The Jesuit saying “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” does not apply to the political man. Our political beliefs, I feel, are shaped and re-shaped till we are a couple of years into our adult working lives. Yet, can we forget the politics at school and the traces it left on us?
A few weeks ago, Ashok Mathew (1995) reminded me of Loyola’s reputation as a place that had classes even when other schools were closed for bandh or hartal. Indeed, as schoolgoers, our most celebrated political encounters were on bandh days. In case the previous day had ended with only a lingering rumour of the impending bandh/hartal, the suspense would have been carried over to the day’s morning newspapers and radio news. And even if a government official had announced a holiday for schools, there would be anxious parents and hopeful kids who asked, “But is it a holiday for Loyola?”. After all, the Jesuits were known for combing through an announcement and coming up with clarifications like “It says holiday for city schools. Our school is not inside the city. It is a working day for Loyola.”
The Jesuits were proud of successfully resisting bandhs/hartals and when talking to students, would add it — along with “punctuality” and “merit-based admissions” — to the mystique of Loyola. The anti-bandh sentiment of Loyolites seems partly rooted in this culture of resistance (to resistance) which we grew up in. So, when Cheru Cherian John (1995) narrates a Kerala bandh to his classmates in a business school, I see Loyola in it as much as I see Wharton. Similarly, when my classmate joins the anti-bandh caravan with his comments, I find him carrying a satchel from school.
The Jesuits in our school were anti-Communist (who can forget Fr Pulickal’s potshots at the communist leaders, especially E.K. Nayanar?) and there was no Leftist teacher let loose on the students. So, instead of fair or serious discussions of communism and socialism, we got only caricatures. The school did not sensitise us to the struggles of the poor, or of the castes and religions discriminated against in India.
I say these not to attack teachers or Loyola but to point out that the school left us in the safe tents of Kerala’s anti-communist, secular, middle-class politics — a terrain marked by political apathy, than intervention. Even those Loyolites who later dabbled in college campus politics on an SFI platform may not be able to identify any strong and genuine political streak in themselves. Perhaps, the lone exception is Joy Elamon (1978), who took to pro-poor politics seriously, and in whose case Loyola would be the last to claim credit.
For sure, being political is not just about affiliating oneself to a political party. The school inculcated in us values like fairness, honesty, dignity of labour and concern for the poor — all of which define the contours of our worldviews, including our politics. And in everyday encounters, faced with choices, we reveal our preferences and our politics.
When a lady is harrassed at the bus-stop, a Loyolite is likely to watch inactively, or move away. It is unlikely that he will step in or gather a crowd to stop the injustice. The Loyolite will avoid such a political act in a public space, if he can. This apathy, I believe, stems from the school’s fostering of obedience and acceptance as virtues, and questioning and protest as inappropriate.
For like any “good, Christian school”, Loyola was free from campus politics. The gate was always closed to political student organisations like the SFI and KSU; this ensured that no students’ issues entered the campus from outside. Strikes by students were unheard of, and when Loyolites left the school and entered colleges (where strikes were common), they nostalgically wrote letters praising the no-strike atmosphere of Loyola. Recently, I came across one such letter in a school magazine of the early 1980s.
Within its walls too, on issues specific to Loyola, the school discouraged voicing of opinions in public. The English newsletter LENS and the school Assembly unique to Loyola were platforms that could have been used for pamphleteering or political speeches.
But in the Loyola of the 1980s, the fear of suspension and dismissal was so high that few dared to question any action by the authorities. Each batch may have had its school Assembly or farewell Assembly where a student boldly aired his disapproval of something that had happened. For example, in our farewell Assembly in January 1991, one friend lamented Loyola’s razing down of the beloved “jungle” to make way for a stadium. But such Assemblies with local political content were rare.
Every year, there was only one major election in Loyola for students: to choose the school leader. In the elections from 1985-1990, the SSLC vs ICSE spirit ran high and students voted along SSLC/ICSE lines. Since crude identity politics played itself out, I would classify the elections of those years as mildly political. Otherwise, elections were essentially popularity contests, not issue-based political battles. After all, the school leader was not really involved in the running of the school. I hear that these days, teachers too vote in the election of the school leader.
In many such ways, as Loyola protected us from having to take sides or join in a common cause, it also distanced us from the rough and tumble of politics. If today we are establishmentarians and loyalists in our workplaces, the “discipline culture” of Loyola probably has something to with it.
Invisibly too, the school might have shaped our political attitudes, as for instance through the textbooks we studied. In Brown Man’s Burden, Amar D. Dhinsa writes about studying Ricky Ticky Tavi in the Radiant Reader
This story was written by Rudyard Kipling an English writer. It was an English perspective on India. We were taught to identify with the English family rather than with the snake. In actual fact, the cobra is the ‘normal’ element in India and the English family was the ‘abnormal’ element. Therefore we were being taught to identify with the outsider. We were being educated to see our country through imperial eyes, to see Indianness as the other.
I would not go so far as to accuse the priests and teachers at Loyola of choosing “imperialist” stories and texts to shape our young minds. Such influence on our worldwiew flowed unknowingly, I believe.
Was Loyola of the 1990s and 2000s different politically? I do not know. My guess is that politics is still a dirty word in that part of the world.
While the school seems to have thus shaped our politics visibly and invisibly, it would be unfair not to acknowledge others. If we are anti-bandh and anti-hartal today, the credit should largely go to Kerala’s political parties and their student outfits, whose terror tactics have devalued democratic forms of protest. For our “let-us-not-get-involved” political apathy, who can deny that Loyola fostered only what our families practised and desired. As we moved away from Loyola, we might have become more aware of political issues, but our busy workspaces keep us distant from political action, as much as Loyola did. If we are anti-communist, it is also because we watched the decline and decay of communism in the 1980s and 1990s, and grew up when neo-liberalism was on the ascent. And then, of course, there are the hard knocks we have endured alone, starting with having to pay a bribe at a government office.
When it comes to politics, we have learnt more from life, than from Loyola.