Kerala student’s death points to SFI’s ‘campus autocracy’

Four SFI leaders were arrested amid a massive controversy.

WrittenBy:Haritha Manav
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Twenty days have passed since second-year veterinary student Sidharthan was found dead in the men’s hostel washroom on their campus, but students at the Pookode College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Kerala would rather not talk about him yet. 

“We don’t want any trouble,” a student says, as she prepares to leave the campus with packed bags, anxious to get home. Amid constant protests and conflicts between political parties and the police following Sidharthan’s death, the university has allotted the students a five-day break from the campus.

Most of the students won’t talk to the media, one of them tells us, because they simply can’t afford to antagonise the Students’ Federation of India (SFI). The SFI is the only active political organisation at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Science University (KVASU), which houses the veterinary college where Sidharthan studied.

Though the police had initially considered Sidharthan’s death a case of suicide, the post-mortem report and further investigations revealed that he was viciously assaulted by his college mates, days before his death on February 18. At least four of the 18 people arrested in the case are official members of the SFI. As the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which in turn heads Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), SFI apparently wields enormous influence on the day-to-day functioning of the university.

One of the hostellers, a third-year student, says he’d share what he knows but he’d prefer to “avoid a trip to the court” over his bytes to the media. “I was not here when this incident happened. What I came to know is that Sidharthan allegedly misbehaved with a girl, and some seniors heard of this and beat him up. This incident left him devastated, both physically and mentally, which was apparently why he took this step,” he says.

TNM had earlier reported of the suspicions of Sidharthan’s family, that he was assaulted by his seniors and friends allegedly due to displeasure over him dancing with a few women college mates on February 14, Valentine’s Day. The general narrative at the varsity, however, is that Sidharthan misbehaved with a classmate during the Valentine’s Day celebration at the campus, following which a gang of students — including SFI leaders, Sidharthan’s classmates, and seniors — took it upon themselves to interrogate and brutally assault him. 

What happened to Sidharthan? 

Though the SFI leadership and other students allege that Sidharthan misbehaved with his classmate on February 14, it was on February 19, a day after Sidharthan’s death, that a complaint to this effect was filed with the college’s women’s cell. The complaint was handed over by another woman student and not the complainant herself. Later, as the news of his death and the brutal assault that preceded it spiralled into a statewide controversy, the media and the public began raising questions about the genuineness of the complaint.

SFI’s Wayanad district president Joyal claims the complaint was delayed because the affected student left for home soon after the incident, and came back only on February 18, which was a Sunday. “As she couldn’t submit a complaint on Sunday, she waited until February 19,” Joyal says.

Many students had their semester breaks around this time, and on the night of February 15, Sidharthan too had boarded a train to go home. According to the remand report filed by the Vythiri police, however, the 20-year-old was called back to the campus by one Rehan Binoy, who told Sidharthan that the issue can be settled as per the “unwritten code” of the men’s hostel, instead of proceeding the “legal way” and ending up with a police case. Sidharthan had reached Ernakulam by then, but he decided to go back, reaching the hostel by February 16 morning.

As per an anti-ragging squad report that came to light on March 9, Sidharthan was viciously assaulted and tortured multiple times throughout the night of February 16. The report says that a bunch of his batchmates first took Sidharthan to a hill near the men’s hostel, where he was first beaten up. He was then taken to room number 21 of the men’s hostel, where at least 16 students took turns to hit and slap him, even using belts and cable wires. They also stripped him down to his underwear in a bid to humiliate him.

The report says that the offenders dragged Sidharthan down the stairs to the courtyard, forced him to publicly admit to misbehaving with his classmate and apologise for it. A TNM source says they knocked on the doors of hostel inmates who stayed on the ground floor, directing them to come witness Sidharthan’s torture. A source from the campus tells us that around 50 people watched this torture unfold, almost all of them SFI supporters. The anti-ragging squad report, however, says that most of the 139 inmates of the hostel were present at the courtyard when the 20-year-old was being abused and tortured. 

Another source says a few students had indeed tried to stop them, but the accused went ahead with the assault anyway. This is also confirmed by the anti-ragging squad report which names at least two students, Rohan Ramesh and Nithin Sankar, who made an attempt to put a stop to the assault, though to no avail.

SFI ‘autocracy’ on campus

Since 2004, when KVASU was first established as a veterinary college, SFI has been the only political organisation to have an active unit on the campus. In 2011, the college became a university.

A student hints to us that they would rather not talk about the events unfolding on campus, because they fear for their academic future. “If I had completed my course and had my certificate with me, I would have said more. I am studying to earn a degree, and I’m scared I might not be able to complete my course at the last moment.” 

According to a source on campus, it is not unlikely that someone’s academic prospects might get affected if they spoke out against the SFI and its ‘autocracy’ on campus. “The SFI is actually led and aided by some professors in the university. These professors are also the ones who grade the final papers, and it is rather easy for them to make a student fail. Understandably, the students are also scared,” the source says.

Another student has a difference of opinion. “It is true that nearly 95% of our teaching staff is Left-aligned. But they don’t mix their politics with academics. They haven’t discriminated against any student based on their political background.”

But the allegations against the SFI do not end there, with some students claiming that it’s not just academic failure that dissenting students have to fear, but also social isolation. A student tells us that SFI and the professors who support the organisation would ensure that a protesting voice is pushed into a corner, with no option but to succumb to the pressure eventually.

“They would physically assault us first, and if we raise our voices again, resort to bringing us down mentally. They would put immense academic pressure on us with the help of professors. They would also spread rumours that we behaved indecently towards our professors, accuse us of misdemeanours in exam halls, claim that we misbehaved with women or that we used drugs. These complaints would soon reach the Dean, and once the trial in front of the Dean is over, all the students in that batch and at times even the entire college would start to isolate the student. Even in classrooms, sometimes other students won’t allow this targeted student to sit with them,” he details.

TNM met Dean Narayanan, but he refused to speak to us. 

Another student at KVASU says that SFI has the practice of directing newly-arrived first-year students to compulsorily attend their unit programmes. “As soon as newcomers arrive, they create an impression that this is a small campus and we only need one organisation here to maintain unity. The theory is that if we have politics like other campuses, the unity here will dissolve.”

A few years ago, four to five senior students had tried to contest the university’s union elections as independent candidates, says the student. “But a group of SFI leaders came to the candidates to ask them why they were participating separately. The SFI said if they wanted to participate, they could always just contest as an SFI candidate. Eventually, two of them withdrew their nomination due to the pressure from SFI. Two others contested and one of them won the election,” he recalls.

“The students at KVASU have a common sentiment that the ‘SFI veterinary unit’ is working well for them. They think the SFI can lead, and we can just follow them. The atmosphere SFI has created is such that the students tend to believe this. That’s why they do not come out against the SFI openly, even after all these incidents,” the student adds.

 Malayalam media had recently reported on a statement purportedly made by a former president of KVASU’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Kunjamu, who alleged that the SFI had intimidated his son into taking a membership with the organisation. He said the organisation forced his son to write ‘SFI Zindabad’ on the hostel wall using his blood, and further alleged that SFI had its own ‘courtrooms’ on campus. “I did not speak out at the time because I feared that my son’s education would get affected,” he said. 

In a video shared by the SFI, Kunjamu’s son can be seen denying all of these claims, alleging that the news was entirely politically motivated. “What happened in Pookode was a tragedy, and all the accused involved in that incident should be given due punishment. But I want to clarify that the news involving my father is politically motivated,” he says in the video.

Other parties shut down?

Activists associated with the Kerala Students Union (KSU), the student wing of the Congress, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have alleged that the SFI disallowed other parties from forming units at the KVASU campus, sometimes even resorting to brute force to do so.

The All India Students’ Federation (AISF), the student wing of Communist Party of India (CPI), has had a unit on the campus for the past two years. 

Some students at KVASU are scared to identify themselves as affiliated to any other political organisation than the SFI, alleges a source on campus.

KSU Wayanad district president Goutham says a KSU unit was formed and a flagpole was erected on the campus in 2018. “But within a couple of hours, the [SFI] destroyed the flagpole and attacked the students who led the committee,” he says, adding that the KSU is planning to form another unit soon.

Kalpetta’s Congress MLA T Siddique points out that there are three words on the SFI flag — independence, democracy, and socialism. “But what they are actually doing is contrary to what is written on their flag. ‘One campus, one party’ is the ideology that leads the SFI,” he alleges.

SFI district president Joyal, however, refutes such allegations. “It is up to the students, and not the SFI, to decide whether other parties can form a unit on campus or not. These are their organisational concerns, we have nothing to do with that. SFI has units in many colleges and universities that are dominated by other parties,” he says.

‘Like a family’

There is a section of students at KVASU who contend that even though SFI is the only political organisation on campus, they have never particularly faced any trouble because of this. 

According to one of the students, the college has a pattern, as per which if any of them were facing an issue, those acquainted with the complainant will address it and try to solve it, “like a family.” They resort to physical violence too, but not like what they did to Sidharthan, the student says. “What they did to him is not even remotely acceptable,” he says, but makes it a point to add it was not done under the banner of SFI.

A student from West Bengal, who stays at the men’s hostel, says Sidharthan’s death was in no way political. “I don’t care about the SFI, and we do not get involved in political issues. If somebody did anything to [Sidharthan], he or she should be punished. There is no need to make it political. Right now, the media is just defaming our college,” he says.

He admits that new students are occasionally ragged by seniors, but adds that it never escalates to problematic levels. “I have been studying here for three years. What I have observed is that when freshers arrive, the seniors ask for their name and an introduction, and maybe tell them to sing a song. They may raise their voice at you, but never their hand. But this is only for three to four months. There are no junior-senior dichotomies after that, we live like friends,” he says.

Another student, who also stays in the men’s hostel on campus, says this ragging too has never taken on a political tone.

The SFI, meanwhile, alleges that other parties are taking advantage of this opportunity for political gain, besides which the media is also targeting them. “We also want the criminals to get maximum punishment. We immediately expelled those who were involved in the crime from the party,” Joyal says. 

He points out that some of the accused have leanings towards the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim league (IUML). “Why is the media not mentioning their political background?” he asks. 

One of the students confirms to us that a few of the accused, indeed, were of different political backgrounds. “But the Left wing politicians themselves didn’t bother to bring this up, because their focus was on trying to cover up the involvement of SFI leaders,” he says.

Even so, there is no denying that a culture of fear simmers in the campus, with the college management often seemingly siding with the aggressors. As per the complaints that the anti-ragging squad received from a few students, the management had allegedly made attempts to cover up the brutal assault of Sidharthan to protect the aggressors. “We are all deeply frightened and feel helpless. The college authorities seem to be attempting to conceal the matter and minimise its severity,” says one of the complaints.

In its report, the squad mentions that it came to know of two other students who apparently went through an ordeal similar to that of Sidharthan. The report says these incidents had also gone “unnoticed” by the authorities, or were concealed even from these students’ classmates. One of the victims denies it even now, the report adds, even though his classmates remember how he disappeared from regular classes for nearly two weeks.

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM subscriber here.

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