Pre-Election, Students Question Political Leaders on Employment

Discussions at Samvada’s youth festival in Gandhi Bhavan, 2019  

It’s a Saturday, the 16th of February and the hall is filled with students, their voices blurring with the fuzzy sound of the fans overhead. Up on stage, singers Arunkumar and Naranswamy fill Gandhi Bhavan with their full-throated voices and we sway to it, some nodding to the words in appreciation, others frowning in effort to understand. The panel discussions on ‘Youth Rights in India’, begins at 10:30am. Organised in collaboration with the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University, the panel is part of what is to be Samvada’s three day youth festival. An annual affair, the festival marks the culmination of a campaign headed by students from Samvada, a youth resource centre in Bangalore. While last year’s campaign was on Access to Affordable Education, this year the demand is for a Youth Commission.

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Moderator Asha Kowtal from the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, begins the morning panel with a disclaimer; “This is not a Nation Wants To Know kind of talk show” she laughs, perhaps sensing our somewhat nervous excitement at the political polarity among the panelists. There’s Surabhi Dwivedi from NSUI (the Congress party student wing), Ashish Chauhan from ABVP (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak student wing) and Gururaj Desai from SFI (the Communist Party of India student wing). “As youth and as women, no one takes us seriously” says Dwivedi, her speech focusing on the current “fancy policies” of the government and simultaneously falling budget on education. She also emphasises the need to recognise the youth as “not a homogenous body”.

Chauhan is up next and armed with data. Recognising unemployment as not merely an Indian problem but a global one, he speaks of how the highest spending on education has been during BJP’s term. At this point, Kowtal intervenes to remind us of the politics of data collection, while Desai moves on to talk of the government’s experiments with temporary employment.

As the arguments get heated, Chauhan attempts to clarify that the ABVP is not a wing of the BJP. “They just reduced the samvada to a public rant-and-demean session” says Vishnu P.V, a student from Palakkad. “I expected a more constructive debate. Apart from Ashish clearing the sweat from his forehead, nothing else happened”. However, from the active participation in the question-answer session, it was evident that for many students the panel was a both engaging and exciting one. “The energy was great” says Poornima, one of Samvada’s organising team. “We were expecting about 100 max, but we had double that number show up!”

Interestingly, as Desai spoke of the need for Modi and Rahul Gandhi to not just “wave their hands at us but walk hand-in-hand with us”, one member of the audience emphasises the need for students to walk hand-in-hand with each other instead. Shifting the focus from the central government to student communities themselves, she spoke of what is it “we” can do. Given that the UGC mandate on student unions has not applied to Karnataka since the late 1980s, it was curious to see that none of the panelists brought representation up as an issue.

While Saturday was a day full of panel discussions, day two of the youth festival was “more of an internal event, with Samvada leaders from across Karnataka sharing their journey with this year’s campaign” says Poornima. The festival culminated on the third day with a larger public event at Town Hall, where Samvada formally submitted a memorandum to the Youth Empowerment minister Rahim Khan.

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Shalom Gauri

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