Senior Talk is a series by Ruhi Thakkar where she speaks to different people in the field to understand their perspective. This week she writes about the changes women bring by being involved in college politics.
Law schools are a microcosm of society. Issues that exist in the outside world are replicated here too.
Although law schools claim to be apolitical, hardly anything ever is. Student bodies play an important role in such a setup. As with every place, women are grossly underrepresented here also.
But how much does it impact them? Quite a lot.
NUJS got sanitary napkin dispensers installed in the girl’s hostel in 2019, 19 years after it was established. This issue was highlighted only because there was a female vice-president who took this issue up. This is just one example among many.
To understand these situations better, I spoke to two seniors to understand their experience and how they made universities better for everyone.
What is College Politics Like?
Gatha G. Namboothiri is an NUJS graduate and is currently working as a Research Associate in the Centre for Social Justice. In her fourth year (2018-19), she was the Vice-President of the Student Judicial Association, the student body of NUJS.
According to her, politics exist at all levels in a law college. But, it is based on how one defines it. For her, the personal is political. Politics is always about power relations between individuals. At university, where you have 500 people from different backgrounds, their own experience would shape their interactions–which would eventually shape the politics in college.
“The position of a President, or Vice President comes with huge responsibilities and it can get tough. The students should ensure that everything is in place, be it keeping the campaigning during elections clean to actively advocating for each student’s rights irrespective of their background. The student body has more power because they get the chance to decide how things should go.”
Chandni Ochani is a law graduate from NLSIU, Bangalore and is currently working at Trilegal, Mumbai. She was an active member of the student community and was the President of the Student Bar Association for the academic year 2018-19.
According to her, college politics is about many things, but one of the most important things about it is realizing the power of the student body. At the end of the day, the job of the representatives is to create an interface with the administration and to get the work done. That job becomes both easier and more difficult when you have a student body backing you and relying on you. So taking on this responsibility is a big deal.
She explained that because the expectations are so high and you are constantly under scrutiny, sometimes people tend to forget that “there is a person behind that position”. It is difficult in the beginning but with time you understand how things work.
“ The only thing that affected me a bit was that people sometimes forget that the person behind that role is learning and that person wants to do good. Constructive criticism is different from random criticism and sometimes that got to me. But that comes with the position you are holding and I’ve learnt how to handle all the judgment and move on.
As a 22 year old unless you’ve done this before you will not be subject to that level of criticism, judgment and scrutiny, ever before; It’s a first. You learn the hard way, it’s just not that easy.”
Women at Disadvantage
“But she is like that, She’s gonna make an issue out of everything”
Gatha was very active in her law school since the first year and what stuck out for her was the gender ratio in the college. Girls were around 35-40% and the rest were boys. This created a huge dynamic in itself and was accompanied with certain external factors of deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny that people enter the college with.
“In many indirect subconscious ways, one thing I used to hear was how non chill and oversensitive, women are, from the point of view of this reasonable rational man. Whenever there’s an occasion to chill, people would ask me to switch that part of me: can’t you be chiller? why do you have to be so sensitive and alert all the time?
I mean that’s not a switch, that’s who I am. We are not asking for a lot. It’s the most basic thing. How many things are you going to shut your eyes against.”- Gatha
Chandni said she was fortunate to not have faced many such stereotypes. But she acknowledged that many women around her faced them. She was also lucky to be in the company of women who were not afraid to call out people if they termed them as ‘over-sensitive’.
In addition to this, there were many obvious factors. For instance, in terms of communication, people sometimes feel more comfortable around their own gender. If there’s an issue in the women’s hostel, girls will be more comfortable talking to a woman about it because the guy most likely has never experienced that issue. A similar logic applied to the boys’ hostel as well.
Gatha goes on to share how elections were basically fought from the boys’ hostel and that’s true for a lot of decision making as well. Access to information used to be very low because of this. The same happened during her vice presidency where she used to hear information through different channels. This used to make her doubt her competence and question herself if she was doing enough for her role as vice-president.
“ It also took time to be accepting and be kind to myself, like it’s the way things are here and that things need to change.
We did not have a single place in the academic block or the hostel where if women needed they could get sanitary napkins. And that’s always been a thing you know, women running around looking for a sanitary napkin. In my year, we got sanitary napkin vending machines installed in the academic block and the girls hostel.
These are very very small things, but it makes you think why nobody thought of it for so long, and then you realize that they were all men.
Making sure that pads are available is not going to be in their agenda.”
In her presidential debate, Chandni was asked about a woman being in college politics. She strongly responded that her gender shouldn’t matter.
“If I am good enough, if I can talk to the administration and if they like me, I don’t think being a girl should disadvantage me, that’s been my perspective for a very long time.
I think my gender shouldn’t play a role at all, so I try not to give it a role. However, can’t deny that it has its own way of creeping in.”
When it comes to college politics, she was a very active part of the student body, and her being a woman didn’t come in the way of that. She managed to build relations with people because of who she was and with the administration because of her diligence. That really contributed to her being in a position where she could leverage it to do good for the college.
“I think I was luckily in a place where I did not face many stereotypes, and even if they were but not noticeable, I spoke to people and they did eventually decide to vote for me and I became the President. Similarly, our college saw a bunch of really lovely women leading committees amazingly and no one can deny that. I guess, the way to overcome stereotypes is by showing everyone that they’re wrong.
However, in terms of actual experience, there were very subtle things that would happen sometimes that reflected some underlying notions people have about women. For example, every now and then there would be someone trying to mansplain things to me, and that sometimes, I would have to go the extra mile and conduct myself in a certain way so I would be taken seriously as compared to my counterpart.”
Why is it Important?
“For the longest time in NUJS, hostel rooms and classrooms were divided on the basis of CLAT ranks. The institution instilled these ideas in students and divided them and continued to make them believe that some are more deserving than the other, because of this socially constructed idea of merit and being “deserving”. A concept which actually perpetuates inequalities.
The kind of crowd at universities is extremely elite and privileged, and that space needs to be changed. It’s as simple as that. There’s no if or but there.
You see all the sorts of social issues, which I thought would end at some time. When you come from a certain school or a family background and you reach a space like NUJS, or any law college, where you are taught fundamental rights, and then you see all of them being violated, I think that’s why we should be indulging in it.”- Gatha
These pre-existing inequalities may lead to division and groupism. The majoritarian view is the driving factor of organized student politics. All of it can make people feel alienated. Thus, you need students politics to be a more inclusive space, so that people don’t hesitate to be a part of it.
“If you think you want to contribute, and if you think that you can make the lives of people easier, then definitely you should get involved, that’s why I got involved.”- Chandni
The student body has access to college authorities and the space it can create is extremely powerful.
When a unified body comes together with that kind of alertness, what they do for the college can make a huge difference. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?.
The lessons learnt in this process gets imprinted in your personality.
“From what I can understand, at a very personal level, I have seen a lot of growth in me and the qualities of confidence and team working have sharpened over the time. Especially as somebody who has always been told all through her life that she is extremely bossy to an extent where I started to doubt where the leadership quality ends and the bossiness begins. Student politics helped me in understanding how to channelize my energy while making sure that a leader is somebody who makes space for others and does not occupy all the space.
I was personally able to navigate the very thin line.”- Gatha
When Chandni assumed her role, there were a lot of things happening around. It’s a high-pressure job and there are huge expectations both personally and professionally. According to her, going through all of it makes you patient and tolerant.
“I learnt from a lot of people. Just because I was the president I didn’t take unilateral calls, I listened to what people had to say. It helps you observe, research and form a perspective. One of the things about being in a representative position is that you cannot go with preconceived notions, because you don’t know what 500 other people will tell you. I may not have faced a particular problem but five other people would be facing that problem. So it just gives you the platform to open your mindset to new ways of thinking and approaching issues.”
Both Gatha and Chandni affirmed that college politics, for them, played a major role in shaping their communication skills and making them more empathetic.
People need to talk and listen to understand where the other person is coming from. There’s so much humanization; you connect to people on an individual level. You understand the importance of dialogue. After all, “communication is not about what you say, it’s about how you say it“.
The Way Ahead
When the country has only one woman chief minister and two women union cabinet ministers, equal representation in college politics feels like a distant dream. That’s why working on this article was a big deal for me.
We need more conversation on this, till the point it becomes normal.
“Till we don’t bring about reforms in society, our education is going to suffer, because we are a part of the larger ecosystem. Going ahead, think of ways to make the existing environment more representative and inclusive and making sure that there is visibility of representation. That is so important.” – Gatha
To everyone reading this, remember, your voice matters!
Note: I would especially like to thank Gatha G Namboothiri and Chandni Ochani for being so kind to me, taking out the time to talk about their journeys and constantly supporting me in writing this piece.
You can read the first piece from Senior Talk here. It talks about how to “network” and build connections in college.