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University unrest seems to have come to a halt

" Ministry of higher education has embarked on a number of new initiatives and some of which are far from consensus. Among these new initiatives, private university project, upgrading six universities to world class status, elimination of ragging from higher educational institutions, and improving the quality of university education are major undertakings which involve a challenging and complex set of circumstances."

by Dr Jayaratne Pinikahana, Melbourne

(November 11, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) Is the university system in Sri Lanka in crisis? I think the answer is resounding ‘no’. Things seem to be coming back to normal with the release of 4 students who were arrested after the hooting incident at Peradeniya and 23 students who were arrested after the clash with police at the higher education ministry. The Peradeniya University was reopened last week. We have witnessed a great deal of violence and clashes in universities in 1971 and again in 1988/1989. The current situation in universities is no way near the situation prevailed in these two instances. Never before, a large number of scholars and commentators including Kumar David, Dayan Jayatileke, Sumanasiri Liyanage et al have greatly contributed to the debate around university unrest together with the private university project. I am particularly moved by the article published in Sunday Divaina last week by Professor Meegahatenne Jayatissa on the aetiology of student unrest at the Ruhuna University. He had illustrated in detail the way in which the vice-chancellor Mendis has dealt with the unscrupulous elements of the JVP backed student union at the Ruhuna University which is established by default. Most crucially, he had elaborated how the vice-chancellor managed to put an end to a number of loopholes through which a large amount of money was channelled through to fund the politically-motivated activities of the student union. The VC also fixed the irregularities in the use of university vehicles, hostels etc by the student union. It is encouraging to see that he had the backbone and the courage to clean up the mess created by student union. Surely, the changes he made in a number of areas might have angered the student union but he should be highly commended on putting the house in order in the interest of peace-loving, fair-minded students and their mums and dads.

There is no denying the fact that the student unrest in universities is instigated by the JVP. A great deal has been written in recent days linking the student unrest and violence to the JVP. In effect, the universities have become their training grounds for future leaders who demonstrate a less interest in completing their degree programs. Universities should be ‘Centres of excellence’ in science & technology and arts & culture and they should not be centres where only the political leaders are produced and trained. They should also produce both physical and social scientists, doctors, engineers, administrators etc.

Social crises including university unrest are not caused by any single factor and they are multi-causal in character. As many commentators have argued, the student unrest is linked to a range of factors including poor facilities in universities, unemployment among graduates, private university project, banning ragging and general political situation in the country. But the fact of the matter is that these triggering factors have been well manipulated and staged well by the JVP. In an article published in The Island by Prof Sumanasiri Liyanage on 8/11/2010 argued that the discipline of the university students has not deteriorated in recent years. In his view, there is no significant difference compared to the situation in the 60’s or the 70’s. I find it hard to buy his argument given the fact that some recent incidents have gone far beyond the situation prevailed in the 60’s both in terms of ‘severity’ and ‘frequency’. We both would agree that there is no credible research evidence to back up our claims but on anecdotal evidence it is abundantly clear that current student violence is not analogous with the situation in the 60’s. For example, there is no record in the history of our universities where a vice-chancellor was physically attacked by students. It is well on public records that the VC of the Ruhuna University Prof Susirith Mendis was injured in a student attack a few weeks ago. I think it is a bit illogical to draw an analogy between a physical attack on a VC by students and the incidents of hooting at Dudley and/or Iriyagolla in the 60’s and Hameed in the 90’s at the Peradeniya University. In my view, the attack on the VC is ‘qualitatively’ different from attacking a politician. In our south Asian culture, the supreme teacher is called “Disapamok’ who is well respected, adored and cared for by society. No society could deviate from its social & cultural norms and on that basis, attacking the Disapamok is a woeful and moronic act that is much more severe than just ‘indiscipline’. It indicates that the respect not just for teachers but for professors, VCs has been greatly eroded and the whole society is becoming devoid of discipline, respect, decency and tolerance.

In a careful scrutiny, one could see no burning student issues or structural problems that should lead to the current unrest. The hooting incidence at the higher education minister at Peradeniya, the refusal by the VC to stage a drama at Rajarata, the confrontation between two student groups at Ruhuna and a clash between university officials and student monks at Jayewardenepura are completely separate incidents which are by no means interrelated. These are four separate incidents that should have been effectively dealt with separately.

With the benefit of hindsight, university unrest is snowballing rapidly and takes its toll within a very short period of time. Following the hooting incident at Peradeniya, four students were arrested and to get them released, another group of students clashed with police at the higher education ministry resulting the arrest of 23 students. The great irony is that now students need to concentrate on getting their colleagues released from custody instead of winning their demands. In my student days, there was a saying that ‘ when you are fighting for a shirt wearing a sarong, you suddenly lose your sarong, now you forget about fighting for a shirt and instead, you start to fight back to get your sarong back’. This has been the student dilemma right through out the history of student politics in Sri Lanka, but paradoxically enough, history seems to be repeating itself!

Minister S.B. Dissanayake is not against student freedom, and autonomy in universities and he took pains on a number of occasions to explain the importance of student freedom, autonomy and democratic rights of university students. As a former student activist, he is not happy with the deployment of the police in universities too. But the student unrest backed by the JVP has brought the situation into a point where police deployment is critical ingredient for public safety. As The Island editorial on 8/11/2010 has quite rightly stressed, ‘it is much better to deploy the police to nip university unrest in the bud at this stage than to let the situation deteriorate further leading to a catastrophe’. We know that one student at Ruhuna university has already died from the current wave of student violence and we all need to acknowledge that ‘one death’ is too much on any human scale.

It is a great relief to see that 4 students who were involved in hooting incident at Peradeniya and 23 students who were arrested at the higher education ministry have been released on bail with a strong warning by magistrates to pursue their studies. And yet, the Peradeniya University has been reopened and things seem to be returning to normal. What really needs at this hour is to defuse the triggers that might spark another crisis. Students need to display some degree of maturity, decency and humanity by not involving in any form of violence and ragging in universities. Ragging is a non-negotiable issue that should be eliminated from university sector lock, stock and barrel. Students need to realise that they can not go any ‘low’ than banning under-wears for female students! This form of degrading, semi-barbaric behaviours need to come to a halt by law, if they are not controlled by their semi-developed, evolutionary brain! As Prof Liyanage says, we all have failed miserably to eradicate ragging from universities and I would add that it is a ‘collective failure’ as the former secretary general of United Nations Kofi Annan said after the Rwandan genocide which killed eight hundred thousand human beings. We have ‘collectively’ failed to stop this insanity, no matter how hard the authorities have regulated student behaviour and their activities.

Ministry of higher education has embarked on a number of new initiatives and some of which are far from consensus. Among these new initiatives, private university project, upgrading six universities to world class status, elimination of ragging from higher educational institutions, and improving the quality of university education are major undertakings which involve a challenging and complex set of circumstances. If the minister failed in any or all of these undertakings, it would NOT be his solo-failure but a ‘collective failure’ of all of us which might lead to a range of failures in the areas of human resources development, brain drain, knowledge economy and science & technology. Sanity inter alia should prevail in both parties as an essential ingredient for reversing any ‘collective failure’ of these new initiatives.

(The writer can be reached at Jaya_pinikahana@yahoo.com.au )

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