A case for campus politics

(J. VR Krishnaiyer, Former Judge, Supreme Court of India, wrote this article in 2003.)

THE academic discipline that describes and analyses the operations of the government, the state and other political organisations and any other factors that influence their behaviour, such as social and economic, in short, a study as to how power is exercised, and by whom (and for whose benefit), through the administration of public power, to manage people’s affairs may perhaps be termed politics, a great concern of every intelligent member of society. Albert Einstein observed: “It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacity to give validity to his conviction in political affairs.” The ignorance of politics among the masses of a country paves the way for the rise of tyranny and the fall of democracy. The right to govern belongs to every citizen and so political science, knowledge of which ultimately secures for the citizenry justice, liberty, equality, dignity of the individual and the integrity of the nation, can never be alienated from the concern of the community. It is a grave default, therefore, to deny to the population at any level the right and, indeed, the duty to acquire a basic knowledge of local, national and global political forces. It is a gravamen of injustice and goofy understanding of public affairs to command that political science shall be anathema in a college campus since, in the last analysis, such allergy amounts to an advocacy of political illiteracy, social insensitivity and cultural philistinism. The grammar of politics, in an enlightened sense, is the birthright of every member of our polity, which is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic as India is and shall be. The great guardian of the rights of the people in a republic is an enlightened youth educated in the various dimensions and instruments of political science such as the legislature and the judicature. Indeed, the right to vote vested in everyone at the age of 18 becomes a meaningful operation if only the exercise of franchise is an expression of political wisdom. In the finest sense of the word, politics must be obligatorily a subject of learning on every college campus that owes allegiance to the Constitution and its Preambular pledge. “We, the People of India” – the first five words of the Constitution – have made a revolutionary resolution to defend the politics of the Constitution. Winston Churchill once defined and defended the ballot process which every judge and administrator must constantly remember: “A little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.” Be politically educated at the age of 18 or be damned as dumb-driven cattle in a dying democracy.

There is a judicial impression among the robed brethren in India that politics is a vice like alcoholism or drug addiction and therefore should be banned or ostracised as a mischief or menace, pathologically spreading as a dangerous syndrome in our institutions of higher learning. A Division Bench of the Kerala High Court gave a ruling against what, through the media, was popularly interpreted as a toxic tendency of student politics on college campuses which has to be curbed or tabooed for the salvation of education. Professor J.A.G. Griffith in his powerful book The Politics of the Judiciary has argued: “Judges are human with human prejudice… some are more human than others’ and considered right-wing opinion as an occupational bias of the British judicial profession.” Surely, the Indian judiciary of which I had been a member for some years is made of more liberal staff, more democratic ethos, more progressive eidos.

THE Judges of the Kerala High Court, in the Sojan Francis case held against the 19-year-old undergraduate, a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI), on the ground of inadequate number of days of attendance necessary as a qualification for taking the examination. This would have disposed of the matter. But the court, on the score of political importance, launched on a long discussion about the constitutionality of prohibiting political activity altogether on college campuses. The college concerned, St. Thomas College, Pala, in Kottayam district has certain guidelines regarding general discipline. One of them with which the court was concerned directly states that political activism is strictly banned on the campus and that “students are forbidden to organise or attend meetings other than the official ones”. Strikes are prohibited within the campus, and the challenge of the student was that such forbiddance was violative of Article 19 i (a) & (c) of the Constitution. “Since this question is of `considerable general importance'”, the court felt the urgency of the issue as one of adjudicatory moment.

The prohibitive clause which has been upheld by the court, if scrutinised with a little care, reveals that organisation of or attendance at meetings which are official ones are permitted (even if they be of the character of political activism). So much so there is a discriminatory dimension underlying the ban which, in fairness, means that meetings that find favour with the management fall within the permissible category. Communal managements of educational institutions are the bane of the Kerala educational establishment. It is full of politics, survives by politics, propagates political perspectives and controls the State educational establishment through its political clout. Therefore, officially permitted political meetings, often dangerous to the progressive development of the State and the nation, enjoy open sesame or free access. Now that the controversial clause has received judicial sanction, the ruling allows the principal to spread his brand of politics within the campus and make every other political study through meetings and campaigns bete noire. Reactionary politics of private managements thus finds a haven inside colleges, and all avant-garde political thought and action is frowned upon. This is arbitrary and unconstitutional. Indeed there is no rationale or logical basis of classification as the foundation for the forbiddance. There is no rational differentia indicated in the clause that will make a meeting official, just, fair and reasonable. It is vague and can be capricious, depending on the management’s will to give free rein to the partisan politics of a management. If clear guidelines comporting with the values of our Constitution vis-a-vis political education and action are transparently stated as governing the management’s power to prohibit, it is a different matter. Absent such directive, liberal discussion becomes suppressed or hidebound and the cause of free thought fails as violative of Articles 14, 19, 20 and 21 – Article 14 because the classification is not based on a rational differentia related to a constitutionally acceptable objective. The ipse dixit of the principal calling it official does not make the meeting lose its vice of inequality before the law. Article 19 is violated because freedom of expression involves freedom of action, information and communication of ideas, to deny which the college authorities can stamp a kind of activity as not officially acceptable. It is violative of Article 21 because the `right to life’ includes the right to moral, social and cultural development which, in turn, involves a free opportunity for uninhibited political education and it is contradicted by the clause which vests a ukase in the management. College education is improved through college debates and free speech. To control this collegiate freedom is to permit the manufacture of young minds conditioned by the management politics. To swear by what is officially ordered as sound political activity and to swear at every other political process to which the principal is allergic to is to create conditioned minds, which is the negation of political pluralism, democratic diversity and developmental autonomy. The republic will suffer from robotism if the creative vitality of the young generation at college is ordered about by the official church, communal management and mindless establishments that run schools of higher education. This is a new menace that benumbs the intellectual potential of the nation. Apparently, even the judiciary is not sufficiently alerted about this ominous portent. Citing Supreme Court decisions about the political calamity of student wings of parties on campuses misses the great tragedy of petrifying human originality. Every young mind passing through colleges must be trained to be sensitive to the constitutional pledge of social, economic and political justice, liberty of thought and expression and the dignity of the individual in relation to the nation’s integrity. Platitudes and claptraps about student politics and party allurements miss the oxygen of socialism, secularism and democracy which are nothing but the quintessence of our constitutional culture.

The principal is the head of the institution, but functions under the management and its political philosophy. It is right to prevent hostile groups of students battling within the campus or creating babel or bedlam, making the process of learning impossible. Peace, health, morality and other such vital values constitute discipline and must be preserved by the principal. College premises cannot become scenes of sound and fury obstructing classes, but these important control measures of discipline do not justify the tabooing of political discussions, political magazines, political association and political seminars inside the premises, save with the permission of the principal as if to avoid law and order problems.

It is unfortunate to compare government servants and their rules of conduct with students’ code of conduct. The difference is too obvious to need explanation. Students study and learning involves several processes. Teachers, government servants and other employees in public institutions certainly can have their political views, but cannot resort to conduct or membership that will distract from or interfere with the neutrality needed for functional efficiency. Mixing up this category with the student community points to confusion; of course, disturbing demonstrations, obstructive strikes, ragging and other operations which make classes difficult to be conducted or study menaced by turbulence can always be prevented because they have a nexus to the goals of a student in college to equip himself with knowledge.

TO banish politics for an 18-year-old student is to deny him the fundamental opportunity of becoming a good citizen to vote. It is anti-democratic to refuse a student a campus opportunity to talk politics, to read politics, to discuss politics in an association, to argue politics with his fellow students, subject, of course, to a peaceful atmosphere, disciplined behaviour and obedience to public health and morality. That orderly political activity by a student community governed by democratic decency and academic dignity will cause chaos on the campus is a fashionable fallacy and dubious diagnosis and, I humbly believe, will never be a judicial illusion. Educational pharmacopoeia must cure the anarchic pathology of party-politicking, even if officially backed by management-disguised policy, which often is subversive of radical constitutional activism. A blanket ban on campus political activity save official ones has a fascist flavour.

Politics is a social science and its study through organised movements, if peacefully pursued, even if a wee-bit restively and passionately, deserves no veto. Heeding the protests against a blanket ban, maybe, the court has agreed to a review and, as a democratic gesture, invited everyone interested to present his/her submission. I pay a tribute to the Judges for this judicious measure. I remember that while in the Supreme Court, presiding over a Bench, I was hearing a case involving the parameters of death sentence, I orally announced that any member of the Bar interested in the cause would be heard, since the question was one of life and death. A review is a remedy for the Judges themselves to correct an error if a flaw has vitiated the judgment already delivered. No one, not even the wisest Judge, is above a commission or omission that needs correction. Way back in 1980, in one judgment, the court reviewed and reversed itself. There I wrote:

      “Horace Wrote `But if Homer, who is good, nods for a moment, I think it a shame’. We, in the Supreme Court, do `nod’ despite great care to be correct, and once a clear error in our judgment is revealed, no sense of shame or infallibility complex obsesses us or dissuades this court from the anxiety to be ultimately right, not consistently wrong. The present petition for review is one such and we have listened, at unusual length, to counsel’s oral submissions having felt that an error in the judgment under review, likely to injure and unsettle, needed to be mended.”
    (AIR 1980 SC 1187)

I am convinced, and by this I once again pay a tribute to the Judges concerned, that the case will be reheard with a conviction that infallibility is not a judicial inviolability.