Sunday, July 3, 2011

Memories of Wars- the SFI versus State Police- To My Children 18

(Pic courtesy The Hindu- Picture for representational purpose only)

There were two different types of flags along the path that led us to the portico of the University College building; blue flags and white flags with a red star in its middle. In fact there were four entrances to the college; one from the Spencer Junction and just within the wrought iron gates you could see a thick bunch of garden bamboos flanking the pillars of the gate. Treading along this path also took you to the portico and you could see the weed infested courtyard of the Botany Department (?- I need to clarify about this department) on your left. The main entrance was from the VJT Hall Side. One of the rear entries opened to the University Building and the other one was near the famous AKG Centre, the head quarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Thanks to reasons unknown to us then this gate remained closed throughout the year with creepers hanging from all over it giving away a sad look of abandoned places.

The flags and under them bearded seniors and sari clad girls welcomed us to their fold. They gave us pamphlets filled with some kind of literature which gave away the feeling that revolution was around the corner and they were waiting for us to just hold its hands and bring it inside the college campus. The pamphlets spoke to us about a future which we were responsible to build up while the bearded young leaders stood there with grave faces, but their eyes sparkling with some kind of determination and ruthless and piety, out which then I did not know what to predominance in the final deliverance of their act. Touched by their sheer power of presence and the persuading nature of the literature they distributed, we too were feeling that revolution was standing out there waiting to be led in and we were going to be the part of a great movement.

Campus politics is very strong in Kerala and campuses of colleges like the one which I went to were the potential training centres of the future leaders as well as the future cadres. As a cadre party, Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) had more presence in college campuses than the Indian National Congress party and its students’ wings. Students Federation of India (SFI) was the students’ union of the CPM and Kerala Students Union (KSU) was the students’ front of the Indian National Congress Party. Most of the leaders who are either in the ruling front or in the opposition in Kerala came through these student factions unless they were blessed and supported by family lineage and hereditary politics.

White flag with a red star in its middle showed the presence of SFI in the campus and the number of flags and their strategic positioning could tell us how powerful a student union was. Blue flag belonged to the KSU. To welcome us there were a few number of KSU leaders; they looked a bit reserved though bearded and like their leaders they too wore torn Khadi mundu and shirt. From their grave countenances I learnt one thing, to become a leader one had to sport a beard and maintain an expressionless face which could hide a sea emotions within. Imagine, a twenty year old young man behaving like a seasoned politician, hiding all h is desires to abandon himself in the joy of youthfulness and fall in love. But that was the success of all future leaders.

I had a huge dilemma then; I did not have any particular party affiliations. I was never a member of any cadre parties. Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and Siva Sena (another right wing cadre party under Bal Thackre) were marginally present in my village and the activities of its members were limited to playing volleyball and doing a bit of temple service in two of the major temples in my village in whose vicinity the members of the Nair community generally lived. CPM was active in our village so was the Congress. As I had mentioned in one of the earlier chapters, I had a Congress lineage as my father was a Congress man in the latter part of his life (he was one of the founding members of the RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party) in Kerala). And the Congress was not a cadre part so I had not compulsion to attend any party classes or anything. As my father was alive I did not have a chance to visit the CPM gatherings to know them from close quarters. My imaginary revolutionary involvement with the Samskarika Vedi was a short lived affair. And when I went to do my pre-degree in Varkala SN College, I was totally an apolitical man.

But in the University College you could not have remained a student without any sympathy for one of the students unions. Apolitical people had to tread very cautiously as their strategic affiliations could cause them greater harm than a student with clear political idea and identity. I decided to tread cautiously and thought of waiting for a few days before I openly declared my affiliation with one of the political factions within the University College. Somewhere in my mind, during the initial days itself, someone was goading me to believe that the students union activities in the University College were not done in a true democratic fashion and amiable spirit that was supposed to be working amongst the students. I witnessed the ruthless power of one of the unions over the other vanquishing it and bundling it out of the walls of the campus.

One fine morning all the blue flags in the college campus went missing. We could see only white flags with red stars. The melancholic bearded leaders from the KSU were not seen around anymore. Without leaving any trace, they vanished from the memories of the students and on its place, like a political graffiti, the arrogant fluttering of the white flags with the red star appeared giving us a sense of protection, relief and fear all at once. Once the KSU presence was wiped out from the campus, it was taken for granted that all the students became members of the SFI. If they did not openly declare their affiliation to the SFI, by sympathetic and careful moves they sent indications to the leaders that they belonged to them by heart, soul and body.

With some sort of intellectual inclination and self questioning attitude, for me it was very difficult to digest the fact the students were not given a chance to exercise their right to choose between the two unions. The ruthlessness of political power was indirectly but neatly conveyed to the young students and it told them; you are not here to debate, challenge and engage in the political process of democratization. You are here to obey, yield and believe. I was in clear confusion about my political identity as a student and it was difficult not to show this confusion. The choice was with me. I could have remained absolutely apolitical and invited the wrath of the leaders. Or I could have joined formally to the SFI. I toyed with these ideas for some days and decided to take a different but safe stance during my college days as far as my political affiliations were concerned.

I was not particularly fond of the KSU as an able students’ union. Left parties always highlighted the progressive side of political process though in the micro levels they exercised sheer power of indoctrination and bullying to form and control cadres. Out of the two, it was ethically and morally feasible to remain apolitical but with left leanings as and when it was required. You wouldn’t find it as a great political understanding or a courageous positioning within the powerful scenario of student politics. You could call it a ‘shamelessly safe stance’ and I will dispute. However, I believed that survival is one of the strategies of resistance and resistance is one of the strategies of survival. I knew it well though I could not articulate my position in this fashion then.

Gradually, I came in contact with the teachers, poets, writers, political leaders, dancers, artists, film makers, singers, actors, critics, gays, anarchists and so on. I was a very simple student with an ardent passion for writing poems and reciting them to my friends and also with certain ambitions to become successful in life, though I did not know the exact ways of becoming successful in life as options were really limited. My passion for poetry was led me to the teachers like D.Vinayachandran, who was a contemporary poet (and still is) and late V.P.Sivakumar, a writer par excellence. I became marginally friendly with people like Anvar Ali (poet), who always carried a truck load of books in his khadi bag and walked along the streets in Trivandrum, P.K.Rajasekharan, one of the acclaimed literary critics and writers today, but then a diamond boy from a heap of coals, Joby, a small man with excellent histrionic skills (who later became a television and film actor), Mahesh Panchu, a theatre activist, Avira, a passionate film buff, Sabu Shanmukham, Sudheer Parameswaran and so on. They all became established in their own fields later in their lives.

I do not claim that I knew them well. I knew them and perhaps, they also knew me as one of the students in the same college, who took some interest in literature and art. But seeing along with the intellectual stalwarts of that time was very important at that time and having friends in the Fine Arts College assured your membership to the intellectual community. I was blessed with these opportunities to have friends amongst intellectuals and artists. This was an escape route also for a person with confused political identity. In due course of time I befriended some of the SFI union leaders through occasional smiles.

Silence and deliberate ambiguity could at times bring a cover of protection for you. My silence on political activism within the college and ambiguous behaviour helped me to avoid any specific allegiance with students’ union while maintaining a cordial relationship with most of them. They too thought that I believed in their politics and did not interfere in my affairs that included spending time with friends in the corridors of the English department, canteen and library. The students’ union informers were everywhere and they watched each and every activity of the students and if they found any subversive activities against the ruling students’ union, perpetrators of such activities were severely punished.

My first cultural shock in the University College came in the form of brutal attack on a student by the SFI leaders. We were happy spending our initial days in the college. First year BA class was right next to the Department’s teacher’s room. There was a long corridor connecting two ends of the building and there were large windows and doors along these hallways where one could often see lovers perched in different positions. Often I could see boys sitting on the window sill and the girls standing near their dangling legs. At the thresholds of the closed doors friends sat and talked many things. Things were looking really good and happy.

Many students came from the nearby villages and towns and most of them were unaware of the complex political climate in the college. We used to see this particular young man with well an exercised body and well developed muscles walking always along the corridors. We did not know where he studied or to which department he belonged. He was always there and like us the union leaders were also constantly keeping an eye on him. One day he had some quarrel with one of the SFI guys. He slapped the union guy and escaped from the scene. After a few days, he reappeared in the college. The union boys were waiting for him and they had already laid a trap.

From behind each huge pillar along the corridor there emerged union boys with weapons like bricks, steel knuckles, swords, sticks and knives. With a war cry the pounced on this boy and started beating him mercilessly. It was happening right in front of our class room. Girls started screaming and people like us watched this scene of brutality with dread and fear. Teachers came out of the staffroom and watched the ongoing fight as if they were quite used to the scene. We were not. I personally wanted to intervene and save the boy. Everyone who had seen the fight might have thought the same.

The young gym bodied boy fought back initially. But the number around him was too many for him to handle. One of the union boys attacked him from behind with a brick. He collapsed on the floor, wailing and screaming. Boys jumped upon him, hitting him vengefully. Finally the boy folded his hands and said, “Please don’t beat me again.” Tears were rolling down from his eyes and his bloodied face looked sad and lost. Girls were hiding behind the doors and crying. Some were praying and none was prepared to see such a gory sight. One of the union boys, quite stout and strong came forward, keeping one end of his white mundu in his left hand and holding a brick in his right hand, and smashed it against the chest of the wailing boy. And that was the end of it. The boy once again fell like a hopeless heap on the floor. After a few minutes, he got up and limped away. We never saw that boy again in the college.

The young man who hit the boy with the brick, years later became a city corporation member. That uncouth attack was a warning signal for all of us who intentionally or unintentionally cherished anti-establishmentarian ideas in our mind. If you dare, we are there, they seemed to say. They came to the scene again to warn another boy, who came from a village near Attingal who used to distribute pamphlets of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI). This boy was a very thin one and was very serious about his political activism. Like a real member of the party which was really poor in terms of finance and power, this boy too behaved very humbly before everyone and distributed pamphlets with a smile. The SFI leaders caught him one day and warned him with dire consequences. They did not beat him as they knew the boy could not take a single blow from anyone of them as he was so weak and fragile. But the warning was good enough. The boy stopped spreading his political philosophy within the college premises.

All those five years that I spent there in the University College, I kept myself away from direct political activism. I was keenly watching the political developments but I was not interested in party politics and I never wanted to join a students’ union which ruthlessly curbed the freedom of expression or the freedom of existence. Had there been KSU or any other students’ union active in the college, I would have obviously become an SFI activist because it would have given me a platform for me to express my ideas. I was not cut for any fascist ideology and activity. I wanted to live in a community that had a great harmony amongst themselves and even within the political turmoil of the state and the political highhandedness of the SFI union I found friends, co-travellers and well wishers. That was more than enough.

The SFI has always been an alert student’s union. But the unfortunate thing was that it behaved (and still behaves) like an arm of the CPM (though it is devised as an arm). It did not have the characteristics of a students’ union that stood for the students irrespective of their political leanings. It did not entertain oppositional ideas and ideologies. It was not there for a dialogue or debate, though it was one of the unions that produced the best debaters and cultural activists in the state. It could be an irony but one could not have lived within that irony had he been cherishing a life of freedom. The SFI took up all the political issue as a students’ issue or the party made the SFI to lead agitations against the ruling Congress led government.

University College, Trivandrum is located in a very strategic point. It is hardly two hundred meters away from the Secretariat (now it is called old secretariat as there is a new one between the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium and University Stadium). Any political protest procession has to go via the MG Road which cuts the University College Campus into two; main campus and the Malayalam and Hindi Departments. The union office of University College used to function as the armoury of the SFI and a centre of strike planning. The union office could be accessed through the back gate of the college and the communication between the party headquarters (AKG Centre) and union office was very easy. They planned agitations like a war. When other parties marched along the MG Road and it was severely oppositional to the ideology and party policy of the CPM, the SFI spearheaded attacks against such processions from within the college.

During my five years in the University College, there were at least three incidents of the SFI fighting with the state police and the police coming inside the campus and tear gassing and lathi charging the students. The SFI union functioned like a well prepared war machine; I still don’t understand why the students unions (whether it is SFI or any other union) behave like an army platoon? The SFI activists used to pelt stones at the Police and they retreated. Then the police pelted stones back. Students who were not a part of this war were the real victims. Once you went out of the college, after the heat and dust of the war were subsided, the police used to harass students to know whether they had any affiliation with the SFI. These street fights between the SFI and the Police, I am told that still continues annually like a ritual, in the University College, raising debates and heated arguments about the relevance of students unions and police actions on them, in the public platforms.

During all these fights I had noticed one thing; on the day of agitation, like the dogs and cattle sense earthquake, we could sense the impending catastrophe. We sensed it through the presence of unfamiliar faces within the campus. We see them moving in clusters, speaking to the leaders and behaving completely business like. They did not look like students nor did they look like political activists. They looked like thugs who were ready to do anything. These young men wore white clothes for the day; they needed to get access within the college campus. Their skins glistened darkly under the sun. They were all dark and looked partially educated. These were the boys who used to be hired by all the political parties, from the slum and backward areas in and around the cities where mostly the Dalits and the backward castes lived. The political parties knew it for sure that these were the places from where they could hire fodder for their cannons. These were the places where the film personalities could invest their money in the form of fan clubs.

These boys along with the SFI leaders fought against the police. They agitated against the policies of the government. And once the fight erupted between the students and the police, the issues on which the struggles were started were sidestepped and the moral and ethical matters took over its place. We used to get really frightened by such fights and it was in the University College fights that I saw live tear gas shells for the first time in my life. They used to land in front of our class rooms where we covered our faces with wet clothes to escape from the pinching smell of the tear gas. But the students’ union leaders were always prepared to face any eventuality. When the tear gas shells landed within the campus, a set of foot soldiers of the SFI rushed forward with sacks filled with sand and smothered the shell from causing further gas emission. They all did it like war like precision and the spectacle was really frightening as well as fascinating. And when your friends fight against the police, naturally your sympathies would go towards the students. You felt good about the fighting prowess of the student leaders once you watched the fights live.

All the three times when the fight erupted between the SFI union of our college and the state police, the uninvolved students like us were in trouble. The teachers advised us to stay back in the college till the government officially declared peace and traffic resumed and the people came back to the MG Road. Then we went out and mingled with the people and saved our body and souls. Sometimes, the SFI also had to pay price for their over enthusiasm. I don’t clearly remember the year, but there was one of the biggest processions by the film stars in Kerala demanding some tax cutting or something. The procession was like the stars coming down on to the earth from heavens.

We all gathered along the front wall of the University College while the film stars walked elegantly along the MG Road towards the secretariat. Mohan Lal, Suresh Gopi, Manian Pilla Raju, Priyadarshan, Mammootty and you name all of them were there. We watched them in awe. When they crossed the VJT Hall and reached the gate of the Malayalam Department, from the main campus a stone landed in the middle of the procession. Initially everyone thought it was just an accident. They continued walked. Then there was a shower of stones from the University College on the marching film stars. They started running back. The super stars were surrounded by the Police and their body guards. All of them ran back towards Palayam and the MG Road once again became a war zone. The police force was called in and the SFI was ready to take the police.

What was the provocation behind the attack on the film stars? They did not belong to any political party and they, on behalf of their organization, were asking for some tax exemptions or something. But who pelted stones at them? Were there some frustrated elements amongst the students? How did it become the responsibility of the SFI to protect those people who pelted stones? Or was it a planned attack by the SFI? We did not have any clue. What we knew that there was going to be a war and it did happen. The film stars are powerful people. They wanted strong actions against the students who attacked them and the government too took it as an issue of prestige. The crackdown on the students was very severe. In the previous occasions all the boys were allowed to go out of the front gate once the war was over. But this time the police was allowing only the girls to leave the campus from the front door. They wanted to get all the boys from the college. And I was amongst the boys who were trapped in the campus.

When the war broke out between students and the police, it really took the shape of a strategic war. The beginning part was fought around the gate near the Spencer Junction. Later it moved to the front gate near the VJT Hall. It happened in this way because the police always came from the Secretariat side and for the students it was easier to stop them from the Spencer side. Later when the police was strengthened by calling in more force, they came from the Palayam side. So the fight shifted to VJT Hall side. Once the fight continued along the MG Road, the back up force of the students union got ready behind the college and right in front of the AKG Centre. The war used to be reviewed by the party head quarters. Then the police approached them from the University office side and from the General Hospital side. Then the focus was shifted to the backside of the college. Often the leaders escaped to the safety of the AKG Centre by jumping the walls of the college. I too had this rare opportunity during one of those wars to jump the wall and seek shelter inside the AKG Centre. While running into the AKG Centre on my left I saw the student leaders and the DYFI (Democratic Youth Federation of India) leaders shouting at the police force that stood ready with their helmets and cane shields at the General Hospital Road. I still remember the sight of Desabhimani (the party newspaper of CPM) photographer, Rajendran shouting at the police with one hand on his head, which was bleeding profusely and in the other hand holding his broken camera. I spent almost a day inside the AKG centre looking at the pictures framed and kept along the walls, listening to the leaders and just flipping through the magazines and newspapers lying there.

Those wars between the students’ union activists and the Police were just a part of our college life and also it provided fuel to the growing up of the students in general. But these wars had not made out lives miserable. After each war, we went back to the college, said hello to the union leaders, sang songs, gossiped, talked, read, loved and lived a good life. Friends were the biggest asset that I gained in the University College and friends and poetry became inevitable parts of my life.

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