Hanging on to its legacy?

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Sticky wicket SFI activists raise slogans during a protest at the Egyptian Embassy in New Delhi
Sticky wicket SFI activists raise slogans during a protest at the Egyptian Embassy in New Delhi

At the Tenth All India Conference of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) in Chennai, eminent historian Prof KN Panikkar reportedly spoke about the role of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG) in changing the sphere of education in India. Arguing that privatisation of education had deprived the sector of its innate qualities, he said how LPG had reinforced the discourse of communal danger in India.

While post-liberal economic reforms played a significant role in suppressing student movements across the country in recent years, the student organisation has had an ambiguous run across university campuses in India.

To begin with, it cannot be denied that the organisation had spearheaded the biggest student movements in history, ever since its formation in 1970. For instance, in 1990, when the erstwhile VP Singh government had announced its decision to implement the Mandal commission report, an impetuous protest against it had caught New Delhi unawares.

Even when the resistance garnered support and saw a spate of self-immolation protests, it was SFI that had come forth with a steadfast response of supporting the move for 27 percent reservation, highlighting the specification of the creamy layer. Despite such historic struggles, a series of events that rendered the CPM weak had reflected onto the platform of SFI as well.

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In the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi, for instance, there is palpable gloom in the SFI camp, post the recently concluded elections to the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). Losing the seat for a small margin of 29 votes to the splinter group of the SFI i.e. Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF), several activists had cried openly.

“In JNU, we congratulate the winners no matter what. But when I took the elected GSCASH representative to the SFI camp, we were cold shouldered and shunned. This is against the spirit of JNU student politics,” says Lenin Kumar, former JNUSU president and DSF activist.

If one attempts to plot the tale of fallacy in the largest progressive student movement in India, it is impossible not to take note of JNU, one of the few campuses that saw the richest legacy of the SFI. “In 2012, when the organisation had split, we had several deficiencies. Owing to vested interests of several activists of that time, who had managed to bring a sense of disillusionment to the SFI cadre, the organisation had taken time to process the lack of confidence. In a sense, we needed time to get over the injury,” says Nitheesh Narayanan, an active SFI activist at JNU.

In 2012, when SFI unit in JNU split, the organisation had crumbled under the setback. While the breakaway faction, the DSF, had claimed ideological differences at that point of time, several speculations around the split had been raised. Amongst them, the denial of membership to the Central Committee of the CPM to a prominent activist, who was once close to outgoing general secretary Prakash Karat was reportedly the prime reason behind the fracture. Nonetheless, the infighting coupled with several factors, including CPM-sponsored violence at Nandigram in 2006, its support to Pranab Mukherjee in the Presidential elections, and the murder of Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) activist TP Chandrasekhar in 2012 had left the student organisation at JNU fumbling for answers.

On a parallel note, the implementation of the Lyngdoh guidelines upon university campuses and SFI’s ambivalent stance around Lyngdoh also raised serious questions on the organisation’s line of thought. “We don’t have a pro-Lyngdoh stance. But, only if you feel the extent of an illness upon one’s body, would you understand its repercussions. But, let me put it this way, Lyngdoh was implemented across campuses, including Pondicherry University and Himachal Pradesh University. In recent times, in both campuses, sfi had led massive student movements despite the presence of Lyngdoh. In JNU, however, the then AISA-DSF-led union did not utter a single word when they came to power after they promised that they would resist it tooth and nail. Where did their responsibility go?” questions Nitheesh.

Speaking to Tehelka from the venue of CPM’s 21st party congress, SFI national president V Sivadasan adds, “At a time when the RSS-driven agenda is attempting to take over education, for instance, the Gujarat curriculum, we have been attempting to resist these oppressive tactics amidst immense backlash, including the loss of lives of our comrades. To cite an instance, in the stir against massive fee hike at Himachal Pradesh University (HPU), even while we were locked up inside the jail, the student activists who faced brutal lathicharge raised slogans such as ‘Khoon bhi Denge, Jaan bhi Denge (We will give our blood, we will give our life)’. I believe this reflects SFI’s commitment towards students.”

Ever since the formation of SFI in Himachal Pradesh, it has been winning student elections at every campus except one. Similarly, the organisation has been at the forefront resisting policies that are anti-student. “At HPU, 67 percent of the students are girls. That is, we have managed to achieve a certain kind of democratisation in terms of numbers and encourage the idea of a gender-sensitive campus. Similarly, if you trace the movements that we have led at HPU, we have always dealt with basic issues, including the question of hostel infrastructure and facility. In effect, we have worked in tandem with the mass, says Vijendra Mehra, former SFI state president and former president of HPU.

Despite such laudable efforts, SFI has been tremendously murky when it comes to functioning as an independent students’ organisation. “The SFI believes in independent student politics. So, we don’t take
decisions according to the line of CPM,” says Sivadasan. Though party cadre and leaders have stated how SFI has always been autonomous, several instances suggest otherwise.

For example, post CPM-sponsored violence ensued at Nandigram, SFI units across several states, including Kerala, had led marches against the gruesome incident. At the same time, the then SFI unit in JNU (before the split), had distribute pamphlets supporting Nandigram citing ‘development’. On a similar note, the organisation’s stance vis-a-vis the Kiss of Love protests have been a subject of ridicule. For instance, when the protest took root in Kerala, several SFI activists had come out in its favour. But, when the then CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan expressed his disgruntlement (with the protest), the SFI had also fallen silent to the cause.

“Generally, I have reservations about ‘narrow body politics’ which undermine all other forms of exploitation, mainly class. But, at a personal level, I have decided to extend support to Kochi ‘kiss’ struggle. This is because I consider fascism as the most lethal enemy of the working people. As leftists, we should take the debate from narrow focus on liberal sexual freedom to the larger authoritarian politics of RSS. Leftists should address the nuances of this issue constructively. Silence is a ridiculous tactic,” says a former SFI activist.

Keeping in mind its rich historic past, the SFI must also consider to seriously introspect to rethink and realign its focus. All said and done, it cannot be denied that the organisation has more to it than what meets the eye. As Nitheesh puts it, “We have 40 lakh members, 10,000 units and have won more than
100 elections at college/university campuses. Tomorrow, if a serious incident occurs at any campus and if one has to call for a nation-wide stir, can any other organisation other than the SFI, mobilise students across the country?”

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