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What Happened to Student Politics in India?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

The image that the Indian citizen has of student politics is a very disconcerting one: Hordes of young Indians on roads, shouting out slogans painted in red on banners and posters; some struggling against the baton-wielding police officers while others trying to cross barricades. The campaign season in universities is seen as an excuse for the “non-academically inclined” students to skip classes to distribute pamphlets and make promises of small-scale incentives in exchange for votes in the elections.

This image of student politics in India has been painted as such by the mainstream media, which, like the other members of the “old-and-experienced” Indian citizenry views college students as youth incapable of creating any significant change, and student politics as a “playground” for these new adults to exercise their mental faculties.

Student politics in India had, until recently, been seen as a small-scale operation, working only within the confines of the college building or university campus. This notion has been proven wrong in recent times, when student participation in major protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the repeal of Article 370, etc. created much noise within the Indian political milieu. It has also been proven that the outcomes of student elections in organizations like the Delhi University affect the outcomes of general elections: in 1999, ABVP’s victory in the Delhi University Students’ Union was followed by the NDA’s victory in the Lok Sabha elections; in 2003, the NSUI’s victory in the DUSU polls was followed by the UPA’s victory in the general elections; the 2010 and 2015 victory of the ABVP coincided with the victory of the NDA in the general elections.

However, the middle-class mentality of the “good ones” staying away from politics and within classrooms is still widely prevalent, and very often a result of the universal Indian practice of refraining from talking about politics with children, as according to them, children should solely focus on studies in school and their careers in college, with their political knowledge confined to general awareness and the course curriculum, the only things that will help them in competitive exams. The phenomenon of parents taking huge pains to avoid their college-going children from engaging in the “awaaragardi” of politics and activism also tells a lot about how the common people of India see mainstream politics: The largest democracy in the world doesn’t regard a political career as lucrative or even respectable. How many parents wish to send their children off to become politicians after college? Certainly not the middle-class ones, and certainly not in this generation.

Politics is not seen as a productive field, unlike medicine, law, civil service, engineering, etc. This is because Indian politics is overflowing with functionaries who made it big through political and familial connections or fame in other fields (for eg. The film industry, boasting of celebrity politicians like Kamal Hassan and Hema Malini), and it is seen as a dark minefield of corruption, muscle-power, and money-power. If mainstream politics is seen in such a way, how can one expect student politics to be seen as any better?

Student politics has also created a negative image of itself, with the student parties, often working under the mainstream parties serving as parent organizations (like the RSS-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Students Federation of India of CPIM, National Students Union of India of the UPA, AAP’s Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti and the left-wing All-India Students’ Association), getting embroiled in hooliganism and lawlessness.

It is known, but not very often recognized, that student politics in India has a very rich history, perhaps richer than most of the developed world: While the other countries saw the rise of student politics only from the latter half of the 20th century, in India student politics started at the beginning of the 20th century in the course of the nationalist movement against the British Raj, and was institutionalized as early as 1936 in the form of the All India Students’ Federation. The revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru, whose hanging on 23rd March 1931 became a symbol of the steadfastness of the Indian national movement, can arguably be called the pillars of the student revolution in India’s freedom struggle.

So, what happened to the culture of student politics, so deeply embedded in Indian history and society?

The lack of unity in present-day student politics, which was so characteristic of the freedom struggle and large-scale student movements associated with the Emergency Period (1975-77, the JP Movement being an important example) and the Mandal Commission (reservation in educational institutions), can be attributed to the absence of a particular goal and an authority to fight against, which is very important to mobilize students under a single movement. This is why student protest movements today are limited to college and university-level issues like fee-structure, hostel and mess facilities, etc., very rarely contributing towards nation-wide movements.

Another reason for a reduction in the quality of student politics is the lack of a pertinent ideology, which, even if present, is not given much importance in the background of inter-party conflicts and identity politics. The one thing that stood out in revolutionary campaigns of the likes of the Indian National Congress and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association prior to 1947, was that they had a particular ideology which they were strictly enjoined to. The former, at the peak of the nationalist struggle, adhered to Gandhian nationalism, while the latter, headed by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, adhered to Marxist Socialism and Communism as well as Atheism and Anarchism. The present-day condition of student politics in this regard is especially disappointing since a university is a place where students learn of different schools of thought, indulge in debates and discussions, and inculcate values of tolerance and free thinking. These institutions of humanism should not be represented by bad politics comprising hooliganism and ignorance, but by good politics comprising clear ideological representation and dynamism within parties through regular debates.

Student politics is not only essential but inevitable: Universities provide students with a platform to fully develop their personalities and intellectual faculties before entering the real world. With all its diversity and learning opportunities, it is like a smaller version of the society the youth would soon step into. Politics is an important part of any society, and so, is an important part of a university as well. To silence a student and prevent them from speaking up against maladministration is to force a student to confine their energies within coursebooks, essentially teaching them to become passive consumers and not active participants. The culture of politics (or lack thereof) in universities determines the quality of mainstream politics in the future, as the nascent politicians they produce will, if encouraged, go on to become the leaders of the country, like Arun Jaitley, Sitaram Yechury, Shashi Tharoor, etc. Thus, student politics is in itself a necessary institution for the development of young India.


  1. https://armchairjournal.com/why-all-is-not-well-with-student-politics/#comments
  2.  https://www.readersdigest.in/conversations/story-is-student-politics-in-india-a-waste-of-time-125263
  3.  https://criticaledges.com/2021/02/25/the-silenced-students/
  4.  https://criticaledges.com/2020/05/01/roots-of-student-politics-in-india/
Urja Kaushik

Delhi South '24

Urja Kaushik is a History major at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. While she is biased towards reading and writing stories (her first love!), she also likes sharing her opinions on the political and cultural developments taking place around the world.