By Akila Ranganathan (ASP21)
Every year since I’ve joined Ashoka, I’ve always had a fixed schedule for the first few weeks of the Spring semester. The process of moving from the pleasantly chill air of Chennai to the freezing hellscape of Sonipat is also an act of bracing for the following: weeks of going sleep at 3 a.m., an over-spilling pile of neglected coursework, a horribly sore throat, a surge in my otherwise tamed hyper-competitiveness, constantly missing hangouts with my friends, getting irritated rants from my friends for missing these hangouts, puffy dried eyes, the thrumming rush of unchecked adrenaline, and a constantly updating mental checklist of things-to-do. Arriving on campus has always had the rush of anticipation – filling me with excitement and dread in equal parts.
Election season – for all that I love and hate it – has always been an intrinsic part of my time at Ashoka.
This year I walked into campus for the Spring semester — sweating behind my mask, half-consumed by Covid paranoia — and for the first time since I joined Ashoka four years ago, I did not feel this anticipatory rush – this reflexive brace-for-impact. I did not have a single thought about the ideal placement of campaign posters.
It’s a strange feeling.
In my first year, the horizon of possibilities in Ashokan student politics was so much smaller. I remember when I joined Prakrit, the kind of politics it espoused was jokingly referred to as ‘vending machine politics’. All our conversations were dominated by questions of convenience – can we increase hot water timings? Can we get better food options in the mess? Can the Cultural Ministry host more parties? I don’t mean to dismiss these issues as irrelevant, but they do reflect a narrow, limited imagination of what the Student Government can and should do. We were caught within our own preconceived notions of the SG’s role – of course the SG was just a namesake, useless body that did not have any real power; of course an elected group of student representatives could not demand recognition from the administration as a valid and important stakeholder in decisions that primarily affect them; of course, the only real work the SG does is forward emails (read: spam our inboxes). Of course, of course, of course.
It has been so incredible to watch how this imagination has transformed over the course of my four years at Ashoka. Looking at the most recent House of Representatives, there has clearly been a radical shift in what the SG is and can be – no longer is it a hard-fought privilege for our elected representatives to be at the discussion table with the administration when it comes to university policy, it is a given and a prerequisite. No longer is it acceptable for university decisions to simply be communicated to the SG via the same email that goes out to the student body – representatives and cabinet ministers expect to be treated as equal stakeholders in deliberations. This position is by no means to be taken for granted – and there is still much progress to be made in this regard. But the 6th SG’s work at the negotiating table this term is miles ahead of any kind of work we did when I first joined in the 4th House.
In particular, what strikes me as the most transformative change is how much the stakes of the work being done has shifted over the last three Houses. In my first year, Prakrit had absolutely no discussions about national politics. It did not even exist within our horizon of possibility – engagement beyond the Ashokan walls was, at best, limited to tokenistic, poorly thought-out, and veering-on-patronising projects in Asawarpur. Any conversation about Ashokans taking a stand on any national issues was followed by whispers about the repercussions about the Kashmir petition. We thoroughly embodied the elite private university attitude towards politics.
In my term in the 5th House, this ignorance became untenable, not just because of the increased suppression and violence faced by public universities in our country, but also because conversations closer to home were also shifting attention towards our own forms of differentiation – the ways in which different students’ experiences in Ashoka were and continue to be profoundly shaped by their gender, cultural, and ethnic identities, and socio-economic backgrounds. The 5th House was the first to send out a Statement of Solidarity. By the time the 6th House took over the mantle, not only were such statements a regular part of the work they did, but they also engaged directly with activism, with the organisation of anti-CAA-NRC protests and the Environment Ministry’s work in the #DraftEIA protests. Going from the unthinkable to an established part of Ashokan student politics – the scope and scale of the SG’s role has increased radically. While I have mixed feelings about established national political parties or student unions entering Ashokan politics (if they even want to), I do feel a sense of optimism about constructive engagement the SG can have in the future with issues that affect us all as students and citizens.
I am also struck by the transformation of the SG’s engagement with important campus issues. Even in my first semester, there was always “discourse” about the unfair treatment of support staff and workers on campus. Yet, in Prakrit’s manifesto for elections to the 4th House, I recall how the only mention of support staff was in the form of a promise for a “Worker’s Day Out” – a promise we did not even end up delivering on. By the time the 6th House’s term is coming to an end, not only has the erstwhile Workers’ Welfare Committee come back into existence, it also has student presence on it – a huge win that both the 4th and 5th House attempted to secure. But beyond reviving a body that can rightfully be criticised for being bureaucratic, the 6th House and Democracy Collective have also advocated in other ways for the workers during this pandemic. They fundraised more than their entire annual budget to additionally monetarily support them. They have rightfully dismissed the notion that an SG is limited in its scope as a representative of students alone. In one term, they have radically shifted the horizon of possibility for support staff and workers’ welfare – from up-in-the-air conversations that only float around in Ashoka’s corridors, to tackling issues like Ashoka’s unfair and unethical contractual hiring system, its unhealthy working conditions, and its impact on the staff’s physical and mental health. These finally feel like goals that can be tangibly aspired to.
However, this reimagined role of Ashokan student politics equally requires a responsive, involved, and committed student body. I think one of the most surprising (and hopeful!) changes has been the increased participation in and engagement of students with our student politics. This is not to say that enough people participate or care, but there has been a significant rise in the number of students aware of and even involved in the SG’s calls for participation and deliberation. And the rise in calls for student mobilisation directly relates to that.
It often amuses me when people trivialise protests or mobilisation as a form of action for the SG to take. It somehow feels like they’re much more concerned for the feelings of a bunch of administration members than for their fellow students. Having been involved in student politics for nearly three years, I can assure you quite confidently that nothing sucks more than to be a representative or SG member during mobilisations – it is an incredibly stressful experience, deeply emotionally draining, and terribly exhausting. If showing up to a protest or sending a mass email is difficult – ideating and organising them is far tougher. If issues could be solved through conversations with administrators in air-conditioned rooms or Zoom calls, no one would choose to go through the nightmare that is organising student protests. There is no glory in trying to organise protest, especially at Ashoka – there is only tiredness, emotional numbness, and for many of my fellow SG members, deep mental health crises. It feels like such a spit in the face sometimes when people tout the horn of negotiation – negotiation is the first, fifth, and twentieth option; mobilisation has always been the last, painstaking resort.
There can be several things said about the Adhoka protests – and there is surely much to be criticised. Yet, I believe the 5th House’s calls for protests pushed student politics, the student government, and the administration’s patronising high-handedness to the forefront of the conversation in a way that hadn’t been done before. While the protests were largely a mixed bag of some success and failure, I believe its impact has been more subtly long-term. It transformed the student body from being a passive recipient of decisions to actively participating in deliberative processes. The Takshila townhall by the 5th House was the first open meeting where I really felt the strength and potential of what student participation could achieve. Since then, the 6th House has held a record number of open meetings – every time I attended these, I would assume I would be one of a few dozen people present. Yet, many of them actually had attendance beyond 100 – a staggering number for a non-Atrium party event at Ashoka. Even if we can attribute it to the easy accessibility of Zoom, it is still amazing that students made time during a hectic and exhausting pandemic to attend SG meetings (of all things!). The 6th House was also strategic in its use of mobilisation – they developed a commendable tactic of simultaneous mobilisation and negotiation, using one to strengthen the other. These successful student mobilisations and open meetings gave me reason to remain optimistic, even as apathy reigns supreme.
I shouldn’t be too romantic here (ironic given the title of this essay) – there are several problems with the SG. Several Houses have been complicit in having sexual harassers as representatives. The SG remains largely homogenous in caste-class composition. The largest chunk of work and emotional labour continues to be borne by a few representatives, rather than all 15, most of whom are non-cis-men. There are still too few independents running and getting elected to the House, while parties risk becoming insular. There needs to be a greater diversity of choices and platforms during elections (which is why the formation of new parties like Tarz is promising).
Yet, I am proud of how far we’ve come from vending-machine politics. But like the current SG President, Priavi Joshi, expressed in this year’s Accountability Debate, there is so much else left to do. As Ashoka grows bigger and becomes more established, the ability of students to see this university as a work-in-progress that they can actively contribute to shaping will continue to diminish. This is why student mobilisation and critical involvement in SG discussions must remain alive and kicking. The issues we aspire to — such as, aiding workers in unionisation to end unfair contractual labour practices, or pushing Ashoka towards caste-based inclusivity and reservation in admissions — will require immense collective action on the part of students and faculty. We’re not here to be passive consumers of a product we pay for – Ashoka University promises to be more than that. Even as I graduate this semester and move even further away from Ashokan student politics, there is still this optimism for future SGs and their work. There is still reason to hope – if all this happened in just my four years, who even knows what will the next four bring.
Akila is a fourth-year Sociology/Anthropology major, who was a member of the Fourth and Fifth House of Representatives (2018-20). She was also the first Finance Minister of the Student Government (2018-19), and previously affiliated with Prakrit. Views are personal.