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Sunday, 15 January 2012

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Unrest in universities - politically motivated

A suspicious bomb attack on a student monument within the Sri Jayawardenepura University premises triggered semi-violent protests across several universities.

University grounds suddenly turned into battle fronts with students finding numerous reasons to clash with the administration. The Sunday Observer interviewed a number of stakeholders in the higher education sector to find answers as to what had triggered the sudden uprising among the undergraduates.

Chairman University Grants Commission Prof. Gamini Samaranayake

We see a sudden wave of student unrest spreading across the university system.

We have been observing the developments in universities very closely. The current wave of unrest is politically motivated by a certain party - the JVP. They maintain the monopoly of student politics. Studentsí protests are a reflection of the partyís internal strife.

The dissident faction is attempting an ĎArab Uprisingí kind of protest in Sri Lanka. Their aim is to take students to the streets. The parents of undergraduates must be highly vigilant of these moves.

This new culture of dark politics entered universities in 1987. The JVP used the universities as a base to recruit members, collect funds and conduct indoctrination classes. They now have a tight grip on the student union, but it is not the will of the students.

Today, student politics is not like it was. It has gone under ground. What they do within universities is very secretive. Those days there was openness. All political parties could organise student meetings.

If you read History, student politics encroached universities in the 1960s, when the age of franchise rights was lowered from 21 years of age to 18. The first political party to capture power in the universities was the Communist Party which had a separate student wing.

Subsequently, the LSSP followed suit along with others. The party strength then was completely determined by the will of the students. Students had a say and everything was very democratic and transparent. Decisions were taken according to the will of the students. Ragging in a milder form existed even those days; recruitment to political parties was made through ragging.

But after 1987 the colour of student politics completely changed. The JVP started to dominate the scene by violent means and hold the leaders in a deadly grip.

The JVP monopoly has been taken over by the breakaway faction now. It seems that there is a tussle between the two groups to show which side is stronger and claim the control of studentsí unions. Their strategy is to get the students to take to the streets to protest against the Government.

Massesí support

The student unions will never get the support of the masses. The ultimate victims will be the students. Those who engage in illegal activities and disrupt their studies will end up as university dropouts and full time political goons.

The present University Act No. 16 of 1938 allows faculty unions or university unions, but there is no provision for an inter- university students union. Therefore, this IUSF is not a legal entity. They are always creating issues and rousing students. If there is no issue within the university, they rally up against the vice chancellor.

These so-called unions donít allow any changes to university education. All over the world, education is going through drastic makeovers. But here, there is no tolerance to such activity. They fear that development in the sector will mark the end of their dark regime.

Our students are very ambitious and talented. They can compete with anyone in the world. Under the pretext of free education, the JVP is trying to shield education from any positive development. Dissenting students unions get thrashed. The opposition has no voice.

Students from the middle class and English speaking backgrounds, in particular, are targeted by JVP raggers. Such action creates a very destructive and backward mentality among students.

Q: There are various allegations being levelled against the Sri Jayawardenapura Universityís Vice Chancellor. Is there a possibility of these being legitimate allegations?

A: Have there been any financial irregularities or any other charges that can be formally investigated against the VC? Universities are very liberal. The trouble-makers exploit this freedom to act as they wish. In the case of Jípura, the Vice Chancellor stood against the trouble-makers to protect the rights of all students. He tried to curb ragging. This is the reason for the demands to remove the VC.

Their demand sends a clear signal, ďif you donít endorse us we will see to it that you are expelledĒ. They try to drive the VC towards an unholy compromise. The VC acted fearlessly and refused to fall in line. This is what has happened at the Jípura University.

Today, undergraduates have many facilities than we had during our university education. Forget computers, most of us did not even know how to use a typewriter. Today itís a completely different story. No one received the Mahapola bursary then. Thanks to the late Minister Lalith Athulathmudali students get financial support while in university. However, they donít appreciate these things.

We have increased the number of universities and medical faculties. The Government wants to develop this sector further and the plans are already under way. These trouble-makers are least bothered about the truth. Actually, they donít want to see the university sector being developed. That is the bottom-line.

Concrete allegations

Q: The UGC is ready to investigate, if there are concrete allegations against the Jípura VC, is it?

A: Yes. There should be concrete allegations, not mere personal allegations. We cannot remove a VC based on personal likes and dislikes. If the Council is happy, if the President and the Higher Education Minister canít find any fault with him, there is no need to expel a Vice Chancellor.

Students have many democratic ways to ask for the removal of a Vice Chancellor. They can meet the Minister and discuss the issue.

According to the Universities Act of 1978, the Vice Chancellor is appointed in a very democratic manner. The members of the Council have to nominate the VC through a vote, then it will be referred to the UGC and to the Higher Education Minister, and finally the nomination will be approved by the President. This is the selection procedure followed in many countries. In India the final authority is the Chief Minister.

This slogan to remove the VC is just a pretext. The JVP is fast losing its grip in universities. Colombo has long since been liberated. Kelaniya is shifting from time to time. Moratuwa University was never a political catís paw.

I donít condemn student politics. Students should do politics in university. This is the best platform for them to horn their political skills, but doing dirty politics cannot be accepted. The freedom in universities should not be manipulated to glorify one particular political party or their breakaway faction. Everyone must have the freedom to express their own different political views.

This time there was ragging on an inhuman scale. The reason was the power struggle between the factions of the JVP to capture control. Some of the things that happened in the pretext of ragging cannot be expressed openly. It was torture. Girls, in particular, were severely harassed.

There are various individuals who are highly vociferous about human rights, but when it comes to university ragging in the lowest forms as we witnessed recently, they are either blind or dumb.

Q: In the Rajarata University, there is a genuine and serious issue. Medical students claim that they lack a professorial unit to complete clinical practice. What is your opinion?

A: It is a funny state of affairs. The Vice Chancellor meted out punishment to a few students who got caught ragging first year students. Now a group of first year students have started boycotting classes.

This medical faculty was inaugurated in 2006 on a direction of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to admit more students to follow medicine, since he sympathised with those who fell short by a few marks. We obtained Cabinet approval and started the faculty with just Rs. 6 million and very minimal facilities on a building that belonged to the Youth Corp. It has come a long way since then.

The professorial unit that is being built at Rajarata will be the most expensive such unit built in the country. We have already spent Rs. 2 billion on this project and it is about to be completed. The students leading the protests are well aware of this fact.

Project delay

The delay is not because of the Rajarata VC. He is working on this project day and night. This is a process which takes time. You cannot put up a seven-storey building within two months. A good part of the construction is now over and it is expected to be handed over by the contractors to the university administration by mid-2012.

My understanding on the studentís protests here is that the students union donít want to give credit to the university or the higher education officials for this new professorial unit. They want to show that this unit was given as a result of their agitations.

This attitude is a weakness of our education system. There is no tolerance or appreciation, and there is the lack of positive thinking and the tendency to complain about every trivial thing. These protesting medical students will one day be recruited as doctors and I could not think of the plight of the patients who would come under their care.

Rajarata is the second largest medical faculty in the country in terms of student numbers. The annual intake to the faculty is 180. The majority of medical students are enrolled at the Peradeniya University. Earlier we admitted only 955 medical students, but as a result of the new faculty this number has increased to 1,135.

The irony is that the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) was dead against the setting up of the new medical faculty at Rajarata. If we heeded their protests then, there would not have been a new medical faculty at Rajarata now. Today the medical students of this same faculty have joined the IUSF to toe their political line.

We have released funding from the Treasury, maintaining the cadre strength of the faculty.

Q: Are the Rajarata Medical students aware of the progress in constructing the Professorial Unit?

A: Itís not the professorial unit. They want some reason to create problems. If anybody wants to study political violence and terrorism, he/she has to start, not from the labour union or any other organisation, but from the IUSF. Itís a cover. It is another terrorist movement.

Intelligence sources have tipped us that there are attempts by organised groups to drive students to the streets. This is evident by the recent wave of protests spreading from one university to another over different minute issues, sometimes not even legitimate. The students and their parents must be mindful of these evil forces. Political violence is my study area.

I studied under world renowned Professor Paul Wilkinson. I sense the danger early. Unfortunately, some people pretend not to see, not to hear, not to sense. But I was not brought up like that, to keep quiet when I see something that could be prevented.

My thesis on political violence in Sri Lanka, a comparison between the JVP and the LTTE, is the only such comparative work done here so far. It was published by Jeya Publishers in India and is available at Vijitha Yapa.

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