On July 12, Akhil Chandran, a third-year degree student at Thiruvananthapuram’s University College, was sitting with some of his friends on campus, near a flagpost of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student outfit of the CPI(M), when a few SFI workers asked the group to clear out. Still simmering over an earlier face-off, he refused. As the two sides came to blows, the SFI’s R Sivaranjith, president of the college’s students’ union, allegedly stabbed Chandran as secretary A N Naseem held him.
Outraged over the attack, hundreds of students, many of them girls, spilled on to the streets of the state capital against the SFI. While Chandran, himself a local committee member of the SFI, recovered, the incident threw an unflattering spotlight on the British-era college, one of the more sought-after institutions in the state, but where campus politics is practised with a viciousness that’s extraordinary even by the violent standards of Kerala politics. As the only student body on the campus, with an uninterrupted reign of nearly two decades, the SFI rules.
In a major embarrassment for the CPI(M)-led LDF government in the state, it was soon revealed that Naseem and Sivaranjith, among the six arrested for attacking Chandran, had topped a rank-list for police constables. The opposition Congress said this showed that the state government was using the SFI as a “parallel recruitment centre” to further the CPI(M)’s hold on the law and order machinery. The SFI has now dissolved its unit in the college.
Established in 1866 by the erstwhile Travancore royal regime, University College is the alma mater of such illustrious names such as former president the late K R Narayanan, former Maharashtra governor P C Alexander, the first woman judge of the Supreme Court Fathima Beevi and scores of litterateurs, politicians and civil servants.
Somewhere during this journey, University College, now affiliated to Kerala University, became a fertile ground for violent campus politics. In the 1970s, the SFI was a minor player on the campus, while the Congress’s KSU dominated student politics. However, things changed in the ’80s when the SFI led violent protests against granting autonomy to colleges.
With the college in the heart of the capital city, its students readily extended their strength to these agitations, held outside the state Secretariat building, that’s a mere 400 metres from the campus. Over the years, the college slowly became an SFI fortress, fortified by the CPI(M) and its youth wing DFYI. The last time a KSU leader was elected to the college union was in 1986.
In 2000, a KSU leader, A R Nishad, who was visiting from a private college at Nilamel in Kollam, was allegedly forcibly taken to the SFI office on campus, where the assaulters carved “SFI” on his back. The SFI office on campus has a notorious reputation of being an “idimuri” or torture chamber, where anyone who runs afoul of its leaders is “dealt with”.
As a fallout of the outrage over the Nishad incident, the SFI was forced to dissolve its unit on the campus. A year later, in 2001, a KSU unit was formed on the campus. Again, that proved short-lived with the SFI emerging victorious in subsequent student body elections.
In February 2017, in an incident of moral policing, two girls and their male friend were beaten up by alleged SFI activists for sitting together while watching a play.
Recalls senior Congress leader K Muraleedharan, who was state party chief in 2001, “KSU men at the college came under constant attack. They could not keep up their political work due to the SFI’s threats. The Congress party failed to support the KSU unit and it slowly fizzled out.’’
After a gap of 18 years, KSU is back on the campus — earlier this week, the outfit formed a union, cashing in on sentiments among students against the SFI.
Another incident that triggered the growing anger against the SFI was the suicide attempt by a student early this year. Nikhila Sajith, 19, a first-year degree student, had alleged that she was subjected to mental torture by SFI leaders for refusing to take part in SFI-organised agitations in the city.
Nikhila, who moved to another college this academic year, says, “I didn’t give a written complaint against the SFI leaders because I was afraid of the fallout. But I took up the matter with the college authorities, and they failed to act.’’
Nikhila is one of 187 students to obtain transfer certificates from the college halfway through their courses, according to a document submitted by Higher Education Minister K T Jaleel in the Assembly last month.
When reached for his comment, Prof K Vishwambharan, who was removed as principal after the July attack on Chandran, said, “On the day of attack on the SFI worker (Akhil Chandran), I was busy with the admission process. The students should have settled the issue among themselves. But everyone knows what has been happening at the college.’’
An SFI leader, who has been at University College for the last six years, says, “Most of the students on campus have no political affiliation. They don’t have the courage to speak out against the criminal elements in the SFI who rule the college with the support of their political masters.”
Reacting to the stabbing case, SFI all-India president V P Sanu pointed out that the organisation has dissolved its University College unit. “We will ensure steps to prevent a repeat of such incidents at University College or any other college in Kerala. However, it’s also true that the incident has been used to attack SFI,’’ he said.