The recent clash between groups of students at the Dr.Ambedkar Government Law College has brought campus politics under a shadow of disapproval. Facts that have emerged thus far reveal that caste-based political mobilisation was taking place inside the campus for a long time.
Ahead of the Thevar Jayanthi celebrations on October 30, students belonging to the Mukkulathor Student’s Forum, youth wing of the Thevar Peravai, had put up posters inside the campus to publicise the event. That they had omitted ‘Dr.Ambedkar’ from the name of the college in the posters is said to have angered Dalit students and triggered the clash on November 12.
However, such violence stemming from politics on campus is not new and the institution has remained a hotbed of political activity for several years now. In 2002, similar violence involving students occurred in the Law College hostel and a commission of inquiry, led by retired Madras High Court judge K. S. Bakthavatsalam was appointed by the State government. Back then, the police action in response to student violence had come under criticism.
Students Federation of India (SFI) member R.Thirumoorthy, a third-year B.A. B.L. student, said developments taking place in mainstream politics got reflected in politics within the campus, invariably.
He said, “To most college students and professors, the November 12 violence did not come as a surprise at all because we knew it would happen one day or the other,” he said.
Students aspiring for a career in politics are known to make their way into the college. S. Prasanna, now an active member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam youth wing, said he perfected the craft of politics as a student at the Dr.Ambedkar Government Law College. He said he participated in several public meetings and protests and was able to deepen his understanding of the party’s ideology.
Prasanna, who passed out from college this year, was also quite frank about the deviant student culture there. “I remember a classmate of mine saying that a law college student could happily break signals and be sure he would be let off by the traffic police.” He said the students feared none and misused their newfound independence. He also spoke about how right from the first year of college, students were branded on the basis of their caste. “Most students keep to their own caste groups and rarely mingle with those from other communities,” he said.
What makes things worse is the poor academic atmosphere on the campus, said advocate Sudha Ramalingam. “Students passing out of the college hardly have any proper legal training and many of the interns working at my office do not even know basic things such as filing a brief for a court case,” she said. She said the college should have extra-curricular activities to give a cultural outlet to students. “They also need good role models in professors and seniors, which is not the case now,” she said.
Geetha Ramaseshan, lawyer and social activist, agrees that there is a lack of inspirational movements and leadership for young people to look up to. “One way of dealing with this is going inwards to look at identities based on caste or religion,” she says. Hence, identity politics is closely linked to the current economic situation, she adds.
Human rights activist A. Marx, who retired recently from Presidency College, said while compiling a fact-finding report on the recent violence, he found that lawyers themselves were divided on caste lines and politically affiliated. “So it is obvious that students find it convenient to align themselves with groups to which they naturally belong,” he said.
From his nearly 40 years’ experience in government colleges, he said none of them was free from political interference. “Political parties openly patronise and finance student leaders in colleges,” he said. Even professors and other staff were appointed and transferred in these colleges at the behest of powerful politicians.
Also, the class and caste composition of the student community determined the nature of politics on campus, he said. “Students of elite professional institutions who are assured of jobs while passing out are bound to behave differently from students who struggle to make it to college, in the first place, and are uncertain about their future because their institution cannot guarantee them one,” he observed.
WHAT THEY SAY
Sudha Ramalingam, advocate and human rights activist:
As a student of Law College I participated in the anti-emergency movement supporting the Janata Party in the 70’s. It initiated me into civil liberties activism. So, I will not say that student politics should be banned. But it should not be done at the cost of academics. It is good for students to be politically aware but it should not lead to deviant behaviour. Politicians too should stop exploiting young, vulnerable students for political gains. The last thing we want is students turning victims at the hands of political power mongers.”
(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Nov 24, 2008)