Should politics be allowed in college campuses? This has been a hotly-debated topic in Kerala for years now. Related incidents of violence and even murders have plagued college campuses in the state.
However, there's a flip side to it. The absence of student organisations or student unions in college campuses deprive students of a platform to air their concerns and grievances, and fight for their rights.
The topic has resurfaced now, owing to three notable incidents. The first happened on June 2 when Sradha Satheesh, a food technology student at Amal Jyoti Engineering College in Kanjirapally, died by suicide in her hostel room. Amal Jyoti is a self-financing college run by the Kanjirappally Diocese of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, where no student politics is allowed. Following Sradha's death, fellow students organised a protest, alleging the college administration had subjected students to intense mental pressure, and held them responsible for her death. On June 1, the college authorities had, purportedly, confiscated Sradha's phone and demanded she bring her parents, who were in Ernakulam, in order to get it back. She was summoned to the head of the department's office, following which she confided in her friends that she was contemplating suicide.
As the students' protests intensified, there were allegations that the college authorities resorted to intimidation by threatening to deduct internal marks. On June 6, the Students Federation of India, the student wing affiliated with the ruling CPI(M) party, organised a march to the college. The same day, the college management closed the institution and instructed the students to vacate the hostels. However, the students refused.
The students also alleged that the police treated them roughly at the behest of the college authorities. A video shared on social media by the students showed police officers pushing unarmed students and provoking them.
The management tried to justify their actions, saying that some people were trying to undermine the college, and suggested that the student protests were part of a coordinated attack against Christian organisations.
According to Asher (name changed), a third-year automobile engineering student, the management did not act against the agitating students only because the incident got media attention. "Otherwise, all of us would have been suspended by now," he says. Asher further explains that while there is a student council in place, it holds no real power and merely complies with the management's directives. “Previous attempts to establish students' unions within the college were swiftly crushed by the management through suspensions of those involved,” he said. “Suspensions are a commonplace occurrence in the college. For instance, if a male and female student are seen together somewhere on campus, their ID cards are confiscated, and the management exacerbates the issue by suspending them. This is the challenging situation that students like us face on a regular basis.”
Meanwhile, several alumni, including scriptwriter Sharis Mohammed, took to social media to share their distressing experiences during their time at the institution. On June 6, State Higher Education Minister Bindu also voiced criticism against self-financing colleges that employ oppressive disciplinary measures. The students are demanding the removal of the hostel warden and the Head of the Food Technology Department. Following Minister Bindu's assurance that the crime branch will conduct an investigation into the student suicide at the college, the students partially scaled back their protests.
The other two incidents that added to the debate were both related to the SFI at Maharaja’s College—a well-known autonomous institution in Ernakulam. On June 7, the Kerala Students Union (KSU), the student wing of the Congress party, made an accusation against SFI state secretary P.M. Arsho's mark sheet, claiming that he was marked 'passed' in the third-semester archaeology examination despite missing the exams. The college authorities attributed it to a technical error by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) under the Union government, which is responsible for publishing the results.
However, Arsho defended himself saying there was a conspiracy behind the allegations and that he neither paid the fees nor appeared for the exams. On Facebook, he wrote: “I took admission in the Archaeology Department in Maharaja’s College in the 2020 batch. I did not write the 3rd semester exam, when that exam was held, I was not in Ernakulam district where the exam centre is located, I was absent in all 5 subjects of the semester. After the exam, the exam result was published on 26 October 2022 at 1.42 pm, and it was marked that I did not write the exam. The said mark list is available on the college website from then till now. The mark list which has been circulating, including in the media, is related to the regular examination of 2021 batch students. I am not a candidate for that exam of the regular batch, and I have not paid the fee or registered to take such an exam.”
Arsho says a former department coordinator is behind the conspiracy. He suspects that the teacher targeted him because of multiple complaints filed against the teacher by students and other faculty members. Additionally, a complaint was lodged against the revaluation result of a KSU leader. Arsho further alleges that the matter was orchestrated to divert media attention from the incident at Amal Jyothi.
On June 7, the principal of Maharaja's College clarified that the student leader's statement regarding not registering or paying fees for the examination was true. The principal reiterated that the inclusion of the student leader's name among the registered candidates for the exam was due to a technical glitch in the NIC system.
Amid all these developments, another controversy arose involving K. Vidya, a former SFI leader and a member of the student's union at both Maharaja's College and Kalady Sanskrit College. Interestingly, Vidya is a close friend of Arsho. It is alleged that Vidya forged a teaching certificate from Maharaja's College and presented this fake certificate during an interview for a guest lecturer position in Malayalam at Government College, Attapady, on June 2. Her actions were discovered when one of the interview panel members grew suspicious of the college's logo and seal on the certificate and decided to contact Maharaja's College for verification.
It appears that Vidya had earlier worked as a guest lecturer in two colleges in Kasaragod and Palakkad, using the forged document. There are allegations that Arsho helped her acquire the counterfeit certificates. The KSU has also accused Vidya of securing illegal admission to a PhD programme in Kalady university in 2020, using her connections with the SFI. Additionally, a purported report of the university's SC/ST cell regarding Vidya's admission, indicates that the reservation roster was manipulated during her admission. She is evading authorities currently; the police have filed charges against her under non-bailable offences.
Though Vidya is not currently affiliated with the SFI, the student organisation and the CPI(M) have come under scrutiny due to the controversies. Two weeks ago, the SFI unit at Christian College, Kattakada, was accused of including the name of an SFI leader, Visakh, who did not participate in the election, in the list submitted for the university union councillor position, with the knowledge of the college principal. The police have filed cases against the college principal and Visakh.
In 2019, the state was rocked by a scandal involving malpractice in the PSC exams by SFI leaders who were also implicated in a stabbing case. Now, with the emergence of yet another incident involving malpractices by student leaders and former student leaders, it raises concerns about the integrity of the existing student organisations in the state. At the same time, another group of students in the state are living in constant fear of reprisals from college management due to the absence of student politics at their institutions.