What triggered the protests?
There had been student unrest against private colleges in the state after the death of Jishnu Pranoy, a first-year student at the private Nehru College of Engineering, Thrissur, who allegedly committed suicide on January 6, due to alleged harassment at the hands of the management. At the Kerala Law Academy (KLA), an autonomous private institution in Thiruvananthapuram, students sought to hold a procession in solidarity with the protesting students but were denied permission by Principal Lakshmi. A section of students then took to the streets, accusing her of meddling with their internal marks and insulting them on numerous occasions. They began demanding her ouster and were joined by student bodies: KSU, ABVP, AISF and SFI. The SFI withdrew from the agitation on January 31 after the KLA management assured the protesters that Lakshmi would be kept away from the principal post for the next five years. But other student outfits are demanding that Lakshmi be barred from the post for good. She is, however, in no mood to give in and has made it clear that she will not quit.
What issues have the KLA students raised?
Scores of students have complained that she had discriminated against them on the basis of caste, creed, colour, religion and appearance. She has been accused of hurling casteist slurs at Dalit students; police have registered a case under provisions of the SC/ST Atrocities Prevention Act.
Students also claim that Lakshmi had a habit of summoning them to her official residence at night before verbally abusing them. The students were armed with audio clippings to substantiate their claims.
Has there been a probe?
A sub-committee of Kerala University Syndicate looked into the allegations and found that the audio clippings submitted by the students “substantiated” their allegations “about the language, tone and attitude of the principal towards the students and parents.” The committee report also noted that internal marks were being awarded as per the whims and fancies of the principal. It concluded that “maladministration” on the part of the principal had brought the “downfall” of an institution “that had produced eminent lawyers, great judges and hundreds of political leaders”. The Syndicate was divided over removing her as the CPI (M) objected to such a demand. It finally decided to debar her from exam duties for the next five years.
What are the other charges against the law institute?
As the student agitation gained support, questions arose over the ownership of 11 acres and 49 cents of government land, which was handed over to KLA in 1966. The land was allotted at the behest of then Agriculture Minister, the CPI’s M N Govindan Nair. KLA’s founder secretary, N Narayanan Nair, Lakshmi’s father, was then a CPI leader. Her uncle, Koliyakode Krishnan Nair, is a prominent CPI (M) leader. The land was initially handed over on a three-year lease but it was extended to 30 years in 1976 and finally assigned to the academy in 1985. Although handed over for educational purposes, Lakshmi and her uncle have built separate houses on campus. The focus shifted onto the land issue when veteran CPI (M) leader and former chief minister V S Achuthanandan demanded that land not being used for educational purposes should be taken back. The government has asked the revenue secretary to look into the matter.
What is the history of the Kerala Law Academy?
The academy, established in 1968, is Kerala’s first private professional college. But over the years, it has grown into an enterprise of the Nair family. While Lakshmi’s father Narayanan Nair is the director, the governing body comprises of her husband Ajay Krishnan, her brother Nagaraj, her uncle Krishnan Nair and her cousin N K Jayakumar as members. K Ayyappan Pillai, a former state vice-president of the BJP, is the chairman of the governing body.
The KLA has also enjoyed the support of the ruling CPI (M) over the years. In the ‘90s, when the CPI (M) and its student and youth outfits waged a fractious battle against self-financing colleges in Kerala, Nair’s law academy remained unaffected, despite it being the first self-financing professional college in the state. In 1997, when Mahesh Chandran, the ABVP nominee in Kerala University, moved a notice for an adjournment motion to discuss alleged irregularities in the academy, SFI members attempted to disrupt proceedings.
Who is Lakshmi Nair?
Having done her post-graduate and doctoral programmes in law from the Kerala Law Academy, Lakshmi Nair, 50, began her career as a news reader with DD Malayalam in 1986. Two years later, she joined the KLA as a guest lecturer, becoming a full-time faculty member in 1994 and a professor in 2007. She has been the principal for the past five years.
But her journey to celebrity status began a decade ago, when she anchored a cookery show on the CPI (M)-controlled Kairali TV. The show, Magic Oven, which airs on Sundays, turned Lakshmi into a household name in the state. The channel also has a travelogue which features Lakshmi, Flavours of India.
Despite the student protests, Lakshmi remains unfazed. “Only about 200 students are taking part in the agitation. There is a lot of good things about this institute. There has been no complaints about the fees being levied here. I have been the principal for the past five years but the allegations have suddenly come up only now. I will fight back,” she says.