Exactly one year ago, a first-year student of the Nehru College of Engineering in Pampady, Kerala, was found hanging in his hostel room. This was only a few hours after he was accused of cheating in an examination, and harassed into signing a paper admitting that he had copied by the college authorities.
His name was Jishnu Pranoy.
And sadly, this was not an isolated incident.
In recent years, there have been unnerving reports where students in private educational institutions across the country have ended their lives as a result of living in extremely disciplinarian and intrusive environments.
An inquiry committee later unearthed the fact that Jishnu had not cheated at all, questioning the entire premise of colleges and private institutions issuing ludicrous rules and regulations to students in the name of education. In fact, these are more often than not, advocated by the parents themselves.
The college mentioned above, which is part of a group of institutions in Kerala, had already been under a negative light long before the false implication and demise of Jishnu.
Its authoritarian attitude towards students, who refused to abide by the seemingly unjustifiable regulations, unauthorised fines, and corporal punishment, is quite infamous in the region.
One of the most notorious rumours about the institution included that of an ‘Idi Muri,’ which translates to a ‘punching room’ in Malayalam.
It was alleged by protesting students that those who didn’t submit to the rules or threats of the college, were taken there for physical punishment.
Although such repeated incidents had already started to ignite dissent, there was no group which could advise and assist students about their rights.
Arjun PK, a fourth-year law student at the National University for Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS) in Kochi, was one of the many people who was enraged about the manner in which these institutions were exploiting students, both in terms of rights and money.
“Being a member of the law fraternity, it was quite upsetting to repeatedly come across the accounts of students who were hapless victims of the college management. Months before Jishnu’s suicide, I remember that some of my college mates—Sreenath, Kenneth Joe Cleetus, and Lettisha—and I, had discussed that something needed to be done to make students more aware of their rights, instead of being silenced by the authorities through coercion,” says Arjun to The Better India.
However, Arjun and his friends weren’t sure as to where to begin or how to proceed. Unfortunately, by this time Jishnu had already taken the drastic step, an incident that was to scar the group with insurmountable guilt.
“That one incident was the trigger. If only Jishnu had known that the paper in which he had signed had no legal validity and was only a ruse by the authorities to make him submit, he would have lived and probably fought for himself. We decided that we were not going to let any other student suffer in the same manner,” he says.
Arjun teamed up with other law students and tried to reach out to Citizens for Constitutional Governance, an NGO consisting a team of lawyers practicing at the High Court, who could further help them in not just addressing the burning issue but also provide legal assistance.
“The prevalent problem was that most students had no inkling that they could take legal action against their institution for matters like fees, fines, and rules. Many also find no support from their parents. So they remain stranded due to a lack of money,” Arjun explains.
In February 2017, the Legal Collective for Students Rights (LCSR) formally took flight, with lawyers and legal consultants volunteering to take up cases pro bono. The board of advisors of the collective includes Prasanth N, an IAS officer, Dr G Mohan Gopal, director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies and Dr. Athira PS, an Assistant Professor at NUALS.
Together, LCSR has a workforce of 30 individuals and has opened chapters in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, and Kochi.
These chapters are headed by Jojimon Jaseenthan, Raniyal Niyada, and Anisha VR, respectively.
“We had decided that if we were going to do it, we would want to work with people who were more than willing to render their services with as much conviction as we had. Thankfully, most people we approached had a positive response, and agreed that there were no existing student-centric provisions in place,” states Arjun.
The collective does all the research work and helps students draft the material pertaining to a case. This is then reviewed by the consulting team. Not only does this simplify the process for court officials but also leads to a considerable drop in litigation fees and fast-tracked proceedings.
Since it was established, the collective has worked on cases where students who wished to drop out of a private institution or get a transfer, were blatantly denied certificates and were asked to pay the entire course fee to get them.
“The students were from the same college as that of Jishnu, which used the premise for fees procurement being a compensation for the vacant seats—an illegal clause mentioned in the admission forms. Coincidentally, the judgement was ruled in our favour, and the verdict came on the death anniversary of Jishnu. We all felt a sense of redemption that day,” Arjun warmly adds.
Besides moving five writ petitions in Kerala High Court, the team is currently awaiting the verdict for Anjitha K Jose, a third-year BA student at Thrissur’s Kerala Varma College. Her petition sheds light on the bigoted restrictions at the college’s hostel for women while no such rules existed for the men’s hostel.
The team is also active online through a Facebook handle, Your Lawyer Friend, where they are raising awareness amidst students through online campaigns like #FinesAreNotFine and #OperationGothambunda besides posting informative videos.
“Raising awareness is one of our primary objectives. Not just students, even parents have to be educated about the difference between what if fair and what is not. Interestingly, we were even once asked by a suspicious parent whether we were functioning on behalf of some Maoist outfit,” laughs Arjun.
You can reach out to LCSR by writing to them at email@example.com.