Are Chennai's college campuses turning a battleground for students with different cultural backgrounds? What can pave the way for a cross-cultural and nation-building education?

Is there more to student clashes that seem to have broken out across Chennai than what meets the eye? Have we brought back to life the saying that was popular in Tamil Nadu several decades ago: The North flourishes at the cost of the South? Are the clashes in the universities and engineering colleges about a North-South battle? Are they even linguistic?

For instance, some months ago, there was a violent clash among students of a private engineering college with native students insisting that they be served a particular variety of meat, while those from elsewhere protested it vehemently.

In another engineering college near Chennai, there were problems over serving food in the canteen with students from the South objecting to ‘rotis' being served more often than rice.

At Pallavaram too, the reason was similar, but it exploded through a cricket match with students from South India and the North competing as rival teams. As news about these two incidents spread, students in other institutions took up the fight as well, but with police support, tensions were quelled.

The skirmishes often start at the hostels, where the students have to live together in close quarters, but the volatile emotions then spill over to classrooms and are picked up by the entire college.

According to a third- year engineering student from a college in Maduravoyal, in college hostels students from other States usually form a close-knit group as they are in larger numbers compared to students from Tamil Nadu.

Students also allege that faculty and management staffs of institutions are partially responsible for the regional divide among students.

“Some lecturers derogatively refer to us as North Indians. Management staffers often pass comments on the lack of education opportunities in our remote towns whenever we request them to improve facilities in the college,” said Sonu, an ECE student of Saveetha School of Engineering (SSE) in Chettipedu. Over 70 per cent of the students in SSE are from Bihar, Jharkhand and adjoining States.

Another student who hails from Bihar studies at an engineering college in Ramapuram. He charges that some students who are locals exaggerate petty clashes among students by bringing in local goons. “This intensifies the regional divide as students from other States gang up to protect themselves from the local fellows. The management is not doing much to help us.”

John Surendran, a lecturer in a private arts and science college affiliated to the University of Madras, said petty quarrels or even violent clashes among two different sections of students were not uncommon in city colleges. But the trend of students fighting with each other on parochial and linguistic lines was a dangerous trend. More specifically, such incidents were restricted to large private universities that depended on admitting thousands of students from outside Tamil Nadu to add to their numerical strength.

An office-bearer of the South Chennai unit of Students Federation of India said that with most private universities having students from North India as a majority, it was only common for other students to suffer at their hands. Out of insecurity and for strengthening their bonds of friendship, students sharing same language and region tend to stick together, remaining exclusive, thereby resisting inclusive growth, and frustrating the aim of wholesome, cross-cultural and nation-building education.

Need for media restraint

An academician who occupies a top administrative post in a private engineering college, on condition of anonymity, says problems do crop up occasionally because of cultural differences among students, but they are blown out of proportion. Students are very savvy these days and sometimes even stage protests just to grab media attention, he adds. This is when it becomes larger than it actually is and violence spreads from campus to campus, he explains stressing the need for media restraint.

In his opinion, speaking about such issues will only broaden the divide and fan the flames of violence and intolerance. If Tamil Nadu is today in a position to attract students from all over, because of its quality, it is also able to generate substantial revenues from this. Driving a wedge between South Indian and North Indian students will not only inflame passions in the short term, but also lead to loss of such revenue in the long run, he explains. Instead efforts have to be made by all — universities, college managements, hostel wardens, lecturers and student bodies — to unite within the campus people who come from different parts of the country.

With inputs from K.Manikandan and Petlee Peter