Metta Spencer

The Partisan Student in India

in: The Student Revolution Philip Altbach, ed. (Bombay: Lalvani, 1972).

By Metta Spencer

Two social groups seem especially given to imitating, transmitting and cross-fertilizing ideas --youth and intellectuals. College students, sharing both of these characteristics, seem to be particularly involved in various kinds of political movements. Whenever an innovative style of protest arises in response to the unique situational stress of one college, it may be seized upon by students in other regions or in other nations, who demonstrate the same forms of behavior for quite different motives. When the rhetoric appearsso much alike in so many different places, it becomes particularly hard to discern whether the root causes are also truly similar. Indeed, it becomes questionable whether one can even be certain that there always are root causes for particular instances of student agitations and political movements or whether perhaps symptoms of disorder may be adopted simply for the sake of sport or collective excitement. We do not suggest that this is the case, but we would point out that it is very difficult to investigate the most interesting problems--i.e., to compare sources of political ideas of various student movements. One would like to be able to say whether Indian student activists think along the lines of their counterparts in Paris, Berlin, New York, or Tokyo and to what extent their movements thrust in the same direction. This is hard to ascertain simply because student political movements have a way of diffusing from one society to another through the process of imitation.

Consequently we shall not attempt to consider here the personal backgrounds of students who engage in anomie outbursts and other non-routine forms of political action. However, it will be possible to show that political involvement in the broadest sense (preferring one party over another, or voting in elections for which one is eligible to vote) is by no means the special undertaking of bright young scions of old middle-class Indian families. as one might expect. In this paper, we call this conventional political involvement "partisan." In most countries political parties represent and recruit from social groups whose position and whose rights have been established for some time. In India, students from those groups do not ordinarily seek to make their presence felt through the medium of routine partisan support. We shall entertain some questions here about political activists which can perhaps be approached by examination of survey data collected over a span of several years in Indian colleges and universities. Are Indian students more or less politicized in this conventional sense of the term than other youth of their age? What proportion of students are politically engaged? Is this proportion higher in India than in other countries? Who are the politicized students?

It would seem, first of all, that the norms concerning student political activity are rather conservative in India, in that it is not quite legitimately accepted for students (or even for faculty members, for that matter) to be active in politics. One survey at Allahabad showed that only about 27 per cent of the students believe it is proper for students to take part in political affairs.1 That figure is markedly below the proportion of western students who would think politics suitable for youthful participation.

Nor is the norm altogether disregarded in practice. Despite the intemperate behavior of the students who do become mobilized. the actual proportions are not inordinate when compared to the political involvement of their non-student age cohort. I have calculated the party preference figures for student respondents in two sample surveys and also for non-students of the same sex, age and marital status. The results, summarized in tables 1 and 2. indicate that students are not consistently more politicized than are non-students, nor do their preferences for any particular party stand out as exceptional in any consistent direction. ln one survey, the Congress was preferred more by students than by non-students, while in another survey of the same year, the situation was reversed. In one survey the students were less likely to prefer any party at all, while in the second survey the relationship was reversed.

There is a common belief that a major side effect of education is that it heightens political consciousness to a very great extent. Some authors view this as good, imagining that it brings forth such fine qualities of citizenship as tolerant participation in community service projects, and the like. Other authors in general view increased political involvement as undesirable in the Indian context, for they suppose it could only "over-load" the political system by bringing forth many more political claims than could readily be satisfied. Nevertheless, both points of view rest upon the assumption that education has a kind of politicizing effect which it does not actually seem to have. Not only do the students fail to show any great difference from their non-student cohort, but if one looks at the non-student group alone, it can be seen in Table 3 that education is negatively associated with partisan support.

The All-India survey we have discussed included questions about actual political involvement. When we compare students with their non-student cohort, it would appear that students exceed other youths more on hypothetical expressions of political commitment than on measures of real involvement. For example, when asked whether they were interested in politics or not, the students overwhelmingly claimed that they were, while the non-students made no such assertions. Some 72 per cent of the students said that they were interested in politics, as compared with 39 per cent of the non-students. But the differential between the two groups narrowed as one asked about concrete actions. While 59 per cent of the students and only 32 per cent of the non-students said they sometimes attended speeches, the actual participation in demonstrations was lower--only 15 per cent of the students and 13 per cent of the non-students claimed to have taken part in political demonstrations.


Party Preference

Students (56) Non-Students (104)
Congress 16% 33%
CPI 5%


PSP 2% 4%
Jana Sangh 4% 1%
Others 4% 5%
No preference 68% 52%
Party Preference Students (51) Non-Students (639)
Congress 37% 28%
PSP 4% 2%
CPI 4% 5%
Swatantra 6% 1%
Others 6% 6%
No Preference 43% 57%


lliterate Under-matric Matric Graduate

(519) (609) (281) (201)
Prefer any one political party 94% 92% 89% 82%
No Preference 6% 8% 11% 18%

From another source come data concerning student involvement and attitudes toward the government in comparison to non-students. Professor Alex Inkeles of Harvard University and Dr. Amar Kumar Singh, of Ranchi University, collected survey data in 1963 in Bihar, both for students and for young working men: their results yielded Table 4.

TABLE 4: POLITICAL ATTITUDES OF STUDENTS AND NON-STUDENTS IN BIHAR, 1963 (Harvard University Project on Social and Cultural Development)
"In your view, how much attention do the leaders of the country pay to the opinions of ordinary people like yourself?'

Students Non-Students
A great deal 17% (33) 18% (234)
A little 40% (80) 59% (756)
None 43% (86) 22% (286)
"Have you ever been so deeply concerned with and interested in some public issue that you really wanted to do something about it?'

Students Non-Students
Yes 90% (181) 30% (384)
No 10% ( 19) 70% (909)

It would seem that students start out with high ambitions, claim to be interested in politics and public affairs, but feeling that their influence is inadequate, actually do not very often enter the political arena. This is true for the students as compared to other people in their own country and it is also true of Indian students as compared to students in other countries. The Harvard project also asked the same questions shown above of students in Chile. India, Israel and Pakistan. The distinctive fact that appears in Table 5 is that, while Indian students have as many helpful impulses as do students in the other three countries, they feel rather less influential than the other students--especially less influential than the Israeli students

"In your view how much attention do the leaders of the country pay to the opinions of ordinary people like yourself?
India Chile Israel
A great deal 17% (33) 32%( 93) 34% (32)
A little 40% (80) 28% ( 83) 43% (41)
None 43% (86) 40% (118) 23% (22)
"Have you ever been so deeply concerned with and interested in some public issue that you really wanted to do something about it?"

India Pakistan Chile Israel
Yes 90% (181) 85% (297) 80% (139) 77% (11)
No 10% (19) 15% (51) 20% (61) 23% (21)

There are some problems in comparing the distributions of attitudes between countries, as we have done above, since the samples cannot be taken as representative of their respective nations as a whole. However, the findings are consistent with data given in other sources which indicate that Indian students do not have a very high sense of political efficacy and thus do not engage in partisan activity to a degree that their reputations would suggest.

Of course, frequent mass demonstrations always tend to mislead the public as to the strength of popular backing behind a demonstration: in almost all countries the proportions of students who are actually active in polities is rather small, despite the dramatic shows they can make of their feelings. By using even a tiny fraction of the student population. leaders can put together an impressive demonstration. The thing which does seem unusual about India, however, is that the proportion of students who regularly support a party is so small. Moreover, the students who do take part in politics are not the most outstanding scholars nor the most prominent for other social reasons.

To illustrate the non-partisan orientations of the very privileged, let- us look at the Indians studying and working in the United States. I conducted a small survey of the attitudes of Indians living in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts in May of 1968. The respondents were almost exclusively young male students or professional men. All were old enough to have voted at least once; many had been in the United States for more than a year and would have needed to use absentee ballots, so perhaps one should not expect much participation of such a group. Nevertheless, their lack of political involvement was quite remarkable: only two of the respondents had voted in the 1967 general elections in India (i.e. about 3 per cent of my sample of 68 persons). Only 19 per cent claimed to have ever voted in any local election in India. When asked their preferences for parties for Parliament, 20 per cent said they had no preference, 23 per cent had no preference for any party for the legislative assembly. Some thirty per cent had taken part in student politics in their colleges in India.

Who, then, are the politically engaged students? Perhaps fifteen years ago the best answer would have been that they were the leftists.2 Now that is much less consistently the case. Indeed, the traditionalist parties and rightist elements seem to have received at least as much support in recent years as have leftist groups: the appeal of Jana Sangh-oriented groups to youthful constituents illustrate the point. The DMK in Madras also has a strong student appeal.3

Some characteristics do seem to be regularly associated with partisanship or activism. One such trait is age: older students arc ordinarily more engaged than are younger ones. In an Allahabad sample, for example,4 61 per cent of the partisan students were under 21 years of age, as contrasted with 69 per cent of the non-partisans. Likewise, in the small Boston sample, 21 per cent of the respondents in their twenties scored as active on a political involvement scale, as contrasted with 45 per cent of those respondents who were at least thirty years old. These two studies are several years more recent than the 1952 survey of eleven Indian universities which yielded similar findings,5 in that the older students were slightly more likely to participate than were younger ones.

Men students are ordinarily more politicized than are women: this is a pattern one finds in virtually all countries. At Allahabad. 80 per cent of the partisans were male, while of the non-partisan students only 68 per cent were male. The Eleven University study of 1952 did not find women students less politicized, but it did indicate that women students were under-represented in such militant groups as the CPI and the Jana Sangh.

Table 6: SEX AND PARTISANSHIP IN ELEVEN INDIAN UNIVERSITIES, 1962 (Bureau of Social Science Research and Lucknow University Department of Psychology)

CPI (432) Congress (977) Hindu Mahasabha (24) Jana Singh (74) Muslim League (34) Praja Socialist (276) No Pref. (183)
% male 85% 78% 75% 96% 71% 84% 86%
% female 13% 20% 21% 4% 29% 13% 12%

While the connection of politics to older male groups is to be expected, one might not have predicted either on theoretical grounds nor on the basis of generalization from other societies that the most active students would come from lower socio-economic strata. Nevertheless, that seems a rather consistent finding in India. Table 7 shows the effect of income on political participation among students of eleven universities sampled in 1952.

TABLE 7: PARENTS INCOME AND POLITICAL PARTICIPATION SCALE IN ELEVEN INDIAN UNIVERSITIES (Bureau of Social Science Researchand Lucknow Department of Psychology, 1952)

Less than Rs. 100/mo. (340) Rs. 100-300/mo. (682) Rs. 300-500/mo. (373) Rs. 500-1000/mo. (330) Over Rs. 1000/mo. (244)
% High Participants 58% 52% 48% 46% 42%

The Allahabad findings were again consistent with these results: 55 per cent of the partisan students' fathers had incomes of Rs. 250 or less, while but 34 per cent of the non-partisan students were from families whose income was that low. Some 33 per cent of the partisan students at Allahabad said that many of their relatives had attended universities, as contrasted with 48 per cent of the non-active students. This must mean that if political involvement is the way a cadre of future leaders is formed, then such a cadre is not being recruited from the elite of the present day.

The student's living accommodations seem to make a relatively consistent impact upon his political involvement. The Eleven University study showed the students living independently to be more politicized than students who were integrated into a household or an organized hostel.

Table 8: LIVING ACCOMMODATIONS AND POLITICAL CONCERN IN ELEVEN INDIAN UNIVERSITIES, 1952 (Bureau of Social Science Research and Lucknow University Department of Psychology)

Students living with:
Political Orientation Parents (701) Other relatives (199) Hostel (887) Private Lodge & Other (209)
% Concerned 20% 24% 24% 31%
% Apathetic 80% 76% 76% 69%
Students living with:
Political orientation Parents (129) Guardian (83) Hostel (86) Lodge (61)
% Concerned 55% 53% 63% 72%
% Apathetic 45% 47% 37% 28%

In still another way we have evidence that politics may be a substitute for effective social involvement in the university setting: contrary to the expectations which would flow from a reading of the many publications which link political activism with membership in voluntary organizations, there is some evidence that in the Indian University the effect runs the other direction. Table 10 summarizes that relationship.

Political orientation Officer of organization Ordinary member (92) Not Member of any org. (236)
Concerned 51% 54% 62%
Not concerned 49% 46% 38%

Likewise, at Allahabad, as well as in the Eleven Universities, the politically engaged students were most often the boys from the village, whose connections with the on-going political system must surely have been less established than would be the connections of city boys. One begins to conclude that perhaps the people who take most interest in politics are those who might exercise the least actual influence in the political process, and who also would have least social power because of their position in the stratification system.

Political orientation Village (155) Town (38) City (162)
Concerned 65% 63% 53%
Not concerned 35% 37% 47%

Again the students whose academic records were least distinguished were most likely to be engaged in or concerned with political affairs.

TABLE 12: POLITICAL CONCERN AND LOCATION OF STUDENTS HOME IN ELEVEN INDIAN UNIVERSITIES, 1952 (Bureau of Social Science Research and Lucknow University Department of Psychology)
(Note: The measures of political orientation are not the same for the Eleven Universities as for Allahabad).
Political orientation Under 500 (140) 500-2000 (344) 2000- 10,000(370) 10,000- 50,000(368) Over 50,000(174)
Concerned 30% 28% 24% 23% 19%
Not concerned 70% 72% 76% 77% 81%
Political orientations First Division (64) Second Division (233) Third Division (64)
Concerned 55% 56% 78%
Not concerned 45% 44% 22%
Table 14: HIGH SCHOOL DIVISION AND POLITICAL CONCERN IN ELEVEN INDIAN UNIVERSITIES, 1952 (Bureau of Social Science Research and Lucknow University Department of Psychology)
Political orientations First Division (521) Second Division (705) Third Division (237)
Concerned 20% 25% 30%
Not concerned 80% 75% 70%


We have attempted to present evidence on the level of partisan political participation in the Indian college or university setting. Despite the fact that anomie forms of political agitations are endemic, it would appear that student participation in more routine partisan activity is not particularly great. Students claim to be more politicized than do working people of their age, but actually there is no evidence that they are. In fact, among the ordinary working population, the more education a man has, the less likely he is to participate in party politics to any degree in even such simple matters as committing himself to one party and supporting it in elections. For whatever reason, Indian students feel that they have less influence upon the leaders of their country than workers do or than students in various other countries feel they have. Despite the fact that they feel as inspired to take action on public issues as other people do, it would seem that their cynicism about the government impedes their impulses to take action.

Some students are, nevertheless, willing to support a political party, and we have been able to demonstrate something about their lives that marks them off from the non-partisan students. They are older, they are more often male students of low soclo-economic status, living isolated lives while attending college. Not only are they villagers, but they do not live in organized social groups or families while in college, and do not belong to organizations as often as do the other students. Such inferences are, at least, suggested by the limited evidence available from survey sources, though of course additional confirmation would be useful.

If we assume that these inferences are fair and the data representative of Indian college students, what interpretation can we make of these patterns? What is there about the style of political action in India that makes it unappealing to those people who might be best fitted to carry out the parts? What is there that impels young village boys to see political parties as salient features of their social environment? I believe it fair to suggest that the response of the Indian student should not be interpreted as opposite to the response of students in other countries because the political realities are not parallel in the various countries. One has to find the appropriate political structure before drawing comparisons, and in that sense the response of Indian students could not be seen as unique at all. Indian politics is remarkably non-ideological and pragmatic. Young students are always ideologically committed -- if they can afford to be. One does not find youth taking part to any extensive degree in local municipal politics in any country, mostly because it is obvious that local politics is so heavily loaded down with considerations of patronage and the notion of quid pro quo that young people prefer political objects of more abstract purity on which to cathect their zeal. The same holds true for India: students wish to have a place in government, but they would prefer to work as bureaucratic officers than as party workers. Either one is ideological or one is not: if one is, then there is no hope under the present conditions for changing India dramatically through the party structure that now exists-- one is defeated in that enterprise before he starts. And if one is not ideological, he would have little interest in politics as a young man anyway--unless, of course, he needed to use the political system to obtain amenities or other private or parochial ends. For such people, the political system offers a wide array of incentives to -participation. And such people constitute the main base for the political system as it now functions, whether for good or for ill.


1 I am grateful for the opportunity to do secondary analysis of survey materials collected by Joseph Di Bona in Allahabad in 1963, as well as two surveys conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion in 1961 (one of which was an all-India sample, and the other drawn from Calcutta, Delhi, and Madras only). and one conducted in 1963 by Amar Kumar Singh for the Harvard University Project on Social and Cultural Development. This latter study was based on samples of workers and students in. Bihar, as well as in five other nations.
2 Metta Spencer, "Professional, Scientific and Intellectual Students in Comparative Education Review, Vol. 10 (June, 1966), p. 297.
3 Robert L. Hardgrave. Jr., "Religion, Politics and the DMK," in Donald Eugene Smith (ed.). South Asian Politics and Religion (Princeton. 1966).
4 Survey conducted by Joseph Di Bona in 1963.
5 Again I have conducted secondary analysis of survey data collected by the Bureau of Social Science Research at the American University and by Lucknow University's Department of Psychology in 1952. Eleven Indian universities were sampled randomly.