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Sidharthan death symptomatic of a sinister societal malaise ensnaring Kerala

The collective distress sparked by Sidharthan's ordeal is a glimpse into the abyss that pervades Kerala's campuses and beyond, narrating the rise of a heartless, cruel generation set to shape India’s future.
Last Updated 05 March 2024, 10:48 IST

It was in the sombre inner courtyard of the men’s hostel at the College of Veterinary & Animal Sciences, Pookode, Wayanad, in Kerala, that members, allegedly of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), orchestrated a harrowing ‘trial-cum-torture’ of 20-year-old J S Sidharthan, a second-year student. In an act that defies the very essence of humanity, he was stripped bare in front of his peers, including juniors, and mercilessly beaten with a belt, his freedom curtailed for days. The reason? He danced with senior female students on Valentine's Day.

The shocking discovery of Sidharthan's body on February 18, hanging lifeless in the hostel, was followed by an even more shocking post-mortem report. It detailed ‘sustained multiple blunt injuries, including tramline contusion of 2-3 days on the body suggestive of assault’ — injuries consistent with being struck by a rod or a similarly shaped object. The report's revelation that Sidharthan's stomach was empty hints at days of starvation in his cruel confinement.

A deep-seated societal malaise

The outcry of Sidharthan’s father, Jayaprakash, which went viral on social media, was a heart-wrenching moment. He pledged to fight till justice prevails. Yet, the emergence of shockingly abusive comments and bizarre justifications beneath the video highlights a deep-seated societal malaise — the emergence of a cruel and vocal segment in society.

The abhorrent torture and demise of Sidharthan is not an isolated incident, but symptomatic of a broader, more sinister societal malaise that has ensnared Kerala. Sidharthan, a brilliant student and a passionate wildlife photographer, had a promising future ahead, tragically cut short. That the entire hostel was cognisant of this young soul's criminal confinement and torture raises disturbing questions. What was the role of his seniors, classmates, hostel warden, other staff, and students? Was there not a single individual who recognised the moral bankruptcy of their silence?

A glimpse into the abyss

French philosopher Albert Camus poignantly noted, "The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." This tragedy sheds light on the profound ignorance and misunderstanding that foster cruelty within our educational institutions, heralding a generation losing sight of humanity's core values. The collective distress sparked by Sidharthan's ordeal is a glimpse into the abyss that pervades Kerala's campuses and beyond, narrating the rise of a heartless, cruel generation set to shape India’s future. The acceptance of brutality as fate, envisioning veterinarians of violence rather than healers, casts a shadow over our cherished ideals. How could such extreme cruelty manifest under the guise of education and camaraderie?

Twentieth century Philosopher Hannah Arendt's concept of the ‘banality of evil’ chillingly resonates within the walls of the Pookode men’s hostel. The actions leading to Sidharthan's death were the culmination of a deeply entrenched culture of aggression and apathy. The rampant presence of drugs, alcohol, and unchecked aggression within campuses underscores a systemic failure that goes beyond individual blame. The hostel walls of this prestigious academic institution, boldly adorned with psychedelic artworks featuring Che Guevara, drugs, cigarettes, Old Monk rum bottles, and the general symbols of anarchy, bear silent witness to this unabashed celebration of indiscipline and violence.

Grievous failure of educational system

The mishandling of Sidharthan's ordeal by the Pookode veterinary college authorities exemplifies institutional apathy at its worst. Michel Foucault's insights into the power dynamics within institutions illuminate this grim reality, where control mechanisms prioritise institutional reputation over justice and individual care. Despite overwhelming evidence of Sidharthan's suffering, the college's response — or lack thereof — highlights a systemic reluctance to address the root causes, ultimately protecting the perpetrators at the expense of their victims. The subsequent arrest of 18 students under charges related to abetment of suicide, wrongful restraint, and causing hurt by dangerous weapons, alongside violations of the Kerala Prohibition of Ragging Act, only scratches the surface. The inaction towards the hostel warden, dean, and faculty members, even weeks after the incident, underscores a grievous failure in the educational system's duty of care. On March 3, when Chancellor Arif Mohammed Khan suspended the Vice Chancellor, it was the first and only action by the university in the incident. Khan has ordered a judicial enquiry invoking the provisions of the university Act.

This negligence reflects a broader issue within Kerala's educational landscape, where the avoidance of direct confrontation and the absence of effective support mechanisms exacerbate victim suffering and perpetuate a culture of violence and intimidation. The heavy unionisation of teaching faculty and their allegiance to political entities erode any semblance of fairness — a quality that should be intrinsic to the teaching profession.

The societal acceptance witnessed in Sidharthan's case necessitates deep cultural introspection. It mirrors a society progressing in many areas yet still shadowed by intolerance and brutality. Mahatma Gandhi's words, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated," echo with painful irony in a veterinary college setting, where future caretakers of animals indulged in such barbarity.

Rise above political affiliations

The alarming rise in bizarre murder cases in Kerala, involving cyanide, snake venom, and other violent means, signals an urgent need for societal reform. Addressing this requires acknowledging the entrenched culture of violence infiltrating our educational institutions. Solutions extend beyond stringent anti-ragging laws to fostering an environment rich in empathy, respect, and intellectualism. University and college leadership must rise above political affiliations to cultivate integrity, intellectualism, and genuine care for students, ensuring a safe, inclusive, and enriching educational experience.

The youth's imitation of elder's actions, including political violence, and murders committed or condoned by leaders, alongside justifications for violence proliferating on social media, sets a dangerous precedent. This implicit endorsement of aggression as a conflict resolution tool erodes dialogue, empathy, and respect — cornerstones of a healthy democracy. How many public personalities and political leaders display statesmanship, etiquette, compassion, courtesy, truthfulness, and fair play? The far-reaching implications of poor public models and examples threaten to entrench a culture where might overrides right, silencing voices of reason and compassion.

The battle against the normalisation of ragging and violence in educational institutions transcends policy and law enforcement, demanding a transformation of the ethos that defines our educational and community life. It calls for a collective awakening to values of empathy, respect, and justice, reimagining our educational spaces as sanctuaries of learning and growth, untainted by fear and cruelty.

Compassion and kindness

As Kerala aspires to become an international hub for higher education, it must first guarantee that its campuses are strongholds of safety, respect, and scholarly inquiry. The legacy we bequeath to future generations will be measured not by our architectural and infrastructural achievements, but by the values we instil, and the safety we ensure for all.

Let Sidharthan's tragic narrative serve as a catalyst for change, inspiring us to foster a future where the essence of learning is interwoven with compassion and tolerance. In these dark times, Martin Luther King Jr’s assurance that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, shines as a beacon of hope. Sidharthan's story must galvanise us towards systemic change, paving the way for a more empathetic and compassionate society. The first step is to cultivate the ability to listen empathetically to Sidharthan’s father's anguished pleas — a task that, regrettably, seems daunting in today's societal climate.

The emergent point for action and the uncomfortable truth is that Kerala’s celebrated ‘development model’ is not worth its name if material development misses out on compassion and kindness as its essential ingredients, especially in educational institutions.

Prasanth Nair is a civil servant and author. The views expressed are the author's own. (X: @PrasanthIAS)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)

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(Published 05 March 2024, 10:48 IST)

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