How Changanassery's SB College shaped Oommen Chandy's political career

Oommen Chandy
Oommen Chandy with his family. File Image. Photo: Manorama

A constant companion of the masses, Oommen Chandy rose like the north star in Kerala politics. His meteoric rise is a lesson for students of politics and Kerala's history. Chandy was at the time the finance minister when this correspondent met him at his office. The visit's intention was to interview him for the souvenir magazine of SB College's platinum jubilee. The minister did not disappoint the student. Chandy travelled down memory lane to his student days which he said provided the perfect political launchpad for him.

Chandy was active in the district-level activities of the Kerala Students' Union when he joined the CMS College in Kottayam to pursue pre-degree course. The students' outfit was then on a warpath with the state government to get school students travel availing a fare concession on transport buses. Chandy led the struggle, which cost him admission to his college of choice back then; that's how he joined SB College in Changanassery.

The commute to college was not easy for the student leader who fought for fare concession for students travelling on buses. Kottayam was eight kilometres away from his home at Puthuppally, and Changanassery was further 16 km away. However, it did not deter Chandy from shifting his political playground from Kottayam to Changanassery.

SB College representative in bus fare 'concession' talks
Pala K M Mathew was then Oommen Chandy's godfather. Mathew, then the MP representing Idukki, was the brother of the former president of the KPCC-I, K M Chandy. His relative Professor C Z Zachariah was then a faculty in SB College's economics department. Father Francis Kalassery was then the principal, who 'abhorred student politics'.

Oommen Chandy at Kerala Legislative Assembly. File image. Photo: Manorama

Chandy attended the interview at SB College when the principal was away. He joined the economics stream for undergraduate studies. His name is in the college's admission records under admission number 285. Professor Zachariah was his guardian.

A students' strike over bus fare broke out soon after Chandy joined college. He represented the students in the discussions with bus owners. The talks were successful. Chandy told reporters not to identify him as KSU's district secretary when they filed the reports. They agreed, and he was named as the representative of SB College. This baffled Fr Kalassery.

Chandy was humility personified when the principal sought to meet the college's 'representative'. He was told not to indulge in student politics during his college course. His classmates testify that Chandy stuck to the principal's directive.

Clandestine political activities
SB College did not have a college union at the time, but it had collectives such as the Planning Forum and Social Service Forum. KSU was not active. However, KSU decided to field P T Zacharias as its candidate for the post of Planning Forum secretary. The campaign, too, was carried out in secrecy; Zacharias won the election.

Oommen Chandy with K M Mani. File image. Photo: Manorama

SB College is still not keen on student politics. The situation was the same when I joined the college in the late 1970s. Banners are not allowed for college elections, pamphlets could be distributed. Lots would be drawn to allot space on a wall for major alliances near the college entrance. There was no election-related violence. Later, the college adopted the parliamentary system to select students' representatives, which was even challenged in the High Court.

Reading under the shrine's light
Oommen Chandy found accommodation on rent near the Parel Church (made famous by Muttathu Varkey) and Minor Seminary along the Changanassery-Vazhoor Road on the recommendation of Reverend George Kochery, who later became the archbishop and Vatican Nuncio-Ambassador. I probed more when Chandy mentioned the house near the Parel Church. I was surprised to learn that he was mentioning my ancestral family.

My aunt was in charge of a mess providing lunch for the teachers of SB High School and a boys' hostel (former DGP M K Joseph stayed in this hostel during his student days) near our Neelathummukku House. Chandy recalled my relatives.

However, there was a problem. The electricity voltage will be too low at night. Chandy found a solution. There was a wayside shrine of the Parel Church opposite to the house. It had tube lights even then. The shrine used to get lakhs of rupees as donations. He prepared for the exams under the shrine's light.

Masala dosa and chilled soda
Masala dosa and chilled soda from Hotel Greenlands were Chandy's staple diet those days. The money he saved through austerity measures was sent to the party. Those days, lunch came for just 50 paise. Chandy did not compromise on his studies. When exams were near, he kept away from organisational work and focused on studies.

Chandy normally did not skip classes. He had exemplary grasp. Former minister K C Joseph and former superintendent of police (crime branch) K J Mathew were his classmates. Joseph later shifted to Thiruvalla. Cyriac Joseph, who later became a Supreme Court judge, was Chandy's classmate in Hindi lessons.

Oommen Chandy with Ramesh Chennithala. File image. Photo: Manorama

Anti-Hindi agitation
The students of SB College and high school actively participated in the anti-Hindi agitation. However, Chandy, who had opted for Hindi as his second language of preference at college, kept away. Though others insisted on him joining the protest, he used to 'disappear' on reaching the college gate.

Chandy made his first and last political speech during his college days at a protest against the blocking of the Nehru Jyothi yatra in Changanassery.

In good company
Incidentally, Mar Joseph Powathil, who later became archbishop emeritus, taught political science to Chandy who later carved a niche space for himself in Kerala politics. Cardinal George Alencherry was his senior in college. The current archbishop of Changanassery, Mar Joseph Perumthottam was then pursuing a pre-degree course in the same college. Chandy focused more on his studies after topping the political science examination.

Chandy had clear views on general topics even during his student days. When a protest was held before the Bishop's House in Changanassery, he refused to address the workers. The reason was his teacher was at the time in the Bishop's House. Mar Joseph Powathil was the then archbishop. Chandy always maintained personal relations.

Popular co-traveller
"Good educational institutions and teachers are treasures we stumble upon in our lives by accident. It happened in my case as well. SB College had the best teachers, spreading light to lakhs of students who passed out for the past 100 years. It's SB's biggest contribution. Though I left the campus as a student years ago, I still try to visit the college at least once a year. I have been attending the alumni meet on Republic Day without fail for the past few years," Chandy would say later.

Chandy used to travel to Changanassery by bus from Puthuppally via Vakathanam. These trips helped him familiarise with students in every batch. The friendships he made during the bus journeys helped him when he contested the polls from the Puthuppally constituency, which included the Vakathanam panchayat.

Oommen Chandy during a visit to KINFRA. File image. Photo: Manorama

It was from Chandy that I learnt that C V Padmarajan, former president of the KPCC, was an SB College alumnus. However, he was disappointed when he did not get admission for further studies. Padmarajan himself is unaware of the reasons.

Alumni meet
The 1963-66 batch of students once again got together at SB College in 2011. Their meetings continued into the later years. Most of them have become parents or even grandparents.

Mar Joseph Powathil, the former teacher of the students now in their 60s, inaugurated the meeting by lighting the lamp. The meeting, chaired by K J Mathew, honoured about 20 teachers. Chandy and Justice Cyriac Joseph, too, were honoured as former students. Former student, Archbishop Mar Joseph Perumthottam, spoke at the event.

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