Recent violent clashes on the road between Pachaiyappas College students who were celebrating Bus Day once again brought to focus the tradition of Route Thala (Route leader), where one student represents all students using a particular bus or rail route. The ego clashes between such student groups have escalated quickly in the past into violent fights. Stakeholders who have worked to reduce the menace of such student clashes say that it’s time to stop branding students as criminals and help them constructively find an identity.
Outside Pachiyappa’s College, one of India’s oldest educational institutions, police officers stand guard. Two kakhi-clad men at the bus stop outside on Poonamalle High Road, three pacing by the gate, and two sitting in their patrol vehicle at the college parking lot. Mugilan* a less popular Route Thala from Pachaiyappa’s College, stands addressing the rest of his ‘gang’ which sits on a pavement in the campus and watches him talk. He is “in charge” of these boys who use the same bus route to get to college. It’s time for the third class to begin and all of them are outside.
He shoots glances at the police patrol vehicle as he continues. He warns his peers about staying inconspicuous and about group unity and integrity. “Seri Thala! (Ok Leader)”, some of them respond.
How did Mugilan become the Route Thala? He says that he did not attend most classes in the first two years. “Even if I came to college, I would bunk classes, just chill with my friends and go back home in the evening,” he says. Does he have ambitions. “Ambitions?” he laughs.
“I just want to settle. Have a stable job,” he says. But in stark contrast to his conventional safe dreams, he spends his college days as a daredevil. Along with his ripped jeans, faded shirt, he also wears a streak of sandal on his forehead. “My senior selected me as the Route Thala because I was friendly with all students in that route. It is not such a big deal. My job is to be a representative, if any boy from my route gets into trouble,” he says.
On ‘Bus Day’, Mugilan, like his peers, gathers his route gang and brings percussions and other instruments to the bus. “Some of us climb over to the top or hang from the windows. Some play the parai or other percussions. We sing songs to honour the bus and the driver that brings us to college everyday,” he says. Pattabi*, a second-year student from the college said that students do not intend to cause chaos. “People from different routes keep having small clashes through the year. Some times when a senior from another route rags us in college, our Route Thala goes and warns him not to mess with us. On other occasions, the fight is about showing that students from one area are better than others,” he said.
What is fun to him is often viewed as public nuisance. The yearly rogue gang wars and clashes between college students has become a ritual now. Speaking to Express, K Rajesh, a former Route Thala, now an online trader and member of the youth wing of Tamilanila Congress said that there is no recreation at most government colleges. “Unlike private colleges that have a host of extracurricular activities, government college students have nothing but academics,” he said.
Bus Day celebrations were what compensated for that and it was a lot of fun, he said. “There was nothing violent about it. In fact, television channels and newspapers would report on our celebrations. The students these days have weapons,” he said. Arunmozhi Selvan, the principal of Pachaiyappas College said that he cannot speak on the issue until he completes investigating and acting on the recent clashes.
The way out
But this tradition of Bus Day and Route Thala is not restricted to Pachaiyappa’s alone. It was popular among students from two other city colleges — Nandanam Arts College and Presidency college. However over the last couple of years, the rate of violent incidents have gone down significantly and the menace of Route Thala clashes have come to a near standstill. Stakeholders from the colleges say that this difference came about when they stopped seeing these students as criminals-in-the-making and treated them as adolescents who need care and attention.
Presidency college, for example introduced a variety of interventions in the last two years to bring about holistic transformation in their students. Among other initiatives was to engage the psychology department of the college to analyse the crisis and come up with a solution through a counselling programme.
Adolescents students have a lot of bottled up energy that needs to be spent the right way. Speaking to Express, A Ravanan, the principal of the college said that after he took charge, the first thing he did was to ensure encouragement of sports and extra curricular activities. “Students need to feel like they’re a part of a larger community.
We gather the entire college to celebrate festivals like pongal and share sweets. After many years, I introduced a inter-college cultural programme that went on from noon till 7pm. We facilitated the setting of various sports clubs,” he said adding that keeping students occupied before and after college hours, helping them cultivate ambition and teaching them ways to achieve them has significantly cut down violent incidents.
Nandanam Arts college too came up with similar strategies. Kala Subash, a faculty member told Express that violent altercations between students dropped drastically after the introduction of certain yoga lessons. “The first two years after the introduction of the program, we made sure that the entire college took this training. Now, every first-year student trains in yoga,” she said. In addition, the college has also introduced ‘Silambam’ which students can take up voluntarily.
Keeping a close watch
While one must look to holistically developing a student and training him or her for future excellence, it is also important to simultaneously curtail any potential acts of violence through constant monitoring, said a senior police official who has been working with the Presidency College for a few years now. “Students who get involved in violence in public transport usually come late to college.
So we work with the college management to make sure that a disciplinary committee is engaged at the gate. Everyday, students who come late get counselled by the disciplinary committee for twenty minutes and are made to sign a letter stating that they will not come late again. Initially, it did not have much impact but overtime, the number of latecomers has come down, subsequently leading to less number of violent clashes,” he said.
He further said that the police department works in collaboration with both the college and transport department. “We’ve instructed bus drivers and conductors to stop the bus every time students create chaos and call us immediately. Students think they are imitating cinema heroes on buses. This gives them validation. However, when they are caught, they lose face,” he said. The officer said that treating students as criminals moved their aggression from buses to their neighbourhoods.
“Instead we make them sign a bond that if someone files an FIR against them, they will spend the time of the bond in jail. This warning keeps them in check,” he said. An intelligence officer who works with the students violence wing said that students never react well to being treated like criminals. “These students need guidance. They do not know how to achieve what they want to achieve. Ever since I started working with students from Nandanam Arts College, hundreds of students have joined the police and intelligence services because we brought in people to give them training for public service exams,” he said.
Many students who come to government colleges often hail from very difficult backgrounds. Sujarita Magdakin, the Head of the Department of Psychology at Presidency College told Express that deviant and aggressive children in college come from either broken familial bonds and lack support and emotional guidance. “At that age, students tend to lack self-esteem and search for an identity to fill that up. In the first year of college, when they are vulnerable and trying to prove themselves worthy in front of their peers, they get dragged into such notorious cliques by pressure or intimidation,” she said.
After her department’s intervention, the college introduced soft skill development programs for students after class hours. This was primarily to inculcate motivation among students and help them come up with a realistic strategy to realise their goals. “These students do not have any support at home. All they need is for someone to follow up on their everyday progress and guide them to take small manageable steps,” she said.
Tale of violence & panic
Earlier this year, during the Bus Day celebrations, over a dozen students fell off the roof of a public bus causing panic. In another instance, friction between two different route gangs led to physical altercation with both gangs using machetes and knives against each other. Such incidents have unfortunately led to branding of students from these colleges as rowdies