Absolute control: 'Who said SFI is democratic?'

Representational Image: Manorama

In this concluding part of the two-part series on SFI's tactics to retain control of campuses, Onmanorama inspects each district from Kozhikode to Thiruvananthapuram to see how CPM-affiliated organisations stifle democracy on campuses.

Six institutes of higher education are out of bounds for student organisations other than SFI in the Thiruvananthapuram district. The Government Arts College, the Government Sanskrit College, the Sree Swathi Thirunal College of Music, the Government ITI, Dhanuvachapuram, the Government Polytechnic College, Neyyattinkara, and the Christian College, Kattakada, have only SFI on the campus. "One student at Dhanuvachapuram ITI can't attend classes because he works for the Congress in his village," said Gopu Neyyar, the KSU district president.

KSU was able to start a unit at University College -- labelled a heritage institute by the state government -- only in 2019 after the infamous stabbing of SFI activist Akhil Chandran by SFI unit president R Shivarenjith and another leader A N Naseem, said Gopu Neyyar. "But there is little organisational freedom," he said.

Kozhikode, choked
Four years ago, a mob of around 120 SFI activists reportedly attacked 10 KSU activists with clubs studded with nails, planks, rods, and bricks at the Sree Narayana College in Vadakara, said V T Sooraj, KSU Kozhikode district president. "We were sitting at the hilltop planning to start a unit in the college. That day we saw death face to face," he said. KSU never returned to the campus again.

Government College, Madappally, is also a one-organisation campus.

The Congress students' organisation has units at Government College, Kuttiyadi, and Syed Abdul Rahman Bafakhy Thangal Memorial Government College at Muchukunnu, 7 km from Koyilandy. "But SFI allows only female activists of KSU to work on the two campuses. If men engage in political work, they are thrashed black and blue," said Sooraj. In contrast, KSU enjoys the absolute majority in St Joseph's College, Devagiri. "But all organisations work in harmony there," he claimed.

Disrupting elections, a time-tested strategy
In November 2023, the High Court of Kerala ordered repolling at the post-graduate departments of English and Mathematics in Government Arts and Science College, Kunnamangalam in Kozhikode. When KSU was leading after counting 90 per cent of votes, SFI activist and student Arjun A C tore the ballots and threw them down. KSU activists were assaulted allegedly by DYFI activists who came from outside. KSU won big after recounting.

SFI resorted to the same strategy at the Catholicate College in Pathanamthitta last year. SFI activists threw the ballot box down from the second floor during counting and the university withheld the results. An angry DySP of Pathanamthitta pulled up the SFI leader for throwing tantrums. "The candidates who get more votes will win. Don't try to blindfold the people here," the officer told the SFI leader.

In 2019, elections were disrupted after class representatives were elected. KSU had to move the High Court to conduct the union election, said Pathanamthitta KSU district president Alan Geo Michael.

KSU activists stage protest. File Photo: Manorama

The same strategy of disruption was adopted in 2018 at St Aloysius College, Kuttanad, the only college affiliated to MG University in Alappuzha district. After the class leaders' election, KSU had 16 more councillors than SFI. The class leaders were supposed to elect the College Union officer-bearers in the afternoon.

But after lunch, DYFI and SFI activists assaulted around 20 KSU class leaders and did not allow them to enter the campus for the Students' Union election, said KSU Alappuzha District President A D Thomas. "SFI won the union election. We went to High Court which stayed the results," he said.

Pathanamthitta, 'a mini Kannur'
Pathanamthitta may appear to be fertile ground for all political parties but on college campuses, SFI holds sway. "SFI runs on idi-ology not ideology," said Alan Geo Michael, punning on the Malayalam word for punch.

He said St Thomas College at Ranni and Edamuri, Vishwa Brahmana College at Vechuchara, Devaswom Board Pampa College at Parumala, SAS SNDP Yogam College at Konni, and SNDP Yogam Arts And Science College at Kizhakkupuram are no-entry zones for organisations other than SFI. "In colleges where other organisations are allowed, there is no harmony. It is like mini-Kannur," said Michael.

The fightback at Alappuzha
In Alappuzha, only 10 of the 43 colleges see political fights. KSU and SFI-AISF won five each last year. It was a historic performance for KSU, which usually wins around two colleges.

Alappuzha's biggest college, Sanatana Dharma College with around 3,000 students was out of bounds for non-SFI organisations for seven years till 2022. "SFI and DYFI activists would thrash us. In 2022-2023, they assaulted not only KSU but also their allies AISF," said KSU Alappuzha district president A D Thomas.

SFI to a certain extent is on the receiving end of totalitarian politics in Malappuram district. File Photo: Manorama

The St Michael's College at Cherthala also sees clashes during elections. "CPM area secretaries are given responsibilities of colleges in their areas. They use their muscle and money power to oppress opposition voices," said Thomas, who was assaulted by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's gunmen when he waved the black flag at Nava Kerala Sadas in Alappuzha.

The management of NSS College, Cherthala, has not been conducting elections for the past four years because of frequent clashes. "SFI does not take pride in saying it won after a contest. It takes pride in saying it won unopposed," said Thomas.

'Cochin College being shaped like Maharaja's'
Other than SFI, no student organisation has units in colleges in the Tripunithura assembly constituency, said the KSU leader. "When ABVP tried, its activists were assaulted. KSU will be trying to set up units in the colleges there in two weeks," said KSU Ernakulam district president K M Krishna Lal. Ayurveda College, RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, and Government College, Tripunithura, are no-go areas. 

Unlike other places, KSU has the strong backing of the Congress in Perumbavoor, he said. "SFI cannot lift a finger against us there," he said. In Ernakulam, KSU fought directly with SFI in 19 colleges and won in 13, he said.

In Maharaja's College, all political organisations are present but the SFI puts up a strong resistance. "They have former students and teacher and police, too, on their side," he said.

CPM MLA K J Maxi is trying to model the Cochin College like Maharaja's, Krishnalal alleged. "Since 2016, KSU has not been able to enter the Cochin College. This academic year, KSU fielded two candidates. We lost the chairperson's post by 65 votes and the general secretary's post by 15 votes," he said.

Forbidden campuses of Idukki
The district has five engineering colleges, five polytechnics, six government ITIs, and 42 Arts and Science Colleges. Of them, 26 colleges see elections on political lines. The most fear-stricken campus in Idukki is Government College, Kattappana. The two other government colleges in Munnar and Pooppara are accessible to all student organisations. "Two years ago, when we started a unit at Kattappana College, SFI thrashed our students, tore our flags, and uprooted the flagmasts," said Nithin Lukose, KSU Idukki District President.

He said Al Azhar Law College at Thodupuzha was another undemocratic campus. "Two days ago we planned a protest on the campus against the assault and death of Sidharthan. SFI locked the gate and did not allow us to enter the campus," said Nithin Lukose, who is the fourth accused in the murder case of SFI activist Dheeraj Rajendran (21) of Government Engineering College, Idukki, at Painavu. Lukose said he was framed in the case as electronic evidence and eyewitnesses would prove he was 10km away when Dheeraj was stabbed on January 10, 2022. He is out on bail after 72 days in judicial remand.

 Turning the tables on SFI
SFI to a certain extent is on the receiving end of totalitarian politics in Malappuram district. While other districts have around 40 to 50 colleges, Malappuram has around 130 colleges. Of that, only 24 are government-run or government-funded colleges. "Yet, SFI controls around 60 student unions in the district," said Mohammed Ali Shihab P, SFI's Malappuram district secretary.

The majority of the self-financing colleges are run by IUML leaders and sympathisers and elections are often not held, he said. "In any case, SFI is not given access to those colleges by the management," said Shihab.

EMEA College of Arts and Science, at Kondotty, is an aided college managed by IUML leaders. "If we field candidates who got admission in management quote, their families will get threatening and pressurising calls to force them to back off from the elections," he said.

Similar experiences were cited by KSU leaders in Alappuzha. The difference is that calls would be made by CPM panchayat members and local leaders.

Last year, unaided colleges in Malappuram sent 21 councillors for the University Union election, without conducting elections, he said. Calicut University disallowed them from participating in the election. But they approached the High Court and got a favourable order.

But the university once again barred them from voting in the Senate election, held three months later. They moved the high court. "But the second time, the High Court upheld the university's stance," he said.

Kozhikode also has around 130 colleges, with around 30 aided and government-run colleges. "There was a time when SFI activists would be thrashed by MSF activists if they entered National College at Puliyav. But things have changed," said SFI Kozhikode district president Anurag. "But the freedom to function is not there," he said.

'Organisation should not become a mob'
Left-leaning writer, popular orator and Professor at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit Sunil P Elayidom said it was important to have diverse views and SFI should introspect if it was depriving other organisations of functioning on campuses.

Against the backdrop of Sidharthan's death, he said SFI should ensure its leadership is not taken over by a mob. "It was a mob lynching... SFI leaders who are entrusted with the responsibility to stop such incidents took part in the lynching. SFI should reflect on how they became a part of the organisation," he said.

Prof Elayidom also said the air of fear that prevented other students of the veterinary college from speaking up was equally serious. "If there is an air of fear on the campus led by SFI, then there is no point in saying it is SFI. It has turned into a criminal gang. The attack and the silence, both are scary," he said.

Economist Prof Mary George, who retired from University College, Thiruvananthapuram, said SFI is known to create a culture of fear on campuses and its parent organisation, CPM, extended tacit support to it. She said once SFI activists took a first-year student from her class, saying they had a few questions for him. But when he did not return after 25 minutes, she went looking for him, with the rest of the class. "They had the boy in the Union room. He was shivering like a winged termite," she said.

Prof Mary George took the student back. "It was a Friday. On Monday, I joined the Department of Economics in Government Arts and Science College, Kozhikode," she said. "My children were too young then. The transfer was the (CPM) government's punishment for rescuing a student from SFI," she said. But she insisted that teachers should intervene and be guardians of students. "Teaching should not be seen as a side hustle," she said. 

A former SFI leader from Kozhikode said universities should make the functioning of a minimum number of political organisations mandatory on college campuses to end the one-campus, one-party stance of student outfits.

Central University of Kerala's Political Science Assistant Professor Gilbert Sebastian said there are tendencies to call SFI a totalitarian organisation or 'social fascist', which will be equating it with the Fascists. "But I think they can rightly be designated as social-chauvinists, showing excessive devotion to their organisation," he said. They monopolise violence wherever they can, he said.

Another faculty member of the Central University of Kerala said he was a member of SFI's Area Committee in Thalassery in the late 90s. "Those days, SFI activists in Brennen College would beat up members of other student organisations during election season to scare them away. I objected to it in the committee and the Area Secretary did not like it. I quit SFI then," he said.

He, however, said SFI has transformed a lot since then. "We quit the organisation. But the present-day students want to address the ruptures, and there are reforms. "They talk of transpeople's rights and same-sex love. When the Supreme Court read down Section 377, SFI celebrated it on the campuses. It was unimaginable in the late 1990s. Those days, SFI was into moral policing," he said.

He said the remnants of the old organisation, which took orders from the local leadership of CPM, might be still dominating in SFI. "People such as Arsho give out that impression," he said.

However many micropolitical movements are emerging from within the organisation across institutions. "That gives us hope," he said. "When mainstream media write about SFI, the behavioural patterns of the unruly leaders get highlighted. The micropolitical movements are missed," he said.

But when asked if SFI is democratic, he didn't pause to mull it over: "Who said SFI is democratic?"

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