The origin of Indian students movement in its organised form can be traced to the formation of All India Students’ Federation (AISF) on 12 August 1936 to further anti-imperialist politics. AISF was aligned to the Communist Party of India.
In 1964 CPI(M) broke up from CPI. AISF was also affected with this split due to their negligence on students issues. Several local organizations previously affiliated to AISF started working independently. In 1970, delegates from such organizations held a conference in Thiruvananthapuram to form a new national students organisation. The all India conference was held from 27 to 30 December, and resulted in formation of Students' Federation of India. The elected leaderships from the first conference included C. Baskaran, (first President), Biman Bose (first General Secretary), Shyamal Chakraborty, Baldev Singh, Babu Bharadwaj, Ranjan Goswami, Manik Sarkar, N Ram, Subhash Chakraborty, Umendra prasad Singh, P Madhu and Shaktidhar Das.
During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in India, SFI distributed sanitary napkins to female students in West Bengal and demanded their inclusion in essential commodities in Himachal Pradesh. SFI set up COVID-19 helpline numbers in various states to help stranded students. To combat misinformation and reach out to the migrant labourers in various places, SFI launched a campaign named "My dear friend" where verified information from government sources are translated into various Indian languages and circulated through social media. Online art festivals, lecture series and online classes were also organised by various SFI committee's. SFI also produced face masks and hand sanitisers.
SFI had won court cases for regulating private coaching centres in India.
SFI and DYFI activists jointly posted 1.5 lakh letters to the Prime Minister's office for lodged FIR against 49 artists who condemned the lynching of people and the activities of cow vigilantes.
SFI approached Supreme Court seeking directions to provide universal free vaccination to all citizens of India and to waive off the goods and service tax levied on the import of the oxygen concentrators used for personal use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protesting against the imposition of 12% tax on sanitary napkins, the women sub-committee of SFI protested nationwide in July 2017. The campaign was named "Bleed Without Fear, Bleed Without Tax". Petitions were submitted to the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for revoking the government decision. Thousands of girl students mailed sanitary napkins with protest slogans to Arun Jaitley's office. This campaign was similar to that of the Pink Chaddi Campaign in 2009. The campaign also demanded the installation of adequate sanitary napkin vending machines in schools and colleges and providing six packets of sanitary napkins for one rupee to the women below poverty line.
In 2019, SFI members were elected as the first female chairpersons in Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi, and the College of Engineering, Trivandrum (CET). Earlier, the SFI had organised protests of the female hostelites of CET in February 2019 for extending the curfew timings for girls' hostels. This movement forced the government to accept the demands and Dr Usha Titus, the Higher Education Secretary of Kerala Government issued orders to enforce them.
The idea of GSCASH (Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment) was first experimented in Jawaharlal Nehru University by SFI's students union headed by Vijoo Krishnan in 1998–99. In September 2013, after the harassment of two women students of Pondicherry University, the SFI initiated a movement for GSCASH in the university and the activists approached Madras High Court for redressal. The movement later ended successfully with the High Court ordering university to constitute institutional mechanisms for grievances. In Assam, the Directorate of Higher Education (DHE) in 2018 ordered all colleges to set up GSCASH after the SFI's intervention.
SFI has actively supported LGBTQIA+ rights. SFI was the first student organization in India to nominate an openly gay person for a Student Union election as they nominated Gourab Ghosh for Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union elections held in 2013 as its candidate for the General Secretary position. SFI has campaigned for LGBTQIA+ rights in college campuses, and has held conventions. In 2016, SFI decided to include the ‘others’ gender option in its membership forms. SFI has supported the scrapping of section 377 and opposes the Transgender Persons Act, 2019 commenting that the Act "infringes on the rights and dignity of transpersons". Prominent LGBTQIA+ persons in SFI include Apratim Roy (first trans SFI West Bengal State committee member), Nandhana (first Transgender member of Thrissur District committee, Kerala), Adam Harry (first transman to become a pilot in India), Muhammed Zuhrabi (queer activist, ex-General Secretary, Pondicherry University Students' Council).