Time to reassess the roles and strategies of the Student Movement

In early 2014, the IUSF submitted a 69-page report highlighting State Suppression of the Students’ Movement of Sri Lanka (released alongwith the Students for Human Rights). According to statistics presented in the report, during the last four years there were 1,420 expulsions and suspensions of students from universities, 231 arrests and 426 lawsuits. Some 218 students, including student union leaders, were trheatened with death. Student activists Susantha Bandara, Janaka Ekanayake and Sisitha Priyankara were murdered. In all three incidents the government was alleged to “suppress the truth by false propaganda” and to “delay the proceedings in the court”.

What does the government’s (alleged and factually asserted) mugging of protests and satyagraha campaigns by the Students Movement indicate? In recent weeks, there were at least two incidents that were given the media’s momentary spotlight, where repulsive and democratically unacceptable assaults of two peaceful protests — one by the students of the Bhikku University and the other spearheaded by the Students’ Union of the Sabaragamuwa University — were attacked by goons. In the former case, student monks in protest were allegedly assaulted with cow dung, while at Pambahinna Junction, where the SUSL protest was held, the students were mugged at midnight and their tenements were set on fire.

Of course, the rabid opposition to any form of student political impetus is no new item in the current regime’s educational (mis)agenda. The current minister — whose name is allegedly connected to the SUSL mug up in question — in fact began his “oppose-with-oppose” tactics months into his office, at Peradeniya University. On that occasion, too, the minister had arrived on campus to “open” a so-called “IT Center” that was already rolling. The Sabaragamuwa incident is more or less a not-so-nostalgic reminder of a pattern well set. In the Peradeniya incident, there was a solid protest held against the cheap propaganda of the defined sort, and a not-too-complimentary obstruction and hooting. The repercussions of the protest would come home to the students in the form of suspensions and arrests; not to mention threats and assaults.

A Jaffna University student being attacked by police in a street during a demonstration - Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Over the past five years or so, student activity in addressing issues in education, facilities, hygiene, basic rights and so forth have been violently responded to in the country’s main universities such as Kelaniya, Jaffna and Sabaragamuwa. In all three cases, the use of paramilitary thug squads and the military were alluded to by independent observers and critics. In other systematic ways, too, the governmental control of student movement and activity has been a prolonged issue faced by student bodies and individuals within the university system, who are politically and socially committed. There was a time — at the height of its power arrogance — where government-friendly Vice Chancellors would bend the rights of the Unions to satisfy the fancy of their political patrons. Many Universities still struggle for the rightful re-establishment of arbitrarily dissolved Unions within Faculties.

Sri Jayewardenapura had its Unions dissolved at one point, against which the students were pushed into a prolonged struggle. The latest round of posters in Colombo and its suburbs are by the Open University, calling for a re-enactment of their Students’ Union and a call for a downsizing of the new course fee particulars: Open University had its course fees increased almost by a three-fold in the recent months: a measure which even some of the University members didn’t know until it hit everyone like a meteor coming out of the sky. The University’s Students’ Union had earlier been arbitrarily disbanded by its politically-parachuted Vice Chancellor citing ludicrous reasons.

Students on hunger strike at University of Sabaragamuwa - Monday, October 13, 2014 | Photo © JDS

A few weeks ago, the Vice Chancellor (or equivalent) of the Kotalawela Defense “University” had made a statement that caught the media eye: that he doesn’t allow Unions in his prestigious institute. If we take this statement by the said personnel — for he is, indeed, a militant and a gentleman — the fundamental logic underlying the decisive assault of Students Unions (both through executive powers conferred upon the Authorities, and through paramilitary goons) can be easily deciphered. The statement under probe coming from a militant — a man trained to obey the superior under all circumstances and taught to shoot upon order — has a strong military and regimental resonance to it. The militant is the vanguard of empire and fascism. The dictate that is parroted proudly by the said top officer and vassal of the State is a fascist dictate. The cliched battle cry of empire is that there should be “one empire and one empire alone”. In an imperial maneuver there cannot be anti-ministerial voices, or people who express otherwise. Such existences undermine the empire as much as they chip the monolithic fabric of “oneness” the empire champions for its own ends.

Thus, there cannot be a definition of rights or allowances for the students (or anyone else as the case may be) except what the government, in its own self-indulgent wisdom, may deem. It is in order to centralize this very obvious regimental logic that tenements of students on protest must be set on fire, or Bhikku students should be covered in cow dung. It is for this reason that Kelaniya students should come under the baton of that famous sunglassed thug. The same applies to the Jaffna students who come under military thrashing in broad daylight; and the IUSF against whom court orders are obtained whenever a crucial protest is in the air.

The Students Movement is yet holding forth against the state suppression which, in the post-1991 era, is — perhaps — being at present carried out with more arrogance than ever before. Even with divisive elements operating within the Students Movement, as a whole, as an alternative lobby, the work fostered by the one single unit which claims to represent the interests of education as a whole is appreciable. Perhaps, this is the best time for the Movement to also revise its 1991-aftermath and to re-assess its roles and strategies in such a way that the dynamic energy of a larger student body can be brought to rally around valid student-related problems in national education.

The Private University bill is set to be put forth to the parliament for debate and approval. The years to come will not only test the mettle of the Students Movement but also how adept they are in a whole new era — and as a whole new generation — to create a counter-pressure against the State’s morbid determination to install the privatization plan. Of course, there was a time — such as in the 1980s — where the White Bill and the Northern Colombo Private Medical School (Ragama) implements were successfully countered by the Movement in a meaningful and tireless drive. The Venura Edirisinghe-types who were at the front of such activism — by the time we entered Univeristy twenty years later — were already done and dusted with; being made into a saga and a “slain martyr” in the name of a freer education system. Starting from the deaths of student frontliners such as Weerasooriya in 1976 to a spree of student assassinations in the 1980s, the State name has always been in friction with the energy of the Lankan Students’ Movement.

As early as 1971, the Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Campuses were converted into camps holding JVP detainees: a symbolic imperial impede which speaks for the arrogance of power. In 1988-90, the University of Colombo was a known torture base in the State’s anti-JVP activism. The lashing of the collective voices that represent the student interests today are no lenient; and must be seen for the arrogant display of an uncompromising authority and should be responded to as such.

The students Movement has, for the future, to think of converting their now momentuous satyagraha and protestant activity into its dynamic next level: that is, to convert the salvaged energy (from the state onslaught) into meaningful political action. For this, the Movement has to go for a broader platform, winning the consensus of the wide stakeholders within the university student community; and by clearly re-defining and re-thinking its role, strategy and implementation of them in the current context. The Students’ Movement has lifted its head and it recuperates after being badly imploded. To seek meaning in its stances and claims is its first and next prime object.

© SLWakes

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


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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