What is ailing University Democrats!

Delhi State Committee,
Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS)


Mao Tse-tung

NOTE: This is a review and summation of the proceedings of the forum, University Community for Democracy (UCD). UCD is constituted of different individuals who may or may not belong to organizations. Apart from some dominant tendencies which we have criticized below, the forum has some well-intentioned individuals who have increasingly become discontent with UCD’s functioning. We have prepared this piece for internal discussion within our organization, but due to requests from certain friends in UCD, we are going public with it. It encompasses many points of criticism which we often raised in UCD meetings.

Recently, some University teachers and students in the north campus of Delhi University have been running a campaign under the banner of the UNIVERSITY COMMUNITY FOR DEMOCRACY (UCD). To use the words of the campaign’s founding members, the campaign is committed to fighting against “shrinking democratic space in the University”. The focus of the campaign has particularly been on the eviction of college students from university hostels, in the wake of the Commonwealth Games. A section of “left” intellectuals and “progressive” activists can be seen allying themselves with this forum. It has become fashionable for some to be seen in its meetings and, for those who navigate more in the realms of virtual reality, to trail the forum’s activities in cyberspace.

However, in the very beginning in UCD meetings there have been activists and organizations that have questioned the constituting logic of the forum. Most of such criticism was swept under the carpet as mere issues of modus operandi or as divisive tactics. The validity of the criticism raised was often lost to many of the forum’s participants who were hostile to organization structure, and hence, to criticisms coming from organizations. Even when some of our points of criticism were noted they were hardly addressed in a manner that reassured us of UCD’s commitment to the issues raised. The following pages are a delineation of this unfortunate fact.

At a time when the Commonwealth Games (CWG) are the focus of the media, many activities of the UCD come across more as publicity gimmicks than anything else. It is important for many of the forum’s participants to be seen resisting the Games but to do that they have to mobilize people on issues close to them. With little understanding on the issues concerning different people, UCD raises them in an opportunistic vein, just so as to galvanize different issues and use them. In reality CWG is the starting point and be all and end all of their resistance. And no matter how earnestly UCD denies it, this has been their strategy because right now the Games are the highlight of the season. Even before the University opened and the campaign could take proper shape; there were overt attempts to reach the media for coverage (such as forming media coordination teams and releasing press statements).

Even the “relay hunger strike”, or rather “skip one’s lunch” strike was no exception (it is interesting to note that UCD members sat on “hunger strike” from 9am to 9pm, which basically means they did not sacrifice their breakfast and dinner—In reality a relay hunger strike is continuous, and, thereby, includes people sitting on hunger strike twenty four hours—the term relay refers to somebody ending their hunger strike and another person taking their place). Since a “hunger strike” by University students and teachers is an eye-catching story for the media, it was more important to be seen in this act of drama even if the demands of those on “hunger strike” stood thoroughly misplaced. Sadly, so as to project a significant gathering at the venue of the “hunger strike”, students were actually subjected to authoritarian tactics by teachers supportive of UCD. These teachers, acting as pied-pipers and humming the threatening tune of internal assessment, drew their hapless students to the venue by taking their classes there. Students (the majority of whom were oblivious to the issues raised), were obviously not taken into confidence when they were made to come to the “hunger strike” site.

The fact that the demands of those on “hunger strike” were misplaced reflects nothing but a sheer lack of seriousness and understanding on the issues raised. It was the form in which the “relay hunger strike” raised certain demands that was highly problematic for it reeked of sheer opportunism and sectarianism. Let us take the example of rent regulation raised during the “hunger strike”. Firstly, UCD began its campaign with absolutely no concrete demand of rent regulation. The forum was forced to pick up the issue of rent regulation in addition to the issue of hostel eviction because it was constantly accosted by the majority of students who had never even lived in college hostels, and had for a long time been faced with the problem of escalating rents. There was also urgency in making rent regulation an active demand of the UCD campaign because some other organizations had already launched a full-fledged campaign on rent regulation in the city. Hence, it was more in a competitive spirit than with any serious commitment and understanding on the issue that rent regulation became part of UCD’s charter of demands.

To further delineate the opportunism with which the issue of rent was finally raised by UCD, we would like to bring the reader’s attention to the fact that although they are now talking of rent control; escalating rents are actually being conceptualized as a University neighbourhood problem rather than a general problem for migrants coming to the city (for further illustration of this point please see CSW and KYS’s paper). This is precisely why UCD’s “hunger strike” targeted the audience in Arts Faculty (a transit point for the student/teaching community), and not any tangible authority (which in this case should really have been the Government of Delhi). And this is why the best that UCD can do on the issue of rent is to demand rent regulation from the Dean of Colleges! Quite rightly, their delegation was informed by the Dean of her incapability to regulate rents since this was way beyond the University authorities’ jurisdiction and responsibility. We return to the fundamental question— why does the University remain the centre of UCD’s resistance when authorities beyond the Vice Chancellor are to blame, and when there are many people apart from students/teachers who are adversely affected by unregulated rents? To the reader who might still believe that raising the issue of rent regulation at the University level is perhaps what is immediately feasible for UCD, we have one question—has the life of the minority ever drastically changed without a transformation in the life of the majority? For example, can an individual educated woman today feel hundred percent secure and confident in a work space when the majority of women in society are still perceived as objects of sexual consumption and undeserving of career opportunities? Friends, the answer is no and experience has taught us that.

The question of the sectarian political approach of UCD was raised several times in the meetings. As argued by us in such meetings, issues and demands should really be raised in a way that they appeal to a larger section of people affected by the state’s inaction and its collusion with private business interests. In this way we connect concerns, struggles and militancy of different sections of people who are often segregated from each other due to the functioning of the system in place. For example, the student community and workers find themselves separated by work schedules, their class backgrounds, spatial settings/norms (in terms of workers being restricted to the space of factories/work sites and students to the space of their classrooms), etc. As a result we need a politics that paves the way for a combined struggle by the different oppressed sections of society. And it is only a combined struggle that can create an effective front of resistance to the onslaught of oppression and exploitation we are witness to. However, more than a generalized struggle against recent developments in the city, UCD’s initiatives are more sectarian than anything else. In fact, their particularized (University-CWG-centric) struggle is nothing but the substitution of the generalized working class struggle by ‘middle’ class intellectualism.

Mobilization of workers and strengthening of the working class movement is essential because in our society it is the working class that is in the majority. Its labour creates profit, rent and basically all the resources in society. Understandably then, if the working class fights back the whole system is paralyzed. Apart from the fact that it is the direct object of the most fundamental and determinative form of oppression and exploitation in capitalist society, the working class is the revolutionary class also because its interests do not rest on the oppression of other classes. In fact, precisely because its objective interest for its own emancipation is the destruction of class, it can create conditions for the liberation of all human beings in the struggle to liberate itself.

Thus, contrary to the middle class intellectual’s popular perception of the working class as just another identity asserted along with numerous other identities, the working class is actually a social positioning and not an identity. It is a position which is spread over different kinds of identities, and determines how and when the different identities will assert themselves. It is ultimately through the position of the working class that different identities can be united and radicalized into a wider anti-systemic struggle that goes beyond the form in which society exists. Realizing this, ‘old’ socialism has maintained the working class as its base and has constantly assessed the dynamics of the process of class in order to pursue its politics. ‘New’ socialism on the other hand, has made students/intellectuals their constituting base. In reality, however, students/intellectuals are divided amongst different class trajectories. To put it more accurately, students abstracted from their class position have come to be envisaged as agents of ‘new’ socialism. Indeed, ‘student radicalism’ which is actively promoted by ‘new’ socialism is a by-product of making students an identity devoid of class.

It is a fact that students who join universities like Delhi University (DU), are from different classes. The trend in DU is that students from working class backgrounds generally join the peripheral and evening colleges of DU. They are mostly youth who: a) have studied in government schools, b) come from the Hindi medium background, c) who do not usually get admission to college hostels considering their 12th class schooling, d) are those who really struggle to cope with rising college fees and English medium teaching/coursework. Students from petty bourgeois backgrounds are quite the opposite—a significant number of them have studied in respectable public schools, get admission to the best north and south campus colleges of DU, and are generally the first to get admission to the limited college hostels of DU.

As a result of this abstraction of students’ class backgrounds, forums such as UCD end up raising issues of students in a manner which isolates them from the issues of the working class. This reduces the possibilities of unity between the student community and the working class. To delineate this fact it is best to highlight the issue of rent regulation again. Rather than identifying rent as a problem affecting the student/teaching community as well as workers (most of whom live on rent near industrial belts in Delhi), UCD chose to raise the problem of rent only within the ambit of the University area, and demanded rent regulation from University authorities alone. By refusing to raise rent as a generalized concern of migrants in the city, UCD has simply encouraged the student community to see this as a problem specific to them. Having effaced the issue of class struggle in the immediate locality (the immediate locality being issues of working class youth/students/construction workers, etc. in the University), UCD now seeks to locate the working class and its struggle in a far off resettlement colony called Bhalaswa. Unfortunately, judging by recent email correspondences between UCD and students of the Women’s Development Cell (WDC) in Miranda House, the trips to Bhalaswa are being envisaged by the students more as extra-curricular activities. This indicates that UCD’s form of politics is really incapable of building a long-standing and formidable unity between the student community and working class. Its politics, in fact, inculcates within students a PHILANTHROPIC approach to working class issues, and little or no realization of the significance of class struggle for the transformation of our society. Instead of unity and combined struggle, UCD’s form of politics inculcates a perception/political tendency in the student movement to i) see the working class as a “mass of laboring poor” and not as a class which embodies itself even in the student constituency, ii) to perceive the issues of the working class as markedly different from those of students, and at most, only momentarily connected/’aligned’ with issues of students.

It is not only that the ‘new’ socialists deny the class background of the student community. They also, by denying students their varied class position, end up trying to mobilize only those who come from petty bourgeois backgrounds. As a result, organizations in UCD, such as New Socialist Initiative (NSI) are never seen raising issues of Dalit students who struggle to get admission in DU, of working class students who struggle to pay escalating college fees, or basically, any problem faced by students coming from government schools. In reality, for them, issues of those studying in peripheral/evening colleges or of those studying through correspondence/non-collegiate board are supposedly beyond the concerns of student activism. It is the issues of students studying in the big north campus colleges that are the central concerns of such organizations. For example, such organizations strictly function according to the University calendar. They will be active only during the actual academic session (i.e. between July and March when classes are on), and, will be mostly seen organizing seminars—these being a hot favorite of students from petty bourgeois backgrounds, who enjoy debating theories thrown at them in class. Furthermore, their campaigns in the University are centered on certain pet issues of students studying in a select few north campus colleges. These include protests against college hostel rules; night vigils/candle-marches to ‘take back the night’ or presumably to establish a ‘safe’ university campus somehow; etc. One wonders, how such campaigns actually address the concerns of the majority of students—many of whom do not stay on campus and are denied hostel admission due to the ‘lack of merit’.

Of course, when we as participants in UCD argued how necessary it was to mobilize the working class which is in the majority of those exploited in the name of development, grand events like CWG, etc., our point was noted. UCD posters soon began to carry slogans highlighting exploitation of workers, and as a gesture workers are now talked about in some of the UCD meetings. But the form in which workers’ issues are being raised by them is fundamentally paternalistic and patronizing. In a sympathetic mode the forum speaks of workers and other vulnerable sections of society, but no workers are part of the joint forum. Neither does the forum do anything to promote workers’ self-organization, nor does it participate in workers’ struggles. Making patronizing trips to resettlement colonies in the city, just so as to “investigate” and “report” the plight of slum dwellers, are more measures to appease angry activists in UCD and clear one’s conscience than to draw a formidable, active and organic link between the University community and the working class.

In fact, the recent trip to Bhalaswa was merely a gesture—a move to forge, in haste, some semblance of an alliance with the working class. No way does such a gesture promote self-organization by workers. In the case of Bhalaswa, UCD immediately began promoting a group working in the area, of whose politics they have little knowledge. In fact, in the interest of ‘alliance making’ they have refused to interrogate whether the group really represents the voice of the oppressed in Bhalaswa or is just another bourgeois oppositional group. Similarly, UCD has not taken on the responsibility of assessing, themselves, the actual class dynamics working in Bhalaswa. It is simply assumed that all those residing in resettlement colonies/slums like Bhalaswa belong to the same class composition, whereas the ground reality is more complex. Clearly, UCD’s form of politics, i.e. ‘alliance-making’ is highly problematic. This is because it simply absolves the forum of questioning the constitutive logic and politics of the organizations/groups it is allying with. It also absolves the forum of the responsibility of organizing those constituencies of people themselves. Thirdly, such form of politics leaves ample space for a lot of opportunistic maneuvering. In other words, the forum can move in and out of such alliances, depending on their own calculated interests. An important question arises here, what will happen to these alliances once the CWG are over? Well, expectedly, they will dissipate as quickly as they emerged. The analogy of a cinema hall is perhaps apt to explain this inevitability—just like everyone comes to watch a film in the theatre, cry/laugh together and then go their separate ways, most UCD groups/individuals will move on from the momentary ‘alliances’/joint initiatives they have made during the drama of CWG. A few of them, of course, will leave with plum NGO jobs in hand, and an ‘activist’ image that they can thrive on.

Hence, the point that we are trying to drive home is, that UCD can talk about workers and claim to be radical right through, whereas students/teachers continue to run the show while workers are merely expected to follow and indulge in experience-sharing. Workers’ issues then become just another ingredient to be added to cooking pot of resistance. Friends, the fact is that the forum’s form of intervention is limited to the university community responding on workers’ issues but doing nothing otherwise to help build workers’ self-organizations. Is it not true then that the University democrats finds workers’ issues “good” when they are OBJECTS of reform and concern but not when they are SUBJECTS of the struggle against the system? Here it is perhaps best to highlight the recent struggle of construction workers at the Miranda House CWG work site and UCD’s response—or rather lack of response to it. Friends, since the beginning of August construction workers and their trade union have been protesting against the Miranda House officials for non-payment of the workers’ long-standing dues and the violation of several labour laws. The same day that UCD began its “relay hunger strike”, workers down the road were protesting against their severe exploitation under various CWG construction projects. UCD failed to respond and join the struggle. The message, therefore, sent out was clear enough—we will participate only when we are in charge and not workers, and we will raise workers’ issues only as an addition to our never-ending list of “democratic” demands. Considering this, are not the issues of workers’ rights being raised in tokenism, i.e. only when it suits them?

Interestingly, some participants in the University Community for Democracy, who openly claim their “left” leanings, have unhesitatingly claimed in meetings that there is nothing wrong in particularizing the struggle since the University is their ambit of movement and sense of being. What we perhaps need to add here is the fact that when they are particularizing the struggle to the University, they particularize it even further by only raising issues of a select section of the University community. Such an approach defers the need to generalize issues of struggle, which is why people end up raising struggles in isolation. Such campaigns lose steam, credibility and relevance since they do not tap on certain organic links between their concerns and those of other affected sections in society. Of course, the aforementioned approach is nothing but opportunistic. By keeping the campaign University specific such participants aim for greater projection of themselves in the student community and media (which prefers to highlight University issues any day). By investing all their energy at the University level such participants seek a radical projection of themselves during DUSU elections, etc. This, beyond doubt, is a calculated move by many so called left intellectuals and groups in UCD. It is reflected in the larger party politics of such groups, and also in the double standards maintained vis-à-vis the entry of NGOs in the forum’s programs.

CPI(ML) Liberation, the parent party of AISA (a “left” student organization), in the interest of electoral victories has been allying with the RJD and sometimes with the JD(U). One moment it can be seen opposing the traitor Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) in Bengal, and the next moment it can be seen allying with the CPM in the Bihar Assembly elections! The same kind of double standards was replicated when we opposed the entry of NGOs in the protest meeting held on 30th July and AISA supported us, but then went on to invite the same NGO person to their own program against the Commonwealth Games on August 2, 2010! Needless to say, with elections round the corner crowd pulling tactics become more important. We know for a fact that there are reservations within AISA’s own cadre about participating in UCD, yet it continues in the forum for electoral gains.

It is very disturbing that NGOs which are bodies hugely funded by exploitative governments or by multinational corporations, are provided space on platforms of resistance against exploitation. The history of NGOs tells us that they are compromised bodies which sway on issues depending on the terms and conditions of the funding they receive. They have become a big employment recruitment network and that’s about it, for their work amongst people is channeled more towards ‘welfare’ than towards transformation of society. Instead of using its own agencies to provide for people, the state has been retreating from the social sector, leaving the space open for NGOs. NGOs simply use the limited funding released by governments and non-government organizations so as to absolve the state of its larger responsibilities. And to do this they unhesitatingly exploit a cheap labour force. For example, NGO workers (‘activists’) on the ground receive a meager salary compared to NGO employees in the higher echelons.

Interestingly, by arguing that NGO people are “well-versed” in issues/“are radical”, and by promoting them as speakers, UCD is actually creating a hierarchy of knowledge. And this hierarchy is nothing but a replication of capitalist division of labour in which intellect takes precedence over action/organization building, and the suave, Oxfam funded NGO spokesperson replaces the ‘not so articulate’ trade unionist/ political activist.

There are two more disturbing things to note about UCD’s campaign. One pertains to its search for an alternative accommodation for evicted students, and the other to its “free left” image. In its initial meetings, some UCD members pushed forward the search for an alternative accommodation. The first pamphlet printed by the UCD spoke of the need to build communes in places off campus. In fact, a team met with the management of a Gandhian trust (funded by Ministry of Social Justice) which ran a hostel near Kingsway Camp, called Gandhi Ashram. The place soon began to be promoted via e-mails etc. almost like any other private accommodation; the purpose being to provide a space for those still desperately looking for affordable accommodations and also to provide a space for regrouping when things got rough during the campaign. Ironically, the Gandhi Ashram hostel is meant for poor Dalit school students who were obviously going to be displaced if college students moved into the dormitories. No one seemed to reckon with this inevitability while the plan was still being hatched.

What we also found disturbing about the Gandhi Ashram plan was the desire of creating an isolated “democratic” space. The message being sent out was nothing but we can create our own isolated commune-like space in this big bad world. This approach stems from the sectarian University-centric politics of the UCD highlighted above, and also from a non-revolutionary conceptualization of commune life. For many participants in UCD, the commune with its base in Gandhi Ashram was an apparent ‘pre-figuration’ of a new society, whereas it was far from that. Commune was being envisaged as a centre of ‘counter-culture’—an oasis in capitalist wilderness. Interestingly, this is a very familiar trope—it is based, both at once, on a vision of a transformed society without real hope for a process of transformation. This is because it is based on the vision that the lives of a minority can magically change without transforming the whole. This is, after all, how (phantom) revolution itself, is envisaged according to the pipe-dreams (joint-dreams?) of petty bourgeois students/intellectuals who enjoy the comforts/security of generous remittances from home—‘let us, at least, as a small privileged community enjoy revolution making’.

Of course, as pointed out by us in the meetings, it was nothing but ridiculous that UCD spoke of building a commune in a place which was actually going to be charging the students Rs. 1500 per bed and where 6 to 8 women students would have to live per room. How can a commune work within a market structure, and how can a place which gives you no control on the rules and regulations to be implemented, become a progressive, commune-like accommodation?! Despite these criticisms, UCD went ahead and would have signed a MoU with the Gandhi Ashram management, if it wasn’t for the sheer lack of students interested in the place. In fact, just so as to get students to join the bandwagon, emails were sent out exaggerating the facilities available at Gandhi Ashram. In the interest of pulling a crowd, the green lawns of the Ashram were highlighted. Meanwhile, it was downplayed that no fooding would be available at the place and that this was going to be a dormitory system. Indeed, such concealment amounts to lying.

Lastly, as we would like to point out, it is a shame that the University Community for Democracy prides itself for its “Free Left” image. It is typical for such a forum to claim its steadfast commitment to ‘democratic issues’. However, in reality, their idea of democracy is based on the empty notion of dialogue and communication. Democracy is, unfortunately, abstracted from its link with socio-economic forces which is why it becomes more difficult to build a consistent anti-systemic movement. We see this problematic notion of democracy manifested in the very first pamphlet released by UCD. What was repeatedly highlighted in it, as a problem, was the fact that recent developments in the city as well as at the level of the University were not discussed before implementation.

Ironically, despite all their claims, most UCD participants stand for a façade of democracy and democratic functioning. For example, many emails and curt replies to questions raised in the meetings reflect the emerging dogma that only “pragmatic” things should be discussed in meetings (pragmatic issues being those that will help UCD attract more people). Thereby, it was constantly demanded that the ideological issues be shunned, and in a very undemocratic way, that is precisely what happened in meetings. The question is, what is it that UCD will do with the people who are immediately attracted to its campaign. Aren’t they supposed to work on these people and ideologically bring them closer to progressive politics? What does one read into this persistent impatience with ideological issues? Why do they behave as if the campaign is running against time? One can only presume that they want their whole show to be unfolded before CWG! In that case there is really no long term commitment to the issues being raised, and those that join the UCD campaign are just being perceived as faces/numbers to be posited against the Games, rather than thinking human beings who have the potential to link their immediate concerns with long term politics.

Furthermore, due to its “free left” image, we find that most UCD participants enjoy asserting their “individual” form of participation vis-à-vis an organizational one. As a result, UCD has succeeded in joining a lineage of platform and forum hopping so common to bodies that are dominated by individuals. The simple fact is platforms will be unsteady as long as “radical” individuals refuse to put their “radical-ness” to the test and bring themselves under the discipline and responsibility of organization/party structure. Left fronts and left organizations cannot make individuals their fighting force and leave untouched/un-mobilized the majority of those exploited, i.e. working class. After all, what is the best form of protesting against the Commonwealth Games? Is it not by organizing the large number of workers employed under CWG projects and mobilizing them to stop work at the numerous construction sites? Indeed, this is the most effective way of exposing the Games for what they are, and certain organizations and trade unions have been doing this since the very beginning of CWG construction work.

Having said this, it must begin to seem obvious somewhere to the reader why UCD has raised the issue of workers’ rights more in the spirit of opportunism. What else can be expected when there are group’s dominating UCD, such as New Socialist Initiative (NSI), that have no work amongst workers, i.e. no trade union to speak of, and basically do nothing to promote workers’ self-organization. In their book of strategy workers issues will always be raised so as to appear radical/cool in front of impressionable students than to actually organize workers. Their politics will, in fact, promote workers’ rights and NGOs in the same breath. It is a fact, that NSI has more presence in the NGO network than in the existing workers’ movement. This is because most of their members work for NGOs, and hence, have an objective interest in promoting them. This is why on the day of the protest meeting on 30th July NSI took additional effort to put together a program in Ramjas College, inviting a now well known NGO person. Of course, we didn’t see that kind of effort put in when it came to extending solidarity to the construction workers’ struggle in Miranda House College. The fact is that groups such as NSI have work only in the University and are inactive in any other constituencies of people, especially the working class. At a time when there is an uproar regarding the Commonwealth Games, their attempt to oppose the Commonwealth Games is doomed to be student-centric and University specific. And even when they do raise the issues of the university community it will be done so opportunistically, and the issues raised will be those that cater to a select section of the university community.

Friends, ask yourself—would you rather stand by opportunistic and sectarian politics that takes for granted the issues/concerns of the majority, or would you rather stand by the combined struggle of workers and students? Friends, it is high time we recognize that NGO-ised, petty-bourgeois dominated campaigns are more enemies than friends in the struggle for emancipation. It is time to stop doing the fashionable and to be seen doing the productive. It is time to play the role of the harsh critic and to organize a formidable combined struggle against the oppression and exploitation prevalent in our society.



  1. I don’t know what ( or what not) is ailing UCD but u (KYS) people definitely suffer from the ‘ Classic left syndrome’ ( which assumes removal of class exploitation as the solution for everything). Any kind of organization ( left, right or center) has various fronts which works to raise the question ( specific or general) related to their area of working which doesn’t mean the questions which are common are not raised . Infact many times they are raised and all fronts participate in it.
    Also this is a good way of ‘attracting’ individuals and as they try to find out the solution of their problems , they ( over a period of time) realize that the problem is not only specific to them but also it has a ‘systematic’ nature and many things ( but surely not all) can be solved by overthrowing the present system and replacing it with a progressive one.
    I think leftists ( ‘new’ , ‘old’ or dying ) really need to introspect why we can’t work together for a common cause even if there is a difference in our way of working. It is extremely disheartening.


  1. […] University Community for Democracy to the pamphlet circulated by Krantikari Yuva Sangathan titled “What is Ailing University Democrats”. We will first present what we see as certain basic misconceptions and flawed assumptions at work […]

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