Published: 24th November 2017
We finally felt free: A Sathybama alum on why they burnt things during the 2006 protest
This is almost deja vu for Sathyabama University as arson and protests rocked the campus in 2006. An insider's account of what went down almost a decade ago
I'm an alumnus of Sathyabama University, Chennai, from the 2005-09 engineering batch and while that's not much of a calling card, this one may be better: I was among the many who took part in the March 1, 2006 strike there. You might not know much about the strike, so I'm going to tell you how it went down. It all began on the pretext of the varsity not clarifying their position in AICTE accreditation, but the underlying reason for that violent protest (YES, VIOLENT) was something else. It was suppression and control that pushed us to arms.
It was a regular Wednesday and the first lecture that began at 8 am in the morning was going on. Roughly 15 minutes into the lecture, a few fourth-year seniors who had handkerchiefs over their faces went from class to class yelling at the freshmen, "STOP! Your degrees are worthless. This university has no UGC or AICTE approval. You won't get a BE, but a BSc instead." It took some time for this piece of news to sink in.
Based on that unverified information (which in retrospect should have struck us as being fake) and encouraged by senior students, all of us gathered in front of the main administrative block, demanding answers. None came. The university representative issued threats to the masked vigilantes and things went downhill from there
As first-year students, we were hesitant, at first, to listen to our seniors. The reason was simple: the university has special administrative staff called 'squads', who are literally as good as the Nazi SS officers at enforcing rules. But that day, it didn't matter. For us, Sathyabama's rules didn't matter if the degree for which we paid a bomb as under the table donations was worthless.
Sathyabhama's Squad Mentality
The squads used to patrol every floor and have peons who doubled as spies stationed at every floor to monitor students. Students too were employed as spies, keeping tabs on which male talks to which female, who went on a date with whom, who is living in with whom, who went to which party. The University squad members understood the power of information and how it could be used for intimidation and subjugation. They had more authority than our professors. The squad would often stand before the mess hall with a blade and rip shirts of those who leave their top button open. Random checking of your bags was common.
How Sathyabama students were repressed and segregated
Let me tell you why we were almost eager to join the protest. Cheer on vandalism that we knew to be wrong, even.
On one corner of the admin block next to the main entrance and the bus bay, a CCTV camera used to be placed keeping an eye on student movement. If the camera caught you talking to the opposite sex, they pull you up and you are forced to drop a semester. Wish the opposite sex a happy birthday and you earn a semester drop. Borrow a pencil from the opposite sex and you get a semester drop. Ask "How did the exam go?", you get a semester drop. The segregation was not limited to just conversation, it was incorporated by design into how the university functioned.
It was segregation and it was implemented everywhere — at the mess hall, inside the university buses that had steel rods demarcating the point beyond which a male shouldn't enter, at public spaces within the university and even in our private lives outside the university. The University Director's office at the admin block was their interrogation room where television sets fed the CCTV footage from the bus bay.
When you hit breakpoint, you explode
So, on that Wednesday morning in 2006, when a masked fourth-year senior climbed on top of his fellow batchmates' shoulders and smashed the CCTV camera to pieces with a stick, we cheered and momentarily felt liberated. Almost human.
The AICTE accreditation didn't matter anymore to any of us. The logic was simple — we were in trouble anyway, so let us raise hell before we lose it all. The strike was a mere pretext to let go off all those years of everyday humiliation and pent-up anger. After the CCTV camera was smashed, the crowd turned violent. The squad members ran for their lives but were all rounded up one by one and beaten, the violence they suffered were graded based on how cruel an individual squad member was. One of them had his upper body severely damaged as he was flung from the top of the admin block stairs all the way down. It was painful to watch and he took almost a year to recover, but some students felt that he deserved no pity.
That day students went from classroom to classroom breaking blackboards, tube lights and destroying lavatories, but left their respective departments alone. The IT department though did suffer a lot of property damage. Some students broke into the lone Indian bank ATM machine within the campus and looted the machine. And then they started setting things on fire.
And then the arson began
None of the female students took part in the arson. They all rushed back to the safety of their hostels and locked the gates from the inside. Maybe they were conditioned into submission and had no fight left in them. Some of the protesters did try to enter the girls' hostel, but turned back after receiving little or no support from fellow arsonists. We ran loose like a pack of wild dogs who were chained for a latter part of our lives and had no idea what to do with our new found freedom.
Finally, it was noon, and the strike ended briefly as the mess hall opened. Even arsonists need to eat. Maybe that was why the mess was never attacked. After lunch, students started a fire at the makeshift pandal made of coconut leaves next to the old MBA students block where Jeppiaar used to assemble everyone for his speeches. That made a good bonfire (A quick YouTube search will help you find the video).
By evening, hostel students, mostly men started vacating their hostels and I was among those who left. The hotel was set on fire, a truck was stolen and taken out for a joyride, students roamed the university streets late into the night. No more curfews, no more rules, no squads to enforce them. The protests continued the following day and the day after. It went on for almost a week after which the university remained shut for a while, to cool things off. The university reopened for the exams. Those who tried to start the protest again were quickly silenced with blows and that was the end of our revolution.
So what changed after all that violence and over Rs 3 crore property damage?
Admission to the university dropped drastically the following year. The new batch and those that came after were insulated from interacting with their seniors. The next three and a half years went by with the squad turning a blind eye to our batch. They tried to enforce the rules on our juniors again which resulted in the protests in 2012, but they failed as they were too few.
Did the ones who took part in the 2006 protest get hunted down? Yes and no. The admin staff and faculty knew who took part and who didn't. Some were persecuted, given hell academically, semester drops were handed out for mere seven-day attendance shortage while those who had over a month shortage in attendance were let off
Time flew, everyone took their degree and most haven't turned back to that university ever since. Nobody likes to revisit trauma. I did not learn to engineer at Sathyabama, but I understood what life would be like under a totalitarian regime. Our universities often reflect the kind of citizens they produce and Sathyabama helps manufacture citizens who will never stand up for the right cause. A former student of that university will know how difficult life can be if you speak out against the system.
(The views expressed by the author are his own)