Posted by: Vikram | October 31, 2008

The college culture of the United States and India – Part 2

“Say no to proposition 22”, “Join the University Democrats”, “Vote for McCain”, “Johnson for City Councillor”, these are some of the many slogans one hears on my university’s campus. There is an area called the main mall, where students can set up tables and recruit people for their causes, organizations and campaigns. My organization AID Austin, is one of them, we often table at the main mall for raising awareness about issues related to India. Other organizations cover a wide range of issues and political causes/orientations.

I cant say that the average UT student is very politically active, but those that are, have every opportunity to voice and debate their opinions. I dont think that any such environment exists in most Indian schools. In fact, the new engineering ‘colleges’ mushrooming all over India, are depriving young, energetic Indians of an atmosphere where they can understand politics and organize themselves. I may be totally off the mark here, but I cant imagine the conversation in even the hallowed IITs going much beyond Bollywood and cricket (apart from acads). I hope I am wrong on that count. But it seems pretty clear that the extremely focused instis of higher education in India seriously deprive young educated Indians an environment in which they can develop and express any political activism they might have.

Even though the students here are generally not very passionate about politics (they have a lot of other things to engage them 😉 ), but they dont share the cynicism, that their Indian counterparts may (justifiably) have. But the basic issue goes back to the lack of completeness that I talked about in my first post on this subject. It is much more likely that a political science student would be interested in the US elections but if he/she can positively inform/influence an uninterested engineering student, it is important, because everyone gets only one vote. Effective democracy relies on the active participation of every member of the society, and involving the college-going youth will greatly improve the quality of India’s democracy.


  1. Vikram, you are absolutely right: democracy is really what it is supposed to be when every member of society actively participates in the process. In India, unfortunately, in colleges, involvement in politics often degenerates to a display of all that is wrong with democracy in this country.

  2. In India politically active students join Youth Congress or other such parties. They fight elections (I am talking about Delhi University, in my days) and fight like normal, Indian politicians do, they promise to improve the common room facilities or the college canteen…. but generally don’t fulfill these promises. There is no serious, unbiased, intelligent discussion on politics.

  3. Oh this reminds me a bit of my student time when I was so active for Tibetan cause. Once we organised a protest against the Chinese ambassador and it caused such an uproar that the next day over 300 people were put in Jail. I guess having not studied science I do have some exposure to campus politics of Indian as well as foreign students. I agree with you about the lack of interest in topics other than some “mainstream” stuff.

  4. Politics are very heavy in Universities in india. I do not know about the last 10 years but did you know that IITians had their own party Parivartana or soemthing like that.( i don’t even know if they function now ).by the way one IIT bombay alumni was the last chief minister of Goa.of course politics in indian universities is all about youth congress and shiv sena in bombay and extremely bad as IHM pointed out (of course which i was part of !) here it is the same either democrat or republican or liberal ..intelligent discusssions are rheotoric..same there same here ( of course there is no goodaism here) and since they do not have to worry about bad food at cafeteria’s here the talk is about foreign policy and the big hep stuff. i may sound very cynical.. having observed both..politics is the same 6+2 =5 everywhere.

  5. even the hallowed IITs going much beyond Bollywood and cricket (apart from acads).

    Apping they discuss, acads — I haven’t really heard anything in my time there!

  6. i’d blogged on the same quite some time back. here
    the premier engineering colleges might be lacking in politics, (and they nip anything even remotely political right in the bud, trust me) but quite a good number of universities are not. patna univ, delhi univ, jadhavpur univ, chennai univ… can add lots more.
    the politics here is more local than to do directly with the lok sabha elections.
    that said, indians are stricken by the disease of cynicism. colonial rule and what followed for sixty years after freedom has cultivated the image of the ‘ugly indian politician’ so much that most citizens know no other sort and prefer to keep away from political issues. it’s not just in colleges you find this. most indians are disillusioned with the political scene that they think they have something to protest about and the best way to do so is to NOT vote! this is a step taken in ignorance as the proper procedure would be to go to the voting center and cast a negative vote.. if more than 50% of the votes in a constituency are negative, the elections are held again in the constituency with fresh candidates.
    there’s no easy solution for this situation… if you try educating people on why they need to keep themselves informed of the political situation, they ask why, and trying to convince them is like talking to a wall.

  7. Universities in India are very heavily politicized, and are the breeding grounds for politicians. See. Eg. Banaras Hindu University, JNU and Aligarh Muslim Universities. They are even more politicized than American Universities, often to the detriment of the proper functioning of an academic institution. So, this idea that Indian campuses are not political is somewhat incorrect. It is true that Engg. colleges and IITs are not similarly politicized, but this is as much a deliberate choice of students and (in case of Engg. colleges) the kind of students who join as it is anything else.

  8. An insightful article, Vikram. I concur with Vinod on his view of democracy. While the core elements of democracy namely, dissent & debate exist in plenty in India, their significance is rarely understood and they are hardly used as the tools to build a consensus. Today, campus politics in India have gone from bad to worse with the major political parties using their student wings as proxies to propagate their broader (and often highly skewed) ideology. Let’s hope things get better on this front, in the days to come.

  9. People, thank you all for your comments, in many ways your comments have added more substance to my analysis, since it seems I was a bit mis/uninformed on the Indian side of things.

    @krishna: I agree that I was uninformed with regards to how heavily politicized univs in India are. They are seemingly more related to direct electoral considerations. But political activism has a broader meaning. For. eg. protesting against and raising awareness about some legislation is a big part of campus ‘politics’ here. I would like to know if this is commonplace in India univs, it seems from what I read and hear that it is not.

    @ Sharmaji, IHM, srinivas444: Yes, politics in India is very dirty and a lot of the grime probably rubs off on the politics at college level. Srinivas, it seems that increasingly the government arbitrarily decides what the consensus is, and then just quashes dissent with whatever means possible. And many in the middle class and media remain worryingly numb to this phenomena.

  10. wanderlust, your article is a great read and probably captures the Indian side of things much better than my attempt here.

    The political activism of India’s ‘best and brightest’ is neutralized either by the rigours of their hard-science acads. A lot of us are actually more politically active here in the US, esp. the PhD students. The missing political activism of young, intelligent and passionate individuals just fuels the cynicism you mentioned.

    About voting, I have mentioned before that the Indian middle class just seems to be unable to become a ‘votebank’. ‘Not voting’ will just be ignored by a candidate, ‘not voting for you’ might have quite a different impact.

  11. anrosh, I dont completely agree with your take on college activism here. A lot of the activism on my campus recently was actually about informing and influencing people with regards to a local legislation called Proposition 2 (I wont go into details).

    Have you followed Odzer’s travails with the plastic bag ban in Chandigarh. If University of Punjab had a strong politically active student body. It would perhaps be easier to start a debate on the matter, by channeling the energy of interested (and affected) students. Thats just a hypothetical example, but I hope you get the idea.

  12. vikram.. i just left the good stuff out -awareness, PR, protest against (XYZ), rallies, come have a pizza and register yourself as a democrat/republican.. if you don’t have a car they take you to vote..even if it is just 5 blocks away etc etc…talk to your mayor ( if you have a problem)..of course…And the good part is the localization…but when it comes to bottomline is all the same jing bang.

    Nov 4 is the big day and i am sure there will late night election watching at the student center –but you may want to get to the opposite wing quarters (who is not winning ) and write a post and let us know.

  13. how do you propose to include India’s intellectual college going youth in Indian politics or large scale social reform ?

    comparing American political scenario with that of India is absurd. It’s not that Indian youth are not interested in politics and reform. As you stated yourself our cynicism is extremely justifiable, as is our aversion to personally entering or getting involved in politics.

    “I cant imagine the conversation in even the hallowed IITs going much beyond Bollywood and cricket (apart from acads)”

    please visit…

    it’s a very new blog and posts are few and far between but I guess it would be slightly helpful in giving your imagination a bit of exercise…

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  15. […] university education in America and what India can take from them, here are the other parts Part 1, Part 2 and Part […]

  16. I would like to politely disagree on some part of your article.

    I don’t know about other colleges..but atleast in BITS (Birla Institute of Technology & Science),Pilani (with 3 campuses in India -Pilani,Goa and Hyd)…a very prestigious engineering university… considered in the league of IITs…only diff being its private),
    we often have late night chats among friends arguing about such stuff, debates……i think its wrong to consider that students don’t follow the political scene and discuss…many do… (In fact many discussions often extend to literature and history =)…No Kidding!….) So Please don’t say that Indian colleges are no longer intellectual hubs

    What is true however is that many are reluctant to support any political party…even parents, as you might have noticed, are often against their children getting involved in politics, which I must say…in India,is definitely a very very dirty game.

    I guess the corrupt, money sucking leeches and hypocrites in political parties, are the ones to blame for this disillusionment of the youth.

    We can only hope that the political situation improves…

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