‘InFocus’ in focus: What The Candidates Said

The Ashoka University Election Commission and the Edict continued from last year their collaboration to organise InFocus, which follows the format of a moderated discussion on themes that are voted upon by the students. The first instalment took place on 28th January, on the theme of Academic Adjustments, and it was moderated by the Edict’s Co-Editor-in-Chief, Aritro Sarkar. The second instalment was held on 31st January, moderated by Managing Editor, Sanya Chandra, on the theme of Student-Admin Relations. Here is a rundown of both the events:

1.0: Academic Accommodations

InFocus 1.0 was the first event in the campaign where the student body heard the different points of view of the candidates on a single platform. All the parties and independents were present and prepared for the discussion. The party in majority in the 6th HoR, Prakrit, was represented by Reha Malik, Pulari Baskar, and Sanah Ahluwalia. The oldest political party, Dhamma, was represented by Anushka Gupta, Aakash Rao and Harsh Gupta. The newest political party, Tarz, was represented by Cefil Joseph Soans, Amiya Kumar and Vibhu Agiwal. They were joined by the two independent candidates, Harshit Kumar and Kshitija Chavan.

Universal Policies

On the first question by the moderator about why is a uniform grade policy beneficial, despite their differences, everyone present agreed that a uniform grade appeal policy was necessary to check discrimination and bias that can happen under a professor’s discretion. Prakrit pushed for three committees: Anti-Plagiarism Committee, Grade Appeal Committee, and Grievance Redressal Committee (GRC) to work together in tandem, whereas Dhamma pushed for only for GRC to deal with issues of grade appeals. Tarz sought to reform the mid-term feedback to ensure greater communication and collaboration between the student and the faculty, so as to reduce the cases of grade appeal altogether. Harshit, the independent candidate and member of the 6th HOR, was staunchly against so many formal committees, which according to him only promoted red-tape and bureaucracy, and instead pushed for a single committee which would be less formal and yet cater to all issues of grade appeals.

This was followed by the moderator asking how universal policies for grade appeals and deadlines ensure that faculty’s autonomy stays intact. Again, all parties and independent concurred that the aim of these policies is to ensure that both the student and faculty are empowered. According to them, this is necessary to ensure that students with grave concerns get much-needed assistance in checking abuse of power, stopping discrimination, and recognising emergencies. The independent candidate Kshitija Chavan said that they were committed to working with the ACWB so that faculty members take cognizance of mental health issues such that they can not only be filed retrospectively but also without sharing intimate details.

Academic Bridge Program

Directing the next question specifically at the independent candidates but not limiting it to them, the moderator asked what was lacking then and now in the Academic Bridge Program (ABP) and should parties keep the ABP as a priority in their agendas. Harshit replied that a major concern was the absence of explicit parameters for selection to the ABP. Initially, not a lot of centres were a part of the ABP but since that is no longer the case, there is not only a need for expansion in more socio-cultural programs but also for the word academic to go altogether. Further, Harshit said that parties were talking less because there is not much representation from the ABP. Stressing upon the need for transparency, Kshitija highlighted that students who are a part of the ABP aren’t made aware of what they are there for as well. They also stressed for the need to include seniors and alumni who have been a part of the ABP. Tarz pointed out that the lack of mentorship and a long-term vision plagues the ABP and thus, they promised to push for buddy programs and a long-term policy on the ABP. Apart from agreeing with Kshitija’s points on the lack of curriculum, Prakrit focused on the need to fill in the social gap by stressing upon the lack of involvement of clubs and societies in the ABP.

FC Structure

Moving on to the issue that currently rests at the core of academic accommodations, the moderator asked the candidates about the problems with current FC structure for UG 23, their opinion on the steps taken by the incumbent SG, and what different steps they plan to take to solve the issue. Prakrit highlighted that besides putting a financial burden and mental stress on students, the current FC structure went against the pedagogy of liberal arts & sciences education, as it curtailed the freedom of choice and exploration respectively. They pushed for a 6+1 FC structure with Indian Civilizations and EVS being compulsory. While pointing out that it was a non-partisan issue, Tarz said that if the current FC structure has to stay then the recommendation to complete all the FCs should extend to the third year for the UG23 batch. Lastly, Dhamma pushed for lesser FCs as they believed that introductory courses of different majors provided more insight into the subject rather than FCs.

Presenting their opinion on the academic accommodations pushed by the current government and the lack of transparency on the same, Tarz said that the steps taken ignore the demand of the students for having Google Meet over Zoom for neuropsychological reasons and the need to have trigger warnings before distributing course content and readings. Moreover, they alleged that there was a lack of transparency over the negotiations that progressed over P/NR and C/NC systems between the VC and the SG in March and they believed that the student body had the right to be informed about every step and not only key developments. Against the Tarz’s stance, Dhamma said that there is no need for the students to be informed at every step as it will only complicate the process. Prakrit and Harshit highlighted that the policy that got passed was exactly as proposed by the House and it was a time-sensitive issue for which mobilization was needed.

STEM

The last question by the moderator was on STEM accommodations, to which Tarz answered that we don’t need to compartmentalize the issues and that there was a need to collaborate with the CDO for more internships and to cross-list STEM courses with other majors. Prakrit highlighted that there was a lack of resources and lack of communication between appropriate bodies that acted as a hindrance for making STEM an active conversation at Ashoka. Dhamma pushed for a long-term policy of hiring more faculty members and organizing talks and seminars in STEM.

In the final segment, the candidates got to cross-question each other with 2 questions per party and independent. Prakrit questioned Tarz on their stance of exhausting all means of negotiations with the admin, to which Tarz replied that they stood for effective negotiation and not anti-mobilization. Dhamma asked Tarz on whether their agenda seemed vague on mental health concerns, to which Tarz replied that they put mental health on the same pedestal as physical health and they have taken up various issues such as pushing for the use of Google Meet as it helps in neuropsychological development. This was followed by Harshit, asking what different parties had done for mental health issues. Dhamma said that for them, mental health is a priority considering the online semester, Tarz reiterated its aforementioned point, and Prakrit highlighted how under them in the 5th HOR, the Community Well Being ministry was formed to address and deal with mental health concerns of the students. Finally, Kshitija asked what different candidates would do to check caste discrimination. Prakrit and Dhamma pushed for reforming the mandate of the GRC, while Tarz said that it wanted to put to use the newly formed Democratic & Inclusion Committee and have a demographic survey done. Harshit also stressed upon the need to have a demographic survey across campus that includes all clubs and societies. With this, Infocus 1.0 came to a conclusion.

2.0: Student-Admin Relations

InFocus 2.0 was supposed to be co-moderated by Ananya Gupta, also from The Edict, but she had to step down due to a request from the AUEC. Prakrit was represented by Advaith Jayakumar, Dhriti Bhat, and Gurkirat Singh Nayyar. Dhamma was represented by Ojas Arora, Saina Suri, and Priyal Sethi. Tarz was represented by Gauri Bhawkar, Rohan Manoj, and Manjima Gupta. They were once again joined by the two independent candidates, Harshit Kumar and Kshitija Chavan.

Mobilisation vs. Negotiation

Dhamma and Tarz maintained that there needs to be a step-by-step approach to the issue, namely, mobilization only as an absolute last resort and when the situation is dire enough, so that the administration is not antagonised by the SG. Harshit mentioned that both these actions are continuous and simultaneous. For him, mobilization is not a “first step” or “first resort”, but the last resort the House can take up to use effectively. Kshitija largely concurred but made an important caveat about also adhering to the wishes of the stakeholders themselves. Prakrit, on the other hand, views mobilization as a tool to bring the admin to the negotiating table in situations where they are unwilling to. All parties and independent candidates agreed that in a time-sensitive scenario, mobilization should be the first priority.

Forms of Negotiation

Both Tarz and Dhamma emphasized transparency, stating that they would like to publish weekly meeting reports and agendas of meetings (though in Dhamma’s case, they called them negotiation records), and, if a meeting is confidential, a notification that the meeting happened. They also added that these negotiations should not be all or nothing. Harshit highlighted the importance of student representation in the Board of Management (BoM) and how that could lead to more involvement of the student body in important decisions. Prakrit noted that although student-admin relations were at an all-time high, it does not make negotiating in important issues any easier, as there need to be good faith negotiations from both sides. They emphasized unionization as a solution to these problems and agreed with Harshit’s point about BoM representation. Kshitija also noted that the admin already does not see multiple groups like students and workers as equals, so unionization, especially in the case of workers, would be extremely important to make the playing field equal.

Whether to Unionise?

Kshitija viewed unionization very favorably, as they believe that students will be properly represented, but emphasized that it would especially be a powerful tool for workers, who can represent their concerns themselves to the BoM without compromising their privacy. Prakrit saw unionization as a shift of identity in the minds of students since the term “government” for them is a misnomer. They highlight financial independence and democratic negotiations as key reasons for unionising. Harshit disagreed slightly, mentioning that while the semantic difference between “government” and “union” does not matter, the effect certainly does, and reiterated his point about student representation in the BoM. Tarz and Dhamma strongly disagreed and mentioned that it would be a very counter productive decision as it would antagonize the administration and decrease negotiating power. Dhamma also added that financial independence doesn’t make any sense since the SG gets money from the OSL anyway, and viewed the SG largely as a mediating body, with unionization sending a message that the SG is solely for student interests. Tarz noted that it is a very drastic step for what they don’t think is an institutional problem and suggested formalizing a system of referendums instead.

Process and Effects of Unionisation

Harshit said that it will be a “step-by-step” process, where perhaps first there can be student representation in the BoM and so on. There would also be less bureaucracy and financial independence, which solves many problems. Kshitija asserted that there would then be equal footing, especially with the workers, but noted that there needs to be direct hiring for a worker’s union to be completely possible. Prakrit states that there would be a student body-wide referendum that will take place before any step. If passed, there will be more general meetings and more student involvement. Tarz disagrees, stating that while they agree that workers need to unionize, students don’t have to and emphasized that “so-called financial independence” can only happen if the administration allows it, which they won’t if they view the SG badly. Dhamma also disagrees and mentions that if the SG unionises, “statutory bodies” will not have jurisdiction for incidents outside Ashoka (for this, they were fact-checked as false). They also agreed with Tarz’s point about financial independence and asserted that the SG should not demand it because they were denied funds once.

Multiple important statements and stances by candidates and parties were made in other discussion rounds than the ones above during the course of InFocus 2.0. Dhamma mentioned the FC structure issue as an example of a point where the student government can take the admin’s perspective into consideration when discussing a solution. They also reiterated that the Workers Welfare Committee (WWC) and the Grievance Redressal Committee (GRC) for worker and academic-related issues respectively be re-constituted or emphasized. Tarz, while advocating for negotiating, admitted that the admin usually works against students rather than for them.

Prakrit brought up how the 6th House already acts like a union in the way that they work and deal with issues while trying to explain how unionization won’t largely change how the SG internally operates. Kshitija strongly affirmed that we need to find a more tangible solution to worker’s issues, one that is not helpful for them in the short term but also in the long term (like not being able to access medication in the infirmary, no overtime pay and having to pay for the mess). Harshit believed in direct workers’ representation more than the WWC, since the problem is largely due to the admin members in the committee who are untrustworthy and difficult.

Reporting contributed by Pratul Chaturvedi and Arundhati Srinath

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