It’s July, the new admission time at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). This is when the student wings of various parties set up their tables outside the administrative block (known as ‘Pink Palace’) and in helping the newcomers try to entice them into their cadres. The surprise item this time is that there is not one but two SFIs – the Student Federation of India, which is the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Suffice it to say that SFI is to JNU what the Congress has been to the country, the grand old party.
“The cracks are clearly visible. It has never happened before,” says an old-timer of the SFI’s JNU unit who did not wish to be quoted.
Just 10 metres away from each other, there are two desks, one has the banner of SFI, and the other has “SFI (JNU)”. The new unit is in solidarity with Prasenjit Bose, convenor of the CPM’s research cell, who quit the party in June to protest several decisions including the support to “neo-liberal” Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature for the post of president. Bose, a dynamic leader who revived the fortunes of SFI in the campus a decade ago against the onslaught of the right-wing ABVP, seems to have a following in the campus. The JNU unit of SFI too protested the party decision.
The JNU unit of SFI decided to put its weight behind Bose. In a general body meeting (GBM) held in the campus on July 5, it passed a resolution against the party decision to support Mukherjee. The party hit back by dissolving it. That unit is now “SFI (JNU)”.
The other one, the party-backed SFI unit, is led by three organising committee members. One of them, Manu MR, says, “We are building up the unit.”
“Pranab Mukherjee represents the neo-liberal face (of economic policies) and supporting him wouldn’t have given the right message in the campus. That is why we opposed the decision,” says Zico Dasgupta of SFI who contested JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) elections last year.
On July 10, the Delhi SFI expelled four state committee members, Dasgupta, Roshan Kishore, PK Anand, and V Lenin Kumar, for “anti-party activities”. The decision was signed by the acting president and acting secretary. But it failed to control the disquiet. In protest, Robert Rahman Raman, the state secretary of SFI Delhi state committee, resigned from the post. Rahman said the decision was taken without adequate consultation and only 12 members were present in the meeting.
The ‘dissolved’ unit members then held another GBM in the campus on July 13, opposing the SFI Delhi’s decision, terming it undemocratic and in violation of the SFI constitution.
“The political position against the CPM support to Mukherjee was adopted in a transparent and democratic manner. We always take a line on national and international issues. How can this decision be different and anti-party?” says Roshan.
When the SFI unit passed the resolution against the party stand, SFI president PK Biju, who is also a Lok Sabha member, told the Indian Express that a “unit” cannot take decisions on such “policy issues”. But Dasgupta says it is within the SFI constitution to take up on such issues. He points out that Clause 2.13 of the SFI’s programme states that it is an independent body of students and “not a political party”.
“We are not against CPM. It is like the party dictating the campus unit,” says Roshan.
“The new diktat by the national SFI is draconian and shows a lack of sensitivity and understanding of the political context in JNU,” adds Lenin, a JNUSU councilor at the School of International Studies (SIS).
In the party, several people have started raising the issue of what is called ‘democratic centralism’, the Leninist notion that party members are free to debate policy but must support the final decision of the party.
Prabhat Patnaik, the retired professor of economics and a member of CPM, is vocal about ‘democratic centralism’ in the party. Just after the party congress in Kozhikode in April, Patnaik said in a media interview, “I just came from the party congress, and I keep reminding everyone that they have to give up notions of a one-party state, of democratic centralism,” he added. “Democratic centralism always leads to centralism.”
Patnaik also talked about how feudal-Stalinist trend has gripped the party. “I see communism in India today as being threatened in two ways: either being hegemonised by bourgeois liberalism, or as falling prey to a feudal-Stalinism. What is common to both these trends is an implicit lack of conviction about socialism, an implicit subscription to the neo-liberal ‘development' agenda, and an implicit denial of scope for people's empowerment,” he said.
Bose also opposed democratic centralism. “His resignation is well thought out and admirable. He must be grappling with such issues for a very long time as he indicated in his resignation letter. It is a political stand on the issues but definitely not a motivated stand,” Prakash K Ray, a doctorate student, who had resigned from SFI way back in 2007 on similar grounds.
Many feel that ‘democratic centralism’ has gone to the grassroots level like in the campuses too. “If students can’t talk politics, what will they talk,” asks Anagha Ingole, president of the breakaway faction – the SFI (JNU).
Issues beyond Pranab
Moreover, the issue is not just supporting Prasenjit Bose’s decision. Since 2007, the SFI has been falling way behind the ultra-left student organization, All-India Students Association (AISA), in the campus. Last year, when elections were held after four years (due to the Lyngdoh committee recommendations), AISA trounced SFI.
When CPM announced support for Mukherjee in presidential elections, in the campus AISA criticized the move and asked SFI to state its position. “In the past few weeks the SFI has come under a severe attack from ultra-left organisations like AISA over this issue. Students were asking about SFI’s position and we could not afford to remain silent,” said an SFI pamphlet of July 7 explaining its position.
The pamphlet added, “The primacy of political factors, primarily those related to Singur-Nandigram and the general state of the Left movement in the country has been noted in inner-organisational discussions. In a left leaning political campus like JNU, these developments have eroded the SFI’s support base among the progressive and democratic minded students. The developments since 2007 have made the SFI vulnerable to attacks of ‘double-speak’ by the ultra-Left, which has gained at SFI’s cost.”
Ingole asks, “In a changing scenario, the SFI needs to take an autonomous position to deal with AISA’s challenge. Otherwise, how can we make a strong opponent.”
Both the SFI units now aim to build a strong base by September when JNUSU elections will be held. The much more organised SFI (JNU) is adamant to contest the elections on its own. “It will champion the stand taken against the CPM lines on Mukherjee and would move forward," says Dasgupta.
He says nobody from the party leadership has come forward to talk on the issue in the campus though both top leaders, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, have been presidents of JNUSU from SFI. Karat was president of the JNU Students union in 1972-73, while Yechury held the same post in 1977-78.
“The issue is not going to easily resolve so quickly. However, the stand-off will continue till the JNUSU elections. If there is any progress towards rapprochement, it might happen only after September,” assesses Ray.