Outcry Over Kerala HC Ban On Agitations In Campuses
Kerala High Court bans agitations on campuses

Outcry Over Kerala HC Ban On Agitations In Campuses

Not just students, activists and academics too are upset over the ruling

From Jawaharlal Nehru University to Jamia Millia Islamia to Aligarh Muslim University to elsewhere across the country these are times when student agitations in campuses have been gaining momentum against various policies of those in power.

Most of these protests in campuses have also been successful in gaining the support of the larger sections of the society but at least in the Kerala High Court, the mood seems to be different.

Last week a single bench of the Kerala High Court under Justice PB Suresh Kumar passed a judgement that is all set to break the back of any future agitation by students across campuses in the state.

Ruling in favour of a petition filed by around 20 school and college managements, the Court said that strikes, gherao, marches, demonstrations and protests adversely affect the academic atmospheric atmosphere in campuses and hence required to be banned.

“Learning is a fundamental right of students. Campuses are places for dialogue and discussions. They should not become venue for protests,’’ read the judgement.

The logic behind what many are calling as a ‘one sided’ judgement stems from the belief that agitations inside campuses force students to boycott classes and hence such protests directly infringe upon the “fundamental right of the student to learn”.

The Court went on to add that nobody has the right to defy a student’s right to study and if someone forces a student to strike it would be considered illegal.

“It is declared that organizations of students do not have any right to disrupt or disturb the academic and other activities of students who do not want to partake in their strikes and agitations, or any right to compel such students to forego the aforesaid activities in their campuses,” the judgement further read.

The Students Unions cutting across party lines has meanwhile called the judgement unconstitutional and mince no words when they say come what may, the right of the students to dissent will go on.

“Students movements in India did not start after taking any approval from the judiciary. Rather the right to assemble in groups and freely express their opinion as individuals who also enjoy the freedom of adult franchise is enshrined in the Constitution of the country. If the students have the right to elect the government that rules the country, they have the right to dissent also whenever it is needed. Nobody can stop us from doing that. We strongly feel that such judgements from courts are not in spirit with the Constitution of India,’’ National President of Students Federation of India (SFI) VP Sanu told The Lede.

Sanu goes on to say that this was not the first time that the Kerala High Court had passed such judgements against student politics and in spite of all such orders, the students continue to protest and dissent whenever the need arises.

The SFI president goes to categorically say that such steps are only aimed at creating a generation of students that remain unresponsive to the rampant harassment and ill-treatment in the hands of college managements whose aim is only to maximise profit through the business of education than see education as tool to building a better society.

“There were more protests and murders of students leaders in campuses in the seventies and eighties in Kerala than now. Why nobody thought of banning student politics or agitations then? Now the situation is such that just like the employer wants an employee that does not question him, the college managements want students who do not question them. It is after the mushrooming of self-financing colleges in Kerala post the 1990s that such a culture to restrain student freedom too took shape,’’ Sanu added.

Though in opposing political camps, Sanu’s words are also echoed by KM Abhijith, the state president of the Kerala Students Union (KSU) the student wing of the Congress party.

“I think the honourable High Court has been misled into making such a judgement because one of the primary reasons cited in the judgment is disruption of classes and if you check the 2019-20 academic calendar then you can see only minimal number of classes have been missed due to strikes. How can you then come to such a conclusion that dissent inside campuses affects academics? We will continue to dissent when needed come what may,’’ Abhijith told The Lede.

For a change, the students are not alone in this battle. The LDF (Left Democratic Front) government in Kerala is backing them to the hilt. The state Higher Education Minister KT Jaleel under whose ministry comes all the colleges in the state is gearing up for an immediate appeal against the judgement at the High Court.

“We cannot take politics out of campuses and churn out a generation of students who are non-responsive to issues that happen around them. We will look into the judgement and look at the option of an appeal against the judgement,’’ Jaleel told media persons.

Matters may not end with an appeal as the state government is also contemplating a legislation to set down guidelines for the conduct of student unions in campuses across the state.

The draft bill for the legislation has already taken shape following the imbroglio at the prestigious University College in the state capital last year where students had a near riot in the campus following alleged ill treatment of a few students by the SFI leadership in the college leading to the stabbing of one student.

What emerged from the campus were tales of harassment, torture and intimidation of a section of students by those who were ruling the college campus in the name of political allegiance and college unions forcing the government to now frame laws for the conduct of such unions inside campuses.

Now with such a High Court order coming through, the government is in consultation with legal experts to add provisions in the bill to overcome the orders of the court too if such a need arises post the appeal.

Campus Reflects The Society

It is not just the student unions or the political parties which have expressed their strong displeasure towards the High Court judgement. Rather the civil society in Kerala and the academia are also up in arms in spite of the number of pitfalls the student politics bring forth.

Joseph C Mathew is a former advisor to erstwhile Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan and had played a vital role in forming many an education policy during the previous Left government. He is of the strong opinion that the judgement of the court is against the spirit of democracy that needs to be inculcated in students during their college days.

“The college campuses are only a miniature of the society that you live in. If you have the legal right to dissent peacefully in the society then how is the college campus different? Now if you are saying that by agitating inside the campus you are infringing upon another’s right to study, doesn’t the same logic apply when you protest on the street and obstruct someone else’s right to travel freely?’’ asks Joseph C Mathew.

Mathew goes on to say that such an order amounts to ‘moral policing’ on the part of the judiciary and that the judiciary by doing this, is playing into the hands of the executive which wants all such protest to end.

“In short, the reasons you are listing to ban agitations in campuses is applicable to the entire society also. There are students in colleges who have the same right to vote as me who goes to an office. So how do you explain segregating one group of people, in this case those who go to college to study, and allow the other section to do as it pleases? This is a sort of moral policing. These students are above 18 years. You don’t need to police them. They are responsible citizens well capable of deciding what they want to do,’’ added Mathew.

The dissent towards the judgement becomes total when academicians themselves who have seen even the ugly side of campus politics also raise the flag against it.

Rajan Gurukkal is a senior academician in Kerala who is also the vice chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, an advisory body to the government in the higher education sector.

Gurukkal might have his differences with the way politics is conducted in college campuses especially forcing students to boycott classes, but he has no doubt that dissent inside campus cannot be banned.

“I think the court is right to the extent when it says that you cannot force another student who wants to learn boycott his classes or disallow a teacher who wants to teach his students. But to ask students who having voting rights not to protest or dissent is also not right,’’ Rajan Gurukkal told The Lede.

Gurukkal added that the same High Court had previously tried to ban not just dissent even politics inside campuses in its entirety which academicians like him had opposed vehemently.

“The vibrancy of a college campus lies in its collective thinking and debates which is itself a learning experience. So any form of democratic way of protest or dissent is no doubt a fundamental right of a student which cannot be denied. Maybe the court only thought of protecting only those who want to study and missed the larger picture,’’ Gurukkal added.

A Double-Edged Sword

Academicians like Gurukkal have a reason to give the court the benefit of the doubt because the campus politics in Kerala unlike many at many other more famous universities across the country had been undesirable for the larger section of the society.

In the last few years the politics inside campuses have been reduced to mere politicking with the student bodies ending up as extensions of major political parties outside the campuses and the campus itself becoming a recruiting centre for political parties. In simple words politics in campuses in Kerala have been a double-edged sword for a long time.

MN Karassery is an eminent political thinker, writer and professor. He minces no words when he says that the campus politics is itself to blame for taking it to such a situation that even the court thinks of banning it.

“I doubt whether there is real student politics in campuses in Kerala now. Student politics should not be about an SFI member killing a KSU activist or an ABVP member killing a Campus Front member. If so then that’s not politics for me. Sadly that’s what happens in Kerala’s campuses now. Real student politics is when you raise your voice against the atrocities your fellow student faces. How many such issues have been taken up by these student unions and made it reach its fruitful end? For example, have they been able to stop ragging in campuses forever?’’ asks Karassery.

Karaserry points out that some of the major issues that affect students like ‘out of syllabus’ questions appearing in examinations, examination results not coming out on time do not find any takers among student unions since it doesn’t serve political dividends for their masters.

He also points out that the student unions have also failed to address the rampant malpractices that exist in the higher education sector in Kerala because at the top of it is their own political party or its leader.

“I am not against student politics nor saying that in all campuses the politics have degenerated. But before blaming the courts for coming strongly against you, it’s high time the student unions themselves introspect on what kind of politics they are practicing inside campuses. Have they been able to churn out morally strong students through their politics is a big question,’’ added Karaserry.

But the SFI rubbishes such criticism and says that over the last many years, the student union has been fighting for various issue including those which directly affect the students across campuses in the state.

“You can check in the last four years how many agitations did the SFI conduct in various universities in Kerala to ensure that examinations take place on time. It is very easy to criticise without first understanding the facts. We are totally committed to the interests of the students and will always be which is irrespective of the stand that the LDF or the CPM takes on the issue. Also not just ragging, for which we have done a lot of work in campuses, the SFI has also worked hard in campuses to ensure it stays free of drugs,’’ added VP Sanu.

Degenerating Politics?

That the student unions have raised their voice for issues that affect the students is without doubt a fact, but equally relevant is the argument that this had been done only when such issues have been taken up by their parent political party or when ordered to do so by the party.

Other major issues that affect the country or the people as such are not finding enough resonance among students in Kerala’s campuses which many say is a reflection of the political degeneration in the campuses.

Political commentators like CR Neelakandan quote the example of why the anti-CAA protest is not reflecting in Kerala’s campuses.

“There was a time in Kerala’s campuses when the issue of Vietnam or Saddam Hussein’s death used to find resonance in the campus politics. But that is not there anymore as campus politics today is just an extension of the mainstream political parties and their agendas. Why do you think the anti-CAA has failed to kick off in Kerala’s campus? Both the Left and the Congress are not doing anything much against it. So are its student unions. When you have politics in campus degenerating to party-based politicking that looks for one-upmanship often leading to violence, how do you blame the courts for taking such a tough stand?’’ asks CR Neelakandan.

The SFI, which controls more than 90%of the college campuses in the state meanwhile is promising that it is on the path of bringing in major reforms in the way its union works in campuses.

“I am not saying everything is perfect in the way unions work in campuses. There is a lot of change that needs to happen. We are now trying to ensure that we will not disrupt or boycott classes unless there is a pressing need for such a form of protest. We will first exhaust other options before looking at disrupting classes,’’ added VP Sanu.

All eyes are now set on the state government which is likely to present the bill to control the functioning of unions in campuses in the next session of the state legislative assembly. Many believe it will also have provisions to overrule the current court judgement that makes dissent illegal because for both the Left and the Congress campus politics is a much-needed arena to churn out new generations of leaders.

Meanwhile the civil society in Kerala too says in one voice that student politics is vital to maintaining the vibrancy in campuses which if lost will create an unresponsive generation of youngsters.

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