On the 8th of August, large protests and demonstrations erupted outside the Himachal Pradesh University’s library resulting in the burning of effigies of the state’s chief minister, Ram Lal Thakur and education minister, Suresh Bharadwaj.
The protest was led by the members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), who faced strong resistance from the police force deployed in the campus resulting in a physical clash between the student members and the police. Despite heavy rain, the protestors did not flinch. The reason behind such strong agitation has been the ban on students’ elections in HPU since the year 2014.
On August 26, 2014, Himachal Pradesh University in a meeting of the Executive Council banned the students’ union elections for one year in the campus as well as in the affiliated colleges of the University. The reason cited was the growing violence between the different students’ organisations- SFI, NSUI and ABVP.
The real reason, however, were the massive protests and rallies led by the SFI, which the then VC and a noted RSS sympathiser, Mr. Arun Diwaker Nath Bajpayee who has been mired in controversy right from his appointment as the VC of Himachal Pradesh University for his academic and financial corruption in Reva University, had to face. Since the installation of A. D. N. Bajpayee as the VC in 2011, the state government and the University authorities had been proposing several fee hikes upto 10 times of the then fee structure but due to the agitation of the SFI, the authorities could not succeed in its implementation. At the same time, the university implemented the Rashtriya Uchhatar Shiksha Abhiyaan (RUSA) in 2013 which attracted a mass resistance from the students. Throughout that year, students were fighting against RUSA. Teachers were also on the roads against this. The SFI-led students’ union of the campus and colleges was able to lead this agitation very successfully. At the beginning of the new session, the authorities who were planning to implement the fee hike were also feeling the heat of protests against RUSA, which had successfully collapsed the academic system of state colleges. Against this backdrop, the University vice-chancellor A. D. N. Bajpayee started advocating for a ban on students’ union elections citing the examples of violence in the colleges and university campus. State governments and Himachal Pradesh University authorities have always considered elected unions as a hurdle to the implementation of their anti-student agenda inspired by neo-liberal policies. Whenever there is a proposal of fee hike, simultaneously there is an effort to curtail the democratic rights of the students. Not to mention, this has been the case regardless of the BJP or the Congress forming the government in the state, as Mr. Vir Bhadra Singh too had banned students’ union elections in the past from 1986 to 1988 and 1994 to 1999 on the same grounds.
Vikram Kayat, state secretary of SFI stated that the reason why the SFI had called for a state-wide protest and effigy burning of the Chief Minister was because the current BJP government in their election manifesto of 2017 had promised the direct reinstatement of the students’ union elections in the University if they were to come to power. As of August, when the students’ union elections are generally held, they had failed to act upon the issue despite the SFI repeatedly submitting their memorandum to the CM along with submitting their representation to the VC, the Education Minister, and the Executive Council.
“The negative attitude of the authorities and the state government towards the SU’s election has directly impacted the students as the elected students union’s body used to act like a bridge between the students and the authorities. Now, with no representation, the entire state is reeling under such circumstances where the authorities fail to listen to the demands of the students. There are several colleges all across the state with vacant posts for teachers, no hostels for students in the university and a lack of basic facilities for students along with minimal subjects being taught in other colleges of the state. We believe that all these issues can be resolved when there is a student body to represent these demands to the higher authorities. Therefore, when our state government failed to listen to us, we decided to burn effigies of our CM Jai Ram Thakur on 8thAugust since he is our representative across various colleges in the state,” stated Vikram Kayat.
It is imperative to note that the newly elected VC, whose installation created a stir among the faculty as he had been a member of the BJP’s Dalit Morcha up until last month, is yet to issue a statement on this issue.
It is viewed by the students that the reason behind this ‘delay’ in addressing this issue has been because the students’ union has always exercised their democratic rights to unmask the irregularities of the authorities and the government, whether it’s related to illegal recruitment, handing out fake marksheets or checking the government’s policies like RUSA.
Himachal Pradesh University is one of the few universities in India in terms of having low fee structure and providing accessible education to the poor sections of the society. In these times when crimes against girls and women are increasing day-by-day, it is one of the safest places for girls who make up more than 70 per cent of the total number of enrolled students. It is a place which offers equal opportunity for all to uplift their lives through higher education, in spite of economic inequality prevailing in the society.
This democratic culture, where young minds are nurtured to become more sensitive for public issues and against injustices prevalent, is a result of the continuous and glorious history of the students’ movements led by the Students’ Federation of India rather than the state governments. Therefore, it can be viewed as part of a larger propaganda of the BJP and Congress governments alike to curb the popularity of the SFI, which has been in power ever since the first students’ union elections were held in the University in 1977.