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Caste on campus

Print edition : Dec 19, 2008 T+T-


The caste-based violence involving two student groups on the law college campus in Chennai and related developments call for close scrutiny.

THE century-old Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College in Chennai has been in the news, not for the right reasons though, since November 12. On that day the college, one of the oldest institutions for legal studies in the country, saw an explosion of caste-based violence involving two student groups on its campus close to the Madras High Court. Evening news bulletins on television that day included shocking video footage of the clash, which showed students running around the campus carrying long knives, iron rods, sticks and tubelights.

Even more shocking was the total inaction of a large posse of police personnel waiting right in front of the college gate, even as brutal attacks left four students grievously injured. The custodians of law refused to be moved by appeals from some mediapersons to prevent bloodshed. Not even the repeated thrashing of a student, Bharathi Kannan, who was lying unconscious near the college gate, made the police act.

The reason the police officers on the spot gave for not entering the campus was that they had received no complaint or requests from the college authorities. When the permission came at last, it was too late. All that the police could do was to help take one of the injured to hospital.

The clash between the students, belonging to two social groups, is traced to an altercation between them a fortnight earlier. The dispute was over wall posters and handbills printed for public notice in connection with the birth anniversary of the late U. Muthuramalinga Thevar, a freedom fighter and a three-term Member of Parliament. He is revered as a leader of a large caste Hindu social group in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

Dalit students of the college objected to the fact that the name of the college appeared in the posters and handbills without Dr. Ambedkar. The college was renamed some years ago. The immediate reason for the clash, it was learnt later, was the alleged prevention of Dalit students from writing their semester examinations by the rival group.

On November 13, students of the Government Law Colleges in Coimbatore, Salem and Madurai staged demonstrations in protest against the police failure to act. Students reportedly stoned government-owned buses in some places. However, thanks to the State-level alert ordered by the police, the agitation did not spread to other areas.

In a swift response to the police inaction, the State government shifted Chennais Commissioner of Police R. Sekar to another post and suspended two other police officers an Assistant Commissioner and an Inspector. The Principal-in-charge of the college, K.K. Sridev, was suspended. The government ordered the closure of all law colleges in the State following reports of student protests in various places. The semester examinations were postponed.

Leaders of political parties condemned the violence and the failure of the police to prevent it. Former Chief Minister and general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Jayalalithaa, expressed shock over the violence. She said that with people losing faith in the police machinery, such incidents would create panic among them. She demanded the resignation of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. The issue was taken up in the State Assembly by the Opposition. AIADMK member D. Jayakumar demanded that the Chief Minister accept moral responsibility and resign.

Law Minister Durai Murugan announced the appointment of a one-member commission, P. Shanmugam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, to inquire into the incident and the reason for the police inaction. Some parties demanded that the inquiry be conducted by a serving judge of the High Court.

The new Commissioner of Police, K. Radhakrishnan, announced that his priority would be to shore up the image of the police. He ordered that the investigation be speeded up and all those involved be arrested at the earliest. He sent special teams to some districts in search of the absconding students. By November-end, about 25 people were taken into custody.

The Madras High Court and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) have been seized of the issue. Four writ petitions on the clash and the police inaction were filed by nine people, eight of them advocates, in the High Court. The NCSCs Secretary-in-charge, S.S. Sharma, was in Chennai on November 17 to investigate the incident. According to him, the police should not have waited for orders or complaints from anybody when a cognisable offence was being committed in front of their eyes.

The NCSC investigation will be under Article 338 of the Constitution because some members of the Scheduled Castes were injured in the incident. Sharma said that they had informed him that the police did not protect them. They also said that it was the caste Hindus who attacked first and they had only retaliated. Sharma, who met the Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police, will submit his report to NCSC Chairperson Buta Singh.

On November 25, the First Bench of the High Court, comprising Chief Justice A.K. Ganguly and Justice F.M. Kalifulla, passed an interim order on the petitions. Stating that all is not well with the administration of the Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College, the Bench asked the Advocate-General, G. Masilamani, to study the functioning of the institution and its hostel in some detail and submit a report at the next hearing. The Bench said the inquiry would be comprehensive. The Advocate-General would look at all aspects of the running of the institution, including the composition and qualification of the teaching and non-teaching staff, the grants received and spent, the quality of the facilities provided to students, and the principals role in maintaining an academic atmosphere in the college.

While passing this order, the Bench referred to the Police Commissioners mention in the affidavit of the crime record of a section of the students and observed: So, it appears that students with criminal record are continuing as students of the college. (The Commissioner, in his affidavit, said that Bharathi Kannan and Arumugam, both from caste Hindu groups, who were injured in the clash, faced four cases each, while Chithirai Selvan, a Dalit student who was injured in the clash, had six criminal cases against him.)

Taking into account the measures taken by the government, such as the ordering of a judicial inquiry and the suspension and transfer of some police officials, the Bench said, so far as the said college is concerned, which is a premier college in the State, the court thinks it has a duty to ensure that [the] reputation of the said college should be restored to its past glory.

The November 12 incident has thrown up many questions. The first is about the police inaction. The explanation given by the officers who headed the police posse stationed in front of the college was that they were waiting for permission from the college authorities to enter the campus. Unable to sustain this stance, the official position was changed in the counter-affidavit filed by the Commissioner of Police, before the High Court. The counter-affidavit says, The police team, which was present near the spot, did not appear to have taken effective steps to prevent that incident presumably out of apprehensions that their intervention might lead to serious problems and aggravate the situation among students.

The duty of the police in this regard has already been explained by the Justice K.S. Bhaktavatsalam Commission, which dealt with the clash between the police and students in the law college hostel in Chennai in 2001. The Commission pointed out that the police had the right to enter a college without permission to disperse an unlawful assembly.

The second question is whether the report that relies solely on the video footage tells the full story. There is apparently something more to it than what meets the eye. What happened inside the campus for about an hour prior to the brutal beating of Bharathi Kannan near the college gate when he was trying to run out of the campus is not clear.

The Police Commissioners counter-affidavit and the First Benchs observation on it have thrown some light on the crime record of some of the students concerned. Also, there is an allegation that there were attempts, some of them successful, to prevent Dalit students from writing the examinations.

The incident has to be seen in the light of caste-based conflicts among students reported in the past 10 years. These cannot also be seen in isolation from the casteist oppression of a section of people and the caste-based violence in the State. Often, atrocities are related to caste-Hindu intolerance to the oppressed peoples aspiration to climb up the education ladder.

Meanwhile, the wide media coverage the incident received has made caste, often dismissed as a rural phenomenon, an important subject of debate among the urban elite. Law, has emerged in recent years as the only option left as a subject of study for young people from the economically deprived and socially oppressed sections, mostly in rural Tamil Nadu.

This is mainly because engineering and medical studies are now beyond their reach. In fact, Dalits and backward classes constitute the largest segment of the student population in the States law colleges. A sizable number of these students are from the southern districts, often described as the hotbed of caste rigidity and caste-related violence. In most colleges, caste-based discrimination is rampant.

When conflicts arise, particularly among young people, Dalits are often at the receiving end in villages with a predominant caste-Hindu presence. When young Dalits go to cities for higher education, their expectations are high; they expect that the academic atmosphere at the colleges will help them get rid of their bitter memories. But this has not happened in the case of most of them in the law college in Chennai.

The general secretary of the State unit of the All India Lawyers Union, K. Elango, told Frontline that an academic atmosphere was totally lacking in the Chennai college, mostly owing to neglect by the authorities. It has no good library, he said. The authorities had not provided any sports or recreation facility either in the college or in the hostel, he added. In terms of other infrastructural facilities, too, the college was not on a par with other colleges in Chennai.

The student-teacher ratio is deplorable at 80 plus:1 for both three-year and five-year programmes, according to Elango. Four of the 20 permanent posts of teachers are vacant. Of the 22 vacancies of part-time teachers, four are yet to be filled. Although the Bar Council insists on six-hour classes every day, classes are held only for two hours. Students went without classes for at least 10 working days in a month, said Elango.

He also said that caste-based parties encouraged caste-based student organisations in the college. Had there been a good educational atmosphere in the college, the November 12 incident would not have happened because it was an examination day, he said. As for the hostel, the less said the better. The facilities provided are poor. There are not even fans in the hostel rooms, Elango noted. He said that his association, which had on its State committee one student member, planned to hold coaching classes for the students.

The joint secretary of the Students Federation of India, G. Selva, told Frontline that it was the lack of education and training of students in democratic principles and lessons of tolerance in such colleges that made students fall victim to caste-based mobilisation. Unless genuine efforts are made to conduct elections to the Students Council in a democratic way, the kind of problems that these institutions now face will only continue, said Selva. Although the problems of students in the hostel had been represented to the authorities several times, they had taken no action, he added.

A look at the facilities provided to students in terms of studies, sporting activities, recreation and extra-curricular programmes by the state-run Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University in the B.A. B.L (Honours) course, conducted by its School of Excellence in Law, offers a contrast. From the student-teacher ratio (40:1) to the quality of education, the school has a good record. But then, it collects a hefty fee. This kind of dual education happens in a State that advocates uniform curriculum and misses no opportunity to pat itself for its role in achieving social equity.

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