Campus politics: Some pointers for the Christian Community

“Should students be involved in politics?” There would be convincing arguments for either point of view if we were to hold a debate. For those who think that students should, there is an extended question: if students do get involved in politics, to what extent? And then there is the age old query on whether Christians should actively engage in the ‘dirty game’ of politics. Young Christians entering University and College face different shades of these questions. In fact, students are bombarded with all kinds of political ideologies as soon as they embark upon campus life. It can be a very confusing time as different political groups actively seek to influence the young minds.

After spending around 5 years in possibly the most politicized campus (JNU) in the country, I am convinced that there is no option to not be involved. Because silence is also an eloquent and articulate speech, open to interpretation and liable to be judged. For instance, Christians in the country are often critiqued, and rightly so, for speaking up only when their interest are directly affected. The important question then is: how do Christian communities and individuals conduct themselves in a university/college setting with diverse political leanings, faith practices and socio-economic backgrounds? This is, however, not only a question of political participation but primarily of Christian witnessing. It is also about how the community of faith places itself within the campus.

Some pointers
Each university or college is unique and the issues therein also differ as much. But if we dig deeper into the prevailing issues in campus, more often than not, we find that questions of justice and fairness are involved – on which Christians have a lot to say! Yet we have to admit that in most cases, (non-Christian) political groups in campus lead the struggle for the rights of minority students, against discrimination, or for university infrastructure etc. It appears to me that Christian engagement in campuses have tended to focus primarily on influencing the individual/person, rather than on systems and structures. With this in mind, and drawing from experiences in JNU, I would like to suggest a few pointers.

One of the most basic thing for the Christian community within a campus is to be aware. In other words, not to remain oblivious to the happenings in campus. This,in practice, is easier said than done. There is a strong tendency for Christian groups (or individuals) to remain isolated and untouched even when the campus is facing some significant challenge. To a large extent this is due to the narrow, moralistic understanding of the Christian life and calling. To be aware is to be challenged, both in the content and practice of faith. But instead of engaging with issues, Christians are often guilty of escaping into a ‘peace that passes all understanding’ even as the campus encounters some significant challenge.

The Christian community on campus needs to be not just aware but be present. To put it differently, while there is a need and place for praying in the privacy of one’s own room – the Christian person’s most preferred method – there is also a need to show up in the conversations and post-dinner talks, to express solidarity in the streets, in the venues of protest and even in the police lock-ups. Joining hands with fellow students from political parties with different faiths or no faith does not mean that we subscribe to their views wholesale. In fact, there may be times when we disagree with their means and methods of struggle which require us to be creatively different. But Christians have to be present in the struggles of the campus as ones who feel deeply about the good of the college or university.

When the Christian community consciously participates in the life of the campus, it will also be able to discern a place and time to speak in a unique voice. This can be in the ordinary day to day conversations or in the heat of a protest movement.
Indeed, there are many avenues where Christian viewpoints can be presented in creative ways. It could be as simple as a different set of posters in a protest march that hints at a higher purpose and hope in an otherwise negative and anxious situation.

The JNUCF story
While there are undoubtedly many examples of Christian students’ engagement with campus politics, let me briefly narrate one which I experienced. This is not intended to serve as a template for others but as an instance of creative participation by the community of faith in an important movement.
A series of dramatic events, well covered in national media, unfolded in February 2016 in JNU. Police entered campus to arrest Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of the Students Union on charges of sedition, leading to unprecedented protests in the campus. Across the country a huge debate on nationalism was set off. JNU, which had been considered one of the best educational institutions in the country was labelled ‘anti-national’ and accused of misusing tax-payers’ money. There were calls to shut down the university. Public opinion took such a beating that nearby residents came to protest outside the gates for days together. There were instances of auto-rickshaws refusing to go to a campus ‘harbouring terrorists’. The government had succeeded in turning the whole country against an outspoken university.

The campus was swept up in protests. Students and teachers marched repeatedly on the streets of Delhi. Immensely popular series of ‘Nationalism Class’ and ‘Azadi Class’ were conducted in the open spaces of the university. Over time, the movement became a rallying point for issues ranging from academic freedom, fund cuts for education to farmer suicides, land grabbing, dalit issues, AFSPA etc.

What was the Christian community in JNU doing at this time? JNU Christian Fellowship, as we call ourselves, consciously and actively participated in this movement. Two significant events helped JNUCF to stay on course during this turbulent semester. First was the Tuesday Bible Studies by CB Samuel on faith, highlighting ‘dissent’ as one of its important ingredients. Second was a day titled ‘Quo Vadis’ (Latin for ‘where are you going?’) set aside in the midst of the deeply disturbing events, for reflection and prayer, to listen to the stories of personalities like Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther and to express our protest through art, through poems and songs. It was a deeply enriching engagement and in many ways formed the backdrop for what the community of faith proceeded to do. For instance, we ‘discovered’ that most Christian songs were silent on issues of exploitation or systemic injustices. So we composed songs. And went on to sing in the protest, twice. We marched side by side with people from all kinds of faith, race and ethnicity on the streets of Delhi. Christian students actively participated in the movement both as individuals and also as a group, and made the presence of the Christian community felt in an overwhelmingly left campus.

We earned their respect, displacing their notion of a passive belief system. At the same time, our faith was deeply challenged and in some instances, exposed. To a large extent, this was/is a dialogic, two-directional engagement with the student movement. It was borne out of the conviction to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’; though not necessarily to ‘evangelize’ the whole campus.

University and college campuses differ greatly in character across the country. But whatever circumstances the Christian community might find itself in, it would do well to participate pro actively rather than be a spectator. Campus dwellers witness by participating in the life of the campus.

A. Lozaanba Khumbah
PhD candidate, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences JNU

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