Militarization of civil spaces and the tract of education

Two years after the FUTA’s MOU with the government of Sri Lanka, militarization of Education — under the larger militarizing interests of the State — is still in force. The Students’ Movement makes a low key ruffle regarding this continuous tendency, while Education is firmly set on the conveyor belt of rabid regimental control. Military-style quasi-training of university entrants, teachers, principals etc are not the concern of the Academy. Indeed, they cut a prettier picture when asleep.

If one is skeptical and wary of how the military is being deployed by the Sri Lankan State in infiltrating and in “occupying” what – up to 2009 or so – has been exclusively civil spaces, one may also add that our silence and passive acceptance of the fact has, by today, backlashed on the “civil spirit” which we as a society are entitled to. Numerous activists and concerned citizens have raised issue after issue as to how the post-2009 military deployment in forcibly evacuating civilians from their traditional homes, in bulldozing houses and tenements from which the voiceless and the politically under-privileged have been evicted through force etc is a warning signal of the rising fascist tides of government.

In post-2009, the military has been severally used to buy and sell vegetables, clean and drain canals, to build and man quasi-leisure spaces, to build and man shopping arcades, to build and man jog spots, to build and run resorts and vacation spots and so on; thereby, passing onto this unit – the militant enrollment of the State – a mass of social capital and legitimized social authority, as unprecedented in Lankan history. Under the populist labels of being engaged in “humanitarian operations” (against Dengue, bad drainage, scarcity of legumes etc) of sorts, the governing body, in order to maintain its own end, has sent the military to our homesteads, penetrating rightful civil spaces and the civil order that becomes a “normal society” in traffic.

When the pavements and roads are laid under the aegis of a band of military men who are deposited on site by an army truck – and not by skilled labour whose expertise and livelihood is in road laying – we not only deprive the rightful employee the right to rightful employment; but, we also yield our “space” and our “land” to the work of a close knit, bugle controlled agency whose “efficiency” at work is the very fact that they are regimented and placed under the whip of their superior (who report to the government) against which they do not, under any circumstance, rebel.

The difference between the ordinary labourer who may be employed by the municipality and the military man assigned as labourer (other than, of course, the latter being a usurper of the former’s rightful employment) is simply that the municipality worker is a representative of a class and of a class consciousness; and is employed in a “public enterprise” within the spirit and allowance of functioning in a “civil space” and with a right and room to uphold the values and virtues of that “civil domain”. As such, the labourer has a right of voice, a right to dissent, a right to raise issues of concern etc – including a right to protest and strike, which are her/his allowances by virtue of being a part of a “civil” process governed by “civil law”.

Indeed, a government – if it is a government allergic to “civil processes” and civilians – might have problems with “labourers with rights” and valid grievances; and such a government may seek its own end in a caustic cost-benefit analysis of its own utilitarian priorities, upholding a “cost-effective” labour, which might also put up buildings while giving little “trouble”, under a slave master’s whip. In fact, the government can down two simultaneous birds with this one stone: while fostering a partisan and absolutely “trouble-free” labour, the government can at the same time “territorially occupy” (symbolically and psychologically) those spaces that are militarily wrought.

The fascist tendency of the post-2009 state of affairs is too clear for one to miss. A country that has been constitutionally garnered along codes of a democratic spirit (by all means a “troubled” and “contested” democracy, but a democratic bay nonetheless), over the past few years, has been strategically bent and eroded into the clutches of a set up that often reflects a militarist fascist control in its primitive stages. A recent study done in comparing the rise of Hitlerist Germany in the mid 1930s – specially in its military form – and the absolute forms of control and contortion locatable in Lanka via the state deployment of military middlemen detained my attention.

Now, military infiltration has come to our Education. In that trajectory where a few megalomaniacs who seem to aim at fascist centralization, the military – as an agent – is the preferred vanguard and champion of “leadership skills”, now being fertilized in the sockets of numerous stakeholders of our Education. The behind-the-curtain exchanges in engineering such a policy where the legal militant encampment of the country is seen as the worthy Nestor to inculcate in the country’s youth (and old alike) values and principles of “leadership” (whatever that may be) is alarming, to say the least. In 2010, this maneuver commenced parallel to the military buying-and-selling vegetables, bringing out of dredged canals discarded biscuit tins and so forth. By 2014, we have five batches of would-be university entrants, chosen school principals and – in some cases – academics and teachers given “leadership training” at various capacities.

University entrants participate in a compulsory leadership training pragramme conducted by Sri Lankan Army. Photo courtesy: Groundviews

In this essay I do not question the monies and funds that are approved and allocated for these programmes (which, if otherwise channeled to universities, could arguably be redirected to a more meaningful measure), or as to whether the training, facilities and the overall quality of the project is a realistic reflection of the investment as a whole. Nor do I debate the duration of the programme (which is roughly three weeks per student batch), or the uncanny duplicity with which this enterprise is shared and popularized among the people as “compulsory”. These are, in a sense, minor issues when contextualized within the larger fascist programme, into which Education is being gradually subjected to.

In the same way the free labourer is a “trouble maker” – as much as the free labourer’s cry for better working conditions is “trouble” – an independent Academy, too, is a thorn in the control-frenzy politician’s hide. The Academy – pernicious and counter-productive as it sometimes is – is still a chief contributor to whatever dialogue and alternative channeling there is across society; and is traditionally seen as a social organ which inherently (as per its function) produces and intervenes with forms of “knowledge”. If the fascist practices control, one-way ticketing and a muffling of plurality for its own gain, the Academy has the potential – and is traditionally invested with the historic function of sustaining that potential – to enhance narratives of counter-control, dissemination, multiplicity and so on. In one’s conquering of the land for exclusive usage, the conquering of the Academy is a strong prerogative. The infiltration of it with military stooge-hood is, in a non-academic sense, not rocket science.

In five years of “military camp” training for “would-be-undergrads”, the elaboration with which the project launched in 2010 has lost its wheels. The elaborate “POP-ness” of what was presented to the world as a progressive move to keep up with the times – a façade in 2010 as it is a forgotten burp in 2014 – is no longer even spoken about. Today, the “camp experience” has deteriorated to three weeks of “mess culture” with a loose injection of “lectures” of sorts which can be had elsewhere, too; and arguably by better qualified persons, under “civil” conditions.

The syllabus is not the camp’s strong point, either; but, physical drill, team work sessions, concerts, dramas, musical interludes and parades supplement this want. I personally do not see the logic of parade culture or of drills – if that is for a mere three week injection and not to be revised ever again in one’s adult life; and if, indeed, that drill dos not correspond with the rigorous academic programme into which the student is stepping forth – while the rest can be otherwise maneuvered (if at all), under “civil” conditions, without a militant rearguard. The organizers of this charade, in my view, are totally clueless of what “leadership” in a “civil context” is; nor are they equipped and sufficiently imaginative to fill in three weeks they have been “assigned” (by superiors with other interests) to keep pockets of would-be undergraduates employed.

In 2010, the pre-university “camp” was said to be a measure that will “minimize ragging” on campus. This was a concern tabled by the then UGC chairman which was open to the public. Indeed, in past years as it has so far been the case in 2014, the military bases have “instructed” the “trainees” to abstain from ragging, or from being ragged. Student Unions have been demoted as demonic and “trainees” have been discouraged from membership in them. But, on the other hand, there are no drastic rises or falls in the “rag culture” in universities as a whole either; while, if at all, the Students’ Movement seems to have picked up momentum in the recent months. In a “civil” space, the choice to be ragged (or not) or to join a union (or keep away) is a discursive option. The counter-thrust to ragging or activism of that line has to be a student incentive within a political consciousness generated from within the body politic of the university. This is equally relevant to the Sri Lanka military: an institute which (like other institutes) is believed to have a notorious rag culture within.

The “saviour role” thus assigned – the role to prevent students from ragging / getting ragged / being politically mobile – is part of the “mind control” which fascist maneuvers find essential to their projects. It is also a way of infantilizing the potential of the would-be undergrad and a way of infiltrating their consciousness, in spite of how effective that infiltration is. While some students (for various reasons) “enjoy” their stay at camp, others variously either despise it, or see it as a “pre-university rag” which, given the option, is redundant. The subtle mind control also takes the guise of imposing regimental values and views (as, for example, in the promotion of the Rajapakshe chinthana in a case as was reported in 2013) and of being an adherent of a regularized framework (a military-like time table) within which the individual is preferred to be seen. We have no oppositions to this being unloaded on the heads of wannabe militants in military school; but, of its relevance and prescription to a body of students whose critical-mindedness and ability to explode structures and frames are of crucial significance is ludicrous and farcical.

Our “future leaders”, if indeed, your prerogative is to “make them” (for leaders can’t be made the way cubicle-holders are), should be seeded with self and social reflection and the energy to critically engage with the world at large. Their minds and bodies should not be played with, training them through a rigorous drill like a herd of cattle in isolated military encampments, where after three weeks of collective participation the “guise of fellow feeling” gets passed for achievement. The training of the “leader” (again, I repeat, if there is a feasibility for such a notion) has to be where one’s imagination is given to flourish, critical reflection is given prime of place, and healthy mental participation is promoted. Perhaps, there is a way in which the military moulds its leaders. But, the “civil space” does not thrive on such quasi-leadership, nor must it administer the same injection for its own future offspring whose values and principles should not be a sanction of a non-civil block.

As we speak, the militarization of our Education has moved from the bestowing on a selected band of Principals from selected high schools a title of “Brevet Colonel” (which some of them seem to cherish, and the others take seriously) to the unethical and unprecedented encroachments made on national universities by masked and unmasked “hit squads” which – in spite of passing at viewing distance – are not recognized by Rakna Lanka security persons who were earlier placed on national campuses through governmental decree. The situation at Sabaragamuwa University is an alarming case in point validating the “anti-militarist” slogan which the Students Movement has been keeping alive amidst much Draconian whiplash by Authorities. As I have raised and emphasized on numerous occasions since 2010 – both through this space and in public forums – the time for a sustained and collaborated effort by the stakeholders of national education in redeeming the impetus of our Academy from the growing fascist / militarizing drive of a megalomania is (perhaps) at the verge of being overdue. But, the apple has to be saved for whatever the future of independent academia and its functionary individuals are worth.

Lead photo courtesy: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi | The Baltimore Sun

© SLWakes

Vihanga Perera is a poet, prose writer and blogger. This article originally appeared on his blog 'In Love With a Whale'.


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