SFI leader's murder in Kerala

In cold blood

Print edition :

Abhimanyu, SFI leader who was stabbed to death in the Maharaja’s College campus on July 1 night.

The incident was triggered by rival claims for wall space to welcome freshers.

Abhimanyu’s parents with their son’s body. Also present is Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac (in black). Photo: By special arrangement

The murder of a student leader in Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, is an act of extreme brutality that points to the rise of communal and fundamentalist forces on Kerala’s campuses.

 

The spark was a trivial incident. But the violence it ignited that night was staggeringly brutal and unsettling. Barely a few hours before a new academic year was to begin on July 2, skirmishes between activists of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the Campus Front at Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam over reserving space on campus walls for posters and slogans took a chilling turn.

In a college with a grand academic tradition, illustrious alumni and a long history of progressive student activity, a group of around 30 SFI activists reportedly challenged a smaller group of Campus Front members who were trying to usurp a wall that they had earlier marked for themselves to welcome freshers to the campus. The Campus Front members withdrew initially but reappeared, seemingly with renewed intent, by around midnight. A group of SFI students from the college hostel challenged them again. But the members of the SFI, a dominant force on the campus, quickly realised that this time they had pitted themselves not against fellow students but motivated assailants brought from elsewhere.

Eyewitness accounts say a brief one-sided struggle ensued and 19-year-old Abhimanyu, an undergraduate chemistry student and a popular SFI leader, was stabbed as he tried to run away from the attackers. The weapon was thrust with clinical precision into his heart. He ran only a couple of feet, then collapsed, leaning onto a wall. At the General Hospital, a short distance away, it was found that his wound was seven centimetres deep and four centimetres wide. Doctors told the police that Abhimanyu had been killed with a single thrust and turn of the knife, a result only professional assassins could have achieved.

Another student, Arjun, was also stabbed. In this case, the assailant drove the knife into his liver. Arjun’s condition was described as “critical” at the time of writing this report. A third-year postgraduate student, Vineeth, was also admitted with stab injuries but later discharged.

Students and teachers of the college are yet to come to terms with the events of that cursed night. It was an extreme act of brutality rarely seen on Kerala’s campuses. Abhimanyu belonged to a poor Dalit family in a farming village in Idukki district on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Acquaintances say that despite his personal circumstances, he was idealistic and had a fiercely independent mind. His friendly demeanour had endeared him to all those who came to know him, including his political opponents. He was good at his studies and in extracurricular activities. He was an eloquent speaker and an efficient organiser, a source of pride and strength for his uneducated parents, and siblings, friends and villagers. Abhimanyu’s dream was to serve his village and society. His comradeship and inherent humaneness had made him a constant companion to Simon Britto, one of the most prominent early victims of campus violence in Kerala, a former SFI activist, now a wheelchair-bound MLA.

“Abhimanyu came to Maharaja’s College from a situation of extreme poverty. But he was wealthy in terms of goodness and humaneness... He was the poorest among the poor and the brightest among the bright. It was the life of such a child that trained assassins of the Popular Front of India so casually snuffed out,” State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, a former student of the college, wrote in a touching tribute.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in the wake of Abhimanyu’s death: “I am not aware of an incident of this nature taking place anywhere else. One can naturally assume only that it was the result of a major conspiracy. The police are investigating all aspects of the incident. We will take very serious action.”

A day after the incident, the Director General of Police, Loknath Behera, made it clear that “it was a murder committed by people who came from outside the campus with a clear plan and intention to kill”. In the following days, the police took into custody several members of the Campus Front and its parent bodies, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Popular Front of India, set up special police teams in all districts of Kerala, and raided the offices of the SDPI and its allied organisations. But it was not immediately known whether any of those arrested were directly involved in the conspiracy or in the murder. There were even reports that the culprits had left the country.

The SDPI, however, claimed that the CPI(M) was using the police to attack its offices and cadre and organised protest marches at several centres in the State. State president of the SDPI, Abdul Majeedi Faisi, told the media that the SDPI had no connection with the Campus Front activists arrested in connection with the incident. “What I understand from inquiries is that it was an act of self-defence by a small group of Campus Front workers who were attacked by a mob of over a 100 SFI activists,” he claimed.

In an article titled “Popular Front: Enemy of Muslims”, published in the CPI(M) organ Deshabhimani, and a few other newspapers, the CPI(M) Central Committee member and Rajya Sabha member Elamaram Kareem said that the claim by SDPI leaders (that it was an act of self-defence) was a lie, as was obvious from the fact that no one was injured on the other side. “It was clearly an operation conducted by a killer squad trained and sustained by the Popular Front and the SDPI. Anybody will understand it if they look at the way the killers arrived on the scene and the nature of the attack. It is something that only a terrorist organisation can do. Till recently such incidents were alien to Kerala, but Muslim fundamentalist forces have now made it very possible in the State.”

Most accounts that followed, including statements of eyewitnesses, indicated it was not an isolated or spontaneous incident, an offshoot of familiar campus violence, or a result of tensions between rival student activists. “No. It was not a murder committed on the basis of an argument on campus. It was a planned deed. The very fact that those well-trained in conducting targeted attacks aimed at a victim’s heart or liver had organised themselves and come to the campus is a clear indication that it was well-planned. Criminals from various districts (were in the group). The initial tension over writing slogans on the college wall was created deliberately by Campus Front members to bring the killers there,” Thomas Isaac wrote in an article published on July 4.

Combative student politics has been a regular feature of campuses in Kerala for over 50 years. However, educational institutions had remained largely free of religious fundamentalist influences for a long time, with secular democratic student organisations of the Congress, and subsequently the CPI(M), playing dominant roles in most institutions. Though religious and fundamentalist tendencies were visible in some isolated institutions right from the mid 1970s, their influence was minimal. But it was in the last 25 years that the State began to see the rise of student bodies driven by competing religious and fundamentalist persuasions and their slow but steady growth in many colleges and schools. Such a trend coincided with the concerted efforts of Hindutva and Islamic parent organisations to gain dominance in the State’s public arena, following, especially, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the rise of the BJP as a major political force at the national level and the simultaneous growth of Islamic fundamentalism not just in India but the world over.

With Muslims accounting for nearly 27 per cent of Kerala’s total population, the rise and gains of fundamentalist Hindutva forces from the mid 1980s had encouraged the growth of virulent Islamic fundamentalist groups. However, their influence remained limited, with the Muslim League dominating and sharing power with the Congress every five years, and given the general secular ethos that marked political activity in the State. Most of the time, only competitive communalism spurred their growth, if at all.

The Popular Front of India

The Government of India banned the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in 2001. The fundamentalist student organisation (which began as the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind) had a low-key presence in the State since the 1970s, and eventually resulted in the formation in 1993 of the National Democratic Front (NDF). The latter proved to be a nebulous organisation that most of the time reacted to scrutiny by changing its name, while its leaders and members remained within and continued their activities.

In 2009, the NDF spread its base, joining hands with kindred groups from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Manipur to transform itself as the Popular Front of India (PFI), with its attractive slogans of social justice, human rights and minority and backward class welfare. The PFI soon formed a political party, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), and several allied organisations to spread its ideology. The Campus Front, which has units in many colleges in Kerala today, is widely understood to be the student wing of the SDPI.

The past two decades were also the period of liberalisation and globalisation that saw the mushrooming of self-financing colleges in Kerala.

Many religious and communal organisations started vying with one another to make use of the commercial opportunity by establishing institutions of their own or giving patronage to others. A State that had until then firmly believed in the public funding of education and politically vibrant campuses saw the rapid commercialisation of the sector, the mushrooming of self-financing institutions and continuous agitations by established student organisations against their crass efforts at profiteering and flouting of norms and rules. In turn, the private managements took a totally antagonistic position towards campus politics, often quoting instances of excesses by student agitators, violence on campuses or days lost in strikes and marches.

In many such self-financing colleges, a large number of them by then under community or religion-based managements, student politics became a taboo subject. With frequent agitations by mainstream student unions affecting the academic atmosphere in the State, the courts, too, began imposing restrictions on political activity within campuses and allowing the private managements to ban student unions. As most such campuses took pride in remaining apolitical, the influx of organisations with fundamentalist ideologies into this vacuum was the quick and expected corollary.

The trend has spread, and it has coincided with the declining influence of secular student unions of mainstream political parties such as the Congress. In many institutions, the SFI, the student arm of the ruling CPI(M) and until recently the leading campus organisation in the State, has found itself being offered a stiff challenge by ambitious groups such as the Campus Front with their umbilical links with parent organisations rooted in virulent forms of fundamentalist ideology.

The rise of a new generation of apolitical, educated and skilled young men and women and the process of communalisation that has taken place in Kerala society in general have made their job easier (see Interview with Professor K.N. Panikkar, Frontline, October 8, 2010). Many of these youngsters also belong to communities that have long remained backward in terms of educational, vocational or social opportunities and in the absence of vibrant alternatives tended to rally themselves under adamantly non-secular and extremely divisive religious fundamentalist groups.

No doubt, for some time now, a key target of such groups has therefore been those campuses in Kerala such as Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam that remain unswayed by their charms and continue to challenge their spread, with their robust ideological commitment, history of progressive student activity and a secular ethos that has guided generations of students and has proved to be a great strength to Kerala’s public sphere that still puts a premium on retaining its democratic and secular values.

This is what makes the cold-blooded murder of Abhimanyu over a trivial incident such a significant matter. It is not the first time either that members of the Popular Front and its allied organisations have been accused of murder and extreme violence on campuses. The assault on a college teacher, Professor T.J. Joseph, eight years ago, is a prominent example (Frontline, October 8, 2010). The main culprits in that case, who went into hiding immediately after the attack, were never arrested, even though a National Investigation Agency (NIA) court convicted 13 of the 54 persons originally named as accused “for conspiring and committing a terrorist act” or on charges of “harbouring the accused”. But the court had said that the prosecution could not prove beyond doubt the charges, including conspiracy, planning and funding, against the Popular Front, which was one of the accused in the case (Frontline, May 29, 2015).

The ongoing police inquiry will, therefore, be keenly watched, even as the ruling CPI(M) is being criticised by opposition parties for what they allege is its proclivity to form electoral understandings with such fundamentalist groups and seeking their support at times for retaining power in some panchayats—actions that give legitimacy to such groups.

The CPI(M), however, is set to launch an “ideological campaign against the Popular Front and related groups” in order to expose their “real nature” before the people. A draft law meant to allow student organisations to function freely in all educational institutions, including self-financing institutions, to make government registration mandatory for such organisations, and to thus effectively curb the activities of communal and fundamentalist forces on campuses, is under active consideration of the State government.

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