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  • Properly utilised, college polls are a platform for young leaders to provide new directions to national politics; squandered, they will only perpetuate our inefficient governance
- MOHAN GURAGAIN
It is a bitter truth that their young blood does not boil at the all-pervasive naked corruption plaguing state institutions, outdated politicians squandering time and national energy to establish the rules of their dirty games, and extremism eating away at newly institutionalised gains

Mar 18, 2017-

At Ratna Rajyalaxmi Campus in Kathmandu, MA English first year students can’t find seats on the bare iron-wood desk-benches if they do not make it to the single classroom fifteen minutes before the 6:15am class. Nearly 200 students are crammed in the “most spacious room” the college has to offer to listen to a teacher who can barely be heard beyond the fourth row of benches due to a murmur of students, many of whom are not admitted and are more interested in learning about a new classmate than a new lesson.

This does not bother the numerous student unions in the campus. Not one is demanding that the college administration divide the large number of students into sizeable sections, that broken window panes be fixed, that classrooms be swept regularly; that lights, speakers and projectors be made available to facilitate instruction. Instead, they quarrel over the bar on students 28 years and older in the Free Student Union election. Some demand deferral of the biennial polls—which have not been held for nearly a decade—since their newly formed mother parties have not had enough time to lay their organisational base.

The FSU election held by the Tribhuvan University two weeks ago was a huge failure by most accounts but the TU is not solely to blame for it. The polls, which did not take place in many major public colleges, including those in the Kathmandu Valley, were beset by the differences among the unions along the political lines of their mother parties, which remain sharply divided on whether the local-level elections should be held on May 14.

From their inception in the partyless Panchayat era, student unions have been the proxies of political parties. Parties at the time conducted their activities clandestinely, while students openly contested council elections in colleges. Sadly, just like their mother parties, student unions are veering towards fatal failure as well.

This was evident in the unprecedented vandalism of public property in TU campuses in both the Valley and the plains last month.

Responding to the shameless ransacking of the abodes of learning, some observers made loud and clear their demands for banning student politics in college altogether. At this rate, one tweeted, no TU property might be left standing by the time the next FSU polls are held. 

College students form a sizeable chunk of the country’s youth population, which remains fragmented today not only geographically and politically but also due to migration to labour destinations abroad and settlement in developed countries for study and living. Their absence is felt back home when the houses destroyed by the Gorkha Earthquake nearly two years ago have not been rebuilt for want of capable workers. The dearth of strong limbs to carry bodies to riverbanks or graveyards for the last rites in villages is now an old story.

Youths, particularly students, are a hope for the country, at a time when the messy transitional politics has frustrated people who have no patience for delayed development even after revolutionary political changes culminated in a federal, inclusive and republican order. But it is a bitter truth that their young blood does not boil at the all-pervasive naked corruption plaguing state institutions, outdated politicians squandering time and national energy to establish the rules of their dirty games, and extremism eating away at newly institutionalised gains. Properly utilised, college polls are a platform for young leaders to provide new directions to national politics. This is comparable to elections at the local level that bring to the fore a new crop of leaders.

Student unions for long acted as whistleblowers against price hikes and the government’s corrupt actions. Immediately after any decision to raise fuel prices or bus fares, or a controversial announcement by the government, students demonstrated in front of major colleges in Kathmandu and in other cities, often forcing authorities to roll back their decisions. But even this function seems to have been co-opted by social media these days, with the users of Twitter and Facebook now the most vocal voices calling out actions that pose a threat to social or individual freedom.

There are often calls on young politicians to wrest party leadership from old leaders, who seem to have no grasp of the changing social and economic realities of the nation, and to clean up the mess. The voices get louder on special occasions such as party conventions and a change in government. A few youth leaders have done exceptionally well while heading ministries. Some popular figures, though not tested in public leadership, have often made forays into politics and attracted more neutral sections of society. These forces may be expected to gain prominence during elections if they can break through the front of money, muscle and loyalty built by conventional forces that have no appeal to much of the budding generation.

As an oasis in the desert, since my early college days in Dhankuta two decades ago, I sense some motivation for change in student unions. As the TU was preparing to announce the campus polls, the student union close to the CPN (Maoist Centre) took interested MA English students out for a play at a local theatre. Later, it arranged some special lectures called “coaching classes” to help students prepare for the upcoming exams. Jealous of the publicity this particular outfit was gaining through its innovative moves, another union organised a motivational talk instead of fiery political speeches.

But have others been watching? Will these sparks make a fire? Can student unions be made relevant once more?

Follow author @GuragainMohan

Published: 18-03-2017 09:14

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