Muscle power: When mob takes over SFI on campuses

Representational Image: File Photo: Manorama

Students' Federation of India (SFI) is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its activists were accused of being involved in the torture of a veterinary student who was later found hanging. But that was not the first time the CPM's outfit was accused of using torture to suppress opposition voices on campuses. In a two-part series, Onmanorama inspects how it uses the brutal majority to snub other parties.

In February, a student of the Government Industrial Training Institute (ITI) at Kannur started an Instagram account 'ksu_kannur_iti'. It was his way of giving voice to Congress's student outfit Kerala Students' Union, which is not allowed to function in the institute. Only one student organisation is present in Kannur government-run ITI. It is the ruling CPM's Students' Federation of India (SFI).

On February 27, SFI activists zeroed in on the student who started the account. They assaulted him and made him deactivate the account. "SFI does not even tolerate an Instagram account," said Kannur KSU district president Athul M C.

The student, Anurag, filed a complaint with the institute against eight SFI activists for assaulting him, he said. "They forced him to withdraw the complaint," he said.

The same day, (i.e. on February 27), the district leaders of KSU planned an organisational meeting at the Government Residential Women's Polytechnic College at Korom, 8km from Payyanur town. The KSU leaders wanted to strengthen the newly formed unit at the residential polytechnic in Kerala. Halfway down the road to Korom, their car was stopped at Muthiyalam by a group of activists of SFI and the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth outfit of the CPM.

Ashwin Payyanur, SFI's Kannur district committee member and Payyanur area committee joint secretary, knocked on the front door. As the glass rolled down, he said: "Whose car is this? If you want the car, turn around and leave. Else I will smash the car."

He did not stop there. "I don't care even if you file a police case against me. I will smash the car. If you want to go back safe, leave now. Else you will not get this car back," Ashwin said, his demeanour menacingly calm. Behind him stood Police officers as mute spectators, and an army of young communists ready to execute Ashwin's threat if the car rolled ahead.

The incident happened 10 days after veterinary student Sidharthan J S was found dead in the hostel after he was publicly humiliated and thrashed for three days allegedly by SFI activists at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at Wayanad's Pookode. Like in the Government Residential Women's Polytechnic College in Kannur, SFI does not allow any other student organisations to function at the veterinary college in Wayanad. KSU's Wayanad district president Adv. Goutham Gokuldas said the veterinary college is the only institute in Wayanad district where KSU is not present.

But SFI's state secretary P M Arsho maintains that other student organisations are absent from some campuses because they are not ready to work. “After Sidharthan's death, when SFI is under attack, it is a favourable time for KSU to start a unit at Pookode college,” he said. “But they (KSU) have made no attempt to do so till now,” he said.

PM Arsho (Video grab - Manorama News)
P M Arsho. Photo: Manorama Online/Manorama News Screengrab

"We are nobody to stop an organisation or ask it to not work on any campus," said Arsho. "When there is no opposition, the biggest problem is for us. There will be no political discussions on campuses," said the SFI leader.

But the ground reality is different. Onmanorama reviewed incidents of campus violence in recent years, district by district, across Kerala and found that SFI exhibits a streak of totalitarianism, provided the conditions are conducive. Despite its slogan of 'Independence, Democracy, Socialism', it is inclined to wield its muscle power to deny space to both rivals and allies such as CPI's All India Students' Federation (AISF), on campuses. SFI's free run hits a road bump only in Malappuram district where leaders of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) manage many aided and unaided colleges.

SF-I, me, myself
The Government Residential Women's Polytechnic College at Korom routinely sees conflicts because KSU is trying to make inroads on the campus. SFI has destroyed KSU flags, uprooted flagpoles, locked out students who supported KSU, and even assaulted a teacher accusing him of facilitating KSU's entry into the campus.

On February 27, the KSU leaders who were denied entry into the Government Residential Women's Polytechnic College at Korom were KSU state Vice-President P Muhammed Shammas, KSU Kannur District President Athul M C, and KSU Payyanur mandalam president Arjun Korom. The polytechnic had permitted KSU to organise the meeting. Yet, the activists of SFI-DYFI combined forced them to make a U-turn. As they were leaving the hostile zone, a DYFI activist chased their car and flung a stone at it. The stone fell short.

KSU's Wayanad district president Adv. Goutham Gokuldas said the veterinary college is the only institute in Wayanad district where KSU is not present. File Photo: Manorama

An Eicher truck that came with a generator set for KSU's Freshers' Day DJ party at University College, Thiruvananthapuram, was not so lucky. Suspected SFI activists stoned the truck, breaking its windscreen on October 12, 2023. The KSU event was cancelled. "We had permission from the college for the Freshers' Day party. A few days before, SFI successfully conducted its Freshers' Day but it used its muscle power to deny us access to new students," said G S Gopu Neyyar, KSU's Thiruvananthapuram District President. He shelled out Rs 15,000 from his pocket to compensate the truck driver.

Petty politics wrapped in progressive pamphlets
Of the 43 institutes of higher education in Kasaragod district, 24 see elections on political lines. SFI controls the students' unions on 14 campuses. In half of them, SFI is the only student organisation.

Of the eight Government ITIs in Kasaragod, SFI controls seven. Of the seven, SFI wins unopposed in five ITIs.

Educational institutions where SFI enjoys a solo run in Kasaragod district are Kannur University's Nileshwar campus, College of Agriculture, Padannakkad, Government Arts and Science College at Karinthalam, EK Nayanar Memorial Government College at Elerithattu, SNDP Yogam Arts & Science College, Kalichanadukkam, Model (IHRD) Collge, Madikai, and Government Polytechnic College, Periya.

Despite its slogan of 'Independence, Democracy, Socialism', SFI is inclined to wield its muscle power to deny space to other student parties. File Photo: Manorama

From the outside, the numbers may appear as a testimony to SFI's popularity. But in reality, it is the crude force at work in several places.

On January 31, KSU attempted to set up a unit at the College of Agriculture at Padannakkad in Kanhangad. "When we reached there, we were confronted by outside SFI leaders from Nileshwar," said KSU Kasaragod District President Jawad Puthur. "The SFI Nileshwar Area president said there was no need for any other organisation in the College of Agriculture because there were no issues there," he said.

"When I said it was KSU's democratic right to set up a unit, another SFI leader shot back saying 'there is no democracy. Here, SFI is enough'," Jawad said.

The SFI leaders then reportedly made a not-so-veiled threat. "They said you leaders will leave after starting a unit but the students have to stay and study in the hostel," said Jawad. That did the trick and the KSU leaders returned.

In September 2023, EK Nayanar Memorial Government College at Elerithattu in Kasaragod's West Eleri panchayat, hit the headlines when a panel of female students was elected unopposed to the Students' Council. The women were fielded by SFI.

The left student organisation comes across as progressive, but scratch the surface and an ugly truth emerges. The college has not seen a contest in the past seven years. KSU and the RSS's Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) do not have units in the college, which is in a grama panchayat controlled by the Congress. So is its neighbouring East Eleri grama panchayat.

Arsho defended the absence of KSU in colleges in villages and towns with the strong presence of the Congress by saying that many students in SFI leadership are children from Congress families. "When they join colleges, they prefer SFI," he said.

In Government Polytechnic College at Kasaragod's Periya, KSU fielded a candidate for the first time for the chairperson's post in 2023. "From the next day, our candidate Ubaid could not go to the college," said Jawad Puthur.

(The concluding part of the series will be published on Sunday, March 10)

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