Student politics in India comes with a rich, democratic history, albeit fraught with tensions. Names like Kekuojalie Sachü & Vikhozo Yhoshü, Umar Khalid, Mohammed Rinshad, Kanhaiya Kumar, and Sharjeel Usmani elicit strong, polarising and heated debates across dining tables and newsrooms. The 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) agitation sparked controversy like wildfire throughout the nation, but ultimately posed difficult yet critical questions about the role of student politics in the making and breaking of the state of this nation. Often deemed ‘radical’ and ‘seditious’ student political outfits are unethically incarcerated, attacked and outright vilified in various parts of the country– a blatantly undemocratic attitude that has further expanded its roots in the Indian psyche given the vitriol in our political climate.
While student politicians and bureaucrats remain at loggerheads with each other, such political milieus necessitate a close examination of the spaces they take part in building a nation. There is, after all, politics to being a student representative too. Politics that is biased towards certain individuals, exclusionary towards (including but not limited to) Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Queer and Trans* persons and ultimately falls short of being a truly radical space.
To understand this better, I spoke to Megna Mehra, a queer student representative (she’s India’s first openly asexual student rep) from Delhi University, whose story echoes the truth of how the subaltern is always condemned to struggle, even in circles lauded for being progressive.
It all began with the ‘Occupy UGC’ protests in 2015 for Meghna. ‘Occupy UGC’ started as a massive agitation across the country, holding the University Grants Commission accountable for citing an alleged resource crunch as the reason for discontinuing non-NET fellowships for research scholars. “However, it started [with] asking the larger question – why is education getting privatised in India? Education should be affordable if not free and should be accessible to all. Most individuals from marginalised sections need fellowships to pursue PhD and privatization stops that.” says Mehra. It was this moment that propelled her into student politics.
Advertised to be the institution for romantic rebels with revolutionary fervour, Delhi University (DU), Mehra’s alma mater, often fails the litmus test when it comes to inclusivity. “DU usually doesn’t provide that space to queer voices. We have to make our spaces.” Mehra remarks. She dedicates the creation and sustenance of these safe spaces to the Left. “Left-wing groups created normalisation of queer voices in DU, but yes, some individuals within left organisations also cause problems because they lack awareness.”
Even then, queerphobia is rampant within student politics circles and beyond. “I have experienced queerphobia and still face it” Meghna recalls. “A lot of people use my asexual identity against me to influence students and promote queerphobia in the society at large. There aren’t many mechanisms for redressal as many professors are involved in the same.” Referring to the Kaushal Bodwal incident, she continues, “A professor from an esteemed college of DU shared trans*phobic posts related to their dressing style and claimed that the queer community is harmful at large. This is a common occurrence in DU.”
Academic circles, as well, are rife with queerphobia. In a space built on gatekeeping, misogyny, queer and trans*phobia, classism, casteism and bigotry hidden under the guise of meritocracy, it does not come as a surprise. The onus of educating invariably falls on the shoulders of the oppressed. As Mehra puts it, “As a representative, I try to educate them wherever I can. But it is important to remember that some people are not worth your intellectual labour.”
Realising the need for safe spaces for queer, Marxist and/or left-leaning LGBTQI+ persons, Mehra set out to lay the foundations of her very own organization – All India Queer Association (AIQA). AIQA is a Marxist, queer, student union. According to their website, AIQA strives to work for the collective liberation of various social groups and is a feminist, socialist, and ambedkarite organization. AIQA is relentless in its journey and has thus far managed to create a digital audience of over 4,000 followers. AIQA’s website has recently been selected for inclusion in Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation’s South Asian Gender and Sexuality Web Archive.
Following recent violence against student protestors at the hands of the State, the future of youth politics has taken a blow. Speaking on it, Mehra says, “If one may look at these cases, [they] are an outcome of media slandering causing problems to students of certain ideology to speak up against the government policies. The future looks bleak as anyone criticizing the government these days is termed “anti-national” and the slandering begins at colleges. To overcome this, we should first and foremost hold the media accountable as some channels act as mouthpieces of certain ideologies.”
Notwithstanding the State’s backlash, youth dissent in the country has received a second wind – emerging more vibrantly than ever. The future of which lies buried in our hands.