Rebels without class: Kerala's higher education sector grapples with persistent campus violence

In the wake of recent violence at Maharaja’s College, TNIE explores how interventions to address it have remained unsuccessful owing to stiff opposition from parties.
Maharaja’s College campus in Ernakulam
Maharaja’s College campus in ErnakulamFile Photo | Albin Mathew

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The recurring instances of political violence on campuses have cast a shadow on Kerala’s higher education sector, amid the government’s efforts to transform the state into a ‘knowledge society’ and an ‘international educational hub’. Academics have cautioned that student outfits holding campuses to ransom would not only vitiate the state’s overall academic atmosphere but also violate the rights of lakhs of students to receive quality education.

Campus violence, that was prevalent in the form of minor skirmishes, took a murderous turn in the early 1970s when SFI began challenging the monopoly of KSU. Ashraf, an SFI worker and a student of Brennan College, Thalassery, is considered the first victim of campus violence. In 1974, he was killed by KSU activists who then held sway over most of the state’s campuses.

“Bloodshed occurs when one student outfit challenges the hegemony of another on a campus. If it was KSU that attacked SFI cadre in the 1970s, SFI paid back in the same coin when they began dominating college campuses soon after,” recollected A Jayasankar, a political commentator.

He added that student politics turned more violent with the arrival of SDPI’s student wing, Campus Front, which began to take on SFI on many campuses where KSU or ABVP were absent from the scene.

“Of late, youngsters’ increased access to narcotic substances has also led to clashes taking an extremely violent turn on college campuses,” he noted.

Academics rue that even universities, considered to be centres of research, are mired in student and teacher politics.

“In addition to the diktats of political parties, the interference of teachers belonging to politically-affiliated unions has further polarised the students,” pointed out A Jayakrishnan, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Kerala.

Maharaja’s College campus in Ernakulam
‘Intellectual rot root cause of violence at Maharaja’s College Ernakulam’

High Court intervened thrice

Over the past two decades, the judiciary has intervened thrice to impose curbs on campus politics. The first instance was in 2003 when the Kerala High Court held that college managements have the right to ban politics on campuses. While the order was strictly implemented by colleges mostly run by Christian managements, status quo prevailed on other campuses. Notably, the court’s direction to the state to frame similar rules for government colleges was conveniently sidelined.

In 2017, the High Court ruled that politics has no place on the campus of an educational institution and any student found indulging in such activities could be expelled. The order triggered fierce protests, fuelled by parties from across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, in a bid to revive campus politics, the LDF government came up with a draft legislation in 2019 aimed to ‘legalise’ student unions in colleges. A year later, in 2020, the High Court banned all forms of agitations on campuses. While nothing much has been heard about the draft bill ever since, violent agitations, that often spill onto the streets, continue unabated on campuses.

Maharaja’s College campus in Ernakulam
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