Political Participation in College
This study was conducted by our First Year contributors, namely Abhinandan Kaul (I BAP), Debanjan Das (I History), Shagun Tyagi (I Economics) and Abhishri Swarup (I History), with the assistance of our editors Devak Namdhari (II BAP) and Caroline Shepherd (II History).
Today, as Stephen’s stands nestled in all its glory in its lush green peaceful campus, away from the pandemonium of DUSU Elections, with a Students’ Union that is constantly regarded as caught under the shackles of the administration, a resounding 77.2% of Stephanians feel that there is a dearth of political participation in college.
The report presented below is a commentary on the nature of political participation in St. Stephen’s, shadowing a culture that detaches the student body from the participatory nature of college elections and grassroots student politics, all essential learning of academic life. We have outlined the history of the origin of the SUS, linking it to the continued fixation on administrative power that demotivates people to freely participate and vote in elections. Excessive control by the authorities can be seen reflected in the lack of awareness among students around the political happenings in and outside of college.
A Brief History of the SUS
The criterion was the operational executive branch of the Union and was largely maintained by some third year junior members of the college. It consisted of twenty-two fellows, eight of whom constituted the President’s Cabinet, holding the following posts: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretaries for Internal, External and Social Affairs, speaker, Deputy Speaker, Sergeant-At-Arms and Clerk of the House.
Initially, the purpose of the Club was to advance literary and social discourse. For instance, under the initiative of its founder-president, G.C. Chatterji, it tried to overcome caste and religious prejudices by promoting inter-dining among its members. However, it soon shifted primarily to organising debates.
The society seemed to stay away from the murky politics of the outside world from the very early days. Even during the turbulent 1940s, the society remained politically inert and failed to provide effective leadership.
While the Society remained politically inert, to assume that the members of the college stayed away from politics would not be correct. Charles Freer Andrews, a faculty member of the college was believed to have been sent by the then Principal, Sushil Kumar Rudra, in 1914, to convince Gandhi to come back to India to fight for its independence. In fact the draft of the Non-Cooperation Movement was authored by Gandhiji at Principal Rudra’s house. Another faculty member, CB Young had written a column condemning the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, which was quite a bold move for a professor at that time.
The President of the Society was directly elected, 1951 onwards. In 1974, Shashi Tharoor was elected as President of the Society and he was engaged in a feud with the Principal over the name of the society. While he and other students wanted to call it a Union, the then Principal was opposed to it, and as a compromise, the society came to be called Students’ Union Society. Year-wise elections to the Council were also started around the same time.
There have only been two women presidents of the SUS who served a complete term: Maya John ( 2005-06) and Aina Singh (2015-16). Earlier, in 1940, Usha Rani Malik was tied for Presidentship, but was not allowed to function effectively. In 1945-46, Krishna Sharma was elected President, but her budget was defeated and she had to resign. Hence, it can be safely said that student’s politics in St. Stephen’s College was largely male dominated, with minimal representation of women.
The SUS, today
The Student’s Union Society, as it exists today, is the general representative body of the students of the college, and it includes all students as its members automatically. The main activities include holding debates, organising lectures and various other events and functions, including the college fest ‘Harmony’. Along with this, it meets from time to time to discuss and make representations in matters concerning the general interest of the college.
While the Principal of the college is the Patron of the society, there is also a tribunal, consisting of three faculty members. The President of the society, directly elected by all the students of the college, heads a Cabinet whose members will be chosen by him/her. The Student’s Council, an important component of the society, includes twenty-two elected members- eighteen undergraduate students with six members from each year, and four postgraduate students.
In spite of the wide-ranging powers mentioned in the Constitution of the society, they merely remain on paper, as the final authority with regard to all decisions taken by the Society rests with the Patron. Successive councils over the years have been accused of being quite inert and ineffective.
Political Participation in College
Democracy exists, but the ‘of’, ‘for’ and ‘by’ aspects of it are non-existent. This peculiar, but not altogether unusual, form of politics here can be aptly named ‘Notice-Board Politics.’ Neither is this a mere judgement: a case of prejudice born of the need to have an opinion, nor is this baseless in nature. Recent developments make the same crystal clear- the new President of the Students’ Union Society contested this year’s elections unopposed, and by default, now holds the position.
While provisions for democratic processes exist on paper, why is it that St. Stephen’s College remains an island of political apathy in a University Space otherwise so rich in politics and political activity? Our collective detachment from intra-college politics is both disheartening and surprising because whether be it a National Farmers March in Delhi to Pinjra Tod protest at Arts Faculty, Stephanians do engage in political conversation. They have opinions, well-informed ones, at that. They also engage in political activity outside the college space. They follow national and international politics. A lot of them aspire for a career in politics. They are critical of college issues and they face these issues everyday in the college space.
However, the lack of political participation was evident in the Students’ Council elections as well. As previously mentioned, the Council provides for twenty-two directly elected members. This year, for the Students’ Council Elections, the freshmen saw seven candidates contesting for a total of six seats, three contested from second year, four contested from third year and only one postgraduate student contested in all.
The Staff Advisor for the SUS, Mr. Sanjay Rao Ayde, said on record, “There has been no substantial change in response of students to the Council elections. I have observed a similar trend over the past few years wherein, the number of candidates fielded is less than the number of seats up for election. Regardless, the college administration has been following due process for elections every year.”
The question remains, What is it that renders Stephanians dormant in college politics? It must be noted here that the popular perception is that the SUS is, for all practical purposes, an event-management body. A lot of people claim that it is a mere extension of the College Administration, a channel of communication between the Administration and the Student Fraternity, and not actually an agency for bringing about change. St. Stephen’s College also remains aloof from the DUSU. College remains functional during DUTA elections.
The Stephanian Forum interviewed a few students to know their opinion about this issue-
A second year student, who prefers to remain anonymous, says—“Constant disciplinary procedures, along with the morning assembly, the farcical structure of the SUS constitute an attempt to inculcate deliberately an ideal of apoliticism in the minds of students.”
Nabila Khadija Ansari, another second year student who vehemently participates in politics outside college says—“Anything that sends a strong political message, is radical in nature, challenges the status quo, challenges and questions the state is actively discouraged by the administration.” When asked why she wasn’t active in college politics, Nabila said— “I have no idea when that happens! In first year, as soon as I got information, I realised that the elections had already happened, people were already elected and the council already existed. This year, too, I didn’t come to know when the nominations happened. I would honestly love to be part of the SUS, because I genuinely believe that if the SUS changes certain manners of its operation, it can really make a change.”
To gain more clarity on these matters, The Stephanian Forum, undertook a survey across college over the past two weeks. The forms were circulated over online platforms and got over 171 responses from students from various courses and years.
Life in St. Stephen’s College is known to be far apart from the chaos of DUSU (Delhi University’s Student Union) elections. As road outside the college gets littered with DUSU pamphlets in the month of September, 58.5% of the participants (of the poll) think that Stephen’s should be part of DUSU. This academic year’s election was a dull affair. With first years not getting a chance to witness Open Court this year, a very underwhelming number of nominations were also recorded for the post of President and other council numbers.
The questions drafted also aimed to gauge the awareness of participants regarding SUS & student politics in Stephen’s. 78.9% of the participants expressed that they were not familiarized with the SUS and its structures/functions by any meetings/orientations when they started their college journey in Stephen’s. An overwhelming 88.3% of the participants was not aware of the college constitution and the powers of SUS under it. A majority of those who knew about it accessed the constitution from the college website which is not the extensive document and does not specifically talk about the SUS at all. 86% of the participants who were well aware of the powers of SUS wanted the constitution to be amended to increase the scope of SUS. They want the SUS to perform substantial work at the ground level for the college community and the staff advisor of the SUS also expressed that if there is such a need of constitutional amendment felt strongly, it should be taken up with due process.
In a comment from the administration regarding the same-
“There is a sense of entitlement among the students wherein they expect to be spoon-fed everything. Ample notices are put up in every part of college, be it A/V boards or the Main Corridor notice boards, it is the duty of students to check these. An official announcement by the Principal in the assembly is a procedure we do not follow in order to assure the detachment of the office of the Principal from the election process.”
Over 67.3% of the participants are not aware of the eligibility criteria for the post of SUS President. The eligibility criteria can be a deterrent for the students. Our survey revealed that 58.5% of the participants think that existing attendance eligibility criteria of 75% should be reduced. Stephen’s is known for its emphasis on academics and no wonder, academic eligibility exists for SUS posts as well. However, 57.3% of the participants think that academic criteria should not exist.
Election season in Stephen’s is marked by the presence of one to one campaigning in corridors. The current rules and regulations at Stephen’s do not allow the nominees for the post of President to use Social Media as a platform for campaigning. 74.9% of the participants want social media campaigns to be allowed for the posts of SUS elections. In conversation with Ayde sir we find that social media campaigns were allowed in previous years and had to be discontinued as they were employed to propagate false charges, illegitimate reports, and smear campaigns and in one year, “it turned ugly to the point that the administration had to intervene.”
“The five days of classroom campaigning, publication of the manifestos on Notice Boards, Informal gatherings are ample means for campaigning, “this is also done to maintain a level-playing field for all candidates.”
As the conversations around ‘representations’ gather momentum, students notice some patterns around them. An overwhelming 68.4% of the participants of the poll think that there is a lack of female participation and representation. On the other hand, 88.3% of the survey participants strongly detest any sort of reservation of seats in case of SUS representatives whereas the other 11.7% talk about reservations in the form of SC/OBC/ST, female candidates and differently abled candidates.
The SUS cabinet assists the President in discharging his/her duties for the betterment of college community. However, elections are not conducted for the Cabinet. A huge amount of people, precisely 84.2% of the participants feel that elections should be conducted for SUS Cabinet as well, just as for the Student Council to make the whole representation completely transparent. Contrary to the accusations levelled against the Council being an inert body, Stephanians think of the Council to be important as 77.8% of the participants think that it is an important body to keep a check on the SUS.
Given this historical background, ambit of power of the SUS and student response on these issues, a variety of observations come about that give a definite conclusion that there is an imperative need for change in our political processes and we must play our part for the same.