In these days of social media activism, what usually follow a tragedy are a few posts in support of the victims, a hashtag campaign and a Facebook page which discusses the issue fiercely in the beginning and loses steam as days progress as the tragedy, like many others, sinks into oblivion. But what started out as a Facebook page following the mysterious death of engineering student Jishnu Pranoy last year, turned into an organisation that offers free legal aid to students.
The Legal Collective for Students' Rights (LCSR), an outfit of advocates and law students, provides legal support and awareness to students who face injustice and atrocities from their college administration in the name of fees, illegal restrictions, fine, etc. Since its advent as a Facebook post, the team has been a proponent for change and now, with the initiative 'Your Lawyer Friend', they have marched one step ahead by tackling issues in an effective manner by studying the root causes and taking the legal route.
“The death of Jishnu Pranoy was no less than a revelation for students to voice their rights. With them coming forward, the inhuman methods adopted by the administration in the name of discipline had to be changed and this paved the way for LCSR's Your Lawyer Friend,” the team says.
Arjun, executive director of LCSR and a fourth-year LLB student at National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi, says, "While researching about the violations in higher education system, we came across various Supreme Court and High Court judgments and noticed that our Judiciary, over the years, had become hugely anti-student. If a judgment is declared on an issue, it has the effect of becoming the law of the land. These judgments have given the college principals unbounded discretionary powers, which they use against the students from time to time. To change this situation, voicing the students' concerns in the courtrooms is necessary. That's what we are trying to do through strategic litigation."
The idea of the organisation sprouted from the discussions Arjun had with his collegemates Sreenath, Kennath Joe Cleetus and Lettisha.
They approached the directors of the Citizens for Constitutional Governance, a NGO formed by a team of lawyers practising at the High Court, to provide pro bono legal assistance to the collective. With the technical support offered by Bodhi Info Solutions, they developed a student-friendly website. Now, Sreenath handles the public relations, Kennath Joe Cleetus works in a law firm and Lettisha is the research head of the LCSR team. If the issue that is brought to their notice is not frivolous, they respond immediately, provide them legal awareness and take up the case. The Collective has a chapter in Trivandrum and another one in Calicut, headed by Adv. Raniyal Niyada and Mr. Jojimon Jaseenthan respectively. The Kochi chapter is headed by Anisha V.R.
"While brainstorming the idea, I wasn't fully aware of the scope of the Collective. Now, crossing 50 cases, we are just beginning to realise its full potential," says Lettisha.
While the four conduct the research drafting and client counseling, it is the Citizens for Constitutional Governance that steers the cases in the court. Their research initiatives include Operation Gothumbunda - to ensure repayment of caution deposit and Fines are not Fine - to curtail arbitrary fine collection by authorities, among others. They are also in the process of drafting a questionnaire that could replace the present parameters for assessment of educational institutions countrywide so that students can make more informed decisions.
One of the first cases they took up was of Ashish and Asma - the former who wanted to drop out of a course and the latter, seeking a transfer to another college. What stood in their way was an illegal clause in the admission form of Nehru College, Pampady, forcing the students who wish to discontinue their course to 'compensate' for the vacant seats and pay the fees for the remaining duration of the course. Students failing to do so had their certificates withheld by the college administration. The LCSR intervened and filed a petition with the Admission supervisory/ Fee Regulatory Committee; the judgment was in favor of the students, demanding the college administration to release the certificates without any bigoted provision.
Then came a case filed by an assistant professor of Jawaharlal College of Engineering against the students who protested against the death of Jishnu. Students, with the help of LCSR, approached the High Court seeking quashing of the FIR against them. The case is awaiting judgment and is expected to be in the favour of the students.
The team is now behind Anjitha K. Jose, the third-year BA student at Kerala Varma College, Thrissur, who filed a petition at the High Court against the discriminatory restrictions at the women's hostel managed by the college authorities. "It is the LCSR which suggested filing the petitions when I told them about the situation there. Till meeting them, I had no clue about how to respond. Now, they have taken up the issue and are doing what is needed. I hope for the best," says Anjitha.
The motto of the Collective is to end exploitation. As Arjun puts it, "Commercialisation of educational institutions has paved way for exploitation. Unlike other areas, the market here is not functioning according to the interest of the consumers. The consumers here are the students, but the transactions are done by the parents. Eventually, the market is driven by the interests of the parents. Parents are seldom interested in the legal fight against such atrocities. On But the college management can easily field in a high-profile advocate and win the case. The LCSR is challenging this status quo."