and Lucknow University (LU), all have had a troubled past in the context of student unions, and none of them conducts union elections. Elections have been banned in BHU since 1997. AU has replaced the student union with a student council in 2019. LU students have been demanding reestablishing the student union for the past year. MGKVP is an exception among the state's foremost major universities that conducts student elections.
The gravity of the situation hints at the discomfort of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government and its attempts at “saving face” against the rising tide of discontent in the poll-bound state, be it at the lower levels in colleges and among youth or in popular politics of the Vidhan Sabha. This shows the state government’s desperate attempt to maintain its loosening hold over the youth.
The writers are freelance journalists.