Over the weekend, an innocuous US website dedicated to news about fountain pens was forced to issue a strange clarification on Facebook—that it had no connection with a violent attack that left a 20-year-old man seriously injured in Kerala.
PenHero.com had good reason to feel aggrieved—it mainly functions as a platform for pen lovers to geek out over their obsession, and doesn’t make pens itself; it had nothing to do with China-based Shanghai Hero Pen Company, which makes the immensely popular ‘Hero’ pens adored by generations of Malayali students; and most importantly, the news that the weapon behind the alleged murder attempt was a pen was fake, possibly circulated by a right-wing social media page.
But none of this deterred the Malayali trolls who descended on the company’s Facebook page in hordes with jokes and abuses after seeing a fake social media post. The trigger: the stabbing of an SFI activist named Akhil by his own comrades within the famed University College in Thiruvananthapuram last week.
The attack against 20-year-old Akhil, who is still in hospital, hasn’t left the front page of newspapers since then. Every day, there is a new twist in the case that has left the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) on the defensive and thrown a spotlight on how student politics is practised in the state which takes pride in its progressive credentials. Both the Congress, which won 19 out of 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state, and the BJP, which had high hopes but couldn’t win anything, are taking the chance to attack the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government over the incident.
The main accused, Sivaranjith, the SFI unit president of the college, had topped the PSC exam for civil police officers, along with two others who have been booked. But after the police found Kerala University answer sheets and a college seal in Sivaranjith’s house, they are now conducting a parallel investigation into whether the three benefitted from their links to the ruling CPM. And now, the Public Service Commission (PSC) has initiated a suo moto inquiry over charges that the accused managed to get centres of their choice.
What really happened at University College?
Located a stone’s throw away from the CPI(M)’s state headquarters AKG Centre, the 153-year-old college, with its distinctive red brick structure, has always been known as ‘chenkotta’ or ‘Red Fort’. Founded by the royal family which ruled the then princely state of Travancore, and with a stellar list of alumni to its credit, over the years the college had turned into a symbol of the Left’s strength in south Kerala. SFI leaders, students allege, would not allow any other students’ organisation to function in the college, even the AISF, affiliated to Left partner CPI.
But the stabbing of Akhil, who was doing his BA in political science, may be the first real challenge that the organisation has faced in its decades of dominance. According to the police, Akhil had an argument with some SFI leaders a couple of days before he was attacked, apparently because he wouldn’t listen to their orders to stop singing loudly in the college canteen. On Friday, clashes broke out when a group of SFI members tried to intimidate a student for skipping class, and in this ruckus, Akhil was stabbed by Sivaranjith using a knife handed over by unit secretary Nazeem.
Violent fights between members of rival student political fronts are not new in Kerala. But two things were different this time: one, that Akhil was himself a member of SFI, and two, that angry students came together in an unprecedented manner to protest against SFI’s use of muscle power on their campus.
In May, a female student tried to commit suicide, alleging that she could not study properly because of interference by student union leaders and frequent strikes. She later withdrew her allegations against SFI leaders and left the college, telling mediapersons she feared the money and muscle power of her adversaries and did not have the courage to continue fighting.
According to B. Rajeevan, a Malayalam writer who is a Left sympathiser, the stabbing incident has exposed the undemocratic way in which the CPI(M) was allowing the SFI to grow its mass base.
“SFI says it stands for freedom, democracy and socialism. But in practice, many units of SFI in Kerala, including that which existed in University College, had never ever given any value to this concept. These units are nurturing leaders with sheer disrespect for democracy,’’ he said.
C Moly Marceline, a former University College principal who retired in 2014, SFI has run a goonda raj on campus ever since it first led the student union in 1980.
“Most leaders are lethal mixes of arrogance and power. They always acted as more powerful than the teachers,’’ she said.
After news of the stabbing broke, many students have taken to social media to share stories of harassment and bullying by SFI leaders in University College as well as other institutions in the state.
Historian MG Sashibhushan, alumni of University College, said political leaders with limited vision were promoting the lumpen elements who controlled SFI in the college.
S Varghese, a former principal, agreed. “When I attempted to infuse 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 in protest against me. Now, the hooliganism of SFI leaders has reached its saturation point,’’ he said.
SFI’s all-India president VP Sanu, who disbanded the college unit of SFI soon after the incident, said the organisation would not justify any such violence. “We have already initiated corrective measures. SFI will not protect criminals. We will continue to stand for democratisation of college campuses with the right to dissent and free speech,” he told HuffPost India.