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Half of India’s population is under 25, but students in mainstream politics are still a minority.

Stuti Kohli, Bhavya Vemulapalli & Vaibhav Sharma

From left, Kanhaiya Kumar, Aishe Ghosh, Umar Khalid and Rohith Vemula.

(Digital illustration by Stuti Kohli)

Many student leaders in India end up in mainstream politics like Tejashwi Yadav, the current leader of opposition in the Bihar Legislative Assembly. But, that’s usually long after they have ceased to be students. While the last Census (2011) shows that half of India’s population is less than 25 years old, the average age of Lok Sabha members is above 50. There is a popular bias against young people taking an active part in politics because of the image politicians being close to money and violence. But what about those who do speak up about contemporary developments?

In 2016, the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad exposed the caste and political fissures on our campuses. In the same year, Kanhaiya Kumar, a former president of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students union, was arrested and charged with sedition by Delhi police for allegedly raising anti-India slogans in a student rally. The rally was called to protest the 2013 hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted for the 2001 Indian Parliament attack. And, in January this year, Aishe Ghosh, the current students’ union president at JNU, was injured when a mob attacked her on campus.

The arrest of student leader Umar Khalid under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) — criticised for being draconian — on September 14, in connection with the Delhi riots earlier this year has again focussed public attention on how vulnerable student-politicians are.

Student politics is, of course, not new in India. The youth were the backbone of the Indian struggle for Independence. In the late-1960s, students across the country took part in the violent Naxalite movement. During the Emergency (1975-1977) — a 21-month period when former prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic rights, imprisoned opposition leaders, and ruled by decree — Arun Jaitley, who later became India’s finance minister, was among the first student leaders to be arrested. He was then the president of the students’ union of Delhi University and member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Students leaders at JNU were also detained by the police during the Emergency — historian Gyan Prakash’s new book, “Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point”, gives a vivid description of it.

Being young themselves, student leaders have policies and strategies that the youth can easily relate to. These are based on their political inclinations — be it the left or the traditional right. It is essential to allow their voice to be heard — and not be suppressed. There is a need to make campuses more democratic spaces. This will, in all likelihood, lead to greater participation of the youth in the political sphere.