Even though student politics was a corrective force in Kerala's education sector for long, it was on the receiving end for vitiating campus atmosphere and even for the chaos in state-run public schools in the past two decades. The arguments against campus politics mostly centred around random violence and group clashes that were apparently blown out of proportion by the media and college managements. 


Political activity in schools was banned by a High Court verdict in 1996, followed by another judgement a decade after restricting student politics in college campuses and by giving absolute power to managements to clamp down on students organisations. There were protests against these verdicts amidst apprehensions that ‘apolitical’ campuses would be more dangerous than occasional violence attributed to student politics.

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Now,  a series of incidents, including the death of a B.tech student allegedly due to the harassment of the management and the shocking revelations of how managements were torturing students in self-financing institutions in Kerala have proved that it ignored the warnings against apolitical campuses at its peril. The colleges hired goons to teach discipline, maintained torture rooms, installed surveillance cameras even in bathrooms, imposed irrational dress codes, insulted girls, slapped fine even for laughing and mingling with other sex. But no one raised voice until Jishnu Pranoy found hanging in his hostel room at Nehru College of Engineering in Thrissur last month. 


There were apprehensions that ‘apolitical’ campuses would be more dangerous than occasional violence attributed to student politics.


Complaints against college managements, who were ruling the campuses without any restraint, started pouring in. Outraged by the revelations, students took to streets, attacked colleges, clashed with police and started agitation against colleges wherever suppression and harassment prevailed. 


On Thursday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan chaired a meeting of university vice chancellors and listed out some important changes in the functioning of self-financing colleges. One of the major decisions was to make students unions mandatory in these colleges.  The Chief Minister insisted that the University need not bow down to the pressures from the management and ensure that the PTA and students union are constituted in every college. 

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This decision may not make a sudden change in the functioning of colleges in Kerala. But things have changed a lot in Self Financing Colleges that used discipline and internal marks to repress students and to deny them their rights. 

Looking back: 

With its inception in the freedom struggle, student organisations have contributed an energetic crop of political leaders including the present chief minister (CM) Pinarayi Vijayan, former CM Oommen Chandy and former union ministers including AK Antony and Vayalar Ravi, to name a few. But later, the public perception of student politics changed, and it was started to be viewed as a curse. 


Violent clashes between rival student organisations with the backing of political majors, strikes affecting academic activities and blood-chilling murders worked against student politics. A build up of public opinion against campus politics gathered force in the 90s and culminated in a ban on political activities in schools in 1996. Interestingly, the ban by the High Court was welcomed by most of the students' unions except a few left leaning organisations. 

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In December 2006, the High Court banned politics in college campuses too and ruled that students unions have no place in academic campuses! The judgement came in tandem with an earlier judgement giving sweeping powers to the managements to control students unions. Decrying student politics, the HC had observed that collective bargaining and strikes were tools used by trade unions and not fit for students. "They (strikes and collective bargaining) are not academic tools to be used against teaching faculty or against management," the court observed.


The HC had observed that collective bargaining and strikes were tools used by trade unions and not fit for students.


What the courts and the teachers overlooked was the students' organisations were once pivotal in forcing the governments to bring in education reforms. Moreover, they conveniently discarded the fact that students in Kerala had confronted the police for the rights of the teachers and public education! 


If the students were active in the anti-colonial movement in the early 2oth century, their organisations took to streets demanding educational reforms in the 1950s. New organisations emerged in the 60s, and student politics became more vibrant, actively standing for rights, higher education facilities, concessions and confronting the government and the managements alike. The decade saw major agitations and street fights with police. The students’ organisations gained prominence like never before and were included in various decision-making bodies in universities. 


Until the early 1970s, the teachers of private colleges were living under the mercy of managements, drawing meagre salaries fixed by them. When the teachers started agitation demanding their rights, the students also joined in. In the 1980s, the students’ agitation against the introduction of Pre-degree board turned into a formidable protest against the government, while in the early 90s, the agitation against self-financing colleges lapsed into violence and bloodshed. The left wing parties and youth organisations took the protest to a different level. Five DYFI workers were killed in Koothupramba police firing on 25 November 1994 in the agitation against the self-financing medical college at Pariyaram Kannur. However, the bloodshed was not a deterrent, and the agitation continued. 


The 1990s also saw violent clashes among rival students unions. A number of murders including the killing of SFI leader Kochaniyan, allegedly by the KSU in 1992 and the tragic death of three ABVP workers in June 1996 at Parumala College, who drowned while trying to escape an alleged attack by SFI workers, turned the public opinion against campus politics.  


 When the self-financing professional colleges mushroomed at the dawn of the new millennium, the students' organisations were kept out of these new generation campuses, just as IT sector was kept immune from hartals. 


A campaign against student politics gained momentum in the years followed. When the self-financing professional colleges mushroomed in the state at the dawn of the new millennium, the students' organisations were kept out of these new generation campuses where managements held complete dominion. 

It seems the death of Jishnu Pranoy and the agitation it triggered have changed things for ever. The students' unions, even if they had no foothold in the private colleges, are now barging into these campuses, defying the oppressive managements. It is too early to predict how things would turn around, as influential communities and industrialists run most of these private professional colleges. If the students continue to assert themselves and demand a fair deal without succumbing to pressures from outside, it would certainly usher in a new era of the student movement in Kerala that addresses the new-age challenges and realities that often surpass narrow political interests.