|Sunday, 17 November 2002|
University killings and five-star gun fights
Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake
While a university has been converted into a killing field the pleasure gardens of the upper classes have become the arena for gun fights. The murder of an undergraduate at the Sri Jayawardhanapura University and the mob attack at Trans Asia Hotel are two sides of the same coin for they demonstrate in their separate ways the inexorable grip which violence and terror have taken hold of our society. No longer can the bourgeoisie afford to sneer at the university students as a rabble beyond the pale of the law for they themselves are today in violation of their own so-called gentlemanly code.
The irony, of course, is that in both these respects we Sri Lankans still remain snared in the colonial trap. It was our one-time imperial masters who introduced the gentlemanly code to us, the heathen, establishing gentlemen's clubs to make us good brown sahibs. It was the English who also introduced into our universities the practice of ragging (which sparked off the university tragedy) although in this regard at least we cannot blame the English for their ragging was a mild initiation ceremony. It was a new post-Independence generation which very much later turned this into a reign of terror.
Ragging in the 1940s, 1950s and even the 1970s was all good fun and nowhere has this aspect of university life been better captured than in P. M. Jayatilleke's nostalgic Peradeniya novels. But even by the end of the 1960s there is a reference in R. R. Samarakone's 'Ek Sabhya Kathavak' to a university student who commits suicide because ragging involved his testicles being burnt with a cigarette butt. By the mid-1970s a female undergraduate became disabled for life when she jumped off an upper floor of a Peradeniya University hall of residence.
The ragging of some trainee mathematics teachers at the then Vidyalankara University prompted Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike's Government of the day to appoint the one-man V. W. Kularatne Commission, something I remember vividly because that was my first assignment as a cub reporter.
My then Editor, the late W. Lionel Fernando, took a stern view of ragging and I remember being rebuked by my young progressive friends of the time for what they thought was an unkind piece I wrote about a seminar at the Centre for Society and Religion where Prof. Carlo Fonseka and Harsha Gunawardena, then the President of the University Students' Council (later the Media Officer of the ICRC) sought to offer some kind of socio-psychological justification for ragging.
But even then ragging had not assumed the brutal form it has taken today. Much later in the 1980s it was only Uvindu Kurukulasuriya (who later became a journalist on the 'Ravaya') who alone was able to resist ragging as a fresher at the Jayawardhanapura University. Today a senior student of the same university has had to pay the supreme price for opposing ragging.
What Prof. Carlo Fonseka and Harsha Gunawardena (the other participant at this seminar, if I remember correctly, was Prof. Ashley Halpe) sought to argue in 1975 was that the kind of sadistic form which ragging had by then assumed was an oulet for the social and psychological frustrations of a middle and lower-middle class student community.
This was a far cry from the upper and upper-middle classes for whom Sir Ivor Jennings and the late D. R. Wijewardene (among others) had built the paradisal Peradeniya University on the Oxbridge model. I still recall the late B. A. Siriwardena (surely our most scintillating Sinhala editorialist) recalling how then each of them had a room, how they had to dress for dinner and was served a very English breakfast of bacon and eggs! From bacon and eggs at Peradeniya to the spilling of blood at ancient Jayawardhanapura, Kotte (the seat of Sinhala poetic flowering) demonstrates the decay and the deterioration which has overtaken our society in five decades. Even in the 1960s university politics was just for the fun of it.
The student leaders of the time certainly thought of themselves as firebrands but most of them like Malcolm Vijithapala and M. A. Justin have now settled down as respectable (if not exactly orthodox) members of society. Even the JVP generation of 1971 have become newspaper editors such as Victor Ivan, civil society activists such as Sunanda Deshapriya and even mystics such as Piyasiri Kularatne (alias Kularatne Banda), the youngest of the JVPers to be charged at the main CJC trial.
What then took place during the last five decades, what separates bacon and eggs from fratricidal violence? In the first place the universities became swollen as a result of free education and the Welfare State and the 'revolution of rising expectations' as the end product of this process was dubbed. But the springs of white-collar employment which these expectations were supposed to satisfy were steadily drying up. But even by 1970 it was not unemployment alone which spurred the JVP to revolt. (In fact some of the main JVP suspects were employed). It was more the failure of the established political leadership and the establishment at all levels to accommodate the rising generation which sparked off the 1971 insurrection.
A sense of inferiority induced by the prevalence of caste in society still, a sense of social envy and a sense of idealism all combined to bring about the potent brew which generated April 1971 which Victor Ivan not so long ago called a 'romantic revolution' although only last Friday in an interview with the 'Dinamina' he has claimed that the JVP cannot lay claim to any creditworthy radical history.
It was certainly a cruel quirk that the killing of undergraduate Samantha should have coincided with the death anniversary of the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera. But perhaps it was no accident for the JVP and Wijeweera had come a long way from Ivan's 'romantic' 1971 to the violence-ridden post 1980s which culminated with Wijeweera's killing.
The JVP argument then was that it was the terror unleashed by the State which prompted it to reply in kind. Even if that argument was valid then can it hold any longer? The rise of the JVP within the universities was the result of the old Left (in the form of the LSSP and CP) being discredited among the young because of their collaboration with the SLFP in a coalition government. Other groups such as the Independent Students' Union (whose leader Daya Pathirana was also brutally killed presumably by the JVP), the Vikalpa group of Dayan Jayatilleke and the Jathika Chinthanaya group of Dr. Nalin de Silva sought to fill this vacuum from opposite directions but nobody has been able to challenge the writ of the JVP which controls the Inter-University Students' Federation and most of the Student Councils in the universities which are burgeoning more and more as more and more expectations grow.
The JVP spokesmen like Wimal Weerawansa and Bimal Ratnayake are only indulging in casuistry when they challenge the authorities to prove that any of the arrested students are members of the JVP. They may not be card-carrying members but they are certainly adherents of the JVP's politics. Call them sympathisers, supporters or fellow-travellers but they are certainly the new JVP generation.
They might even resent the fact that Messrs Weerawansa and Ratnayake are today enjoying the comforts of Parliament while their future continues to remain bleak and uncertain. So the present JVP leadership owes it to their rank-and-file if not the country to engage in a process of genuine self-criticism and allow a politics of dissidence and tolerance within the university system if this country is not to be visited with more horrors not merely in the once genteel groves of academe but the cities and villages of Sri Lanka as well.
Produced by Lake House