Who robbed TN student politics of its glory days?

By D. Govardan
On a January night in 1989, the day DMK romped home in the assembly election to form the government in Tamil Nadu, after a gap of 14 years, a car crashed into an iron-grill gate on Loyola campus, Chennai, forcing it open. The objective was to get a few hostel students, prevented by the management from venturing out in the night, to participate in the DMK’s ‘victory bash’. After all, the students had worked tirelessly for the victory of M K Stalin, whose father and party president M Karunanidhi, was set to be sworn in chief minister.
That could be an extreme act by a set of over-zealous students. But for the DMK, which thrived on student-power to capture power in the state in 1967 on the back of the anti-Hindi agitation, fuelled by the students – that may well be the norm. It was a college student Virudhunagar P Seenivasan, who defeated Congress leader K Kamaraj in 1967 — a feat that shocked the state.
In 1972, when MGR decided to part ways with the DMK, he relied on student power to strengthen his fledgling AIADMK. While several leaders came up the ranks in the party, including the firebrand K Kalimuthu, the one person that MGR wanted on his side, chose to stay back in DMK — S Duraimurugan, who is now a veteran in that party.
Cut to the present. Over the past fortnight, actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, as if attempting to rekindle that political fire, chose to address large gatherings of students on their own campuses. While Rajinikanth wanted students to focus on their education, Kamal Haasan wanted them to be in politics.
Forget for a moment their views, which were as divergent as the venues of these two institutions. Is Tamil Nadu still an active zone for student politics? No — seems to be the answer for various reasons. The ban on student body elections in colleges in the state since more than a decade ago, has left the state bereft of a JNU-type atmosphere or an active political environment. The thrust on professional colleges and their school-like environment, where students are dissuaded from even discussing politics, has left them with little or no option for other activities.
“We have nearly lost a generation with very little political activism, interest or understanding of politics. Established Dravidian parties too have done very little to change that in recent times,” said a DMK spokesman, who did not wish to be quoted. “Student politics is very active elsewhere in the country, but not in Tamil Nadu anymore. Rahul Gandhi could go to JNU at the peak of a protest because NSUI was active there. But, the same is not happening here now because the platform has almost ceased to exist,” he added.
“Present youngsters are career oriented and parents have moulded them to think that way from the high school stage itself. With globalization throwing up opportunities for both the urban as well as the rural youth, the focus is clearly on that,” feels AICC secretary A Chellakumar, who was a student Congress leader in the 1980s. “While there are still a few politically active students, they are involved in it for their own survival and growth. Political leaders, if they are keen, can still attract students, provided they are able to convince them on their thoughts,” he said.
Pointing to a fall in reading habits among students, analyst Sudhangan says they are less drawn towards politics due to a lack of their own understanding of it. “Those days, students involved in politics had a background or a reason like an anti-Hindi agitation. Nowadays, their intelligence is limited to their mobile handsets and WhatsApp messages. With lack of clear understanding, they also tend to become opinionated on everything. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who themselves are yet to spell out their ideologies, are not targeting the students with any ideology. They are only looking at their numbers,” he says.

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