The University College in the heart of Kerala’s political hub and state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, is often described as ‘chenkotta’ or the ‘Red Fort’. Considered a prominent landmark in the city, where some of the notable personalities in the state have graduated from, the red buildings of the University College are also a fortress of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the students wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The college was a picture of total calm on Saturday, a sharp contrast to the scenes that unfolded on Friday, when a third year undergraduate student was stabbed during clashes. Twenty-year-old Akhil, who was stabbed on Friday, was a student of Political Science at the University College as well as an active member of the college SFI unit. The people responsible for stabbing him also happened to be members of the same SFI unit of the college.
Unlike most of the violence reported from other campuses across the state involving members of various student political fronts, this particular incident, though not fuelled by any political reason, has opened a can of worms regarding the “dictatorial rule” of the SFI in the University College.
Immediately after Akhil was stabbed and taken to Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, a huge protest, never before seen, erupted in the University College with angry students calling out the “goondaism” unleashed by the SFI in their campus, as well as demanding the arrest of the people who stabbed Akhil.
‘No democracy, no freedom in campus; only fascism’
Reminding that the SFI’s slogan is “Freedom, Democracy and Socialism”, Dr C Moly Marceline, Former Principal of the University college, says that these are three words that the SFI unit of University College should not get to use at all. “These are exactly the three things that they have denied the students of the college,” she lashes out as she speaks to TNM.
Moly, who retired in 2014, was also a lecturer in the Chemistry department of the college and has worked for nearly 25 years in the college. She feels that the violent activities of the SFI in campus have grown over the years and that the SFI is being arrogant with their power. “They feel that they are more powerful than the college authorities,” she adds.
SFI is the only student’s union in the college and the current incident of violence by the unit members comes just a couple of months after a girl from the University College tried to kill herself, alleging that she was pressurised by members of the SFI to join their union activities because of which she was not able to attend classes and focus on her studies.
Akhil's stabbing has made the fear palpable that anyone crossing a line would be dealt with by the SFI unit in the most terrifying manner. Student angst has been flowing on media and social media, with several coming forward bravely to recount accounts of harassment by SFI. Many have accused the SFI of moral policing, of forcing them to join their union functions, political rallies, youth festivals etc, failing which they were subjected to physical and mental torture by unit members.
Many have spoken out on how they were forced to drop out from University College because of harassment by SFI.
Taking to Facebook, Goutham Soorya, a former student of the college and director of the film ‘Sleeplessly yours’, shared his traumatic experience with the SFI unit of the college. Goutham, in his post stated that when he complained to the teachers that he was being forced by the unit members, the teachers said they were helpless as they feared that the unit members would attack their vehicles. Finally Goutham mustered the courage to tell one of the seniors in SFI that he does not wish to take part in one of their functions.
“After scanning me from head to toe, he (SFI senior) left for the event. Soon after, I started to receive threats from the unit members because of which I was scared to go to college. Then one day, when I was on my way to an exam, the SFI members called me to their unit room and physically assaulted me,” stated Goutham. On realising that he couldn’t take it anymore, Goutham dropped out of college.
The psychology behind SFI’s atrocities in University College
Former faculty members of the college say that this feeling of undue authority that the political group enjoys was fostered by a section of the teaching community itself. “The teachers and the college faculty, especially those belonging to the teachers’ union have played their role in feeding these students with a wrong sense of importance and authority,” says Dr Moly.
According to Dr Moly, most of the students who join SFI in University College hail from economically and socially backward sections of the society. “When they come to University College, they are given a lot of acceptance and importance – not for their benefit but for the benefit of their party and political leaders. And they are given undue freedom as well,” says Dr Moly. She goes on to add that this has often been misused by the students, who start feeling that they are in charge of the college and dictate how other students should behave.
Many students have alleged that they were forced to attend functions of not just the SFI but also of the DYFI and the CPI(M).
Speaking to TNM, Professor S Varghese, former member of the Kerala State Human Rights Commission and a former principal of the college points out that the college with 3,500 students is located just a kilometre away from the Kerala Secretariat. This has made it easier for party leaders to organise a huge number of students for sudden rallies and protest marches.
“These students are either threatened or promised benefits from the party in order to make them join these political rallies and so on,” alleges Varghese.
And with the SFI leaders providing a steady stream of students to join political rallies, they enjoy patronage from political leaders, who have many times turned a blind eye to the complaints on the unit's fascist behaviour.
Agreeing with the fact that the teachers of the college have played a part in feeding SFI with undue power, Varghese claims that there was an “unholy alliance” between the teachers’ union of the college and the SFI. “When I tried to bring in some discipline, the students threw stones at my room and the next day I saw teachers also join the students in a protest march against me. Teachers should understand that I’m one of them despite the political differences,” he says.
“Finally this hooliganism by the SFI students has reached such a saturation point that they have started to turn against each other now,” he adds.
SFI unit room at the University College