Kerala is ruled by a government led by the Communist Party Of India (Marxist) that never tire of claiming ownership of all the uprisings in the state against ruling class exploitation. Therefore its response to an agitation by students against the management of a non-government law collage in Thiruvananthapuram, a cause that has resonated across the state for various reasons, is bemusing and illustrative of the contradictions in its politics.
Its students wing, the SFI (Students Federation of India), known for its violent strikes and destruction of public property whenever the party is out of power, and its domination of college campuses across the state using its brute muscle, joined the agitation late, and quickly struck a deal with the management. The students are continuing the strike, making the SFI look like it played a badly scripted part obediently.
So we have the odd spectacle of a party that swears by Marx and Lenin and drops the class word at the drop of a seen as reluctant to side with the interests of the students and too keen to toe the line of an intransigent management that is facing allegations of land-grab and various illegalities. All other political parties are firmly lining up behind the students.
It has been 23 days since the students of the Kerala Law Academy went on strike demanding the resignation of its principal, Lakshmi Nair, protesting her allegedly autocratic and rights-violative ways. The students allege that Nair, an academic who also hosts shows on food and travel on a CPM-backed TV channel, runs the 50-year old college like a personal fiefdom. They accuse her of intimidation, malpractice, victimisation, favouritism, caste-based discrimination, and unlawful misdemeanour. They say that they cannot take her subjugation any more and will fight it out, even at the risk of their future. Two students have even filed a police complaint against her under the SC/ST Act and want her to be arrested.
The students are continuing the strike, making the SFI look like it played a badly scripted part obediently.
Nair has said she is being singled out because she is a woman. Ironically, it's the girl students that have complained against her the most.
The agitation is turning out to be a unique one where the ruling CPM and SFI, historically at the forefront of such agitations, are seen as the agents of the management. The public sentiment is overwhelmingly with the students with almost the entire media, except the CPM-run channels and newspaper, backing them. Many eminent citizens of the state, who are otherwise sympathetic to the CPM, have spoken in support of the students and have demanded action against the management. It's the biggest political story since the present government took over and has been primetime news for several days in a row.
Unlike the other agitations that shook the state in the past, this one has a rare emotional appeal because it's waged by peaceful students, particularly girls, against a politically powerful family. A family that has allegedly usurped and appropriated a public institution established in partnership with the second communist government in 1967-68 to promote law education.
The case of the Kerala Law Academy is unique in Kerala, particularly in the context of the sense of equality and rights, the primacy of government-funded education that the state is historically known for, and the proclivity to agitations whenever they are under threat. It began as a society in 1966 as a joint initiative of eminent citizens and jurists, got inaugurated by the then Chief Minister EMS Namboothirippad in 1967, and started running courses in 1968. The government leased out more than 11 acres of land in the city for the Academy, as it was meant to be a public institution in which the state Governor was the chief patron and the Chief Minister was the patron. The revenue and education ministers of state cabinet and three High Court judges were its members.
The Congress has smelled a political opportunity and has now jumped in headlong.
When voices of opposition were raised in the state assembly, against the allocation of prime land in 1968, a minister concerned had clarified that it was not owned by an individual and was a public institution in which the government was a partner. For the same reasons, the initial lease on government land--11 acres and 49 cents--in the heart of the city, for three years was extended to 35 years and in 1985, it was assigned to the Academy.
However, the CPM government, as well as party't top leaders, today call it a private institution in clear betrayal of the State's investment and responsibility. In fact, that is the sole reason both the CPM and the government cite for its stated helplessness in removing the principal as the students demand. However, it doesn't have an answer to the question on how a public institution with serious government participation, started by a CPM-led government in the 1960s when self-financing colleges were anathema in Kerala, has become a private institution controlled by a single family.
Today, the Academy society's composition has no semblance to the original structure that attracted government support--there's no Governor, chief minister, ministers or High Court judges. They have all disappeared, but nobody knows when or how. Instead, family members of the first secretary of the college, N. Narayanan Nair, dominate the governing council and executive committee. His daughter is the principal against whom the students started the protests. These facts started coming into public attention only after the agitations began.
What's holding the CPM back, despite such a damaging backlash.
Besides himself, his brother, who is also an influential CPM state committee member and a local CPI(M) MLA, his son and his nephew are on the committee that run the Academy now.
The students' agitation invariably brought attention not just to the alleged autocracy and tyrannical ways of the principal, but also to the entire range of issues concerning the Academy--largely how it's been run like a family enterprise.
And unsurprisingly, there are demands from all political parties, except the CPM, that the land that had been allotted to the original society should be taken back because it was not given to a private institution and the conditions have been violated, and that the Academy itself should be taken over by the Government because of the lack of transparency of its management and the way its academic evaluations, that put students at great risk of subjugation and exploitation, are conducted. In fact, the former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan was the first to demand the seizure of government land.
Questions have also been raised about the affiliation of the Academy. The literature of the Academy says that it had been affiliated in 1968; however, the Kerala University reportedly doesn't have any records.
Therefore, what began as a genuine demand by students for the removal of the principal has snowballed into a major issue that the CPM government is finding hard to handle. It did try to subvert the agitation by sending in the SFI and settling for a pro-management agreement. However, it backfired big time and the students are continuing with their agitation. The Congress, which was also tentative in its support to the agitation initially, has smelled a political opportunity and has now jumped in headlong. Today, all the major political parties, including the Communist Party Of India, a coalition partner of the CPI(M) in the ruling government, are backing the students. A sitting MLA of the Congress and a BJP leader are on indefinite hunger strike in front of the institution.
The swelling public support has also found its resonance among eminent citizens. T. Padmanabhan, a leading Malayalam writer and a self-confessed admirer of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, was quite vocal in his criticism on Friday, when he demanded stern action against the Academy at a literary festival, co-organised by the government. In fact, he too asked the fundamental question--how did a family take over and control a public institution.
It's really puzzling as to what's holding the CPM back, despite such a damaging backlash. It's public knowledge that all political parties, not just the CPM, have benefited from the Academy over the years. A large number of their leaders, their children and nominees got their law degrees from there. But, adverse public sentiments have pushed other parties into the agitation, except the CPM. Its chief minister hasn't spoken a word, its education minister is trying to obfuscate by citing jurisdictional limitations and its university syndicate is blocking any possible action.