Unframed: Censored at Peradeniya University | Sunday Observer

Unframed: Censored at Peradeniya University

Where universities were once sacrosanct places for free thought and ideas, growing conservatism and nationalism within state universities are limiting this space, say academics after a human rights exhibition was cancelled due to protests by student unions at the Peradeniya Campus .The phenomenon was also witnessed four years ago in the island’s north, when Tamil nationalist academics prevented commemorative events for Dr Rajini Thiranagama on the 25th anniversary of her death, at the Jaffna University

At the Peradeniya University last week, a photography exhibition on human rights was cancelled after student unions protested against its contents, raising fears about a growing culture of intolerance of alternative views within state universities in the thrall of powerful student and faculty unions.

‘Unframed Cancelled’, read a face book post on Mage Deshaya Awadi Karanu Mena- the official page of the Students’ Festival of Literature held at the University of Peradeniya, last week.

Unframed is an exhibition, curated by Vikalpa- a citizen journalism website based in Colombo, that showcases compelling photographs, seeks justice for various forms of torture and discrimination that people underwent during the post-war era with the tagline ‘Exhibits from post war Sri Lanka: For Justice and Life’.

In a message on www.unframedsl.org it states, ‘One point is clear; if one were to look at the island’s history on a continuum, the messengers of justice and equality have been threatened, killed or psychologically broken. Should we turn our backs on their message?’ and ‘Our plea to you now is to stand with those who fight for justice, in commitment to those who wait for answers and solutions. That we will not be silenced until the victory is won, until we can hear the gospel of justice and love ring true.’

Ironically, its venture at the University of Peradeniya, the fifth showcase since its inception at the JDA Perera Gallery in Colombo on January 31 this year, met an untimely end when a group of undergraduates protested against it. After much promotion by the Student Union of the University and Literary Festival organisers the protest prompting student leaders to cancel the event organised parallel to the Literary Festival, was not held from October 16 - 17 at the University’s World University Service Building (WUS).

“About 300 to 400 students participated at the meeting held to discuss the fate of the exhibition. A few students were against it. They were against what was shown in the photographs,” Vikalpa Editor Sampath Samarakoon says.

He explained, the students accused Vikalpa of supporting the LTTE, and even protested against the featuring of photographs of Prageeth Ekneligoda, the cartoonist missing since 2010. Shockingly, one student has claimed that Ekneligoda ‘deserved to be disappeared’.

This is an ironic twist in the light of recent history. During the state crackdown on the JVP Insurrection in 1987-89, thousands of university students were forcibly disappeared on suspicion of being JVP insurgents.

Samarakoon is incensed by the turn of events.

“We can’t call that place a university. These students are uncivilised. They go there with tax payers’ money and this incident is most shameful,” Samarakoon said adding that what they sought was to create a platform to showcase photographs depicting injustices taking place in the country in a bid to seek vengeance or a form of justice.

When contacted, the Peradeniya University’s Students’ Union President, Maheel Bandara Dehideniya said, they were not against the exhibits but the exhibitors. He said, the union was actively involved in organising the event but after the meeting, decided its cancellation as a majority of students opposed it because of the group that was behind it (Vikalpa).

Dehideniya’s justification was that the student group stands with several movements against corruption and fraud. “Just because they cancelled a photography exhibition, it does not mean they are blocking avenues to seek justice, he said.

However, Professor in English, University of Peradeniya, Sivamohan Sumathy, who is also a filmmaker and poet said, the incident was a ‘strange happening’.

“Staff were not involved in the organisation of the event. It was to be held at WUS, which is a Students’ Union space and not easily accessible to others,” Prof Sivamohan said, adding that it seemed strange the student union did not raise its voice strongly against the cancellation.

She said, there are also complex student politics. The union stands against privatisation of universities, but is not vocal at all against ragging in the universities.

“I spoke with the organiser of the exhibition for Vikalpa, and currently exploring possibilities of showcasing Unframed in the University of Peradeniya,” she added.

In the backdrop of similar crackdowns on free expression elsewhere in the island – most recently in Jaffna where the screening of Demons in Paradise, a documentary that takes a critical look at Tamil militancy, was scrapped, the cancellation of the exhibition at the University has raised grave concerns about intolerance within educational institutes supposed to be spaces for free thought and ideas.

Prof Sivamohan expressing her views on this says; “the cancellation of Demons in Paradise, a film that has won critical acclaim from many quarters, because a member or members of the University of Jaffna did not want it screened, presumably bowing down to pressure, and the cancellation of this program because, allegedly, some students did not want it, is a disturbing trend. We used to have such sentiments expressed during the war. We should not let these trends overtake our intellectual spaces. It is very sad. Universities should be places of discussion and dissent, not domination”.

In an official statement, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) that Vikalpa is anchored to said, “action of this group of students at the University of Peradeniya to block and ban ‘Unframed’, particularly, in the manner they did, is an attack on the freedom of expression. It is both, risible and tragic that this behaviour, invective and mindset continues to flourish within a tertiary education system intended to produce scholars and academics who can think critically.”

According to Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University in question, Athula Samarakoon, this incident was not surprising because students were generally intolerant towards alternative opinions as against theirs.

In 2016 Dututhena Allanu (Kaushalya Fernando’s Sinhala adaptation of Soyinka’s Opera Woyonsi) was rudely interrupted and stopped by undergraduates for comprising what they called “inappropriate content” – namely, a kiss between a man and a woman. The play was held at the same premises that Unframed was to be showcased. It was dubbed “too shameful” for the Ediriweera Sarathchandra Theatre, by the undergraduates.

Samarakoon said, these incidents are alarming as the crème de la crème of society is selected and sent to universities but they show no tolerance to vital conversations. He said, some students- whose voices are sadly louder than others- are good in scoring marks but have no social-consciousness and are narrow-minded.

The limitation of freedom of expression can be seen across the island. In mid-2014 the authorities at the University of Jaffna refused to give permission to commemorate the 25th death anniversary of Dr. Rajini Thiranagama, a former academic at the University who was gunned down by the LTTE in 1989. Dr Thiranagama, was a fierce critic of the LTTE and its brutality.

Dr Rajan Hoole, who authored the book Broken Palmyrah with Dr Thiranagama and founded the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) with her, said the commemoration had been blocked by academics who identified themselves with extremist Tamil nationalist ideologies.

“Certain groups at the University of Jaffna are conveniently distorting truths, and promoting LTTE ideologies. They are afraid of openness”, said Dr Hoole, who was also a member of the organising committee of the event.

He said, incidents such as these show deterioration of educational standards in state-run universities.

These deep rooted nationalist ideologies within any ethnic group, is the epitome of setting the woods on fire.

Former President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association, Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri said, freedom of expression within universities was a dialogue that needs to be held. Dr. Dewasiri said, when he was a part of a student organization, as a university undergraduate, he saw how violence was used to shun opponents’ opinions.

“We can see there is a huge issue in our universities. The incident of Unframed being cancelled is merely a part of it. Without free thinking it will not be a proper university, and a university has to be a place where multiple voices are given a platform to be heard,” he said.

Universities are pivotal to forming a safe society to any citizen. University graduates or lecturers, are the crusaders of justice. But, the intolerance exhibited by certain individuals or groups within Sri Lankan universities is upsetting.

“These incidents are regrettable. It ultimately depends on the handful of people who have the courage to rectify the situation. Sadly, we don’t see any,” Hoole laments.

Unframed will be showcased at Jana Medura Auditorium Hall in Kandy on November 2 and 3.

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