Unease on self-financing college campuses in Kerala

The suicide of a student, Shraddha Satheesh, has raised questions on the academic environment that prevails in self-financing colleges in the State. While the students are finding it difficult to handle what they perceive as lack of freedom, the colleges are unable to afford a relaxed environment on their campuses as it risks academic performance

Updated - June 16, 2023 09:28 am IST

Published - June 15, 2023 08:08 pm IST - KOTTAYAM/KOCHi

SFI workers staging a demonstration in front of the Amal Jyothi College College of Engineering, Kanjirappally, to protest against the suicide of Shraddha Satheesh.

SFI workers staging a demonstration in front of the Amal Jyothi College College of Engineering, Kanjirappally, to protest against the suicide of Shraddha Satheesh. | Photo Credit: Vishnu Prathap

A large posse of police personnel in riot gear stood guard at the main entrance of Amal Jyothi College of Engineering at Kanjirappally anticipating turbulent protests.

It was just a few days since the college reopened after a series of crippling protests against the suicide of Shraddha Satheesh, a student. Rumour was rife that Satheesh and Daya, the parents of Shraddha, would join the protests and the authorities could ill-afford a fresh bout of violence, especially in view of a High Court order.

But Shraddha’s parents stayed back at their home at Thiruvankulam, near Thripunithura, and the protesters dispersed after a few rounds of sloganeering.  “We did not feel like seeing the campus ever again,” says Mr. Satheesh, when asked why they did not turn up for the protest organised by a few friends and relatives.

His daughter, a 20-year-old second-year food technology student, had killed herself at the college hostel on June 2. She was alleged to have taken the extreme step after a teacher seized her cell phone when she was using it in the laboratory.

“I cannot forgive the college authorities for failing to understand the trauma my daughter underwent. They even escalated it. She probably might have felt it was the end of the world. No one from the college management contacted us after the funeral,” says Mr. Satheesh. 

“She was a jovial girl who did not have any issues until that afternoon. She became upset after that conversation with the Head of the Department and even refused to speak to us after reaching the hostel,” he recalls.

The death sparked widespread protests as students, defying restrictions imposed by the college administrators, took over the campus seeking action against those responsible. Various student organisations staged demonstrations outside the campus even as the Catholic Diocese of Kanjirappally, which runs the college, remained unfazed.

Several of Shraddha’s collegemates too accuse the college authorities of driving the girl into suicide. They even charge the authorities with attempting to cover up the suicide bid at a hospital where she had been taken to. 

They say they have endured a stressful atmosphere on the campus, all the while dealing with the daily pressures of their educational programme. 

“Moral policing and slut-shaming have been the norm in the name of discipline. The suicide of Shraddha should have been everybody’s business here. Instead, the college authorities are trying to sweep it under the carpet,” says a girl student, on condition of anonymity. 

Students of the Amal Jyothi  College of Engineering clashing with the police during a protest.

Students of the Amal Jyothi College of Engineering clashing with the police during a protest. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The protests forced the government to initiate conciliatory talks and order a Crime Branch probe into the incident.

Yet, the girl’s family remains deeply disturbed.  They accuse the investigators of dragging on their feet in favour of the college management. 

Mahija Ashokan, mother of Jishnu Pranoy, a student of Nehru College of Engineering and Research Centre at Pampady, Thrissur, who ended his life seven years ago, finds the situation Shraddha’s parents are in relatable.

The past seven years have not lessened the agony caused by the tragic death of her son.  She occasionally slips into sullen silence during the conversation about her son. 

Jishnu was found dead hanging in the bathroom of the men’s hostel of the college on January 6, 2017. It was alleged that harassment at the hands of the college authorities after being caught by an invigilator for copying during an examination prompted the engineering student to take his life. It was also alleged that the boy was physically and mentally harassed by the college authorities. 

“I thought the situation in self-financing colleges will improve after the case of Jishnu. It is saddening to see another child ending her life abruptly. It appears that there is no end to the suffering of children in these institutions,” says Ms. Ashokan.

“Colleges are turning into torture camps and children, who are supposed to lead a happy life on campus, are being tortured. Happy college days must be restored to our children,” she says. 

The brave face put up by the Amal Jyothi college management during the student protests notwithstanding, the incident has left the college staff worried that they will be required to spend more time attending to students’ emotional needs than actually teach their courses. 

There has been a shift from prizing learning as an end in itself to equipping students for the job market. And a growing proportion of youngsters, especially after the pandemic years, are just finding this whole process of learning and assessment an unforgiving ordeal that offers no room for freedom, notes a teacher at the college. 

“One of the most worrying trends that many of us have witnessed in recent years is the widening cultural gap between the younger and the older generations which afflicts some students so deeply that they feel unable to come to the campus at all,” he says.

The pressure on the college staff, according to him, is shifting from managing academics to monitoring the use of gadgets among students and their activities on the campus. 

The Kanjirappally diocese, meanwhile, sees a design behind the raging protests and has even approached the Union government seeking a probe into a possible communal angle to the protests.

The institute, according to the authorities, has undertaken a detailed review of the situation on the campus exploring how it can support student welfare activities. 

“A concerted attack seems to have taken place against Amal Jyothi College, which tops almost all rankings, including the NIRF, and has an enviable placement record. The presence of people from some areas in the State among the demonstrators points to a larger conspiracy,” alleges Fr. Bobby Alex Mannamplakkal, Vicar General of the Diocese. 

As to the allegations of moral policing and slut-shaming, the Vicar General argues how the college’s academic atmosphere and even its physical infrastructure, which brought the institution laurels, are now being used to defame it. 

“Foot-overbridges were built to connect the college campus with the hostel complex to facilitate safe movement of students and staff without having to use the public road. However, such infrastructure facilities are now being used to accuse the college of moral policing even when the students are free not to use them,” he argues. 

K. Anusree, State president of the Students Federation of India, which was at the forefront of the protests following the deaths, feels that campuses should ensure all-around development of students rather than focus only on imparting education. 

Freedom for organisational activities should be provided on campuses. Students shall get representation on all forums of educational institutions, including parent-teacher associations. Engaging in political and organisational activities on campus will help students become aware of their rights. She feels it will also help students resist any forms of repression and denial of rights. 

Some teachers use internal examinations as weapons of harassment of students. Such practices shall be curbed. Educational institutions shall be audited for compliance with rules and regulations, which will improve the overall atmosphere on campuses, she feels. 

The Kerala Students Union, says its State president Aloysius Xavier, views the Amal Jyothi issue as a reflection of the general situation prevailing in self-financing colleges. Human rights violations, in the guise of enforcing discipline, are rampant on these campuses. A section of the parents, who insist on bringing up their children as disciplined individuals, too, shall be blamed for the situation, he says. 

The KSU will soon come up with a report on the state of affairs on the campuses after meeting students of all self-financing institutions and interacting with educational experts, he says. Mr. Xavier feels that permitting political activity on campuses will embolden students to face crises. There should be space for all student organisations to function independently on campuses, which will improve the situation, he feels. “It is time for a social audit,” he says.  

However, Biju Ramesh, president of the All Kerala Self-Financing Engineering Colleges Association, rejects the idea of allowing organisational and political freedom on campuses. 

“There is no question of opening up campuses of engineering colleges for political activities, as it has been legally banned. Any attempt to begin political activities on campuses will be resisted,” he says. 

Mr. Ramesh says parents enrol their wards in engineering colleges to help them build a career as engineers or technocrats and not as panchayat presidents or legislators. Those keen on pursuing politics shall get admission in law colleges or art colleges but not in medical and engineering colleges,” he argues. 

The real issue that led to the death of a girl student, says Mr. Ramesh, got drowned in the noises that followed the incident. It was an impulsive response to a directive against the use of mobile phones on the campus, he says. 

Many parents complain to college authorities about their wards’ excessive use of mobile phones. So, they are forced to ask the children to leave their gadgets with the departments. The colleges have to follow the guidelines issued by the authorities regarding the use of phones, he says. 

But it is not just about the use of phones, as is evident from the discontent and unrest brewing on many campuses. 

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