DU Beat brings to you ‘Chai, Charcha Aur Change’ – an effort to make meaningful conversations about change with student leaders across India, all over a glass of cutting chai. Read our interview with Priavi and Jahnavi, ex and current president of Ashoka University’s Student Government
Priavi Joshi and Jahnavi Rudra, are two strong and fearless leaders of the Student Government. While Priavi headed the government as the President during the session 2020-2021, Jahnavi is the current president of the University’s Student Government.
Q. Priavi, how has your experience been so far as the President?
Priavi: I would say that it has been a learning experience. I served as an elected representative in my first term and was elected as President in my second term – my experience serving as president was a unique one for primarily three reasons. First, I was the first woman to be elected to the post and with that came gendered struggles, expectations and approaches that were different from those my predecessors were faced with. Second, I ran for president during a time when we were at a critical juncture in national politics: nationally, students were leading protests against CAA-NRC and internally, as a community we were becoming more cognizant of our role and need for increased coordinated engagement in national-level student politics. And last, it was unique because the lockdown was announced within the first month of our term, which fundamentally changed student concerns, and representing student concerns in an online setting was a whole different ball-game than doing so in an offline setting.
Q. How did you channel your efforts as the students’ government during the pandemic?
Priavi: Representing students in an online setting was a tedious task as we were not in the same physical space anymore. As new concerns arose, new solutions had to be devised. We used to have meetings every two weeks for which we got huge numbers in participation from the student body. We would use these meetings to identify student concerns and together come up with solutions to address them. After identifying concerns and solutions, we would meet the Vice Chancellor once every two weeks and work on them collaboratively.
Right at the beginning of the lockdown, we focused primarily on two student-facing concerns. First, as students were asked to leave for home, we successfully pushed for the university to reimburse travel costs for students on financial aid. Second, we were able to successfully push for academic accommodations for students facing internet connectivity concerns and difficult (abusive) home environments.
Jahnavi: Apart from the students’ grievances, we had to cater to the needs of the on-campus workers too. Before being elected President in this session, I was a member of the counsel in the previous session. During the pandemic, we tried to provide any kind of support or possible representation for them. Their state was very disappointing as most of them were ill-treated and received little or no salary. The key problem was the fact that university outsourced contractors who then hired the workers. Therefore, we couldn’t directly intervene and talk to the contractors. However, we do hope that we have been able to provide some relief for them in the form of a fund to fulfil their financial needs and we will be pushing for direct hiring as well.
Q. What do you think restricts your work due to the structure of a government rather than that of a students’ union?
Priavi: Financial dependence is a major implication of working as a government. Although the Budget is released by the government, it has to be passed by the university administration. Similarly, for any financial decision we make, permission is to be sought before we could get any necessary action done. Financial dependence has the potential to restrict our ability to mobilise against the administration as well. Jahnavi and I along with a few others would individually support a students’ union rather than a government to eliminate a set of procedures and to facilitate spontaneous decision making.
Jahnavi: In complete agreement I would add, although being in this settlement is never restrictive, we have not been able to take some strong decisions in terms of putting the excess funds from the previous session into use. The point is, we are mainly here to represent the students and not govern them.
Q. While you make any politically inclined decision, you will have to take a stand. So, how does taking a stand to bring a divide between the government and the students? Does it hamper peace?
Priavi: To be quite fair, the university has just started and so has the government. At times, it can be difficult to gauge the exact political inclination of the entire campus, especially online – but I can comfortably say that most students lean fairly left. With our term, we actively tried increasing our engagement with national politics and forge stronger solidarities with other student unions across the country – be it for protests against CAA/NRC, relief work for riot-affected areas in Delhi, or the EIA Draft. Over the past two elections, we’ve seen that during election season, students are fairly vocal about their politics outside and people factor that while casting their votes. We are elected for our politics and to act them out on behalf of the community, and hence, it is the 15 elected representatives who take these decisions.
Jahnavi: If a certain part of the community feels like they are not being represented, I don’t think we are putting them away in any way. If students feel that their political ideology is not being represented by the students’ government, they are free to run for elections as well.
Q. Jahnavi, what inspired you to contest in the elections and be the next leader? What immediate change did you want to bring with it?
Jahnavi: I will start by explaining why I joined student politics at Ashoka in the first place. I am gender non-binary and belong to the Trans community. While I joined Ashoka, I was hoping to experience a trans-friendly atmosphere. But it was not gender affirming at all. That was when I realized that there were a lot of problems at the university level that challenged students’ identities.
Another key reason is the fact that there wasn’t a proper push or rather a necessary support for the students when they wanted to express themselves. Although ideologically different, I could notice that students wanted to bring change in the discriminatory laws passed by our nation’s government. However, many students were not able to do so because of various reasons.. The student government wanted to help students who wished to take part in protests or express their concerns at several occasions. I thought, as the President, I could extend the support further. The workers’ issue also pushed me to work further and be a part of the government for another year, as I knew they needed help and we as a government could, in the least, attempt to provide it.
Q. Priavi, how was it different for you to be the President; To be the first woman President of the students’ government?
Priavi: For me, the motivation to run was that all this needed to change. As my first term in the SG came to an end, I realised that our politics needed to be more empathetic and fierce. And empathy and fierceness are always thought of as a binary – that you can either be empathetic or fierce, that being empathetic means being “soft”. But that’s not true – we could be and needed to be fiercely empathetic and empathetically fierce. Institutionally, we needed to change so we could adequately identify, represent and address all concerns – and ensure that our living experience at Ashoka is a safe, happy, and learning one.
The experience was different for me in the sense that every person who had held the position before me was a man and among men, they were very homogenous as a category-men who conducted themselves a certain way. I knew I was not like them. I recall an incident while I was running for elections- I told a very close friend of mine that people weren’t taking me seriously and he suggested that it was because I smiled when I talked. There have been several similar experiences, where expectations were binary, and people could never see beyond a certain point. While a man could be smart, sweet, fun, and soft all at the same time, women are often categorised in boxes that restrict us. One always has lots of gendered experiences in spaces that are assumed to be masculine, like student politics. Spaces like these tend to reward masculine characteristics, and that can only change when more women and non-binary members run and are elected into power – there is a certain sense of safety that only comes with numbers, and we must aim towards electing a representative body that is truly representative of all students.
This interview was taken on 27 Februrary 2021