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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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