|Saturday, August 9, 2003||
BATTLELINES have been drawn, tension is palpable and a few skirmishes have already taken place. The Panjab University campus in Chandigarh appears to be on the boil once again.
On August 1, violence
broke out between rival factions of the Haryana Students Association.
A day earlier, a student leader had been beaten up by a group of
students opposing him. The two incidents, which came in quick
succession of each other, necessitated the posting of a police picket
on the campus.
In a way, history is repeating itself. The era preceding the ban on elections in Panjab University by the Punjab Government in 1984 saw a series of group clashes. The clashes led to a number of brutal street fights and even a murder. Now, after the revival of student elections in 1997, a much more disturbing picture of unending physical tussle for supremacy seems to be emerging. The incidence of violence now is higher and more brutal.
Brawls, clashes, police intervention, FIRs, court cases, etc have become routine every year. The fights largely dominate the campus during August-September when elections to the Panjab University Campus Students Council take place. Student leaders go around the campus like "mafia dons" because none of them have ever been banned from participating in the election.
Not only has the number of student groups increased in the past few years, but so have the groups within groups. First the group members battle it out among themselves to decide upon a leader, and then they take to clashes with other groups over minor and major differences.
The Panjab University Students Union (PUSU), the Students Organisation of Panjab University (SOPU) and the Haryana Students Association (HSA) are the three leading student bodies. The period after the re-announcement of elections in 1997 has witnessed scenes’ in all the camps, with new faces cropping up each year as the ‘real’ leaders.
During the early 1970s, indirect elections were held. The Department Representatives of all teaching faculties used to elect two vice-presidents who worked under the Dean Student Welfare, who was the president. Nagender Singh, a leader of the Congress camp, was elected in 1974 and Jagmohan Kang, an Akali supporter who later became a Punjab minister, was elected in 1975. This was followed by the Emergency during which no elections were held.
This period saw the emergence of the Progressive Students Union (PSU). Dr Ajaib Singh, a member of the Punjab Public Selection Commission, was its founder-president. The students’ demand for holding direct elections was finally agreed to and Bhupinder Khosa was elected president in 1977. Sudhir Walia became president in 1978; Sunny Mann in 1979; Ashwini Sekhri in 1980; and Anmol Rattan Sidhu in 1981. All of them belonged to the PSU.
Breaking the hold of the PSU, Rajinder Deepa from the Panjab University Students Union (PUSU) was elected as president in 1982. He was re-elected in 1983.
Makhan Singh of PUSU emerged as a big leader on the campus in the early 1980s. A counter camp known as the Cheema-group came up. A number of clashes took place between the two groups. It ended with the murder of Makhan Singh in broad daylight at the Student Centre. Earlier, Rajinder Deepa had been badly beaten up by members of the opposite camp during a trip to Kulu.
A former president of the PSU says, "When I was the president of the PSU, Jatinder Singh Virk headed PUSU. Despite all differences and campaigning for different parties, we mostly had our lunch together. No one ever thought of violence as a routine exercise."
He is of the opinion that the university should ban people who indulge in violent activity. In fact, the whole group should be banned for some time. "The guilty students take benefit of not being proved guilty. They are let off easily. This does not deter them from picking up more fights," he adds.
Deepa says the problem now is that students are engaged in seeking only the immediate gains. Many of the old-timers like Jagmohan Kang (Punjab minister), Pratap Singh Rudy (Central minister), Ashwini Sekhri (Punjab minister), Anmol Rattan Sidhu (Deputy Advocate-General) and Ajaib Singh (member of the Punjab Public Service Commission) have made it big and done well in life. They did not aim for short-term goals alone.
Deepa is of the view that certain members of the university senate are, unfortunately, behind student politics. One needs to take a close look at campus politics to see the real faces behind the student leaders.
The years of ferocious fights settled down into a period of virtual non-activity of student groups when the Punjab Government banned elections to students’ bodies in 1984. During those days PUSU was at the helm of the affairs on the campus with Kuljit Singh Nagra in the leader’s chair.
Though the veterans agree that there were group differences and fights during their times, they feel that the scenario after the elections were restarted in 1997 has been much more ‘volatile’.
Prof M.M. Puri during his tenure as PU Vice-Chancellor in 1997 had felt the campus was the best training ground for future administrators and leaders. The announcement of elections by Professor Puri was warmly welcomed by students. The following period saw the emergence of a new body, SOPU, which emerged as an alternate to PUSU. And since 1997, it has been either of the two which has held the office of the Panjab University Campus Students Council.
Interestingly, both SOPU and PUSU have the backing of the university senators. Both groups are largely backed by the Congress. Yet, the National Students Union of India, the student organisation supported by the Congress, has been unable to make any impact on the student electorate. Similarly, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, largely known as the BJP’s student wing (a fact denied by the organisation), also has been unable to make any forceful impact on the student electorate.
The first major incident in the post-1997 series of group clashes was the arrest of Nagra for firing on students on August 22, 1998. He injured one student, while Dayal Pratap Singh Randhawa, the founder-president of SOPU, narrowly escaped getting hurt. The bullet scraped his trousers. This was followed by a brutal attack on Rajan Brar, a SOPU supporter, at the campus market by PUSU supporters. This led to the rustication of two PUSU supporters.
Malwinder Singh Kang, president of PUSU, and Harveer Singh, a former SOPU president, were arrested in June 2002 on charges of rioting and attempt to murder.
The line of attacks and counter-attacks has been unending. These clashes have also resulted in the disintegration of individual groups into sub-groups. The time before the elections is now spent in deciding who the actual president will be. A tussle for leadership took place among the members of SOPU year before last. This year PUSU had a group led by Gurparvez Singh Sandhu, who claimed to be the rightful leader. The HSA has Pawan Singh claiming to be the rightful leader, while the old- timers Satinder Dahiya and Dharmendra Balhara are holding to their posts of president and chairman, respectively.
What is important to note is that none of the student bodies take up serious academic issues during elections. There is no talk about issues concerning education in the country. The chairman of a student body says, "We pick up the agenda of previous years and upgrade it by adding the current problems." One item on an organisation’s manifesto in 2002 elections was "beautification of girls’ hostels". The demands of the ABVP included installation of a music system at Student Centre and installation of a snooker table. Some of the achievements were installation of water coolers and renovation of bathrooms.
Open-house meetings during elections are an eagerly awaited occasion. Two candidates from each student organisation are given an opportunity to voice their concerns. The majority of the time here is spent on launching personal attacks. The venue is mostly dominated by loud cheers and ‘boos’ and the leaders are rarely heard.
Hostels generally become the hub of activity during campaign time. While boys are visited personally in their rooms, the girls’ hostels look like mela sites during elections.
Kuljit Singh Nagra on an
earlier occasion had remarked that the Press had given an impetus to
student activity. "Earlier, if we had a function or a dharna on
the campus, students would go rushing to the newspaper offices with
their news. Now there is a flood of newspapers and the campus is flooded
with newspersons. Though there is a positive side to the development, it
also has a certain negative impact on student activity".