Sunday, December 2, 2007

Campus Violence: Case of Kerala

Violence in Campuses: Why Kerala fails in Higher Education?

By N P Chekkutty

It was the other day, a police assistant sub-inspector was hit by a huge rod by goons in a degree college in Kerala, leading to his untimely death. That has once again unleashed a debate on the rising spate of violence in the campuses, something which has come to stay all over the country. It was only last year a professor was done to death by his own students in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. It was the pro-BJP students organization, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, who were responsible for the murder. In Kerala, the ASI’s death took place as the students belonging to the SFI and the ABVP were clashing in the campus, and the present round of debate is about who were responsible for the death. The LDF Government and police claim it was the ABVP men who struck the fatal blow, and the Sangh Parivar leaders try to oppose it.

The question however, is the rising trend of campus violence and he menacing proportion it has taken even in places like Kerala where the students movements had a long history. Many of the present leaders of Kerala, including ministers in the present cabinet, were the student leaders who came up during the seventies. They include Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Home Minister, M A Baby, Education Minister, A K Balan, Electricity Minister, Dr T M Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister, N K Premachandran, Water Supply Minister, and others. Except for Premachandran, who belonged to the RSP, all others were leaders of the SFI in the seventies and early eighties.

In spite of the fact that the present crop of Kerala leaders are predominantly from the SFI, criticism is rife that it is SFI which is mainly responsible for the sorry state of affairs in Kerala campuses. They have an unchallenged position in most colleges, and they do not allow others to function freely, say the critics. There seems to be much truth in the criticism as SFI has come to stray as the campus bully and students and parents have started complaining about their highhanded ways.

Recently some friends in the media and academic world made a comparison between the present day campus in Kerala and the situation in the seventies, when the present leaders were making their appearance in public life as student activists. It served to highlight the shortcomings of a new generation of student leaders. This comparison was necessary and meaningful: First, students anywhere, anytime, have the same needs and hopes, though the levels might differ. But essentially all students are there to get a better education and find a place in life. So campuses need to be able to cater to their needs and aspirations. Most of our institutions seem to fail here. One reason is the way campus life has deteriorated and over-politicized, I mean partisan politics, over the past decade.

In the seventies, when we were student activists there was a live debate on the desirability of student strikes. In SFI, people like me were of the view that these calls for boycott of classes were actually going against the interests of the poorest sections of the student community. There were a large number of strikes those days and every month many days were being lost. There were even continuous class boycott which held up classes for months together. The leaders kept on saying they were great victories.

Then what happened? The private education became the favourite with the ordinary people, the comrades including. The private tuition centres flourished everywhere and those teachers who were actively supporting these agitations were those who had a lucrative tuition business. Some of them were part-time politicians who made it big later on. (Kerala must be the only place where there are so many 'masters' and 'teachers' as important political leaders. We have many ministers too with the same suffix...). Another impact was that the parallel colleges abounded and many of them were run by the same leaders who had a control over the students’ organizations. Many of them have now graduated themselves into major education businesses making use of the recent shift to private education.

It seems that the seeds for the present rise of and respectability for the self-financed private education were sown in the seventies when the public sector education was done to death by its own great votaries of today. The net result of all this was that the poorest sections of students were relegated to the background and those with some money to invest in education were able to move ahead.

Many friends nostalgically recalled the wonderful student movement that was witnessed in institutions like the Jawarharlal Nehru University in the seventies and eighties. They are right. Some of those institutions were models in student activity. But they were exceptions and not the rule. JNU was a class in itself. In the seventies, JNU had the best of Indian student leaders like Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechuri and many others. (My personal favourite in Delhi those days was, however, a wiry and fiery comrade called Ashoklata Jain, who died young, whose passionate voice and magnetic persona is still etched in my memory...)

But Kerala was a slightly different case, even then. The student leadership who called for boycott of classes incessantly, were influenced by outside forces who had other motives. For example, teachers unions, employees unions, etc, did have a great influence and they often misled the student leadership. That had a disastrous impact on the credibility of the leadership of the students. It also did play a role in destroying our best public institutions in education paving the sway for the rise of private self finance colleges that has sprung up in recent years.

Here, a personal experience from the eighties. It was in 1982 the Calicut University decided to do away with the semester system in its pg programmes. I was a student there and also a member of the senate. It was the AKPCTA, private college teachers organization in Kerala, who initiated the process of a debate for doing away with semesters in the pg departments, as they said it was an elitist system catering to only a few students in the campus. We don’t have such programmes in the private colleges or even in Government colleges, so it was not in the interests of equality we continuing with it here, went their argument.

Frankly speaking, myself and others in the senate as student representatives did not find anything wrong in the argument. We had such a mechanical notion about socialism and equality those days. The left parties generally supported the motion. Then Kesavan veluthatt, now a well known historian and then a PhD scholar there, came to my room one night and spoke about the need for preserving higher education. It has an elite nature. It has to nurture and build talent. You cannot do away with it killing the system, he pointed out.

The matter was raised with C P John, who was SFI president then, and we had a long discussion in which senior CPM leaders like Sivadasa Menon, then member of syndicate, and Imbichi Bava were present. But my arguments did not carry the day.

In the senate vote, the SFI decided not to vote in favour or against the motion proposed by AKPCTA. The CPM members voted for the motion and the semester was thrown out of the campus. It took more than two decades for the left parties to realize the misstate they committed. Recently semester system has been reintroduced in the Calicut University. But nobody asked what we had lost in those 20 years and how we put ourselves behind all others, including private sector businesses in education. Or were we actually being taken for a ride by those same interests, working through their paid employees who came to teach in colleges after paying a hefty amount as donation?

So much for so-called informed debate and discussions among student leaders even in the seventies and eighties, which produced to the greatest leaders of contemporary Kerala. No wonder Kerala remains quite far behind even Bihar as far as higher education is concerned.

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