#SaveMaharajas: Oppose campus confinement

Photo: Shahid manakkapady

Lintha Saleem

In its 145 year history, Maharaja’s College in Kochi has been the bellwether indicating the state of higher education and student politics in Kerala. A 25-acre campus sprawled in the middle of the bustling town of Ernakulam, overlooking the Vembanad Lake and blanketed by tall, ancient trees, Maharaja’s has a reputation among the Malayalee populace.

The recent ‘renovation’ work, replacing historical wooden doors, which separate corridors and departments, with iron grills, has been subject to an outpouring of protests by students, present and former. The long corridors and open spaces of Maharaja’s make up a heritage building which is maintained by funds received from the state infrastructure investment board (KIIFB). Students fear iron grills would damage the heritage building both aesthetically and physically.

The students of Maharaja’s profess great love for their college and the alumni long to be back in the evergreen campus of their alma mater. Students enjoy the kind of freedom not offered at any college of its kind in the state. The campus has borne witness to historic student revolutions and love stories. Getting together and singing folk songs on Friday afternoons in the ‘centre circle’ is a tradition continued with much passion. Student elections are conducted with the same zest as any Onam celebration. Political stories of state and national importance are topics of fervent discussion in the grounds, verandahs and classrooms, fuelled by various student organisations.

Writings and artworks are strewn across the length and breadth of the campus, on walls and trees. Maharaja’s seems to breathe a life of its own in many ways – producing a distinct culture of inclusiveness and individual liberty. It is then no wonder that it is the top choice for creative and ambitious students looking to make the best of their college life.

The principal has explained that the decision to install the grills was made by the governing council following a series of thefts and destruction of padlocks and CCTV equipment in the college by vandals from outside. Students have lashed out saying that security should be maintained by fixing the outer walls of the college and improving security around the premise, not by erecting structures inside the buildings.

It is further seen as preposterous when considering the fact that the college has consistently failed to create sustainable solutions to address the lack of basic facilities. Year on year, there are calls to fix broken septic tanks, restore dilapidated doors, create a proper drainage system, and install street lights. Year on year, temporary solutions are made and broken.

The incumbent Students Union alleged that they had resisted the move when it was put forward by the college authorities early this year. The decision to go ahead with it now is in sheer disregard of the interests of the student body, as well as taking advantage of the absence of students at the college (in light of the coronavirus pandemic), who would have otherwise disrupted it.

This is not the first time students have been apprehensive of renovation works at the college.

When I entered Maharaja’s in the monsoon of 2018, the yellowed walls were decorated with quotes and drawings in red and black ink, which were of great sentimental value to students. But early last year, they were erased by a fresh coat of white in preparation for the upcoming NAAC inspection. Further still, CCTV systems weren’t installed in the campus early this year drawing more flak from students.

When the government decided to bestow Maharaja’s with the status of Autonomy in 2014, there was widespread criticism and protests from students, teachers and politicians who saw it as a move in the direction towards privatisation. However, the decision went through and since then Maharaja’s has maintained academic autonomy. Students are now quick to blame the autonomy status for such interventions such as unscientific renovations which infringe upon its rich cultural and historical values. It was indeed quite appalling when, last year, members of the discipline committee made rounds of the college grounds asking students milling around why they weren’t in class. Such unprecedented charades are seen as an encroachment on the freedom the students of Maharaja’s have long enjoyed.

Students have now, in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, taken to social media to spread the message  #SaveMaharajas. Various petitions and letters have been sent to college authorities as well as district administrators. An incident of sit-in protests in front of the Principal’s office also led to the arrest of a few students. Notable alumni such as film director Aashiq Abu and singer Faisal Razi have also pledged support for the cause.

Students have made it clear they won’t be backing down, threatening to even take down the structures themselves once the college reopens. It remains to see whether the college authorities will be forced to remove the new construction. Interventions from higher echelons of the administration, owing to the large presence of student political organisations in these protests, are likely to yield results in favour of the student body. Until then, the struggle to #SaveMaharajas continues.

Lintha Saleem is a student of BA Economics at Maharaja’s College Ernakulam, Kerala.