190715 students
Students of University College protesting outside the gates on Friday, against campus violence. Image Credit: Supplied

A final year graduate in political science, Akhil, did not know singing might be injurious to his health. Last week he learned that a song, like black magic, could materialise from the thin air, a knife. Akhil was stabbed in the chest by a bunch of students belonging to SFI (Student Federation of India), affiliated to the Communist Party of India — Marxist, CPI (M). Akhil is still in the hospital. But his friends and the students of the college, in general, are up in arms and out in the streets, protesting. Almost everyone who has been spoken to has gone on record saying that they live and study in the college in terror.

The University College in Thiruvnananthapuram — capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala — is the rule, not the exception. There are close to 500 colleges in Kerala including medical and engineering institutions. Some 90 per cent of these are ‘ruled’ by SFI. Kerala is a politically aware state, and campus politics is considered integral to student life. The college union elections are vigorously contested and offer a microcosmic representation of the body politic, largely dominated by the Left. The present state ministry is headed by Pinarayi Vijayan, a strongman from the CPI-M. The three main student political bodies, besides CPI-M, have their roots and sustenance in the Congress Party (KSU — Kerala Students Union) and the Hindu BJP/RSS (ABVP-Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad). The friction between SFI and ABVP is scary, violent, and abiding.

According to NDTV, since 2000, more than 172 political murders have happened in Kerala. Of these, the RSS and the BJP have together lost 65 party workers, while the CPI-M lost 85 workers. Some11 activists each of the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) are also casualties in these horror reality shows.

Campus politics is considered integral to student life. The college union elections are vigorously contested and offer a microcosmic representation of the body politic, largely dominated by the Left.

- C.P. Surendran

Often the murders are committed in broad daylight and, as often, in public spaces. Conviction rates despite the availability of eyewitnesses are minimal. The few who are arrested are given rather generous treatment in jails. These include access to cell phones and special food. The reason for the catholic treatment of the criminals is that they have party connections. Indeed, often it is the local party committee that sanctions or commissions the murder, or torture. The last occurs with routine regularity.

The stabbing of Akhil is of a piece with a certain brand of Kerala politics. That Akhil himself was an SFI sympathiser only adds to the complex detailing of the picture. As a sympathiser, he is expected even more to toe the line, such as it is. In this case, one of the SFI leaders asked him to stop singing; he didn’t listen; the knife came out and buried itself in Akhil’s chest, as the leader could not be seen to be disobeyed. There are, of course, so many ways to end a song; any one of them would have been better than this. Akhil’s friends went on a strike, which continues as this goes to press. A novel Kerala might want to make compulsory reading in this connection is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Time of The Hero, which is about violence among the cadets in a military school in Lima.

The media has gone ballistic on campus violence. Their analyses have mostly missed the point. The shocking state of Kerala campus is a reflection of the larger intolerance characteristic of Indian and, in particular, Kerala politics. While the social media reflects the eager viciousness with which tribal/group identity politics is judging and condemning those who are not a part of the respective ‘clubs’, in the political and physical world thuggery has increasingly come to be accepted as a means to keep hold of the folk. In either case, there is a kind of Stalinist terrorism at play. In Kerala, campus violence is not likely to stop till parent parties realise democracy is about debate. Talk, but also listen. And keep the knife in the kitchen rack.

C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India