noun \ˈyün-yən\: an organization of workers formed to protect the rights and interests of its members
In the light of the recent protests in West Bengal regarding the dismantling of student unions, it is of paramount importance that we look at the history and reasons behind student unions. While the term union may be mostly associated with the working class the history of the students’ union is one of struggle and social justice. A students’ union necessarily serves the same purpose of any union, i.e. protecting the rights and interests of its members.
History of Student Unions
Student Unions are very similar to workers unions, except the latter was founded on the basis of unequal pay as the main issue. The students’ unions date back to the pre-first world-war era. During the war the students’ of many universities had to either join the army or stay back and protect the universities, which included digging trenches and sandbagging. After the war, many of the students returned to complete their degrees and thus the students’ unions gained some power and began pressurizing the authorities for better facilities for the students.
Post-1960s saw the students’ unions shedding political light with protests against the Vietnam War, women’s rights and apartheid. This also led to the organization of student festivals. Since then, students’ unions all around the globe have continued their struggle, and they will continue to do so as long as students are the masters of their own minds.
India’s Student Unions
Student Unions in India can be classified into two categories, i.e. student unions elected by the students and student councils appointed by the university/college. It is every human’s basic fundamental right to elect a person to represent his or her interests and not have someone appointed who may or may not have my best interests (as a student) in mind. An ideal student union should be by the student of the student and for the student without any outside political affiliations. With a legitimate students union, any issues or grievances can be raised all within the legal framework of the Indian Constitution
But in a country such as India where every last bit of politics can be bought and sold, either the students’ unions are made defunct by appointing ‘student councils’ appointed by the institution which never can be in the students’ interests; or, in other institutions where these unions still exist, they are mostly owned by the student wing of the ruling political party. For example, the students’ union of Bangalore University, the only functioning students’ union in the city is owned by ABVP, the student wing of BJP, the ruling party. These students’ unions due to their affiliations with a mother party which is in power preach the same kind of hateful politics.
However, in certain institutions, such as Presidency University and Jadavpur University of Kolkata and JNU of Delhi, these student unions serve as voices of dissent towards the countless atrocities of the government while also serving the best interests of the students. As of now, the union of Presidency is held by Independents’ Consolidation, a non-partisan student body with no affiliation to any political party outside. The case is the same with the 3 student unions of JU with the exception being their arts students’ union which is held by SFI, the student wing of CPI(M). The student union of JNU is currently held by an alliance between SFI, AISA (student wing of CPI(ML)) and other smaller left fractions.
Currently, protests are being held in colleges across West Bengal because the State Government is trying to implement a student council model where the councils will be selected by the university/college authorities and thereby deny a student the basic right of elected representation. In most colleges apart from a few, students are either unaware of their rights or it is made to seem like a privilege. The system is so messed up that even a basic constitutional right feels like a privilege, just like freedom seemed like a privilege to the negro slave.
Student Unions Across The Globe
A union is an idea, a flexible idea. Students’ unions now no longer remain within the bounds of a single university. There are organizations such as West African Students’ Union (WASU), an association of students from various West African countries who were studying in the United Kingdom. Student Unions have also moved away from just working for students’ right and have raised strong voices against political injustice. Like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) who led the six-year Assam Movement against alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Power To The Students
As of now the only way to secure rights for students all across the globe is to be united in one single struggle. A struggle of non-partisan nature, against any force which stands to prevent democracy and self-determinism. The students’ union stands as a platform to raise the voices of the students and leading their movements. The students’ union stands as an answer.
Power to the students. Power to the people.
The article was originally written by Nilabja Banerjee for the title ‘Union’.