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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

Campus murder heats up poll fever at Maharaja’s College

On July 1 last year, Maharaja’s college came to national spotlight when a student, Abhimanyu (who goes by only one name), 20, was murdered within the college premises after a row over political posters turned violent. Even though the college is known for its fervent campus politics, this was the first time in its history that a person was killed on campus.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2019 07:05 IST
Sibi Arasu
Sibi Arasu
Cochin
Rahul Gandhi deciding to contest from Wayanad has been encouraging for KSU members in Maharaja’s college.
Rahul Gandhi deciding to contest from Wayanad has been encouraging for KSU members in Maharaja’s college.
         

In “central”, the open space located in the middle of Maharaja’s college, an erstwhile royal palace facing the Arabian Sea, is the malakha kulam or angel’s pond. This is a rather small pond with a curiously sculpted angel standing in the middle, with its arms raised to the skies. One of those arms holds a communist flag — a clear declaration of who holds the reigns in this college, which has long been considered the epitome of Kerala politics.

Located in Cochin, Maharaja’s college was set up in 1845 by the Royal Kingdom of Cochin as an English school, to enable members of the royal family to communicate with Englishmen who were coming to the city then. Since then, it has evolved into a multifaceted arts and science institute, becoming a full-fledged college in 1875 and acquiring its current name in 1925, educating many thousands of students every year in its undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Even though colleges and universities across the state are known for their strong student politics, Maharaja’s leads the pack.

Among the college alumni are the former defence minister, AK Antony, Swami Chinmayananda, founder member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Chinmaya Mission, and TM Thomas Isaac, a prominent leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Kerala’s current finance minister.

On July 1 last year, Maharaja’s college came to national spotlight when a student, Abhimanyu (who goes by only one name), 20, was murdered within the college premises after a row over political posters turned violent. Even though the college is known for its fervent campus politics, this was the first time in its history that a person was killed on campus. Abhimanyu belonged to the left-wing Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and is considered a martyr by Left parties across the state and the country at this point. The political divisions within the campus have deepened since his death.

CONDITIONS APPLY

“SFI professes that it is for independence, democracy, and socialism, but the star in their flag seems to be more of an asterisk that implies that conditions apply. What I mean to say is that, it seems like all of these apply to you only if you are part of the party,” says Fuad Mohammad, 21, a political science student and leader of the newly-formed Welfare Party of India (WPI), which represents minority communities and bahujans’ interests in India. Mohammad has put up the strongest challenge to the SFI in recent times by nearly winning the chairman’s position for the student’s union in 2017. “I lost the election by just 121 votes but I’m happy to be part of the WPI. We were the first ones to speak out about Rohith Vemula in our college and we even drew his image in ‘central’.”

“We are not controlling and only try to do what’s best for all students of the college,” counters Atul Krishna, general-secretary of SFI in the college and a BA philosophy student. “I think most students at Maharaja’s are happy with SFI being in power.”

The Student’s Federation of India (SFI), which is the student’s wing of the CPI (M), holds office in the college today. It has done so for the last 35 years, even though the Kerala Student’s Union (KSU), the Indian National Congress’ students’ wing in Kerala, has a prominent presence on campus. Both KSU and SFI remain true to their parent parties’ ideologies.

In the student election held in September 2018, SFI won the posts of chairman, vice chairman and general secretary with margins of 800 votes or above.

The college has 2800 students in all. It also won all 14 seats in the college panel. Other political outfits such as the Akhila Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), the RSS’ student affiliate, has a presence in the college as well, but only a handful of students profess allegiance to the party. “I think the BJP and ABVP gained a lot of support during the recent protests related to women entering the Ayyappa temple. While it might not affect campus politics, I think it will definitely have an effect on the upcoming elections, especially here in Kerala.

Things are slowly beginning to change,” says Vishnu Sharma, a second-year political science student and one of the more vocal members of the ABVP.

He adds, “Unfortunately, the Sabarimala issue is not affecting campus politics because the priorities within campuses are very different; it’s about more local issues within the campus. However, I think overall ABVP has become more popular than it has ever been across Kerala.” In the past few years, ABVP has won key positions in colleges across the state, in districts including but not limited to Thrissur, Kozhikode, Kasargode, Kannur and Palakkad. As Sharma says, “In Kerala, ABVP has taken up many issues that other parties have not. I think this is the only party that talks about Bharat and true nationalism. Being a patriot myself, I decided to join the party.”

ELECTION SEASON

With general elections due in days, student members of all political parties have been campaigning within the college campus as well as outside. Both the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the CPI (M) and INC respectively, have put up relatively young leaders to contest for this high-profile Lok Sabha seat, Ernakulam (the central part of the city of Kochi). The candidates, P Rajeev of the LDF and Hibi Eden of the UDF, were student leaders in their college days and served as state secretaries for the SFI and KSU before moving up their parent party’s ranks. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), meanwhile, has asked the Union Minister, KJ Alphons, to contest from here.

Rahul Gandhi deciding to contest from Wayanad has been encouraging for KSU members in Maharaja’s college. “I think Rahul Gandhi has changed a lot; he is not weak like before and he has matured,” says CP Priya of the KSU. Priya is a philosophy student and a long-time member of the Congress’ student wing. Asked about her view on the Congress party supporting the ban on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple, Priya stated that she agreed with the party line. “Even though as a woman I won’t be able to enter the temple, I still support the party’s stance because you have to respect local belief systems and traditions.”

While the SFI members have been campaigning for LDF’s P Rajeev, some of them are pragmatic about the party’s chances at the Centre. “Given the current situation, I hope the Congress comes to power in Delhi, since they are at least better than the BJP. Once the communist party becomes stronger, we hope to challenge these parties in the central level as well, as we do so in Kerala,” said Atul Krishna of SFI.

A MURDER ON CAMPUS

On July 1, 2018, Abhimanyu, a member of SFI, was putting up party posters on the college walls with his “comrades” when his group got into a tussle with members of the Campus Front of India (CFI), an affiliate of the Popular Front of India (PFI), an organisation that was created for the socioeconomic welfare of the Muslim community in India, especially in Kerala. The clashes ended with Abhimanyu being stabbed to death right outside the college gates. A CFI member was arrested, and the party has kept a low profile ever since, on campus and outside.

The murder led to a spurt in political sympathy for SFI and, as a consequence, for the CPI(M) in Kerala. Kerala is infamous for political violence with media reports suggesting that there have been more than 170 political killings in Kerala in the last two decades. With the CPI(M) on one end and the RSS-BJP combine on the other, more than 60 people have been killed in political violence. The INC and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), too, have lost about a dozen members each due to political vendettas.

“It is the Left parties who started all of this political violence. We believe campuses are a field for change and condemn political murders happening anywhere in Kerala,” says Al Bilal, member of the CFI from Calicut University. After Abhimanyu’s murder, CFI has not been part of active politics in Maharaja’s college.

“They are what we call communal terrorists.There is no place for such organisations in our college,” says Atul Krishna of SFI when talking about CFI.

The murder is talked about elsewhere in the college campus as well. Julie Chandra, a professor of chemistry who knew Abhimanyu well, says, “He was a bright student and extremely active on campus. Calm has returned to the campus but the murder did leave many of our students extremely shocked.”

A portrait of Abhimanyu occupies pride of place next to a graffiti of Bhagat Singh in the student union office. “We still miss him terribly and hope to carry forward his legacy,” says Atul Krishna of SFI.

First Published: Apr 11, 2019 07:05 IST

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