Does the ruling CPI(M) 's student wing SFI vitiates campus atmosphere in Kerala? | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Does the ruling CPI(M) 's student wing SFI vitiates campus atmosphere in Kerala? The jury is still out

Jan 24, 2024 09:27 PM IST

Though the founders of SFI espoused freedom, democracy, and socialism, the organisation, many say, soon turned militant and hardly respected democracy.

The Background


Students' Federation of India Representational image. (HT File Photo) PREMIUM
Students' Federation of India Representational image. (HT File Photo)

When Kerala's first Communist government, led by EMS Namboodiripad, decided to increase the concession fare of six paise to 10 paise for students travelling in public transport boats in the backwaters spread in Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Ernakulam districts in 1958, it became a precursor to a massive state-level student unrest supported by the Congress-led opposition.

The Kerala Pradesh Congress committee formed a student wing with the title Kerala Students' Union (KSU), which prompted the party's high command to float the National Students' Union (NSU) at the all-India level later.

The anti-fare hike agitation, which made KSU a formidable force on the campuses, also marked the evolution of a new generation of Congress leaders, including AK Antony, Vayalar Ravi, Oommen Chandy, VM Sudheeran, and MM Hassan.

Among them, Antony and Chandy became chief ministers of the state twice. Antony and Ravi also became union ministers twice. Sudheeran and Hassan are still active as party state-level leaders.

"During the liberation struggle aimed at toppling the EMS government, the Catholic Church and upper-caste Nair community used KSU liberally to achieve their ends. For the first time, students went around destroying public property in the state. KSU's violent agitations were one of the major reasons why Jawaharlal Nehru's then Union government invoked Article 356 of the Constitution for the first time to dismiss a democratically elected state government," recalls eminent social critic B Rajeevan, who was at that time a student at Thiruvananthapuram's famous University College.

After the success of the anti-fare hike strike, Antony and Ravi joined Government Maharaja's College in Kochi for higher studies; since then, the college has become the hub of KSU activities.

For several years, the writ of KSU remained the last and final for the students and teachers of the Maharaja's College, where the Congress student wing had a near-total monopoly. Rival student organisations supported by Communist parties and the Jan Sangh were prevented from functioning on the campus for many years.

The formation of SFI and its aftermath


Years passed, and 1970 witnessed the floating of the Students' Federation of India (SFI) by the CPI(M) to counter KSU’s hegemony in most Kerala campuses.

Though the founders inscribed freedom, democracy, and socialism on the white flag of SFI, the organisation soon turned militant and, many said, hardly respected democracy.

It crushed rival student organisations, including KSU, using the might of trained cadres, and most campuses in the state became SFI strongholds.

Now a prominent government-controlled autonomous college in Kerala, Maharaja's College hogs the limelight almost every day, not because of academic excellence but because of the violent efforts of SFI to retain its monopoly on the campus and the efforts of its rivals to break the monopoly.

It hasn't even been a week since a rumoured group of rival students stabbed SFI's college unit secretary, Nazar Abdul Rahman. Though SFI accused the Fraternity Movement, the student wing of the Welfare Party floated by the Kerala unit of Jamaat-e-Islami, as responsible for the attack, police have arrested a set of local KSU leaders.

A case was registered against 19 KSU workers, and its leader, Abdul Malick, was named the first accused.

Both Fraternity and KSU claim that they never attacked the SFI leader, and the police targeted the rival student organisations as wished by the state's ruling CPI(M).

The college now remains closed as SFI activists barged into college hostels and roughed up their rivals. BJP's student wing, the ABVP, too, has entered the scene, saying the monopoly of SFI over the campus must be ended.

Claims and counter-claims


However, the SFI blames ABVP, Fraternity, and MSF, supported by the Indian Union Muslim League, for attempting to divide campuses into religious levels.

"The KSU is weak and ineffective in the fight against communalization of campuses. We work for a broader and more inclusive campus culture and engage in fights with rivals. We fight both communalism and the spread of narcotics on campuses,'' said SFI state president K Anusree when contacted by Hindustan Times.

In the last six months, the principal and senior administrative staff of the Maharaja's college were kept locked in their rooms for several hours by SFI cadres, alleging discrimination against them.

On the part of the state government, it transferred college principal VS Joy to a junior college in the backdrop of the latest incident of violence in which the SFI unit secretary was stabbed.

In June last year, the college witnessed violent incidents after reports said the mark list of SFI state secretary PM Arsho, a student of the college, was wrongly declared as passed for an exam that he reportedly did not write.

Though later it was clarified as a technical error caused during tabulation, police registered cases based on a complaint by Arsho against five persons, including the principal and the reporter of a prominent Malayalam TV news channel.

In the face of protests by journalist organisations and a lack of evidence, Asianet News reporter Akhila Nandakumar's name has now been dropped as the fifth accused in the case.

The murder of Abhimanyu


In July 2018, the college's SFI leader, Abhimanyu, was stabbed to death by activists of Campus Front, the student wing of the Popular Front of India, which was banned in 2022.

Though the incident evoked widespread condemnation and harsh police action against Campus Front, SFI continued its violence, targetting opponents.

KM Shefrin, state president of Fraternity Movement, claims the fundamental issue at Maharaja's college is the refusal of SFI to allow the functioning of rival organisations, which include even CPI-affiliated AISF. He said his outfit does not believe in violence, and none of its workers is involved in the attack on the SFI unit secretary.

"Nobody knows who attacked Rahman. But SFI attacked our cadre Bilal using weapons in the presence of faculty members and police. He was attacked again in the ambulance before being taken to Ernakulam General Hospital and there later," says Shefrin.

Meanwhile, Arsho said his organisation would resist communal organisations like the Fraternity Movement and Campus Front taking roots on campus.

When asked why his organisation did not allow KSU and ABVP to function, he refused to answer.

In the last college union elections, an SFI candidate running for a third-year degree representative post lost to a KSU activist. Fraternity and KSU allege that the SFI turned against third-year students for the electoral defeat, and the students might have ganged up.

KSU Ernakulam district president KM Krishnalal alleges that the SFI has been targetting student leaders who challenge its dominance in the college.

"Our Ernakulam block committee president, Amal Tomy, has been admitted to hospital after SFI workers hacked him on Monday. It is not the first time he has been attacked. There was an attempt on his life in January 2022, and a probe is still on into the incident," he said.

Across the state, authorities of different colleges and student groups say the root cause of campus unrest is the near-total monopoly of SFI and its refusal to allow multi-party democracy.

Even former SFI leaders are expressing reservations over the violent activities of the organisation.

"When the SFI was formed in Thiruvananthapuram in December 1970 with the slogan "Independence, Democracy, and Socialism," it sparked hopes of bringing new energy and ideas to the student movement in India. The new students' organisation was a merged entity of several splinter groups that had left the dying All India Students' Federation (AISF), showed a willingness to raise its voice to champion student causes, and also faced police "brutality" without fear—something that attracted the youth to it in hordes," recalls CP John, a former SFI leader who now works with the UDF-affiliated Communist Marxist Party (CMP).

According to John, SFI has gained the upper hand in several colleges and universities across Kerala. It became a formidable force, gaining strength and support during Emergency of 1975–77 when its members resisted police action against dissenting voices.

It also gained a reputation for championing progressive causes.

One of the founding leaders of the SFI, Prof TA Ushakumari, recalled that the organisation spread its wings on campuses by resisting the violent politics unleashed by the KSU at the behest of religious leaders.

SFI’s supremacy


But over the years, Kerala campuses have witnessed SFI supremacy by using violence against rivals. Campuses are virtually empty because of one dominant student group that bullies every rival, so there is no room for productive discussion.

Now, across Kerala campuses, the SFI is not averse to using strong-arm, even extremely violent, tactics and is increasingly operating with impunity.

As recent events have underlined, disturbing trends are becoming visible within the SFI, much to the chagrin of old-timers who had studied, struggled, and sacrificed as the organisation demanded.

The rot was gradual but has set in. The organisation diluted its ideology and philosophy as it chased material gains. Social responsibility took a backseat as leaders—a few, but prominent—used the outfit to further their interests.

"The SFI claims it stands for independence, democracy, and socialism. But, in practice, most SFI units in Kerala do not respect or adhere to these concepts. These units are nurturing leaders with sheer disrespect for democracy," Rajeevan observed.

The CPI(M)-led LDF rode back to power for a consecutive second term—a rarity in Kerala—in May 2021. As recent incidents have indicated, the retention of power has made the SFI leaders take to ever more undemocratic means for gains.

The Maharaja's College


According to history, the Royal Kingdom of Cochin established Maharaja's College in 1845 as an English school to enable members of the royal family to communicate with Englishmen visiting the city.

Since then, it has evolved into a multifaceted arts and science institute, becoming a full-fledged college in 1875 and acquiring its current name in 1925, educating thousands of students annually in its undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Even though colleges and universities across the state are known for their strong student politics, Maharaja leads the pack.

"SFI professes that it is for independence, democracy, and socialism, but the star in their flag seems more of an asterisk, implying that conditions apply. It seems like all of these apply to you only if you are part of the party," says TK Vinodan, a former leader of AISF, the student wing of CPI, the second largest alliance partner of the LDF.

"We are not controlling and only try to do what's best for all college students," counters Arsho. "I think most students at Maharaja's are happy with SFI being in power," he adds.

"Other student organisations are getting weaker in Kerala because of their lack of political clarity and inability to reach out to students. SFI must not be blamed for that. It's sheer propaganda that SFI is not allowing other organisations to work on campuses,'' said EP Jayarajan, central committee member of CPI (M) and former minister.

The college has 2,800 students in all. It also won all 14 seats on the college panel. Other political outfits, such as ABVP, the RSS' student affiliate, also have a presence in the college.

Allegations against K Vidya, a former SFI leader


Amid all these developments, the police investigation is still ongoing against K Vidya, a former SFI leader and student union member at Maharaja's College and Kalady Sanskrit College. Interestingly, Vidya is Arsho's close friend.

SFI state president K Anusree said there was an attempt on the part of anti-communists in the state to destroy SFI and that the allegations against SFI state secretary PM Arsho were a conspiracy in that direction.

"In the case of Vidya, she is a former leader of SFI and presently not part of the CPI (M) or its mass organisations. The organisation has found the allegations against her serious, and we recommended a proper probe to ascertain if she received any help from anyone in the SFI or the party. The CPI (M) state secretariat initiated a probe in that direction. The police investigation against her is also fast progressing,'' she said.

Vidya is accused of forging a Maharaja's College teaching certificate and presenting it at a government college in Attapadyin Palakkad for a Malayalam guest lecturer interview on June 2. Her acts were revealed when one interview panel member turned suspicious about the certificate's emblem and seal and contacted Maharaja's College for verification.

Vidya used the falsified document to get guest lecturer posts at governmental institutions in Kasaragod and Palakkad earlier. Arsho may have helped her get fake certificates.

She was also charged by the KSU of utilising her SFI connections to get illegal admission to a 2020 PhD course at Kalady University. A reported university SC/ST cell report on Vidya's admission suggests the reservation roster was manipulated. She is fleeing police after being charged with non-bailable offences.

Although Vidya is no longer associated with the SFI, the student organisation and CPI (M) face many scandals related to campus politics.

More controversies and reactions

Just four months ago, the SFI unit at Christian College at Kattakkada in Thiruvananthapuram was accused of including Visakh, a non-electee, in the university union councillor list with the principal's knowledge.

Visakh and the college principal are now facing police charges.

In another shocking instance, SFI leader Nikhil Thomas was arrested for fabricating a degree certificate from Kalinga University in Orissa to continue higher study in Kerala.

Senior journalist and former SFI leader NP Chekkutty succinctly put the present state of affairs in the SFI: A political leadership with limited vision is promoting the lumpen elements currently controlling the union.

"Bright students from poor backgrounds are being sidelined while those with money and muscle power get the patronage of leaders," he said.

Akhil Chandran, a student of the Government University College in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city, ceased to be an SFI supporter on July 12, 2019. It was the day that he was stabbed on campus. The police named R Shivarenjith, the SFI unit president of the college, and AN Naseem as the first and second accused.

It was reported that Shivarenjith stabbed Chandran for singing in the canteen. An inspection conducted at Shivarenjith's residence led the police to a set of Kerala University answer sheets, which the SFI leader reportedly admitted that he had stolen from the college.

SFI state secretary P. M. Arsho said the organisation expelled Shivarenjith as soon as police registered a criminal case against him. He said neither the organisation nor the CPI (M) interfered with the police investigation, now reaching the final phase.

The University College, located a stone's throw away from the AKG Centre, the CPI(M) 's state headquarters, has been an SFI fort, with the outfit often flexing its muscles to discourage the presence of other students' organisations, including the AISF.

Nimisha Raju, a Kochi-based lawyer and CPI activist, recalled an afternoon two years ago at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam. The AISF had deputed her to oversee the election to the University Senate.

SFI leaders, including Arsho, allegedly attacked her when she questioned the violence, they had triggered to rig the election. They attacked her physically, apart from hurling abuses, she said.

"It would be disgusting to recall the foul words, including casteist slurs, they used against me," she said. "They told me they would make me give birth to a bastard. I was shocked when they repeatedly abused me by referring to my caste. They were anti-women and anti-Dalit," she further said.

"There was a tense situation at M.G. University on the day of the senate election. SFI contested against AISF candidates, and there were some occasions when both sides cashed outside the polling stations.

Although there may have been verbal fights, Anusree said, "I sincerely believe our cadres must not have used foul language, as the opponents have claimed."

Even the teaching staff are not spared.

Moly Marceline, a former principal of University College, accused the SFI of using its cadres to stifle freedom and democracy.

Retired in 2014 after teaching for a quarter of a century in different government colleges, she said the SFI shielded criminal elements to safeguard its citadels.

"Most leaders are lethal mixes of arrogance and power. They always acted as if they were more powerful than the teachers," she told Hindustan Times.

The highhandedness and decadence of the SFI have alarmed LDF partners as well. Binoy Viswam, the state secretary of the ruling front's second-largest constituent, the CPI, stated in a party meeting that allegations against SFI leaders eclipsed the hard-won achievements in the state's higher education sector.

Demand for a detailed probe


Demanding a comprehensive inquiry into the academic fraud threatening the credibility of the state's higher education sector, Viswam reminded the CPI (M) that the Left and progressive student organisations have a storied history and legacy to guard.

He felt the Left parties are duty-bound to ensure student organisations operate with social responsibility.

According to former SFI leader and academic Azad Malayattil, the patronage politics preferred by the CPI (M) and the lack of corrective measures landed the organisation in the present unenviable situation.

"Apolitical people without any exposure to Left ideology and lacking idealism are occupying top slots in the SFI. They even attempt impersonation by paying scant regard to democracy and elections," he told the Hindustan

Times, referring to the recent incidents that have exposed senior SFI leaders.

``SFI has been practising self-criticism for a long time, which is why it differs from other student organisations. Patronage is an allegation by those `who have had rightist' deviations for a long time. We are functioning democratically, and there is no patriotism. We have a long history of expelling and isolating those who commit crimes and indulge in activities that contradict our basic ideology and commitment,'' said Anusree.

"When I attempted to instill some discipline in the college, the students threw stones at my room. I withdrew all my initiatives when a major section of teachers joined the students protesting against me. Now the hooliganism of SFI leaders has reached its saturation point," said former university college principal S Varghese. Many students say that the university college has turned into a copycat of adjacent Mahatma Gandhi College, where Sangh Parivar-affiliated ABVP controls the whole institution.

The KSU is extremely weak in Kerala and is trying to make a comeback, utilising the negativity prevailing in society against SFI. But SFI continues to say that it's the lone organisation that protects the interests of the student community.

The party’s response


When contacted, CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan blamed Congress-led opposition UDF in Kerala and the mainstream media for selectively targeting SFI and painting its leaders in villainous colours.

``Individuals might have committed mistakes, but the organisation is not responsible for all of them. Critics are forgetting the role played by SFI on campuses in resisting attempts at communal polarisation. It also takes a strong position against youths getting addicted to drugs. SFI has significantly inspired the cultural and creative life of Kerala," he stated.

Govindan added that the party will not protect anyone linked to any undesirable activity including the fabrication of certificates. "For isolated incidents, SFI is now getting targeted. In the case of Vidya K, the SFI has not extended any help to her. The party is monitoring SFI's activities. SFI is opposing communal polarisations on campuses, and it has nothing against rival student unions functioning on campuses,'' he said.

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