Once upon a time, the school leader was elected by students.
In the 1980s, when school reopened after summer vacation, class leaders and assistant class leaders were elected (or in some classes, selected by the teacher). A week later, students chose the school’s leaders. If the first was a class election, the second was a caste election.
Any student from the 10th could stand for School Leader, and anyone from the 9th could stand for the Assistant School Leader. All high-school students (8th to 10th) voted for both positions; representing 5th to 7th standard students, their class leaders and assistant class leaders voted.
The visible event was the school assembly, 50% of which formed the electorate. There were no campaign issues, and no student organisations; the candidates did not have to form opinions, or rally the audience’s support for any cause. Hence candidates’ “election speeches” were banal utterances on leaders and leadership, and vague, neta-like promises to “strive to the best of my ability”. Speakers relied on verbal pyrotechnics to spark applause, and tell tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Long before Abdul Nasser Maudny, Loyolites knew to hold the audience’s attention by acting breathless, and screaming and spitting into the microphone.
Once every few years, a candidate would come up with a gem quote. Like Suraj Jacob in 1988, who concluded with one from Abraham Lincoln: “I want you to vote for me if you will; but if not, then vote for my opponent, for he is a fine man.” (For an interesting anecdote, read the context in which Lincoln praised his opponent.)
The chief election commissioner was the school’s politico: V.C. Jacob. He led the candidates into each classroom, made them stand near the teacher’s platform, and asked the students to exercise their franchise. A candidate voted when the entourage was in his class.
The ballot paper did not have the candidates names printed on it; the school seal was stamped on it to prevent rigging.
Once the high school classes had voted, the election caravan wound its way down the stairs to the gents’ staff room. There, the class leaders and assistant class leaders of standards 5, 6 and 7 were called in to cast their votes.
V.C. Jacob explained the value of each vote. A vote from Std 10 fetched 3 points for the school leader candidate, and 2 points for the assistant school leader candidate (see Table). He then began counting the votes, in the presence of the candidates.
After a class’s votes were done, he took a sheet of paper and — in his neat, firm and legible hand — jotted down the number of votes, and the values. Once all the votes were counted, the losing candidate congratulated the winner, and all walked back to their respective classes. The following week, the school leader and his assistant were sworn in, along with the general captain and house captains, who were selected (I assume) by the management as advised by C. T. Varkey, the physical education teacher.
Here, I’ve documented the election for only one reason: such school leader elections are no longer held in Loyola.
Since the mid-1990s, the school’s leaders have been elected in different ways, from different classes. Briefly, the present-day arrangement is as follows: There is one school leader (from the 12th), and two assistant school leaders (one each from the 10th and 9th). Only the 12th standard students vote for the school leader, and only the 10th and 9th standard students vote for the assistant school leader from their respective years. The teachers vote for all positions. The counting of votes is done in-camera (by the Principal or Vice-principal, it is believed), and the winner’s name is put up on the notice-board a few days later. There is no investiture ceremony even though the school diary carries a date for the imaginary event.
An amusing feature of elections in Loyola in the 1980s was the undercurrent of caste politics. I refer to the ICSE vs SSLC “war” of those days as caste politics because it was a battle over group identities based on which division you belonged to. As the ICSE was a tougher course in high school, the SSLC students were perceived as lower castes; on this blog and elsewhere, I have been told by recent ISC students that the discrimination turned more open in the 2000s. No wonder that the ISC vs HSC war continues in Loyola at the time of elections.
The only difference I see is the role of the teachers and the management — they did not play caste politics in the elections of the 1980s because they did not interfere with the electoral process. Now, with the election becoming less transparent, and less democratic (from the students’ angle), the teachers and the management too seem to be playing caste politics during elections. In the past, if their golden boy did not win the election, they gave him the Best Loyolite award later in the year. In contrast, these days, they have their way in electing the school leader too. It got exposed in the 2007 election. That year, for the school leader post, there were seven candidates from 12th ISC, and the caste’s votes got split, while the lone candidate from 12th HSC mopped up the votes in his vote bank. When the result was announced, students were surprised: an ISC student had been declared elected. For a moment, it seemed that caste — ISC or HSC — no longer mattered. On second thoughts, it showed that numbers did not matter, caste probably did.
Though the school leader election has thus lost its credibility as an exercise in student democracy, there have been a few positive developments.
One, the school leader nowadays has more responsibilities (not merely giving speeches and saying “Classes, Attention” in school assemblies). Hence election speeches are a bit more substantial, with the odd promise thrown in. Elected leaders try to fulfill their promise, even if they don’t succeed always. So, there seems to be greater authority for the school leader, even though he lacks legitimacy.
Two, there are more elections in Loyola. The general captain and the house captains are now elected, and in these elections, only the students vote (the teachers don’t).
The Principal and the teachers need to do one thing: they should stop interfering in the school leader election, and make the election as transparent as it was in the distant past. Giving the school leader more responsibilities has been a positive step. But to give more powers to one (the school leader) by taking away the powers of the many (the student electorate) can hardly be justified. The student leader derives his legitimacy from being elected by students. He is a leader; he should not look like a lackey.
Hat tip: Arun Sudarsan (2009)
Today, an LSE alumna’s e-mail landed in my Inbox. It spoke of an online petition by LSE and SOAS alumni disassociating those colleges from Varun Gandhi’s recent hate speech. What struck me was how institutions and fellow alumni rush to claim an alumnus as one of their own when the celebrity alumnus wins a Nobel Prize, but take another route when the celebrity sinks in infamy.
Unlike LSE, Loyola has few high-achievers among its alumni. (For a desperate catalogue, see the Wikipedia entry on notable alumni.) And the school itself isn’t ultra-savvy at riding the alumni horse. Probably the school doesn’t believe in the sport. But it is partly also because the school doesn’t have an institutionalised, well-oiled old boys’ network system to spot an alumnus doing interesting work, or one who is in the news. The school is out of touch with many old boys who studied in the 1970s and 1980s, and left Trivandrum. A few individuals, like Fr Manipadam and Joseph Uncle, are more enterprising, smarter and hence more up-to-date than the LOBA database.
But guys, take heart. Just because we are bad at marketing our alumni doesn’t mean that we are bad at everything. We are as good as LSE or Harvard, when it comes to alumni who are in the news for the wrong reasons. Our silence is so deafening that nobody can hear whether the celebrity studied at Loyola or not. I am referring to the curious case of Himaval Maheswari Bhadrananda, who was in the news last year for brandishing a gun in a police station in Kerala, after he was alleged to be a “fake swami”. Mathrubhumi newspaper reported that he studied in Loyola, but my efforts to find classmates who could confirm it failed. Maybe he studied, maybe he didn’t.
One of the dilemmas in running this blog is whether I should write about a notorious person, and add to his misery. Is it not better to focus on the honey in my ARChive, instead of stinging like a bee? So, I shall end with an anecdote that will instead sting the majority. About Loyola and Loyolites, it tells us more than Himaval Bhadrananda.
I do not recall the venue, date or time of this incident. And for obvious reasons, I am not mentioning the names of people involved (even though I remember who said what). A few years ago, at a LOBA session ahead of that year’s annual general body meeting, a discussion emerged on whether old boy Mr A should be informed. Mr B, a heavyweight in the alumni Association, insisted that Mr A shouldn’t be sent the notification or invited because Mr A had been implicated in a case of financial fraud once.
A few old boys asked: Was Mr A implicated or only accused? If he has finished serving his punishment, why should we punish him further by ostracising him? In any case, how does all this affect whether he should be informed of the meeting? Doesn’t every member have a right to be informed?
Mr B stood his ground and carried the day by saying, “The old boys’ meet is a social occasion where we participate with our families. In Trivandrum society, we have a certain standing. If crooks like him attend, we cannot come with our families. It will also reflect badly on the Association.”
[Himaval news clip — Hat tip: Sandeep K (1994)]
Last year on 30 December, I began the “25 Years Ago” series based on school magazines, by writing about 1982-83. Let’s move a year forward and see what Loyola was like in 1983-84.
In June 1983, the school’s new building (the Silver Jubilee Block) was inaugurated by Bishop Acharuparambil. According to the accounts presented in the souvenir released on the occasion, the building was constructed at a cost of Rs 15,53,116.55, and further works worth Rs 1,50,000 were expected at that time. The money for the building came from loans (more than Rs 9 lakh), from the school (Rs 3.15 lakh), building fund fees (around Rs 1.95 lakh), donations (about Rs 1.29 lakh), the souvenir itself (Rs 1,09,959.17), and interest. To publish these accounts immediately after the Principal’s Preface, and before Page 1 of the souvenir, suggests an ethic of transparency that was extraordinary. Interestingly, the same publication also carried the fuzzy presentation of results of a Jesuit evaluation of the school.
The most historic happening of 1983-84, when I look back, is the change of guard at Loyola. Readers will quickly and rightly guess that Fr CP Varkey left that year. True, after fourteen years at Loyola, Fr Varkey left in September 1983, and Fr Varghese Anikuzhy became Principal. But in retrospect, an equally important change of guard had happened four months before Fr Varkey’s departure. For when school reopened in May 1983, two priests returned after several years to Loyola: Fr John Manipadam (as Rector), and Fr Mathew Pulickal (as teacher of English and History in high school). Together and separately, they were to influence a generation of Loyolites, and build Loyola’s alumni network.
The School Magazine dated 1984 had quite a few pages on Fr Varkey — including the Malayalam poem written by Loyola’s bard Mr PK Sebastian (which was presented as a “mangalapatram” from the staff during Fr Varkey’s farewell function), and an article on Fr Varkey by the other Sebastian in the staff room — Mr BO Sebastian. But here, I will present extracts of only two of the many brief notes by students:
The boys of my class told me how Fr Varkey used to thrash the boys (V to X). I was frightened. But during that time he experienced a change….From then on he started using a new phrase “Golden Heart!” Once when some money and books were stolen, he became very angry. In the Assembly he gave us a verbal beating. In the end he overcame his anger, urged us to kindly return the money to the owner. After a few days the owner got back his money and the boy had apologised to Fr Varkey.
– C Prem IX B
Though one could not call him perfect, one had to admit that his good qualities far outweighed all the others. We boarders were a group to which he had always been attached.”
– Cherian Abraham IX B
In his annual report on School Day, the Principal Fr Anikuzhy said, “From 1st Sept 1983 we arranged for a special bus-trip from the school at 4.45 pm to encourage games to build up teams.” (sic) That year Loyola won the Junior Championship in the District Sports Meet, the athletes also shone in the YMCA Meet, and our cricketers and mini basketballers were runners-up in the District. The “second trip” was an innovation that extended opportunities to day scholars to develop their sporting abilities.
I didn’t know that Loyola had student postmen. But the the school magazine says that the Postal Squad debuted in 1983-84. “With the introduction of this Squad many problems regarding the mail have now been solved,” said the squad member’s report. This squad perhaps served the hostelers. I request the beneficiaries of that era to enlighten us on what problems you faced — mails missing? mails opened before delivery?
As in the previous year, there were various squads which went about their work routinely. But three bits struck me:
The LENS Squad “put up weekly bulletins and special issues on important occasions like the Youth Festival and the School Day”. Note the impressive regularity of LENS once-upon-a-time.
The Squad for Sneha Sena and Soldiers of God reported that there were 96 subscribers for Sneha Sena, and 164 subscribers for the English edition of Christian booklets. English was the preferred language of reading, even though not of speaking, as the Squad for English-Speaking would attest!
The Quiz and Debate Squad reported that “the students were found to be demanding new Quiz Programmes but they were not interested in debates.” Today, we should read that slightly differently — quizzing was rising in popularity in Loyola even before Siddhartha Basu began Quiztime in 1985.
I’ll end with an excerpt from one of my favourite articles in that school mag. Abhilash Mohan’s “Mahabali 33, 83” probably owes it intriguing title to a savvy teacher who decided the topic of the school youth festival’s Malayalam essay/story competition. And this VIII B student rose to the occasion. The article begins directly but poetically “1933-le ponnin chingam. Paadangal thelinju. Pathaayangal niranju.” Two paragraphs later, we zoom fifty years to “1983-le thiruvonappulari. Maveli airbus-il vannirangi.” And a few sentences later,
Nattucha. Nadakkaan vayya. Auto-yum taxi-yum city service-um onnum kaanaanilla.
‘Mooppinnay, enthaa eri veyilu kollunnathu. Valla nerchayumundoe?’, oru cheruppakkaaran chothichu.
Maveli: Oru Auto kittiyaal kollaam.
Cheruppakaaran: Thaan eviduthukaaranaa? Innu bandh alle?
In simple sentences, the 13-year-old Abhilash not only wove in the lingo of the times, but also captured a timeless aspect of the political culture of modern Kerala.
Cherry Mathew (1995 ICSE) is walking from the northern-most district of Kerala to the southern-most.
He is a member of Freedom Walk, a project led by Anoop John, who along with Cherry co-founded Zyxware Technologies, an infotech company in Thiruvananthapuram. The project website says, “Freedom walk is a project aimed at spreading the message of ‘Freedom in Society’, ‘Freedom from Environmental Issues’, and ‘Freedom in Software’ and to promote activism around these freedoms.”
The Walk began from Kasargod on Gandhi Jayanti, and is scheduled to end next week at Thiruvananthapuram on Children’s Day.
When I met the walkers last month in Kozhikode, much of our talk revolved around the third freedom — freedom in software, by which they mean the use of open-source software. In Kerala’s government schools, children are taught open-source software. Similarly organisations like the Kerala Police and KSEB use systems that run on open-source software. (The Freedom Walk has been supported in quite a few places by KSEB officials.) And yet, the walkers sensed “inertia” among people to migrate from Windows to Linux. From the other side of the table, a government administrator who uses open-source systems at his workplace, voiced the concern that technical support, after installation, was inadequate.
Whether inertia or lack of technical support, the way our discussion was framed, I felt “freedom in software” was a business issue that could be tackled by entrepreneurship, however paradoxical the solution might appear to the anti-capitalism brigade that’s backing the walk. And on that canvas, Freedom Walk can be read as a marketing tool to spread awareness in the market. A fun-walk by a bunch of geeks, cynics would add.
But that’s not the real agenda, I think.
Let us not dismiss the effort because of its multi-coloured umbrellas, its tricolour t-shirts, and its let’s-go-to-the-beach appearance. Unlike the science walk in the 1970s organised by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (which roped in hundreds), the Freedom Walk has had only three people walking in all districts, and they have been attracting mostly a few tens of people. The size of the dog in the fight is small, but not so the size of the fight in the dog.
In the media, the Freedom Walk has mostly been painted as a walk for freedom in software. The walkers blogged recently, “We were disappointed that the media had stripped out the soul of our message, and reduced it merely to Free Software. The underlying philosophy of ‘being the change you wish to see in the world’ had been glaringly missed out on.”
I think Anoop John’s real goal is to connect with Keralam — to know their aspirations, their problems, their strengths — so that he can do meaningful work in society. That’s why the Freedom Walk, despite its awkward clubbing of socio-political freedoms with technical issues, might find a place in history.
When the walkers halt for the night, in a church or a PWD Guest House, I hope they ask themselves everyday: Can those of us from upper class families connect with those unlike us? Can Kerala connect with Keralam?
That night, around quarter past ten, The Policeman walked in, smiled at us, kept his two mobile phones on the teapoy, and pulled his favourite chair. He then did something unusual — he placed the wireless handset on his lap, and before joining our conversation, switched it on.
For about a week, threats of bomb blasts had been piercing our city, via SMSes, e-mails and phone calls, and some of these had turned out to be hoax alerts. Tonight, voices spat from the police radio and The Policeman was listening in.
He is less than 30 years old but as chief policeman of the city, he is the one we look up to for our security. At the end of a long working day, when I turn the lights down, and pull up the blanket, I do not stop to ask whether the Police Commissioner sleeps. I assume that he does, when I bid him goodbye every other evening.
But that night would be different — I would not sleep peacefully.
Because at some point in our chat, The Policeman moved forward, as if to get up. I looked at the clock; it said two past twelve. I recalled how, a few weeks earlier at his house, at the stroke of twelve, The Policeman had politely thrown my friend and me out. I told myself, “This guy is disciplined and here comes the farewell line, as usual.”
Whence The Policeman said, “Come, let’s go out and have coffee.”
The hostess shrieked. “Are you insane? Do you know what time it is?” Her husband turned to us and said, “You guys go ahead.” And that’s how, in a small city on the western coast of southern India, at half-past-twelve one Saturday night, I ended up with the city’s chief policeman in my Maruti WagonR.
Every good South Indian knows that coffee isn’t the first item on the menu. Barely had the car moved a few metres, when The Policeman switched off the wireless set and said, “We’ve set up checkpoints in the city. Let’s see how they are working.”
As we approached the first checkpoint, the car in front of mine was being searched, and I slowed down. A police constable walked towards us, while his colleague got excited by my car’s numberplate — DL9, out-of-town car, and that too from Delhi (for some reason, many south Indians believe that north Indians are criminals unless proved innocent.) I expected the car’s Delhi registration to spice up the proceedings. The first constable saw my co-passenger, and snapped a salute. My companion said, “Go ahead. Search the car. You stopped it, right?”
Frankly, I didn’t expect this. I had thought that I was part of the hunting party. It struck me late that I was the bait.
After The Policeman reviewed the register of vehicles checked that night, he rolled up the window-glass, and we resumed our journey. Less than a minute later, he switched on his wireless set. Had the news of the “inspection” already been relayed on the network? No, it seemed.
At the next checkpoint, guess what…there was no checkpoint. There was no “Stop and Proceed” barrier, and the two constables on the spot allowed my alien car to cruise.
For a brief while, we stopped at the police headquarters in the heart of the town. When we resumed our journey, we crossed an intersection twice, but none of the policemen standing there flagged us down. Perhaps my DL9 had got a “stealth” shield thanks to my co-passenger.
About a hundred metres past the intersection, I stopped the car and The Policeman got out irritated. He walked back to the intersection, stood a few metres behind the constables, only to discover that mine was not the only car going un-searched. After five minutes of “non-stop” entertainment The Policeman had had enough. He phoned the officers in charge. Two police jeeps with flashing lights appeared on the scene, and The Policeman explained the scene he had been watching. The officers passed on lessons to the constables. A few constables came towards my car to inquire what I was doing there, and on their way back, woke up a guy who was drunk and sleeping on the nearby pavement.
The Policeman and I moved on, towards the railway station. Seeing policemen a few metres away, I swerved to the left, as if to evade them. Two constables rushed in waving their hands, indicating that I should pull over. This time, the policemen were on my side of the car, and hence did not see my co-passenger. They peered through the window and upon finding the backseat empty, asked me to open the boot. The search over, one constable’s eyes fell on my co-passenger, and out came the salute. The Policeman reviewed the register. As we moved on, we crossed the previous intersection — the inspectors were still giving lessons to the constables.
Time for a break. Burger, french fries, and coffee (finally!). We talked about policing, people and the personal, and hit the road again at 3 am.
This time, we drove towards a distant checkpoint. “That’s a good team,” my friend said and it was being manned well. We turned back towards the town, and about a kilometre from the checkpoint, noticed an injured man lying by the roadside. He had fallen off his motorcycle, and lay there vomiting blood. His friend, attending to him, seemed relieved to see us. The Policeman took the wireless set and radioed. A “flying squad” of policemen raced in and took the injured man to the hospital.
A few kilometres later, from a bend in the road, we verified whether the first checkpoint was still working well. It was. So, we decided to head home.
When I stopped the car at The Policeman’s house, he said, “Sorry to have ruined your sleep. We’ll meet for brunch at some nice place.” I was overcome with emotion, for I felt that I had contributed my mite to keeping the city secure ahead of Independence Day. So I replied, “No, no. Not at all. I don’t mind losing sleep for something like this.” And then I added, “After all, such inspections are unusual. They happen only once in a while, on special occasions.” The Policeman opened the car door, looked at me, and said, “Ashok, I do this every other week.”
* * *
I know that the Indian police force is far from perfect. But as I drove home, in the wee hours of just-another-Sunday, I prayed that Anup Kuruvilla John (1997) would retain such zeal throughout his career in the Indian Police Service. And I mentally saluted the policemen of this country who lose a good night’s sleep so that we may have ours.