Standing up against state violence on students, propaganda and greed

The live images on TV were chilling to say the least. One could be forgiven for mistaking them for scenes from Cairo or Tripoli. In riot gear, lathi in hand, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Kozhikode is seen stomping down the street. Reaching for his revolver from the holster, he aims squarely at retreating protesters and empties round after round of live ammunition. With their commander aiming to kill, the cops on duty got the message loud and clear. Their brutality and aggression was supported by the right type of weapons, funded by police force modernization initiatives. After all, what value is a modern police force to rulers, if they cant ruthlessly discipline protesters, and do so with total impunity and disregard for civil rights. Lobbing grenades that pack enough punch to disembowel and decapitate. Swinging canes engineered with composite materials designed to rip through skin and skull. Not wasting blows on limbs, they encircled the students and literally aimed high, to crack open skulls. This was a level up even for Kerala Police, notorious for brutal repression and human rights abuses in the past.

The facts behind this particular incident in Kozhikode paint a sordid, surreal picture. The students were protesting for several months against efforts to illegally admit a student, Nirmal Madhav, to Govt Engineering College Kozhikode by means of a special executive order. Madhav was being transferred from a "management seat" in a private institution to a "merit seat" in a government run institution, flouting all regulations. Worst of all, he was directly promoted from 3rd to 5th semester by an executive order! Madhav's well connected to the highest echelons of the Congress party - his father is reportedly a close aide of Ramesh Chennithala, the regional satrap of the Congress party. Clearly, that's all that takes to set ball rolling in Oomen Chandy's government. Pick a college of your choice. Issue an special government order. Skip ahead a couple of semesters. Foist false police cases on protesters. Transfer officials and teachers who refuse to fall in line. Except that Madhav and his backers forgot to take into account for how strong and resilient a students movement armed with facts and conviction can be.

In the days after the gruesome incidents in Kozhikode, sections of the corporate media and right-wing bloggers have embarked on a propaganda exercise. It has all the usual ingredients - accusations that Nirmal was a victim of ragging , claims that he had been driven to the taking his own life and even a claim that an unnamed SFI leader had taken a bribe to arrange the transfer. Of course, unlike the facts of the case such as illegal transfer, promotion and police firing which have been independently ascertained and indeed streamed live on TV, all of these counter-accusations are pure speculation and based on statements released to the press by Nirmal Madhav's backers. Their underlying calculation is to overwhelm and confuse the readers and viewers with a barrage of claims, just long enough to tide over the ever shortening news cycle and attention span. In a few days, hopefully the public will forget the specifics and it will be education business as usual. Or won't they?

In reality, Nirmal Madhav is just the tip of the iceberg of rampant commercialization, corruption and cronyism in higher education. Week after week, protests have been going on all over Kerala. They seldom draw any news media coverage, until and unless there is an outbreak of violence. Student protests have been met with unprecedented and asymmetric state violence. On the heels of assuming office, the UDF government began to systematically sabotage the education sector. At first, the education dept delayed publishing the merit list of students seeking seats in private-run professional colleges. This delay, an act of commission, gave an excuse for private managements to refuse to admit students from the merit list. The level of collusion between private profiteers, government officials and UDF ministry, was clear from day one. The education minister, Adoor Prakash's daughter was one of the beneficiaries, only after a public uproar was she forced to give up her seat. This is not just limited to professional and higher education sector. The government has already announced that they will be issuing No Objection Certificates to private-run elementary and secondary schools. All of this is part and parcel of the carefully scripted attempt to commoditize education and dismantle a highly regarded public education system to allow for rampant profiteering and greed.

The neo-liberal assault on education as a fundamental right is well catalogued. On the streets of Santiago, Chile and New York City, USA - countries with the most heavily privatized educational systems - students burdened with debt and deprived of access to quality education are saying enough's enough. India's own expenditure on education pales in comparison to these countries who are seen as neo-liberal case studies and laboratories. The Kerala protests have to be viewed against this backdrop and as an essential step in asserting the fundamental right to education, protecting the valuable progress that has been made in the past years, and defeating the rampant cronyism and corruption in public sphere.

Nothing short of an unconditional apology from the government and a strict action against the guilty cops and officials would be a step towards restoring normalcy. However, the UDF government is moving in the exact opposite direction, exacerbating the situation with a lethal cocktail of state violence, repression and propaganda. The need of the hour is for a broad solidarity with the students who are standing up against cronyism, corruption and greed. To forget or forgive, is not an option.