O Captain! My Captain - A personal obituary to Comrade Rajesh Kumar K. K

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring!

Comrade Rajesh Kumar K. K. passed away on 27th April 2013 after an arduous battle with brain tumor. He was the first Students general secretary of National Institute of Technology, Calicut, served in the SFI Kerala state committee and was the founding chairman of the Kerala engineering college students union, known as TECHNOS. Born as the eldest son of late Kumaran master who was an active member of PuKaSa- the progressive writers association and Smt. Santha, a retired school teacher, he had been an active presence in the left and progressive students politics, at various capacities for almost a decade. He was a member of the SFI delegation who met the Lyngdoh Committee on students’ politics in universities. Rajesh held B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from NIT Calicut and M.Tech in Computer Science and Information Technology, from CUSAT. He is survived by his mother and a younger brother, Ratheesh Kumar K. K.

Writing a note accurately analysing the life and contributions of a person requires a certain amount of academic detachment. As someone whose life intertwined with the subject in so many ways, a dispassionate analysis is beyond me. But, as a person who has known Com. Rajesh for the past twelve years, it would be a heinous crime in front of his memory, if I shower empty platitudes or glossy adjectives; something he detested throughout his life. There were so many personal qualities that made people attracted to him, quite often cutting across the boundaries of political parties or ideology. Yet, as a political individual his charisma is best defined by the ideals he stood for.

So what is politics? It is about engaging with the world we live in. It is about contested ideas about social organisation and ways to implement them.

I belonged to a typical middle class family in Kerala with no particular political affiliation. And like all such families who invested their years of toil in children's future, I was tutored about the evils of politics in general and student politics in particular. According to the common wisdom anything more than bagging a good academic score, posts to boast about in resume and a job in hand, in general, was a waste of time. As a first year student at the Calicut Regional Engineering College, most of my friends, and there were many then, had warned about a nasty left inclined political group called Radicals with scheming people who wanted to make a living at the expense of ordinary students. Particularly worse among them was this dark skinned guy with an unimpressive academic record and who was hell bound in making a political career out of our votes. Some of the self described talented people urged me to vote for anyone but him. But a 20 minute conversation with the person, who was stereotyped as above, changed the entire course of my life. When I reflect back, he did not convince me of novel ideas or gave any vain promise involving fame, glory or power. It was a sweet and simple conversation about what he and the organisation he stood for, believed in. He did not boast about the number of certificates he got for extracurricular activities (which he could have, in fact) or the entire resume of his panel. Even when he was unjustly targeted, he did not throw dirt at his opponents. He talked about issues. He talked about ideas. Limited in scale though it was, that was my first encounter with political thinking.

I clearly remember the first address he gave to freshers in our hostel. He began like this.

Politics is considered as a dirty word. But consider another question. If you were given a chance to choose the person worthy of the title father of the nation, who would that be? Now, we can debate whether there need to be such a title or not. For the time being, let us just agree that there is such a title. We have no dearth of celebrities in India. Would you select the cricketing God Sachin, Tatas, Birlas or Ambani, a scientist like C. V. Raman or a technocrat like A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, or someone like Gandhi? We need not agree with everything Gandhi did or said, but you cannot escape from the fact that he, or anyone that most people consider worthy of that title, is essentially a political figure. So what is politics? It is about engaging with the world we live in. It is about contested ideas about social organisation and ways to implement them. In this limited arena of college elections, what our manifesto proposes is also a set of ideas relevant to this campus and you are requested to evaluate them for what they are worth, look at our track record and the ability of our candidates to fulfill them. And when you do that, you too are becoming political...

Those words made sense to many, but most people were skeptical and already prejudiced against him. He refused to lie at any stage about his leftist political inclination or on issues like collecting a nominal service charge (Rs. 5/- per form) for submitting semester examinations forms in the university, which was a consuming and monotonous effort involving travel and waiting in a long queue. When the results came in, he along with the fellow candidate from his panel who stood for the post of university union councilor, lost. Yet, like poetic justice, the winners failed to keep their promises and even defaulted on their duties. Almost every person who voted against him regretted their choice. That incident was probably the starting point of his journey as an activist and leader.

"The role of a left wing student organisation in an engineering college is nothing more than creating good engineers- committed human beings who think and engage with the politics of technology"

Com. Rajesh always reminded us that it is not winning elections, but engaging with the people and understanding the issues, that is important in politics. Elections and positions are just means. He set example by meeting students, especially those who had issues pertaining to academics, administration or financial conditions, often consoling and encouraging them, after losing for the first time. That probably earned him the reputation of being the most approachable student organiser. By the time the next elections were declared after a gap of two years (during which the Calicut REC was made NIT Calicut with deemed university status), he had already grown in stature to the extent that all our sympathisers were unanimous as to who should be the Gen. Secretary candidate. That was an election fought with much vigour. And the same saga that happened while I was a first year, repeated. The “apolitical” candidates had their fat salary figure, the club secretary posts they held, academic laurels, glitz and glamour to boast about. But this time, despite an entire batch going against, Com. Rajesh won a formidable victory and once again Radicals, held the majority in the student's union.

The first Radicals meeting after the election victory showed us the intellectual side of Com Rajesh. He started with thanking everyone who had worked day and night for campaigning, writing posters and coordinating the whole effort. My recollection of the key aspect of that address goes like this:

We stand at a historic juncture, where the way we function will decide the course of student representation and rights in general, in this deemed university. I do not believe that the function of a student union is to be the agent of administration, within the student body. While we do not wish to be confrontational as a rule, it is naive to believe that all decisions from the administration will be to the best of our interests. The autonomy in the context of academic institution has to be approached cautiously. It involves academic, administrative and financial autonomies. While academic autonomy in general might be a good idea, administrative and financial autonomies involve many catches. With this present administration, a majority of who might even be good people at a personal level, a chance to formulate rules leading to student victimisation, unprecedented fee hikes and targeting of critics. It is important that all universities have a strong student representation in every aspect that affects them, except perhaps setting the syllabus and evaluation. The space for student representation will be the space we carve out. No administration will be willing to give that to us, because it goes against their interests. Generally they want a docile bunch of people, who mind their own business without criticising any of their policies. Therefore we must remember that winning the election is just the beginning, we have to stay alert and keep fighting.....

Coming to think about those words, they have turned prophetic. Virtually, every institute that was granted these autonomies has ended up into repressive regimes where the interests of students are at best secondary. Our academic institutions have been perpetuating and promoting a culture of virtual slavery- do not question, just obey. It goes well with the requirements of the corporate world. But it hardly does any good to the nation at large which is crippling due to lack of ideas.

The instances where we have experienced the clarity in his thoughts are numerous. But despite being an outspoken student activist, it is heartening to remember that he was liked by many people sitting at the highest administrative positions. He remained a lifelong friend of Prof. M. P. Chandrasekharan, the founding director of NITC, staff advisors and many department heads. There was something unique and warm about his personality that helped people to be comfortable with him, even when they might have disagreed with his ideas.

Comrade Rajesh gave a glimpse of the cultural atmosphere he envisioned by introducing a film festival, starting an extra mural lecture series, laying the foundation for a cultural organisation which would invite writers and intellectuals for talks and debates, conducting an anti-war rally against the Iraq invasion (the response to which was predictably dull) and having a blue print for a theater festival. The student's parliament was inaugurated by Medha Patkar and that itself was clear political message coming from a campus known for its apathy and apolitical nature.

In my final year, the last meeting inside the campus was presided by Rajesh. Most of my juniors, who later took the leadership of the organisation, maintain that it was the best speech they have heard in their lives. He began by defining what the role of a left wing student organisation is.

Many people ask this question. What is the role of a left wing organisation in an engineering campus? We might point to issues within the campus or the question of student rights to justify our presence. But that, my comrades, is not sufficient. What is the primary purpose of a left wing student organisation? Before defining that, we need to ask what the duty of an engineer is. Students expect a decent paying job and good technical knowhow along with the degree. And it is fair enough. I do not want to use rhetoric like careerism. But does having knowledge, an opportunity to apply it and being sustained with a good remuneration, make someone a good engineer? I am not the ideal person to speak about engineering knowledge or professional standards. There are issues much deeper than that like the ethics that you follow, the mode of development that you subscribe to, etc. If only you are clear about these, will you ever be a good engineer. The role of a left wing student organisation in an engineering college is nothing more than creating good engineers- committed human beings who think and engage with the politics of technology...

After the completion of course, he used to visit us frequently. In fact, many of us enjoyed the long walks inside the campus with the comrade, discussing personal and political issues. We enjoyed his words and more than what they conveyed, there was a piercing honesty that made us hooked to him. We all knew that he would grow and become a worthy leader someday. Even after leaving NITC, he was active in SFI circles. His organisation building skills were evident in setting up an engineering students organisation called TECHNOS, much in the same line as the medical students organisation MEDICOS. He kept in touch with his close friends throughout the time of his PG course. But soon, as some would say that life is unfair, he was diagnosed with brain tumor and underwent immediate surgery. A time of chaos followed, but with the staunch support from his friends and comrades, he was showing signs of recovery.

Personally, he was more than a friend and comrade to me. He was that person whom I liked to discuss my personal life. An elder brother who I loved to meet at his home, sometimes by traveling in a bicycle for 35 kms; someone who would come to meet you at Kolkata and give a token money of Rs. 500/- saved from his M.Tech stipend as a gift. Comrade Rajesh was more than a student activist, who remained committed to maintaining his relation with friends and erstwhile comrades.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

It suffices to describe comrade Rajesh in 3 easy words - honesty, courage and warmth. He was the resolute fighter who is just dead, not defeated. Lal Salaam, Comrade!

This article has been modified after publication.