Governance & Activism Politics

The Roots of Student Politics in Independent India

Campus politics in India is not at all a new phenomenon. Students have been the backbone of the country right since it became a democracy.

Book Reviewed
Altbach, P. G. (ed). (1968). Turmoil and Transition: Higher Education and Student Politics in India.
New York: Basic Books.

Review by Shreya Urvashi

Campus politics in India has increasingly been getting attention in all spheres- academic and otherwise- recently. With students at multiple universities protesting and going on strike for varied reasons ranging from fee hike to challenging the proposed citizenship act of the country, it is an exciting time as a researcher (or even an enthusiast) to observe, read and write constantly. One of the earliest writings providing a good understanding of the said came out in the 1960s- a time where post-independent India was redefining itself in multiple ways.

Student unrest was rampant on the Indian campuses in the sixties; and several studies have been published which probe into the socio-economic background of the student leaders, attitudes and value patterns among students, ideological consciousness and leadership styles. Turmoil and Transition: Higher Education and Student Politics in India is one such book. It is a collection of essays and case studies on Indian universities and student politics. Seven authors provide the eight parts of the book, published in the 1960s. The chapters in the books have been contributed by the likes of Philip Altbach, SM Lipset, Robert Shaw, Edward Shils and Margaret Cormack – some of the biggest names in student politics in India, and more generally about higher education in the world.

Education in Crisis

The introduction by Shils and the chapter on student politics and higher education in India by Altbach provide background material that clarify and contextualise the later studies in this volume. Shils describes the new type of student(1) as a stranger in the collegiate environment. His(2) poor linguistic training makes it difficult to adapt. He likes to hang about the college either because he has not taken the degree or because he just likes to do so. The participation of Indian students in the civil disobedience movement was a product of the refusal to be involved in the world of impersonal bureaucratic rule.

Shils offers a broad outline of this situation in his introduction. The quarter century between the founding of the All India College Student Conference in 1920 and the end of British rule in 1947 provided a unified cause for student sentiment – “disruption and destruction of the authority of the British Raj.” But with India in charge of its own destiny, the practiced spirit of hostility towards authority lacked a well-defined enemy. According to him:

“[I]t is more than the absence of a cause which disintegrates and fragments the hatred of authority which is evident in the disruptive actions of Indian students today. It is the absence of a legitimating hostility – focused adult authority which accounts for much of the discontinuity, occasionality, and particularity of Indian student rebellion today.”

Indiscipline, hostility which was “sporadic, episodic, and more violent”, and concern about particular grievances rather than about more systemic reform, ruled the scene at the time. There was no “well-acknowledged politically concerned authority” to help students “to focus on a political object.” Further, Shils saw much of the student agitation as a form of juvenile delinquency. However, he goes on to acknowledge that knowledge about these matters in a country of India’s scale and variation was fragmentary, especially regarding “the structure and process of the disruptive actions themselves.” The account by Shils, while in some measure is in deep contrast with the situation today, still is true with regard to the fact that the Indian student activism does remain sporadic and particular till this day. While the Emergency in the 1970’s and the recent protests since around 2014 are some instances where students are united and up against an ‘enemy’, many other strikes and protests remain for local issues. While academic interest in the field has increased manifold since the 1960’s, it is still far from satisfactory.

New Generation, Circa 1966
Photograph by Pamphlet Repository for Changing Activism

The Indian Student Movement

Philip Altbach, in the essay which forms the crux of the volume, analyzes the Indian student movement from several vantage points. He looks critically at its origins, development during the freedom movement, and its transformation following independence. He points out that student agitation in India has rarely been directly political, rather has been concerned more with local and non-ideological issues. Central to Altbach’s argument in his chapter is the problem of ‘indiscipline’. The term has been variously defined, but Altbach notes that it is often used to describe “any student action which does not meet with the approval of government or educational officials.” With sensitivity to the plight of the student, he seeks to explore the causes of unrest, concluding that the “frustrations of the educational system, increasingly difficult conditions for the educated urban segment of the population generally, and a remnant of the nationalist tradition of student political involvement all combine to insure the continuation of sporadic but often violent student unrest and indiscipline.”

Delhi State Committee. All India Students’ Federation. Annual Conference 1975
Photograph by: Pamphlet Repository for Changing Activism

He also provides an orderly and detailed view of the circumstances in India. According to him, it seems that the student population never accepted Gandhian nonviolence as a guiding principle; Islamism and Hinduism divide students along religious lines; English is being slowly replaced by Hindi, but in many areas students seek to reject Hindi in favour of a local language. Also, the total number of college students increased from 263,000 in 1950 to 1,094,000 in 1966(3), without proportional increases in infrastructure, staff, books, and scholarships. The quality of education therefore declined. Moreover, the All India Students’ Federation, founded in 1936 and ideologically Communist, concerns itself with local issues like teachers’ salaries and the recognition of technical institute diplomas. In short, Altbach finds the student movement in India at the time to be a “diffuse and uncoordinated series of expressions of discontent and frustration.” He paints the picture of a malaise of a people seeking to cope with modern values in a highly traditional society, dominated by family and caste, and struggling with widespread poverty. A number of studies(4) have documented the fact that several student agitations during the period between 1969-75 had rather unimportant issues, like more and better food and accommodation in college hostels, as their origin. Altbach corroborates this view, noting weak ideological orientation among student activists, a large number of whom were motivated by non-ideological considerations. These included getting charmed by the charisma of the leader, or even the opportunity to get good hostel seats.

Resistance and Representation: Student of the 1960s

The Indian student scene is further described by Shils and Joseph R. Gusfield in the chapters that follow. Edward Shils suggests that the Indian student should be regarded as a sadhu or religious ascetic who “resents the burden of familial discipline and resists incorporation into modern impersonal adult institutions” such as the university. In sharp contrast to the 1940s when students in universities had an ultimate goal of gaining independence for India, such dominant motives died post-independence. Shils points out that as a result, students in the 1960’s were lost – they had idealswere ideal but did not know how to act on that. Because they lacked a cause, rebellion for rebellion’s sake was the outcome. However, the authors point out other phenomena that started playing out in Indian universities by then. Students seeking to educate themselves through the medium of Hindi found that the textbooks in their potentially national tongue(5) are inferior to those available in English, a language associated with their colonial past. The textbooks and syllabi taught were exceedingly strenuous leading to crushing examinations – in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as many as 70 percent failed in one instance. The students hear lectures in the colleges and universities given by teachers who are not responsible for reading their examination papers. The teachers were, as noted by Shils, “poor, bedraggled, resentful, and embittered.” They avoided personal relationships with those they serve; since “to maintain his authority over the student is an essential for the Indian teacher and to keep his social distance is vital.” For instance, when a student approached a teacher, he was to be obsequious; “for his trouble he is usually ignored or curtly told to come back another time.” Shils observes that “[M]any of the students live in a state of anxiety-ridden poverty,” unable to pay for lodgings or food. The causes of the anxiety were manifold- ranging from love to sustenance. The need for love was thwarted because India, to this day, is highly protective of its women; extra-marital sexual experience is not generally available to young Indian men, and students are too poor to marry. An extremely possessive and complex family system, allied to the forces of caste, ties students strongly to their kin, their town, and region. Even the examination system was entwined with family considerations.

The volume includes studies of three particular institutions, the universities of Allahabad, Osmania, and Ranchi. Joseph Di Bona sets student disturbances against the background of conditions at Allahabad University; Robert C. Shaw does likewise for those at Osmania University in Hyderabad; and Amar Kumar Singh examines those at the Ranchi University.

Of particular interest is Joseph Di Bona’s examination of Allahabad University. While the university structurally remained the same since 1947, there was a large influx of rural youth with a concomitant parochialization of the campus environment: 

“Allahabad is like a delicate Victorian structure created originally for a limited and specific task. It is now being asked to cope with much more complex issues for which it is ill-suited. As the masses of rural youth enter the campus a kind of reverse acculturation takes place in which the countryside is remaking the city.” 

Di Bona, in his chapter, bemoans the decline in standards and the loss of cosmopolitan English as the medium of instruction. However, as a rather strong disagreement with Di Bona, it could be argued that the perpetuation of English as well as the promotion of a university wholly out of touch with its environment and unresponsive to the needs of all but a privileged few, is to forego any attempt to achieve a fundamental transformation of society.  An Indian university system of the type Di Bona seems to hope for would sustain deep class divisions, and inevitably court unrest and revolution.

The growing economic difficulty and the broadening social base of higher education is highlighted in Di Bona’s study. Though his work was written in the 1960s, a lot of the facts he stated remain true till today. While more students from socially and economically underprivileged classes are entering universities, the majority of the new entrants still belong to the upper strata of society. University students are largely drawn from middle and upper middle classes. It is a different matter that the middle class as a whole is getting pauperized because of increased living costs. Families of this class send their children to colleges and universities at considerable personal sacrifice. However, their aspirations are often not met by the prevalent educational system. They want their children to earn enough to repay the cost of education. This seldom happens and creates resentment among parents.

The Student: Fortnightly Journal of the All-India Students’ Federation. Vol. VI. NO. 3. AS. 3. 18th February 1946. Photograph by Pamphlet Repository for Changing Activism

Di Bona gives an interesting case study of both the elite and the masses in Indian higher education. The regional character of university education is emphasized to the detriment of its cosmopolitan past. The shift from English to vernacular as the medium of instruction, ideological affiliations of the local community influencing faculty recruitments, affiliation with colleges in different regions, student disturbances, and the relation of higher education to the state and central governments are some of its important features. The toppers chose English and Sanskrit. Thus, the elites among the students had English medium education during the early part of the 1960s. Students who obtained third division were admitted to science courses for the first time, indicating an important transition of the university from an elitist to a mass institution. The expenditure per student between 1939 and 1956 remained around Rs. 500 a year despite a four-fold cost of living increase in the same period. The teacher-student ratio doubled between 1926 and 1956. In 1924, 80 per cent of the students at the university resided in hostels, whereas in 1956 the ratio of hostellers was only about 30 per cent. The increasing number led to curtailment in sports and athletic activities. As a result, the most popular pastimes ended up being strolling, gossiping and lounging about. Teachers complained bitterly of the selfishness of others or of the students crowding their classes. Students were found humiliating their teachers. Instead of using the campus intellectuals for implementing state and national plans, the teachers felt alienated. Viewed from an alternate perspective, students’ and teachers’ protests may be dynamic efforts to seek new solutions to personal, institutional, and social problems. Education in such an environment cannot but curtail the student’s effectiveness in the national arena.

Robert Shaw, in his own words, followed in the footsteps of Di Bona and did a similar study of a university in South India. He mentions three student strikes during the 1960s, all of which aimed for reform in the examination and grading system in Osmania University in Hyderabad. A typical feature of a nascent democracy, the ruling political class was deeply involved in the administration of the university. Thus, students and faculty got involved in the state politics unavoidably. Unlike the faculty, the students had found a way to put pressure on the government by revolting and protesting. Shaw goes on to demonstrate how the faculty from time to time depended upon this student indiscipline to strengthen its own position in conflicts with the local political class.

Arun Kumar Singh discusses the problem of nepotism at Ranchi University. He says that the honest among the faculty were unable to discipline colleagues who favor the children of local politicians, divulge examination papers in advance, or encourage their students to harass a rival colleague. These practices are described with unusual candor. The consequence was that many students did not respect teachers and the quality of education suffered. Certainly, the strictly-run Jesuit colleges, whose staff were “morally self-confident and conscientious”, had relatively less trouble with unruly students. Intellectual as well as pedagogical authority was, and to a large extent is, in short supply on the average Indian campus. Many students lacked confidence in those dispassionate intellectual procedures that the university is assumed to inculcate. They appeared to possess no agreed-upon method for distinguishing truth from rumor, or for peacefully settling their grievances. A. K. Singh concludes that, at Ranchi University in Jharkhand, “the teacher-student relationship becomes a political equation rather than an academic and spiritual bond.”

All Indian Young Workers Consultative Conference
Photograph by Pamphlet Repository for Changing Activism

Margaret Cormack, in her chapter, attributes this to the rapid expansion of higher education since independence, and tries to locate some bright points in this overwhelmingly bleak picture of the Indian university described by Di Bona as “an intellectually stifling, caste ridden, contentious environment where violence is ever close to the surface.”

The studies highlight an important fact that the bright students, who were mostly drawn from the upper middle class, were also leaders in other fields. It appears that the two kinds of student activities, one academic and the other political, led to two kinds of social situations. The economically and socially better off, and the academically active students were more likely to enter civil services and similar professions, while the socially and economically disadvantaged students would provide recruits to active politics. The two groups, travelling along different routes, may later meet in the management of the polity and economy of the country, one as administrators and technologists and the other as party functionaries, ministers, members of legislatures etc. The system of higher education in India, therefore, was creating not only gaps between privileged elites and other sections of the students, but also a dichotomy in the socio-political system.

Another interesting aspect of the Indian academia that the book brings to light is the ambiguity. Indian students were marginals. While on the one hand western education cut them off from their roots by accustoming them to a system which, in theory at least, advances the individual according to his own merit; on the other hand, students also knew that outside the university, caste and family connections count for more than their own talent in securing jobs.

The problem for the student, thus, could be stated as their education being extraneous to the social order. Only those who already had secure family or political connections had an assured career, but even those privileged students faced a conflict of values. They had to choose between forming part of the small Westernized enclave in Indian society or reverting to the caste-oriented traditions of their forefathers. While the Western enclave is constantly getting bigger, it is yet to get so big that its future can be regarded as secure. Security still lay in the acceptance of that Hindu culture. 

Two of the authors: Edward A. Shils (1910 – 1995) and Seymour Martin Lipset (1922 – 2006).

The above analysis in the book was done of the period of the 1960s. However, the socio-political structures described are true even for the contemporary Indian university. The following recommendation of the authors thus, continues to make a very relevant case. For Shils as well as the others, the main task of the Indian Professor is to cultivate in their students a sense of individuality, and to teach the latter to take pride in their own achievements. In both cases, it needs to come through the exercise of intellectual discipline.

It is a provocative book, and it examines a serious problem to all those concerned with politics generally. This book has enough material to give the reader a fairly good understanding of the problems of students and all those engaged in higher education in the country. For those trying to understand students and universities in India today, this book will make an excellent start.


1. As opposed to students who came earlier and played a significant role in the freedom struggle which led to India’s independence in 1947.

2. While mostly colleges were co-ed, male students formed the main demographic at the time.

3. The total number today stands at around 35 million.

4. PG Altbach, Edward Shils, SM Lipset and SC Hazary are some of the most popular names to have
done the writings on these topics.

5. The debate surrounding Hindi as a national language remains one of the biggest till today. At the time of writing, there is no national language in India.

All photographs by Pamphlet Repository for Changing Activism

About the author

Shreya Urvashi is a research scholar of Sociology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research areas are higher education and politics of sociology. She is also the Managing Editor of Critical Edges Editorial Board.

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