Kanupriya for President

Sep 16, 2018, 06:15 IST | Paromita Vohra

Kanupriya herself seems to have absolutely no confusion about what that chord is

Kanupriya for President
Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav

Paromita VohraLast week, 22-year old Kanupriya, representing a non-party affiliated, left-leaning student organisation called SFS — Students for Society — became the first woman president of the Panjab University student council. Kirron Kher, BJP MP from Chandigarh, tried to slot this as one of those cute character-driven tales beloved of Western non-fiction about democratic dreams, when she commented in the media saying, "Students have voted for the girl, not SFS — maybe she touched a chord." But, Kanupriya herself seems to have absolutely no confusion about what that chord is. In an interview she said, "Some friends tell me that people see it as the victory of a woman in a man's world. Others see it as the victory of progressive thinking. But I think of it as part of a growing students' movement in this country. I was confident of winning because I believe in the issues we are fighting for. We decided votes would not be sought on the basis of identities, but on the basis of the dream of a better world, the concerns of an advancing youth and the issues related to our life."

Only the folks who made sententious declarations following the 2014 elections, about it being a vote for development, a vote against caste, a break from the past, vaghera vaghera knew what they meant. It may have been a break from a past static party, but so far there is no such inclusive vision on offer, only a kitsch utopia peddled through rhyming slogans and relentless graphics. There has, however, been plenty of vindictive violence, persecution of students, especially Dalit students, and intimidation of college professors.

Those who feel a misguided sense of nationalism about all the above should worry for their children. For, while there are a growing number of private 'world-class' (as they say) universities, these are expensive, allowing only a homogenous population of elite students to acquire the language of cultural and political critique, in essentially gated environments, without inhabiting a mixed and diverse Indian society in an everyday fashion. Feminism, too, though here to stay in mainstream conversation, is frequently reformatted by some market ideas to be in a kind of gender silo, where elite women speak of womanhood as a site of oppression as well as success, but rarely examine the contradictions or complications of class and caste, thus leaving larger structures unquestioned.

There is a simultaneous hollowing out of the public educational system, which is equal to abandoning an entire generation of youth, especially from less privileged backgrounds. But, it is these that should be strengthened as a place of genuine diversity. Last week, I spent some time with a researcher studying secondary school education across India. "Everywhere, you see that young people of diverse non-elite backgrounds are lost. You may give them basic skills or whatever, but there is little or no space for them to learn to question themselves, the world, build resilience — how else are you supposed to develop your selfhood?" she asked.

It's inspiring that a young woman is the first president of a student council. But more inspiring, is to hear her say, "Both women's empowerment and our involvement in other politics are moving hand in hand," for it speaks of inclusivity and integrated-ness in a political conversation thinned out by polarisation on so many axes — social, political and economic. Whether it is a break from the past or not, for once, at least something sounds like a way forward.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning, Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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