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Kerala’s Worst Kept Secret: SFI’s Torture Rooms
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Governance

Kerala’s Worst Kept Secret: SFI’s Torture Rooms

The SFI’s torture rooms in colleges are a reality but will the Left government in Kerala crack down? 

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

The existence of torture rooms across a number of colleges in Kerala is now a well-known reality. What is supposed to be otherwise a students’ union room that should serve as a vibrant centre for political discourse among the young leaders had over the years become a nerve point for both physical and mental subjugation by senior students over first year ones across many a campuses in Kerala.

Scores of students who deposed before an independent people’s judicial commission set up to look into the rising cases of physical and mental abuse in campuses had in one voice put the buck at the door of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of ruling Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M).

No surprises there, since the SFI rules almost all the colleges in the state save a few run by the ABVP or other student unions.

The commission headed by retired justice PK Shamsuddin too minced no words in its report which it has now presented before the new Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, with copies to the Chief Minister and Higher Education Minister.

The commission had held various sittings at Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Kozhikode and recorded 92 direct statements from students, teachers, academicians and politicians and others in public life apart from other complaints it received via e-mail. It also visited a number of colleges to see the conditions there.

“In several colleges the allotted college union rooms have been converted by SFI into torture rooms called ‘Idi Muri’. University College and Govt Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram, Govt College, Madappally are a few examples,” says the report in its findings, a direct indictment of the SFI’s autocratic rule across campuses.

Justice Shamsuddin who talked to The Lede also made it very clear that it is the autocratic rule of the students’ union of one political party denying the others to even exist in campuses that has bred violence in most situations.

“Across colleges in Kerala there exists an unholy alliance between students and teachers who owe their allegiance to one particular political party or ideology and they form a dominant group. Not only is violence instigated by these students which is always overlooked by the teachers but there had also been rampant malpractices in admission and examination which has completely destroyed the academic atmosphere at many campuses in the state,’’ Justice Shamsuddin told The Lede.

Physical & Mental Abuse The Order Of The Day

One of the major findings of the commission has been the existence of rampant use of force in campuses, physical as well as mental.

Almost all the students who deposed before the commission said that right from the day one they took admission they have been intimidated to join the union of the party that was in majority in the campus or leave.

Any reluctance to toe their line or not take membership is often met with brute force.

It all started with Nikhila A, a first year BA student at the University College in Thiruvananthapuram attempting suicide in May this year leaving behind a note that put the SFI in the dock for mental harassment which had made her studies impossible in the campus.

Though the police registered a case, Nikhila was later coerced and threatened to go back on her statements and she says the SFI made her do it.

“I went to University College with a lot of dreams it being a prestigious college. But I was shocked to find that there was no academic atmosphere. Even I don’t hate the SFI but how can you compromise your studies continuously and take part in just political activities. When I raised it with the faculty they told me to adjust with it. I was physically and mentally tortured for raising my voice,’’ Nikhila told the Commission.

But it was only after the stabbing of a third year student Akhil by SFI leaders inside the same college for rebelling against the Union’s autocratic conduct that outrage spread across the state. From then on the skeletons started falling out of the cupboard.

Hardil A, another student again from University College was beaten up only because he dared to follow a political ideology different from the SFI.

“We were planning to set up our own political unit in the college and we had planned to set up some banners for it. The SFI leaders came to know about. We were taken to the unit room which is called the ‘idi muri’ and were beaten up nicely. I had to undergo months of medical care,’’ Hardil told The Lede.

The initial perception that it was the issue in just one college got busted when a video over social media depicting the same situation at the Government Arts College, again in the state capital where SFI leaders were caught openly abusing girl students who had been summoned again to a unit room for not attending party functions. The torture room phenomenon was not just pertaining to one college.

At Madapally Government College in Kozhikode, a BA political student Salwa Abdul Kader was brave enough to put up with SFI’s atrocities for three years from 2016 to 2019 when she completed her BA in political science.

“I had openly expressed my political views which were against theirs. From that day onwards it had been torture. Even the women SFI leaders had physically attacked me. I could have given up my studies and run away. Even the teachers looked the other way. Perhaps they were scared or a section shared their political view. But I was not ready to give up and run,” Kader told The Lede.

Academicians who have been outraged at the depositions made by the students say that they are not surprised however. They clearly blame it on the rampant criminalisation of politics that had taken place inside the campuses in Kerala over the years.

“This is a very dangerous situation. It is not real political activity that is happening inside campuses today. But it is the other way round. With rampant criminalisation, it is actually de-politicisation that is taking place. Take the case of University College. There all democratic principles have been lost because there is no political or democratic sense among students. It is just hooliganism in the name of one or more dominant political party,” M Shajar Khan, state president of the All India Save Education Committee, an organisation committed to fighting the ills in educational sector told The Lede.

“In short, there is not even a liberal pragmatic student community in the campus, let alone a knowledgeable political youth of democratic values and passions capable of public policy debates. You see largely an apathetic mass susceptible to deadly sentiments. The worst among them are criminals, who infiltrate into student organisations and form gangs within them. These apolitical groups, utterly corrupt and autocratic, abuse the organisational strength under the political clout and that is what we see in various educational institutions,” Dr Rajan Gurukkal, eminent academician and vice-chairman Kerala State Higher Education Council told The Lede.

Academics In Complete Disarray

The Shamsuddin commission says that the biggest fallout of this degradation in democratic values inside the campuses is academics itself.

After the sittings, the commission has drawn up a vicious circle of elements that make the campuses a cauldron of mere politicking. If the student unions are the engines of this malice, the support system is well within the campus itself.

With the teaching and administration staff having their own political allegiance and associations in the form of Unions, most of them not only look the other way when atrocities are unleashed by student organisations that share the political ideology with their Unions but even end up as abettors.

“It has now been proved beyond doubt that malpractices in examination and even in admissions have taken place on the basis of political allegiance. The commission is not against teachers having membership in political parties but that should influence their work or their judgment in the campuses. At the moment that’s what is happening which is destroying the democratic atmosphere inside campuses,’’ Justice Shamsuddin reiterated.

From classes being emptied to sending students for political rallies to teachers abetting candidates with particular political allegiance to copying in examinations to letting union leaders having a free run in campuses, the teaching staff in Kerala’s campuses is hand-in-glove with the political parties.

With local political leaders from outside having free access to campuses, the vicious circle is nearly complete.

Former Director General of Police TP Senkumar who had led police operations inside campuses to seize arms from union rooms, recollected the stiff opposition that local politicians and teachers had put up on one such occasion at the same University College way back in 2006.

“More than the students it is the teachers unions that create an atmosphere of violence in colleges. Aren’t these torture rooms right under the noses of these teachers? What have they done till now? They are to blame for this situation. Just to protect their political interests they go to any extent to help the students unions. So primarily you will need to reform the teachers unions first. Some may be doing even out of fear,’’ Senkumar told The Lede.

The Commission has now come up with a comprehensive proposal which includes legislation that could be even stricter than the Kerala Ragging Act 1998 which it finds insufficient to deal with violence in campuses.

Among others a state level grievance body such as an ‘Ombudsman for Campus’ and an internal college mechanism comprising of students and teachers to address the grievance of the students are to set up on a war footing.

SFI In Denial Mode But CPM Takes Note

The SFI has meanwhile rubbished the committee’s report calling it an attempt to put just the SFI in the dock and allow other student unions to get away.

Miffed at being named as the abettor of torture in campuses, by identifying their union rooms as torture rooms, the SFI is even going to the extent of casting aspersions on the integrity of the members of the committee.

“See this is just an independent people’s commission. We are still not clear on who gave them the mandate to even come out with such a report. There might be a retired judge in it but all the other members have their own political agenda. Their only aim is to put the blame on SFI. Why have they not talked about colleges in north Kerala where MSF has wreaked havoc? So we are not taking it seriously,” SFI National president VP Sanu told The Lede.

When pointed out that commission’s findings are based on innumerable depositions that students themselves had given from the across the state in its various sittings, Sanu says that the SFI has its own mechanism of internal correction and does not need any external help.

Sanu also went on to acknowledge the fact that there had indeed been certain issues pertaining to the lack of democratic functioning in college unions led by the SFI but such issues were being corrected from time to time.

The CPI(M) which is the mother organisation of the SFI is however taking the whole issue with a pinch of salt.

MA Baby, CPM Politbureau member and former education minister of the state categorically told The Lede that time has come for the student unions including the SFI to change its present style of autocratic functioning inside campuses.

“Student union activities should be to help the student community to express their creative talents in a democratic atmosphere. For that political parties should also stop interfering in the college union activities. We need a consensus between political parties for this. Government is looking at bringing in a balanced legislation to ensure that democratic principles are upheld in college campuses,’’ Baby told The Lede.

Baby who is a very senior politician knows very well that the current situation on ground is exactly opposite to what he says and that the rot had been spearheaded by his own party with others getting to play a very minor role it.

Academicians also look at such words with a lot of suspicion. “The primary villain here is the state itself and the ruling political party. See when we set up this commission itself we knew that they would declare it illegitimate since the findings might expose them. Only if the political parties stop using the students as pawns will this menace end. It is not easy. So at the moment the aim should be to generate public opinion against this evil so that finally political parties will have no option but to fall in line,” Shajar Khan reiterated.

All eyes are now on the Pinarayi Vijayan government to see what proactive steps of correction it would take in days to come.