Politics in Loyola

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?

Protest by students in Kerala; Source: The Hindu on the web

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.

Loyola School's Assembly steps

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.

23 Comments

  • I’m going to voice a strong objection to the example of the lady being harassed in the bus stop. It’s perhaps true that Loyolites are apolitical (although I can think of numerous people as counter-examples), but what does politics have to do with injustice or righting a wrong?

    Imho, you are confusing organized politics and activism and just plain helping people. If being socially active and conscious is about raising a banner, hurling abuses and getting beaten up by the police (as the picture that accompanies this article seems to suggest) then I’m sure not many Loyolites could stomach it for frivolous (one guy in the ‘other’ party looked at a girl) reasons (although I’m sure many would if a genuine need arose).

    I can speak of examples only among my friends (post-2000 batches) but I’d like to think the pre-90 batches too were like this. I’ve found numerous examples of Loyolites stepping out of their cosy den to help people. There were similar (girls in trouble) instances in my undergrad college itself which demanded protest and I’ve found Loyolites the most vociferous in asking for a remedy.

    A striking difference also in the way we perceived school life: our batch at least wasn’t scared of losing our place in school at the tiniest misdemeanor. I don’t remember any major protest against the authorities, but I do remember lots of us voicing our concerns. Also cutting classes due to LAFest and other reasons, making our displeasure with a few new teachers known, etc. It’s not exactly earth shattering, but we did have our few instances of minor rebellion.

    Ours was the batch that saw the transition between pre-degree and +2. It should be remembered that when we’re in school we’re kids and adolescents and just the fact that you’ve been brought up to respect and obey your teachers in that setting for around 10 years of your life means that any kind of protest you organize will mostly be weak. That’s perhaps the reason that when my friends went to pre-degree, they were a lot more physical and vociferous in their protests.

    This article also does injustice to the help you yourself have given to the school. The magazine work, 10 years of LAFest, your efforts in the LOBA and now loyolites.com. Perhaps I’m confusing what you’ve written in the article, but in my book, what does count in the end is not strikes and hartals but helping/teaching/working for people selflessly because you think a situation can be improved, or because you perceive something to be wrong. And if that’s the criteria, I’m sure Loyolites score high.

  • Though we were insulated from the politics around us, I believe Loyolites analyzed politics just like others in their age group…of course we did it intending to be and remain as observers rather than participants. I agree that as a result most of us subscribe to a centrist view. Those who moved to the left or right most probably had strong influences in their homes. I still remember a discussion in our 12th on student politics and some of us decided we would join the SFI despite all the destruction that the outfit had wreaked in Kerala…it was about being active on campus though we didn’t subscribe to the ideology or their methods. 5 of my classmates were union leaders in various colleges in Kerala. And even in CET i remember almost every loyola batch of the 90’s had someone or other as office-bearer in their college union.

    I still remember those tepid phone calls to the school or jesuit residence in my junior school days to find out if we had school on bandh days. More often than not the speaker at the other end would get irritated for bothering to call up and ask a most stupid question. But Loyola not bowing down to bandhs and hartals, didn’t that end when our school bus was stoned sometime in the early 90’s. After that incident i remember a day that we were given the whole afternoon off to play games because some sfi leaders came to campus and demanded classes be called off due to some strike. This happened in the time of Fr.Pulickal who only a few years prior had unleashed his fury on some others of the same ilk who fled and added another story to the Pulickal legend!

    I don’t agree with our batch subscribing to obedience and acceptance as virtues, and questioning and protest as inappropriate…we were rebels and nobody had any idea how to handle us…and rarely was any threat of suspension or dismissal ever made. Though we didn’t use political means we used mischief to let the school authorities know of our unhappiness with some decisions…to cite one example it should be remembered that the 11th and 12th classrooms are right above the school office and what a fair measure of foot stomping by 45 energetic souls can cause….hehe…good old times! But then I also remember several instances of using the school leader to present students viewpoints to the principal and vice-principal…isn’t that a democracy at work then…an elected representative questioning and advising the executive.

    Good post, Ashok…i think every batch and every individual will read this post, look back to their days in Loyola and see things quite differently. Just a few weeks back I probed a classmate of mine on his political ambitions…his terse reply was, “If only I had the courage to answer that call”…but a politician from Loyola isn’t a distant dream…I read about an ex-Kerala CM’s son becoming the G-Sec of the NSUI in Delhi.

  • Vishnu, Jiby, thanks a lot for giving examples, correcting me, and making me think deeper.

    Would a Loyolite intervene to fight for the rights of strangers? I doubt. When one’s friends, classmates, etc., are affected, a college-going Loyolite might join. But in life after college? I doubt. My thoughts were on Loyolites of the 1980s, but Jiby’s fascinating blogpost Oridathoridathe Oru Samara Nayakan points to the adrenalin rush that often drove such interventions in college in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    I agree that my bus-stop example was imperfect. Substitute the “lady” with a “lower-caste man”. Would a Loyolite act in that situation, even if he believed that people of all castes should be treated well? I doubt.

    Helping an individual does not constitute political activity, right? (A political activity might result in helping an individual — but the reverse is not true.) Politics involves organising people, and arguing/acting for people who you may not know. It need not involve violence, but it invariably involves a clash/argument with authority (or maybe the dominant group in a situation).

    Your examples shed light on the Loyola of the 1990s and 2000s. In the closed political environment of Loyola, the foot-stomping example, representation through the school leader, etc. given by Jiby, and the voicing of concerns (if collective), given by Vishnu, would count as political. Was it the introduction of Plus Two that raised chances of such political activity and boldness?(From another angle, doesn’t all this convey the decline of the “discipline culture” of Loyola?)

    LOBA is less political, and more social in nature. Yes, there is politicking, but real politics in the sense of debating or acting on broader issues is rare. I wouldn’t classify anybody’s LOBA work as political.

    My post was exploratory. As Jiby hinted, a problem with my broadbrushing is that it does not capture every batch’s experience accurately. Among older old boys, I myself know Loyolites who are active office-bearers of employees’ associations at their workplaces.

  • yes, you said it…definitely the Plus-Two introduction had a lot to do with the changes…considering the male hormone gets its big boost while in that age group :))

  • Being a loyolite of the 80s i thought i should respond….In CET i unwittingly dabbled in politics(for a short period unsuccessfully!) taking a cue from a good number of my loyola seniors who were already there taking an active part in college politics. There were loyolites there in all the parties and one is not really sure of the contribution of “loyola upbringing ” in such matters. This is more of may be personality/interests oriented where loyola may not necessarily have a major role to play.
    Loyola in the 80s was very very systematic, well planned, well laid out rules etc., which may have helped many of those who passed out during this period to behave in a similar fashion knowingly/unknowingly later on in their lives. In the process if loyolites actually would have a tendency to refrain from helping in those situations mentioned by ashok, then thats highly unfortunate and one really cannot blame loyola for that be it a loyolite of the 70s/80s/90s…
    These views are purely personal.
    Once again ashok a good thought provoking subject…

  • Sreejesh, the rise of Loyolites in campus politics in CET coincided with greater campus recruitment in that college 🙂 Yes, it is difficult to isolate “Loyola” as the reason for Loyolites’ approach to politics. But then, since Loyolites largely behave like their non-Loyolite neighbours or relatives, it can be argued that Loyola did not really shape a different and active political culture among her students.

    Abhishek, thank you for bringing your post to our attention. Is there a balanced and well-researched, free e-book on hartals available to influence public opinion? Individual articles in newspapers or blogposts often end up focusing on one set of arguments, without countering the opposite side’s arguments (in this case, pro-hartal arguments). The method/medium itself weakens the usefulness and effectiveness of debates on such public concerns; debates become conversations with no practical end 🙂

  • Ashok Chettan,

    Few more months are left for me to enjoy as a true Loyolite. I’ve been a Loyolite for the past thirteen years, and I still, when in the last few days of my school life, never found politics affect me in any way. My crib is close to the school, but I have to go through Sreekariyam to get to school, and Sreekariyam is one place Politics usually touches, mainly with promises and not activities. Even as we loyolites still observe passiveness about politics, we have also grown up to analyse situations rather than blindly follow some arsehole who choses his favourite colour for a flag.

    Each of us have always debated among ourselves, and we have found that politics is not what we see outside-it is just a dirty joke. Maybe, as we are loyolites, this truth is made known to us by ourselves in an early stage of life. That can be a reason for all this.

    I am not experienced in life to say more, anyways, the situation in Loyola still remains the same. The forest clearing was debated but when we saw the stadium, we silently swallowed everything. Maybe Loyola will not change…After all, it is Loyola, right?

  • Ashok,

    First of all, let me say that this was another great post.

    At the same time, I have to say that I agree with Vishnu. There has to be a difference between being a student face of mainstream political activity, and being a political person. Being political does not need to mean that you take sides in the mainstream ideological divide. It can just mean that as a person, one likes to confront less, and observe more. Perhaps that explains the confusion between ‘being communist’ and ‘one who would not help an old woman’.

    Again, the Jesuit system meant that most of our alternative understandings of the world came after school. We cannot blame the school alone for it. Like the Radiant Reader, we can speak of history lessons where we were never taught what the Emergency was. In school, apart from DP who actually made us discuss Babri Masjid, Kashmir and nuclear weapons once, there was very little political reasoning outside. I was told that Titus sir’s Eco classes had fiery discussions too, but I was one of those fools who picked computer science.

    I really doubt that Loyola closed our minds to alternate viewpoints. Of course, it may not have opened or minds, but it was a far cry from making us apolitical dullards.

  • Like Aju said Titus sir’s economics classes was the best place for fiery debates and discussions. He taught us in the ’93-’96 period and we had numerous debates and forecasts in class on how the New Economic Policy of ’91 would turn out. I think our 10th ICSE project was to analyze the reforms and carrying on from our enthusiasm that, if Loyola had an economics option in Plus-Two I am sure many of the guys would have taken up the subject under Titus sir.

    Sorry to deviate, but just remembered a small anecdote on the economics class here. Titus sir gave us a project on Economic Planning to do. Immediately the guys started asking questions like…sir, does it include urban planning, industrial planning, etc, etc…i was looking around impressed(Eco class was our chance to prove our intellectual bend then!) and wanted to ask my own question to impress him. Unfortunately the only thing that came to my head and I asked was, “Sir, what about family planning?” and he exploded…”Athe ninte angere tharunna projectil ezhuthiyaal mathi” and everyone burst out laughing.

  • There’s an Objectivist quote attributed to a Jesuit (but re-quoted by Rand), in which a priest says something like “Give me a child for the first five years of his life and I’ll give you the man” (this is paraphrased, but the essence is the same).

    I think however, that this is pure claptrap. Granted, the formative years are crucial, but reading too much into Loyola’s influence on kids and how that shaped their political mindset might not be wise. However I think your premise here is right enough: to the extent that Loyola influences people, it’s certainly to neutrality (or maybe political correctness) and not to extremes. However I certainly believe it creates decent men.

    The line between socially responsible and politically active is very defined if we take your definition. But isn’t it also very farcical? Arguing against a higher authority in defense of rights – political; defending a girl in need or working with kids to teach them editing skills… social? Because in both these cases, there’s certainly a selfless element involved, and imho we should think more about the help rendered than about how we do it.

  • Nitin’s, Aju’s and Vishnu’s comments point to a different understanding of ‘political’. To me, your understanding underlines the lack of political sensitivity that I wrote about. The idea (‘what is politics’) itself is alien to most Loyolites.

    At a very basic level, every person is political — might have an opinion, might analyse/observe, etc. I agree that Loyolites are not apolitical at that level. All love to yap and criticise political groups.

    When I say that a Loyolite is unlikely to be political, I am referring to something more substantial — participation in politics by joining hands with like-minded people, making compromises while working in a group, expressing opinion publicly, mobilising people, acting to counter those who work against your ideas/ideology, on larger issues in society (or the organisation, if you prefer a smaller scale operation).

    In defending a girl or a backward-caste person, the ‘helper’ is expressing his basic-level politics in a public setting — he is confronting the powerful, defending the weak. I see politics there even though there is no political party involved. In such contexts ‘helping’ is a political act (fighting caste oppression) as much as it is a social act (saving a person from inconvenience). Analysing the situation (hmm…caste oppression…bad…why?) and walking away is hardly political. To me, it shows apathy and apolitical behaviour.

    I don’t see any ‘politics’ in working with kids to teach them editing skills. Politics involves an element of power/authority, and the struggle for it. If there is politics in teaching powerpoint skills or editing skills, rest assured that Loyola will disallow such selflessness. 🙂

    Yes, debates like the ones in Titus sir’s classes were there in earlier decades too. They help to raise awareness (and elocution skills). But I don’t think they made Loyolites politically sensitive.

  • Hmm actually i have nothing more to add than what Jiby chettan and vishnu chettan said. From the so called political screen at loyola to SCT. thats the route all three of us have followed. A college where politics stands up imperiously compared to the rest. And we already have had people in trouble instances. Eleven loyolites from my year are in this college.
    and i really have to say this here
    Nitheesh and i were talking in his class.( We Loyolites choose that class to crowd together during breaks)
    And then these gang of hooligans from another class were coming in here and pestering some “maidens” from this class. And they were telling us what a disturbance it is. And the next time they came in the unassumingly small guy nitheesh got up and asked them “ivide entha problem”
    for that one sentence they caleld out half their class and came out to fight him.. cowards
    vere aarkum chodikan thoneelallo
    avan thanne vendi vannu
    and u say we would stand around and say nothing?
    I DISAGREE 🙂

  • Ashok,

    Political activity need not always be confrontational. Unfortunately, around us in India, we see dogmatic political parties who are bound by dead ideaology(ies) and unable to make independent issue-based stances, as is usually the case in most developed democracies. Political can also mean that everyone concerned roots for a certain set of basic principles, but there are disagreements on the best possible route to fulfilling them. I doubt most Loyolites will have any problem fitting into that. LaFest was the University of Compromises to Get Things Done. Human rights and ethical living are two such principles. Loyolites will have little problem bringing the attention of people to the abuse of contract labour in their universities or places of work. If the office is consuming more enrgy that it needs to, a Loyolite will not have too much of a problem brining it to the attention of senior managment. But if the same two issues require me to stand under an entrenched red/white/saffron flag, then I will not do it. Remember, being a member of a political party is as much about the subjugation of the individual identity for the glorification of the group as being in the army or being part of a school is.

    Today’s politics in India is dominated by men and women with media savvy who can turn a debate with some fancy turn of phrase and most political parties are increasingly bereft of moral leadership. The younger generation of politicians are no different in that all they are concerned about is being seen in the right places, talking to the right people and making yes, power point presentations. You cannot expect Loyola to produce people who are significantly different.

  • i disagree with ashok chettan about loyolites not responding to a tough situation.. maybe my response to that hooligans were just cause of my young blood but then i didnt back away.none us the loyolites there backed away……. maybe there aint any politics in loyola but i dont think loyola tells us what path to choose. We are never forced to do something.We are given the freedom to think and i have never feared of a suspension or dismissal from loyola. And as jibi chettan mentioned each batch had its own way of expressing its displeasure but only difference was that we did it with no political colour.I am just being introduced to the REAL life but i think more than anything its loyola that has taught me to stand against what i think is wrong.

  • sorry for the late entry..just saw this post..

    i dont think loyolites are/were timid or less bolder than other school students. its just that we have been exposed to much less violence and the third-rate streetside behavior thats so rampant across kerala, especially trivandrum. i think that took away an “edge” from loyolites to face the daily social life in kerala.

    i was a victim when i was transplanted, despite my cries and wails, to a PDC college that was supposedly the best in the city. much to my horror i was exposed to a bunch of uncivilized clowns and goons, and i went on to face the 2 worst years of my life among this lot. abvp, sfi, “pirivu”..what not..as a loyolite, i wouldnt give a damn about these pigs and their threats. while most others submitted to these threats and extortions, i would oppose. what ensued was a constant battle with these forces and their coercions and demands. it only ended the day i left that bloody place.

    in loyola we are taught to live a life based on human values of respect, honesty, truthfulness, and honor, but that doesnt mean we are really equipped to face the realities of this darned society – which in my opinion is a big monster we have created. we would have fit in better in countries with lot more civic sense and values.

    i dont know if what i have written has any connection to the post and all the comments..but all this just touched a sensitive chord! 🙂

  • BMJ, my experience matches yours. (Why am I not surprised? 😉 ) I liked the “college that was supposedly the best”. 🙂

    Loyola in the 1980s was out of this world, literally. Even somebody like you — who fought, instead of surrendering on day two — ends up concluding that Loyolites are better suited to live outside India. I too have felt likewise at times. But then, look at it from the view of non-Loyolites: they see a bunch of guys who don’t fit into the society and can’t be effective leaders. They see a bunch of uncompromising pricks who don’t ‘get it’. I am not saying that whatever they say is right, and we Loyolites are wrong. But I feel that we should be more ‘political’, in practice, even if it means giving up a few of our pet principles and stubbornness.

  • niteesh-We are never forced to do something.We are given the freedom to think and i have never feared of a suspension or dismissal from loyola. And as jibi chettan mentioned each batch had its own way of expressing its displeasure but only difference was that we did it with no political colour.I am just being introduced to the REAL life but i think more than anything its loyola that has taught me to stand against what i think is wrong.

    marvelously accurate!!!!! i myself was a kuttisakhav in college of vety and animal sci mannuthy .. was quite involved in student politics there . was students union member in my very first year purely by party nomination because my name was not suggested in the general body meeting (because i never worked to show my colleagues or give any sort of publicity to my work .. i was one of those ppl who pull the curtain ropes for drama knowing fully well i would not be able to watch the drama let alone participate in it) BUT the fact is i myself hated the undemocratic manner of election and never took part in any of the students unions later !!!! in the third year when there was a political clash between the new born ksu and sfi i was one of the guys against whom criminal case was charged .. and i found that in most campuses loyolites where the leaders be it sfi or abvp !!! so considering the volume of students passing out from other institutions of kerala i feel LOYOLITES ARE THE MOST POLITICAL OF ALL.. the difference is the loyolite is more concerned with ideology rather than party positions and being men of caliber are not content with the trivial routine party meetings and nominations. We still have political discussions in our e-group which i feel has 10 times more quality in them than the cheap talk shows aired by most prominent news channels.. IN EVERY SOCIETY THE LOYOLITE REMODELS HIMSELF WITH THE REQUIREMENT OF THE TIMES .. I AM SURE A NEW BRAND OF LOYOLITES WILL SOON APPEAR IN THE REALPOLITIC OF KERALA AND EVEN INDIA WHEN THE TIME FOR IT IS RIGHT LETS C !!!!!

  • the politics in kerala is politics of the wrong kind. not responding is better than responding in the wrong way. learning rikki tikki tavi is a great experience . please dont politicize it . it reflects social realities in the british india of those days.we canot always read what pleasses us or what confirms our point of view .”if you would win know the enemy and know yourself too”

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