In India, a Political Row Raises Questions about the Role of Colleges in Elections

April 30, 2014

This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.

Amid the highly charged political atmosphere of India's ongoing national elections, a leading college in Mumbai has become embroiled in a political row about the role of universities during elections – particularly how far they should remain apolitical while continuing to be bastions of free speech. 

The Election Commission has also had to clarify whether university premises can be used for rallies and other political activities. 

Father Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of St Xavier College – a prestigious institution of the University of Mumbai – was accused of openly supporting a political party in a letter to students on the eve of elections in Mumbai. 

Mumbai voters went to the polls on Thursday, in the sixth phase of the staggered national election. Some politicians have seen universities as key platforms for influencing the youth vote. 

Mascarenhas wrote to students from the college's official email account on Wednesday, slamming opposition leader Narendra Modi's business-friendly Gujarat model and praising the ruling United Progressive Alliance's initiatives. He did not name any individual politicians.

Modi is chief minister of Gujarat state and prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which is hoping to wrest control of the federal government from the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA.

His record in Gujarat state – one of the country's wealthiest – is a major issue in the election campaign. 

“The Gujarat model has been highlighted for our consideration … Is the growth of big business, the making of huge profits, the achievement of high production – what we seek?” Mascarenhas' opening paragraph reads.

He went on to urge students to “choose well” and exercise a “reasoned choice of individuals and political parties who promise to work for a real quality of life”. 

The BJP complained to the Election Commission and demanded an “immediate withdrawal of the statement”, alleging that the email to students was a violation of election codes of conduct and was aimed at influencing student voting choices. 

“He misused his position as principal. We are ready to engage with the students in an open debate. But the principal should have withheld his views until such a debate,” said the BJP's Mumbai President Ashish Shelar. 

Gujarat record

The letter refers to poor human development indicators in Gujarat, including in education and the rights of tribal groups. 

“All the human development index indicators and the cultural polarisation of the population show that Gujarat has had a terrible experience in the last 10 years,” Mascarenhas wrote.

He added: “Gujarat has also been the worst performer in settling claims and distributing title deeds to tribal people and other forest dwellers, as shown by the latest data put out by the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry.” 

On the other hand he praised populist UPA schemes such as the Rozgar Yojana, a government subsidy scheme for poor and unemployed youth, and the Food Security Act, which distributes subsidised grains, and notes that these have been praised by Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and development economist Jean Dreze.

“So what lessons does a reflection on the approaching elections teach us? The prospect of an alliance of corporate capital and communal forces coming to power constitutes a real threat to the future of our secular democracy,” he wrote.

Apolitical or not?

India's former attorney general and St Xavier alumnus Soli Sorabjee said while Mascarenhas had not misused his position as principal, he should have refrained from making a public statement. 

“St Xavier's College has been an institution which has been apolitical. It shouldn't dabble in politics,” Sorabjee said. 

But Abha Habib, an associate professor at Delhi University, disagreed: “Educational institutions have never been apolitical. In universities such as Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru [University in New Delhi], political affiliations have been more open than in others.

“Even if you make a statement a day before the city votes, students are intelligent enough to decide on their own and make choices,” Habib said. 

Rujuta Sabnis, a third year arts student, said Mascarenhas had done nothing wrong. “It's good that he's making sure we're getting the right information. Anyway, everything he has said is true,” Sabnis said.

A science masters student, who did not want to be named, thought otherwise: “This is a way to influence students by using his authority. I am not a first-time voter but there are many in my college who are. The letter does not make a difference to me as I have already made up my mind but it could influence many others.” 

Congress leaders have, unsurprisingly, backed Mascarenhas.

Milind Deora, a member of parliament from the South Mumbai constituency and minister of state for communications and information technology, tweeted: “Leaders, college principals, or otherwise, voicing their opinion is free speech; baseless allegations against them is defamation.”

Varanasi complaint

In the holy city of Varanasi, also known as Banaras – a hotly contested constituency in the key state of Uttar Pradesh – it was the turn of Congress to object to the Election Commission.

Congress opposed Modi's plan to visit top-rated Banaras Hindu University before filing his nomination papers in the Varanasi constituency last Thursday. Elections will be held there on 12 May.

Varanasi is attracting national attention as Modi will be standing against Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi – Common Man – Party, or AAP. the new anti-corruption party that swept local elections in Delhi last year.

Congress lodged a complaint with the Election Commission that university premises should not be used for political activities. However, the commission clarified that educational institutions could be used as long as the academic calendar was not disturbed and prior permission was sought from relevant authorities.

Banaras Hindu University in turn complained to the Election Commission when AAP banners portrayed the university's high caste founder, Madan Mohan Malviya, carrying a broom – the AAP election symbol – saying it was an insult to his memory. Brooms are normally associated with low-caste sweepers. 

At the university on Thursday, Modi payed tribute to founder Malviya, who was ironically a four-time president of the Indian National Congress. In another twist his grandson Giridhar Malviya, a lawyer, was among those who signed Modi's nomination papers. 

Academics say the antics of politicians at the university and outside it are all part of the energetic rough-and-tumble of vibrant national elections.

Separately, Banaras Hindu University's political science department has been actively surveying voters and providing independent commentary on the prospects for all parties in Varanasi.