The issue of Nationalism firmly grounded itself into student politics at the University of Delhi last year, with the February 22 incident at Ramjas College that pitted the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – which was in power at that time – against hoards of students fighting for a campus free of hooliganism and ideological censorship. While ABVP lost the elections last year, it also managed to raise a nation-wide debate on ‘anti-nationalism’ in university spaces akin to what was previously seen at JNU.

With this year’s polls for the Delhi University Student Union fast approaching, student wings of major political parties have started pushing electoral campaigns rooted in the same nationalism. “We did not lose seats last year because of Ramjas or any other party’s campaign against us, winning and losing is a matter of chance,” says Bharat Khatana, Delhi Secretary of the RSS-affiliated and BJP-backed ABVP. “Ramjas raised slogans on the freedom of Bastar and cutting the nation into pieces. Students need to be made aware of the urban naxals amongst us who give away information about the nation from within the campus. We will work to ensure that no anti-national slogans or discussions are heard on campus, and will keep protesting them in case they are. I am 100% sure that we will come back in power this year”. According to Khatana, the party’s agenda is to “simply solve the issues faced by students on campus”.

For the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), these elections pose a more complicated challenge: to recover from the effect of the tumultuous and controversial presidency of NSUI candidate Rocky Tuseed, who was dismissed from the post on account of undisclosed criminal cases against him despite winning the elections last year. The Congress-backed party seeks to now redeem itself by positing it as the antithesis of the ABVP and its politics. According to party coordinator Lokesh Chugh, “NSUI has been and will be working to build a violence-free campus. Ever since we came to power last year, none of the incidents of threatening students and violence with teachers that are characteristic to ABVP’s hooliganism have been reported. We wish to create a peaceful environment in the university”. When questioned about the other party’s agenda of Nationalism, Chugh calls it a publicized political tactic: “Everyone knows that the ABVP is affiliated to the RSS. When even fifty years after independence they refused to recognize the tricolor as the national flag, their brand of nationalism appears superficial,” he says.

The students, however, appear to be disillusioned by the agendas of both players. “The NSUI is as bad as ABVP, both parties are full of crooks,” says Karan Kimothi, a final-year student at the university. On the issue of a non-violent campus, he recalls that “members of the NSUI were also responsible for beating people up during last year’s clashes”. According to Aryaan Ishan, a student of Ramjas College, “The youth ‘leaders’ continue their hooliganism and pursue their ‘buy and beat’ politics, or raise polarizing non-issues instead of working on student welfare. Nationalism in student politics only serves to distract students from our real issues, and has aggressive consequences for which us students ultimately suffer.”

However, certain students in the university, such as Bharg Kale, do believe that nationalism is a relevant and important issue to be raised on campus. “Anti-national acts are always to be addressed with concern, the university should engage in nationalist debates and discussions on national issues. However, it is important to have all different opinions discussed in an atmosphere of peace and harmony, within the university and otherwise,” says Kale.

Meanwhile, students are also questioning the very means and campaigns adopted by organizations contesting for the DUSU. “The parties have no agendas. Both NSUI and ABVP enter colleges with slogans like ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, disrupt classes and ask people to vote for their candidates without talking about any issues they wish to work towards,” says Yogita Athreya from Hindu College. Campus politics is notorious for its use of campaign paraphernalia featuring names of candidates, but no agendas. “Instead of identity politics and nationalist jingoism, these so-called ‘student activists’ should work on pressing issues such as women’s safety on campus, provision of affordable hostel accommodation, a more accessible Internal complaints committee, to name a few,” says a student from the university’s south campus who did not wish to be named.

As the popular consensus amongst students seems to be against campus politics based on money and muscle, other student organizations are stepping up in an attempt to offer a more viable alternative. Recently, the student wing of the Aam Aadmi Party, the Chhatrya Yuva Sangharsh Samiti (CYSS) announced its decision to contest for DUSU after three years of boycott. “We boycotted DUSU polls for a long time because of the non-implementation of the Lyngdoh Committee’s guidelines. However, it does not look like they will be enforced anytime soon. Seeing how hard it has been to try and change the system from the outside, we now seek to contest and change it from within,” says Hariom Prabhakar, General Secretary of the CYSS. “Anyone can see how parties on campus have brought a certain negative nationalism into student politics. CYSS wishes to propagate a positive nationalism instead, and to fight against money and muscle with positive ideological change,” he adds.

Aam Aadmi Party convener Gopal Rai has recently announced the decision of the CYSS to contest the DUSU elections jointly with the leftist student organization, All India Students Association or AISA – an alliance that seeks to further the ideas of positive politics and freedom from money and muscle in student politics, which both organizations endorse. The AISA came to the forefront when their campaign to roll back the Delhi Metro fee hike and to avail concessions for students was accepted by the state government. “Although we were not elected to the union, the AISA has been leading campaigns and protests concerning students’ issues such as transport fare hike, lack and unaffordability of campus accommodation, and the call for autonomy and privatization of colleges; while the NSUI and the ABVP have been silently supporting the anti-student policies being pushed by the government” says AISA President Kawalpreet Kaur. According to her, the recent surge in nationalist sentiments on campus has a lot more to do with electoral politics than with the nation. “An attempt is being made to create an atmosphere against those on campus who ask questions – we are now being called ‘urban naxals’ This is unacceptable when the entire point of a university is to grant space for free debate and discussion,” she explains.

Kawalpreet also believes that the false binary being pushed is just ABVP looking out for its own good, as well as that of its parent organizations, the BJP and the RSS. “The idea behind them calling people anti-national or urban naxal is simple: to consolidate support. If you are a nationalist, join ABVP, and then join Modi ji in 2019. This comes from the ABVP despite – or perhaps, because of – the anti-student decisions taken under the Modi government,” she says. “In our programme, ‘Chaar Saal Chhatron ka Haal’, about 87% of 20,000 respondents rejected the central government due to its anti-student policies such as the drastic cut in the number of scholarships and regressive pushes for autonomy. We hope that students continue to reject such policies in the forthcoming DUSU elections, and that this trend is reflected also in the polls for the Lok Sabha”.

It is true that with the vote of lakhs of students from all over the country, the Delhi University Student Union polls are the biggest student elections in the world; and that they give a glimpse into the national political mood to a considerable extent. As student organizations gear up to contest elections in the midst of a nation-wide debate on nationalism, voters for the DUSU are left to ponder over choosing one of the available narratives of nationalism to represent them in the Union – a dilemma that is echoed in the entire country as the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections also grow nearer. Whether and how the students react to this overwhelming emphasis on nationalism will only be seen after September 12th.