By Devika Goswami, UG22
The student government acquired more importance since we went online last year. SG decisions now also cover the return of students to campus, negotiating workers’ welfare, and organising mass dissent in light of the recent faculty resignations, amongst other causes. Pardon the cliché, but with great power comes great responsibility, and without proper care, greater responsibility can take an exacting toll on anyone’s mental health.
This is apparent in the five resignations that have already happened: the highest number of resignations that any House of Representatives has had. This unfortunate feat has even the most apathetic students asking: what exactly is going on?
The most recent resignation of the Leader of Opposition unveiled certain internal HoR conflicts for the student body. However, those details are not the point: it’s that recent events had students speculating about the existence of a toxic culture in the HoR that is not conducive for the mental health of its members. We spoke to three current and former HoR members to investigate whether there is any truth to this speculation, and whether the problem extends to student politics as a whole.
The Dangers of Elections as ‘Entertainment’
The campaigning effort for candidates leading up to student elections is understandably draining. Moreover, navigating online campaigning in the midst of a pandemic adds to the pressure. In spite of the inevitable zoom glitches, the debates drew a surprisingly large turnout. However, Jahnavi Mukul, former HoR member from Prakrit, noted that “the problem is that a lot of people treat it as entertainment”.
Although every publication reserves the right to critique the candidates, and in fact should do so, extremely harsh criticism can perpetuate the desire of attending debates just to catch onto the mistakes—whereas, while the mistakes are important to note, so are the achievements.
This is not an Ashoka specific problem, it can be seen in the way we interact with politics in general.
Even so, It may be worthwhile to ask: how can kindness be ensured in our critique? A seemingly harmless joke at a candidate’s expense may unintentionally discourage or hurt them in ways we can’t know, while a targeted joke can do even worse. “Grow a thick skin” can become a reductive answer, as most candidates already know they might be made fun of—it’s just when humour reduces to a thinly veiled attack that it may do some damage.
One slip-up during an AUEC event can easily make the rounds on Twitter or Facebook. From there on the person can be trolled endlessly, some of whom this year were freshmen. Harshit, current HoR member, added that,
“Not everybody comes with the same mental health conditions and not everybody’s equipped or should be expected to talk like a debater boy all the time.”
When Debates Become Attacks
Jahnavi went on to describe her experience during the election campaign: “there was a lot of vitriol that I hadn’t expected, and obviously none of it was directed at me personally, but it does affect you when you’re part of those structures and makes you think about whether or not this is the kind of structure you want to be in for the coming year.”
Bhaavya Gupta, the former Leader of Opposition, stated that “a specific party’s campaign narrative had become ‘they didn’t do this, we’ll do this” which in their opinion shifted the narrative of the debates:
“you can be passionate about things without having to bring someone else down”.
Harshit felt that this pointing of fingers may be because of a “toxic party culture at Ashoka” wherein “they [parties] do not have a lot of ideological differences but they end up attacking each other a lot during elections and it happens usually for optic purposes, or I don’t know why, because once you’re in the house, it’s not about which party you are from—it’s about the individuals doing that particular work.”
The Work Environment in the HoR
Bhaavya shed light on the intensity of SG work in the week of #NotMyAshoka: “I think we pulled in 90 hours on call over 6 days” to which they added that “the 5-10 minute breaks were in themselves dedicated to finishing up all the written work, so: documentation, policy and email framing”. However, Harshit did feel that this time spent together meant that the “kind of growth and the kind of bond people have amongst themselves has also grown stronger”. Although that week was an anomaly—the SG has no defined hours for work in general, there are no holidays: it is still constant work.
In one of the initial SG meetings, Bhaavya stated, there was a discussion on taking weekends off but the SG decided to send the email after they had “done something” over the contention that “people might laugh”. This links back to how easy it is to make fun of student politics, and while it’s possible that some people might have laughed, the ultimate concern is the quality of the SG’s work, if they believe that a break will help. Not to mention, the SG has already proved itself. Even if it’s a single day off, as long as it helps HoR members recuperate—then it’s for the better, no matter the memes.
Is the HoR Becoming ‘toxic’?
The most recent resignation brings internal matters from within the HoR into the public court of opinion. As Jahnavi noted: “I could clearly see that it was more important for different parties to clear their name in public than to accord privacy or respect to each other”. Bhaavya, who was directly involved in the matter, felt that “surprisingly the toxicity didn’t only come from the ruling government but came from within the opposition itself”. Outside of the details mentioned in their email to the student body, they added that,
“it’s not completely toxic, it’s not like we’re constantly bickering or fighting, it just shows in small ways that do compound a lot.”
Harshit doesn’t believe that toxicity within the HoR is partisan, stating that: “It’s [SG] like any political organization or any form of community with differences within themselves, but it’s not partisan in nature because I don’t know if our politics do extend that way, we do not have parties who have complete ideological differences. There can be differences and disagreements amongst individuals within a party or across party lines” Whether the toxicity is partisan or not, however, is a matter of personal experience—what’s more important is that the past conduct of some members has been perceived as toxic and cited as a reason for the HoR becoming an unwelcoming environment.
Why Does This Matter?
While no one in the student body wished for tensions within the HoR to rise such that outside of other reasons, they may add to the desire for students to resign. We must care for the wellbeing of our representatives and humanize them, especially given the level of intensity that their job demands of late. Many HoR members advocated for mental health during elections, so it’s important that they reflect on what it means for them as it directly affects their work in the SG. As Jahnavi noted: “you can’t do that job justice, unless you’re doing yourself justice”.
Note: This is only part of the picture behind mental health in the SG as we have only interviewed three current and former HoR members: Jahnavi and Bhaavya because they cited mental health as one of the reasons for their resignation, and Harshit Kumar as we wanted some perspective from a current HoR member who is also an advocate for mental health.