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Objectives of a Students’ Union and AMUSU (Mohammad Sajjad)

A student union is both associational and institutional interest group like trade unions. All liberal democracies have such organized groups to represent the collective interests of the concerned groups of citizens, in this case, the students. Since democracy is a system of government by discussion, persuasion, accommodation and consensus, hence, such pressure groups like students’ union have to be militant in ideas and mobilizations. They have to organize gheraos, dharnas, and public demonstrations in protest against the policies and actions that are antithetical to the larger collective interests of the student community. They have to play important roles in national reconstruction.

They have to build enlightened public opinion, by promoting consensus, by enlisting sympathy, support and participation by a cross section of opinion leaders in a society and appealing to human reason, good sense and compassion. They have to influence the decision making. The state and its organ like university (administration) along with the Students’ Union have to encourage flow of ideas, promote public debate and discussion, and ensure students’ participation in policy formulation and in running the affairs of the university.

The Students’ Union has also to provide meaningful information, critical perspectives and theoretical reflection on various issues. It has to analyze the socio-economic problems that we confront at various levels. In short, since a students’ union does not have executive power, therefore, to ensure the protection of collective interests of the student community, it has to employ pressure tactics through democratic mobilizations. A student leader, rather than becoming a self-serving, opportunist political operator, should not only be enlightened, informed, visionary, and sensitive but s/he should also be equipped with the art of mobilizations and negotiations.

Thus Student movements are a unique part of the culture of higher education. One of the fundamental elements of the university community, students has a genuine stake or vested interest in the operations of the university and the impact higher education can have on the world outside the walls of the academy, says Philip Altbach. Students who attended the first International Congress of Students in Latin America in 1909 had a direct impact on the University of Cordoba in 1918 and, ultimately, the very structure of Latin American higher education. In the United States, students brought the attention of their nation and that of the world to the futility of American involvement in a foreign conflict and forced their own universities to account for their business practices.

The Indian Scenario

Although potentially compromised by the true leaders of the Independence movement, Indian students were a key component to their country’s independence from British rule in 1947, and went on to represent a microcosm of a world embroiled in Cold War.

Students, including educated unemployed youth, have become an important demand group in post-independence Indian politics. Students have been in the vanguard of regime change. Students’ political participation and mobilization in India is referred as “unrest” “undisciplined” [in AMU’s official/Proctorial parlance it is identified as “anti-social activities”], because they are not treated as citizens having group-interests, hence not supposed to be political actors. These are, needless to say, cultural constructs.

Agitational politics and mobilizations give appearance of revolutionary potential. In residential universities [like JNU and AMU], relatively unfettered conditions (in hostels) lead them to search for personal identity and social meanings in ideologies and issues. From the 1960s onwards, migration of rural students in urban colleges, combined with the spectre of unemployment, drive them to agitation, as they become conscious and are able to get organized [even the MAO College had 54% of its students from rural areas].

Senior student leaders/ alumni provide the personnel and political resources [quite often for partisan and factional politics]. In most of the cases, easy access to political careers and the benefits of power have led students to participate in, rather than challenge, the established political system.

In 1965-75, parts of India witnessed strong student movements, e.g. Nav Nirman Andolan of Gujarat and Sampurna Kranti (Total Revolution or Jai Prakash Movement) of Bihar. This was against rampant corruption in the government and in the universities.

Strong administrative measures have often succeeded in crushing student agitations, only to give rise to much accentuated crisis soon after. The threat of repression, and intimidations worked wonders for the moment, and pliant, slavish, subservient V-Cs and their sycophant aides and advisors took the charge. These elements, say Rudolph and Rudolph, fail to realize that student agitations cannot be dealt with merely as a law and order problem, hence rather than repression, persuasion and conceding the legitimate demands should be the preferred ways of dealing with the student agitations. Because, most often, only real grievances and discontentment influence students to agitate and mobilize.

AMU Students’ Union (Aligarh) -A History

Lab pe paabandi to hai, ehsaas pe pehra to hai
Phir bhi ahl-e-dil ko ahwaal-e-bashar kehna to hai [Saahir]

The Aligarh College was a profoundly political enterprise [D. Lelyveld, 1974: 317]. It has/ had an objective of injecting into the [Muslim] students, a mentality of belonging to a qaum- and ethos of solidarity- and to reach through them the greater social catchment area [S. Bandyopadhyaya, 2004: 271]; to make them derive advantages and opportunities becoming available from the government. It also had to organize Muslim public opinion, by enabling its students to voice their demands effectively. In late 19th and early 20th centuries, they voiced their concerns on the issues like the Hindi-Urdu controversy, anti-cow slaughter campaign, employment, oppressive British imperialism, and launched a vigorous (successful) campaign for a Muslim University during 1898-1920.

The Aligarh Students’ Union had in fact passed a resolution advocating Hindu-Muslim political cooperation in May 1906 [S. Sarkar, 1983: 141]. This was despite the fact that the then Principal Archbold’s suggestion of ‘aloofness from political agitation’, which was particularly resented by the Aligarh students. This was the time when some of the elders associated with the college were engaged in exclusivist/ separatist politics.

Sir Syed’s vision of residential university concentrated on character building of students for all round personality development, for letting them emerge as intellectual and political leader. Till today, be it the corporate industrial and managing houses or the civil services, everywhere, leadership qualities are the prime considerations for recruiting technocratic-managerial personnel.

In short, national reconstruction has had to be done through the educated youth who must be trained in intellectually informed political leadership.

Hence, with Beck, on the pattern of Cambridge University, [Sir] Syed Ahmad (1817-98), in 1884, established a debating club, known as the “College Union Club”, then became famous as “Sidons’ Union Club”, as its first President was Henry George Sidons. The first Vice President was a student named Sajjad Husain. The first Hony. Secy. was Syed Md. Ali with 10 cabinet members of the Union. The main objectives of the Union Club were to produce good orators and wise leaders. From 1902 onwards, it also started having an honorary librarian; Nawab Ali was the first librarian. On 22 February 1905, Morison laid the foundation of ‘Sidon’s Union Debating Hall’.

In 1920, when the MAO College got the status of university with massive political mobilization (1898-1920), it came to be known as ‘Muslim University Union’, and its first Vice President was Syed Nurullah, (who later on became the Pro-Vice Chancellor of AMU). The President used to be the Vice Chancellor. In 1952-53, it came to have a new constitution for itself and was probably the only Students’ Union in the world to have got a formal registration. Then it came to be known as ‘Muslim University Students’ Union; and the VC became ‘Patron’, rather than the ‘President’ of the Union.

In 1953-54, for the first time, a girl was elected as a cabinet member of the Union. She was Ms. Zahra Naqvi, M.Sc. Physics, Final year. Then, even some of the western countries did not have women franchise.

The weekly debates organized by the Union enhanced the self-confidence of the students in an enormous way. From 1888 onwards, Herald Caucus Cambridge Speaking Prize was instituted for the first year students. Then Sir Shah Sulaiman Gold Medal for undergraduate students, afterwards, S.T. Saifuddin sponsored some prizes, named as Imdad Ali Gold Medal for best orator in English, Saifi Fida Husain Medal for best orator in Urdu, and Saifi Burhanuddin Gold Medal for best essay writer in Urdu. [In 1958-59, the Herald Caucus Cambridge Speaking Prize was won by Syed Shahid Mehdi who did his M.A. in History, became IAS Bihar cadre, then served in the UNO and went on to become the VC of JMI, 1999-2004].

In 1960-61, the practices of having the Union Library, Reading Room, and its journal Union Review, all vanished.

The office-bearers of the AMUSU have a rare privilege of representing in the Academic Council, and in the AMU Court (the supreme governing body). Besides, 15 more students are elected to represent in the AMU Court, the supreme governing body of the AMU.

Time and again, this vital institution of national reconstruction has faced administrative repression, on the valid or invalid pretext of disciplining the misguided student activism. In recent past, reports of rampant corruption, particularly the allegations of cuts in the civil constructions, purchases, supplies including the Dining hall affairs, became major issues of concern in AMU; however whether the student-leaders played their roles in exposing and checking them or became part (co-sharers) of the murky affairs is something to be left to the informed speculators/observers.

*Dr. Mohammad Sajjad is Associate Professor in Centre of Advanced Studies, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.
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