The violence witnessed in the Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College in Chennai on Wednesday could have been dismissed as a local incident but for the larger issues of caste conflicts making their way into an educational institution, and policemen remaining mute spectators to brutal assaults. The apparent provocation for the violence that left several students seriously injured was the printing and distribution of a handbill on the occasion of Thevar Jayanthi by a group of st udents in which the name of the college was mentioned as “Government Law College,” leaving out the name of Dr. Ambedkar. In the context of Thevar-Dalit conflict in the southern districts of the State, this was interpreted as an insult to Dr. Ambedkar and a deliberate act of provocation. A showdown was waiting to happen but the college authorities did little to cool tempers.
The police have often hesitated to enter college campuses without a specific request from the college authorities, but Wednesday’s inaction is wholly indefensible. True, the onus of maintaining discipline on campuses lies with the college authorities, but the police are empowered and duty-bound to stop criminal assaults and cognisable offences anywhere. Campuses cannot be an exception. The college principal, Shridev, who has since been suspended, sought police help rather late. But this does not explain why the police personnel who were forewarned and were present on the spot chose not to intervene. As the Justice K.S. Bakthavatsalam Commission of Inquiry, which went into the students-police clash in the Law College hostel in Chennai in 2001, pointed out, the police have the right to enter a college without permission to disperse an unlawful assembly. The State government has been quick to take action against the policemen who so obviously failed in their duty, transferring out the Commissioner of Police, and suspending an Assistant Commissioner and an Inspector. By their very nature, law colleges are more politically surcharged than other educational institutions. Students wanting to make a career of politics see the law course as a stepping stone. Political parties and even the judiciary are quick to react in cases involving law students. This perhaps explains, but does not by any means justify, the hands-off approach adopted by the police in law college conflicts. The one-member Commission of Inquiry set up by the State government to look into Wednesday’s incident will need to lay down guidelines and clear police misgivings, if any, in dealing with students and preventing campus violence.