Op-Ed: Let There Be A Referendum on College Elections

Twenty seven and counting. That is the number of colleges where elections have been cancelled after a wave of violence swept campuses across the state in the past few days. Add to this list five universities – Utkal, Berhampur, Sambalpur, Ravenshaw and North Odisha – and you get an idea of the extent of the problem. And there is every chance of the number rising in the days ahead.

The violence seen in campuses has become an integral part of the college election process in the last few years – just like filing of nominations, campaigning and the “What I stand for” meeting. Forget the mutual recriminations among the students’ wings of the three major political parties – BJD, BJP and Congress – about the reason for the cancellation. In most cases, violence has erupted after the nominations of some candidate or the other were rejected for failing to comply with the guidelines set by the JM Lyngdoh committee.

Considering the number of rejections, it appears that the returning officers of colleges/universities have followed the guidelines strictly, both in letter and spirit, as they are duty bound to do. But what about the candidates, for whom the guidelines were framed in the first place? Are they following the guidelines? Go to ANY college where elections have not been countermanded yet and you will get the answer loud and clear.

The Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR) have been flouted every step of the way since they were adopted in 2008. If the violence that mars the election process every single year stands testimony to the fact that LCR has failed to curb muscle power, the lavish spending seen during the campaign makes a mockery of the Rs. 5, 000 limit set under the guidelines. Biryani is being served to the ‘voters’ by tons, movie tickets are being distributed by the hundreds and bike rallies organized by candidates every other day. The campaign itself resembles that of an Assembly or Lok Sabha elections. Even as several left leaning students’ organizations continue to protest against LCR, calling it ‘anti-democratic’, the recommendations themselves have long been thrown out of the window in college and university campuses across the country. Far from coming down, the role of money and muscle power has steadily increased in campuses.

There is, however, one college where it is hard to believe that there is an election underway. No mikes blare here, no bike rallies are held and no biryani is served. Instead, the students go about their business – in the classroom, library and canteen – as they do during any other time of the year. The Basic Science College in Bhubaneswar, under the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT), is an oasis of peace amid the cacophony all around. Come October 11 and the students will choose their representative through ‘consensus’. And this apparently has been the practice in the institution since 2012. [Ironically, the man behind the idea, Dr. Bikash Panda, the Principal, himself contested for the post of general secretary of the Utkal University Students’ Union way back in the early 1980s!]

The news about this heart-warming piece of news published in an Odia newspaper took me down memory lane to the time when I had just stepped into college. There were to be no elections that year because the dreaded Emergency was in force. Instead, the second year graduate student who had secured the highest marks in the High School Certificate (HSC) would become the President of the students’ union. Accordingly, Mr. (now Prof. Dr.) Kishore Basa, who had topped not just in his school (which happened to be my school too) but in the whole of Odisha, became the President. By the time we were in second year, Emergency had been lifted and elections were back in college campuses after a one-year hiatus. The excitement about the election, the first for my batch, was palpable. But there was none of the pomp, ostentation and violence that have become routine in college campuses these days.

The news also set me thinking long and hard about the question: are college elections really necessary? For long, I thought they were. I genuinely believed the college campus is the laboratory of democracy and the training ground for future leaders. In any case, if one is mature enough to vote in an election at 18, he should be mature enough to contest one. But after watching over the years what campus elections have degenerated into, I am beginning to have second thoughts. Though I have not talked to too many ‘voters’, I dare say the vast majority of them could not care less whether there is an election or not. For them, it is good, clean fun – a picnic if you wish – that provides some much needed respite, temporary though it may be, from the monotony of studies. The people who are most vocal whenever the question of abolishing campus elections is raised are invariably those who have a strong stake in it: those who contest the elections and the parties that field them. Should we put up with the blatant display of money and muscle power in campuses just to keep these people happy? If the students of Basic Science college don’t feel that their ‘democratic rights’ are being trampled upon by denying them the hustle, bustle of elections, why should other students have a problem?

However, I do recognize that a decision as important as this cannot be taken on the basis of mere conjecture. That’s why I suggest that let the students at large – not the candidates and political parties – decide whether they need elections. Let there be a statewide referendum on the issue of college elections and a decision taken on the basis of its findings.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)