The alleged suicide of Jishnu Pranoy, a first-year engineering student in Kerala on January 6, has opened a can of worms in the state’s self-financing private college sector.
A campaign against the 18-year-old’s death has snowballed into a statewide campaign against private self-financing engineering colleges, encouraging several students from private colleges to come out with horrific accounts of physical, mental and sexual harassment by college managements that are being widely circulated on social media.
Pranoy was a student at Nehru College of Engineering in Thrissur district. According to the college, Pranoy hanged himself inside his room after he was allegedly caught cheating during an examination. However, his classmates and senior batch mates are unanimous in saying that the boy was badly beaten by the college management for questioning why the examination was being conducted by a private agency instead of by the college itself.
Kerala has 156 engineering colleges of which 119 are run by various private trusts and individuals. The self-financing colleges have mushroomed across the state in the last decade or so. Set up in 2014, the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University, oversees the functioning of all these colleges.
Following the Pranoy case, several complaints from other private colleges have been made to the university, which has since ordered a review of these colleges, and also appointed an ombudsman to look into complaints.
The complaints indicate that some private colleges seem to be run like personal fiefdoms of their directors-cum-owners.
“From the complaints we have now received from parents and students we understand that some colleges were engaged in physically and mentally harassing students in the name of discipline, which is not acceptable,” said Professor Abdul Rahman, pro vice-chancellor, APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University. “So we have set out a fact-finding mission and will submit a report to the state government for further action.”
The State Youth Commission, a quasi-judicial body, which is also in the process of gathering evidence and statements from students and parents of private colleges, is also expected to step in with stringent recommendations.
“We have come across some shocking evidence of harassment while making visits to colleges following complaints,” said Chintha Jerome, chairperson State Youth Commission. “At the moment we have officially registered complaints against three colleges, although with every passing day students and parents are calling us from many places. So the commission has decided to issue strict guidelines and recommend that the government enact a new law to prevent this harassment.”
Jishnu’s death: Suicide or murder?
Students at the Nehru College of Engineering say that Jishnu Pranoy was beaten up by staff members at the behest of the college management for questioning why a private agency was conducting the examination.
“If he had indeed copied in the exam, why did they not complain to the University the same day itself?” asked Akhil Mohandas, a fourth-year student at Nehru Engineering College, who is now leading a Justice for Jishnu campaign on social media. “Why were wounds found at many places on his body if he had just hanged himself? Why did no one from the college come forward to help when he was found hanging? Is this suicide or murder?”
Mohandas added that the college had a room that its students referred to as the “torture chamber” as it was here where the management took erring or rebellious students to task.
Mohandas and others believe that Pranoy died after being severely beaten inside that room.
These claims are now the matter of a criminal investigation with the state crime branch investigating Pranoy’s death.
Last week, the college was unable to provide evidence regarding Pranoy’s examination malpractice before a fact-finding mission led by GP Padmakumar, the registrar of APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University.
Centres of harassment?
Following the Pranoy case, another college in the news because of harassment of students is Toms College of Engineering in Kottayam.
The enquiry team from the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University also visited this college last Friday, and collected complaints from several students and parents. The registrar later told the press that the complaints were serious in nature.
Pratibha KP, 18, is a former student of civil engineering at Toms College, who quit her course midway.
She said that she attempted suicide after being unable to put up with the taunts and harassment at the hands of institute director Tom T Joseph.
Pratibha narrated an incident of how she was humiliated by the director just because she was homesick and wanted to return home to be with her family.
“I was shocked at what the director said when my father came to drop me at the hostel,” she said. “He connected me and my father in a sexual manner saying that that was why I wanted to run off home at every instance. The next day I attempted to kill myself. Now, after I quit the college I think I have the courage to speak up.”
This reporter also spoke to other female residential students at Toms College, who refused to be identified for fear of repercussions.
“This hostel has no woman warden and the director himself doubles up as one,” said a student. “He visits us every evening after six, stays back late into the night under the pretext of giving us moral lessons.”
Asked why they did not complain earlier, the students said that those who did so suffered as they were given very low internal marks or even failed.
“Most of us have spent a lot as fees,” said one student, speaking for several others. “If we complain, we will have to leave. Then we won’t get a penny back. What face will we show our parents?”
The fear of failure
Activists in the field of education say that the system of internal marking is used to keep students on a tight leash.
“The internal marking system holds the key,” said Shajar Khan, who heads the Kerala chapter of All India Save Education Committee, a non-governmental organisation. “With individual colleges having the right to decide on 50% of the marks, most of it is done subjectively. Today, it is the biggest source of all types of harassment, be it mental, physical or sexual. Any student who does not fall in line or questions the management is often failed. This often deters students from speaking out.”
Afsal Shah, another student of Toms College in the chemical engineering stream, recalled how he was humiliated in front of his batchmates, and labelled communal, when he asked the warden for a space to observe his daily namaz.
“Initially we thought the students were complaining because it was too strict for their liking,” said Rajasekaharan, a parent. “But slowly we realised that this was not strictness but complete mental harassment of the children. I don’t want my child to end up in mental asylum.”
This reporter attempted to contact authorities at both Nehru College of Engineering and Toms College of Engineering for their comments. But the owner and director of Nehru College did not respond to multiple calls made to his number. At Toms College, no one from the management was willing to speak, saying that the director was out of town.
Violations all the way
While APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University has been conducting random checks of colleges under its jurisdiction every year since its inception two years ago, varsity officials admit that they have not been able to get a foolproof system running yet.
Many private colleges openly flout norms set by the All India Council for Technical Education, which gives accreditation to engineering colleges in India.
For instance, according to its rules, an engineering college needs to stand on at least 10 acres of land in a rural area and 2.5 acres in non-rural areas. However, Tom’s College, for one, is situated on a half acre plot.
It’s the same case with many other private colleges in the state, which speaks volumes of the political and monetary clout the owners of these colleges wield, helping them bypass rules.
Educationists say that allowing those with political connections to open colleges is the reason why the quality of higher education in the state has dropped.
“The real problem is when you allot a professional college to a quarry owner, a real estate developer or a liquor baron who has no connection with education whatsoever,” said Rajan Gurukkal, former vice-chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi University, a public university in Kottayam. “His motive will only be to maximise his profits. How can you expect such people to run professional colleges with a social commitment?”
Gurukkal also laments the falling standards of teaching.
“These colleges employ fresh BTech graduates as teachers,” he said. “What kind of research quality are you aiming at? Finally, when they are not able to get the desired results with these teachers, they start enforcing strict discipline with the false hope of getting good results.”
At Toms College, which claims in its website that it is one of only three private colleges that offer chemical engineering in Kerala, students say that they have not seen a proper chemical laboratory.
Agitation to continue
In a state that boasts of a robust student political movement, it is not surprising that the student wings of all three major political parties in the state have seized upon the Pranoy suicide and reports of harassment of students by private colleges, and have held protests against these colleges.
On January 9, a protest at the Nehru College of Engineering turned violent, with protestors pelting stones at college staff and police personnel, damaging college property. The next day the Kerala High Court directed the police to provide the institute with adequate protection.
On January 13, members of the Students Federation of India, affiliated to the Communist Party Of India (Marxist) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, close to the Bharatiya Janata Party, took separate marches to Toms College and ended up vandalising it.
The student groups have announced that they will continue with their agitation till the state government intervenes more forcefully.
Meanwhile, students and parents of Nehru and Toms Engineering Colleges met in Kottayam on Monday, and decided to take their agitation forward together. They have also decided to form an organisation to look into the grievances of students, and revive constructive democratic representations inside campuses, such as the Parent Teachers Association and non-political students unions.
In the days to come, all eyes will be on how the Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala handles the continuing agitation.