On Meeting a Retired President, By the Beira Lake

A fortnight or so ago, I met the Arts Faculty Students’ Union President of my year, when I was an undergraduate at Peradeniya University, several years ago. I was walking from Dean’s Bookshop at Slave Island, along the edge of the Beira, towards the Kollupitiya side and the former SU President was seated at the edge of a raised stone elevation by the walkway. While on University, I was a member of an “Anti-Rag” students’ group — a minority body, back then, consisting of a possible 40-50 students, in a batch of 1400 — and was therefore seen as a “non-conformist” element of the Faculty’s studentship. In fact, for the first 3 years of my student life at Peradeniya, I was quite an active “Anti-Rag” activist of sorts, and the Students’ Union (with which the “student mass” was identified) was the Power House and ultimate arbitrater of the set up.

A students' protest against the arrest of some of their peers in progress

A students’ protest against the arrest of some of their peers in progress

The Union President, Dushmantha Abeysinghe, and I had never spoken a single word while being on the same faculty of the same campus for four years. Instead, we had frowned at each other a few times, looked the other way when coming face-to-face with each other a few times more; but, speak — never. Dushmantha was on the lean, shortish side and was a very articulate orator. I have seen him speak a couple of times, addressing student pickets and demonstrations; and his powerful speech style was always a menacing surge to watch, even from the “Anti-Rag” distance. Dushmantha is probably one of the last in a line of Student Union activists in Peradeniya who could make a decent speech with charisma. Since his time, Students’ Unions islandwide have disintegrated and the bare gums of a majority of such Unions have very little to articulate today; even where the administration has the luxury of not hearing.

With this history of being on two sides of the Great Divide, now, brought face to face 6 years later, as to what the next step should be was a moment’s Hamletian dilemma. Dushmantha saw me and I him and with a wave of my hand that I knew I didn’t have 6 years before I walked up to where he was. Then, the two persons who rallied against each other’s “political affinity” for four years on campus — a rupture that had made speech or smile impossible — began to converse like two adults who had just discovered the ability to speak.

An Inter-University Students Federation web post protesting the pre-University quasi "leadership training" given to new entrants by the national military. This is a dicy issue which the lecturers or the academics of the country (one time diehards for 6% GDP increase for education) haven't even bothered to raise in a meaningful way. The collapsing of the Students' Movement has to be looked upon with alarm as there is no other body that can/will represent the students' case, at least to some valid extent.

An Inter-University Students Federation web post protesting the pre-University quasi “leadership training” given to new entrants by the national military. This is a dicy issue which the lecturers or the academics of the country (one time diehards for 6% GDP increase for education) haven’t even bothered to raise in a meaningful way. The collapsing of the Students’ Movement has to be looked upon with alarm as there is no other body that can/will represent the students’ case, at least to some valid extent.

I was even being witty with old Dushmantha Abeysinghe. Actually, I seemed to know a bit more about his whereabouts than he did mine. For, I knew him being in the nominations list (from which he later withdrew) for the Kaduwela Pradhesheeya Sabha Council in 2010 under the National Freedom Front banner. In fact, he said that he was currently employed in the NFF boss’ ministry (a political force that absorbed a fair number of frontline SU people of the 2000s) and I learnt from somewhere else that he was a media coordinating person to the Minister of Lemon Puff fame. He asked me about my work and as to what I have been doing since. We even spoke about Peradeniya, the university system as a whole and of the state suppression of the university discourse. Maybe not entirely out of dishonesty — but, largely in a way of flattering him — I told the ex-fire cracker that the literary-cultural set up at Peradeniya has not budged an inch (unless for the reverse) since “his days”; that the Kala Ulela is still a re-hash of whatever that was done during slightly better times, 6-7 years ago, if at all that it ran now with lesser items and with lesser tenacity.

After a good 10 minutes’ chat I took my leave promising Dushmantha Abeysinghe to meet again “at the edge of Beira” in another 6 or 7 years.

In my university days, the SU was, in essence, a stronger unit and a well furnished group than what it has detereorated to be in the last few years. The collapse of the Students’ Unions on campus has many internal and external causes, but I have always looked upon with alarm as to how these bodies — the only legit body that can stand up and speak or protest for the 1001 issues the national university structure is infected with — have been diluted or paralyzed over the past few years. It could be the baton of an ill-appointed minister, or the rays that emenate from him that keep certain administrative bowels warm, but the warping of the Students’ Movement is the most drastic of decays of our time.

The 50 or so “anti-rag” group of my batch, 98% female, amounted to just under 4% of the Faculty’s population. But, I do not remember any ugly physical assaults or mugging directed at us by the Arts Students’ Union. Verbal intimidation and confrontations of sorts were “seasonally” there — as, as every new batch came in, the “Ragger Seniors” would show their “juniors” who’s boss and who is not; and one way of doing it was to confront your “opponant” and to create a disturbance.

In fact, towards the end of my stay at University and in the immediate subsequence, there were several incidents where “anti-raggers” were thrown eggs at; and where some were even openly assaulted. I remember say of an incident where a female student was slapped by an alleged “ragger” of the same batch (or senior), whom the girl had slapped back on the spot. These incidents reminded me of “horror stories” we were indoctrinated with of “anti-rag” plight in the 1990s and early 2000s. One such “legendary” story is how a prominant “anti-ragger” was thrown down the Akbar Bridge. Attacks on “anti-ragger” activities were also told to be the “norm”, as we entered campus.

Peradeniya, in other times

Peradeniya, in other times

In many ways, I want to believe that the “anti-rag” group I belonged to — shortcomings aside — had the right attitude and a strong collective character against the “Ragger”. There were many among us who assessed the “Rag” for what it is; and who didn’t hold personal grudges against the “other camp”. They saw the “Rag” for the politics it represented and tackled it at the level of business. More importantly, some of my colleagues were committed to spreading a “non-ragging” culture, while being inclusive of and constructive in their attitude. The “anti-rag” milieu is traditionally labeled as the “uppity” and the “privileged”: classed kids, with safe backgorunds and safe zones. Some of my colleagues identified these implications and were dialoguing against them, while being receptive of alternative views. Some of my colleagues initiated a “safe passage” for freshers (who wish not to get ragged) by meeting new batches that came in in organized bodies; thus, “assisting them” in their initiation to the University. This is a practice that, in turn, was adopted by the batches to follow. I would like to believe that the frontliners of both camps understood the “politics” of what each one of us were doing; which, so I like to believe, minimized ulgy clashes and confrontations.

Of course, today, things have changed in degrees and the dynamics are different. As the “progressive element” of every group/faith of these sorts are essentially based on cadre quality (as opposed to ideology or whatever it is — and the “anti-raggers” have no collective Ideology as such) one cannot homogenize across batches or years. But, perhaps, it is the pillory to which the National Education is clamped today — a nasty machine of which the screws are being tightened as this entry is composed — and the sheep-slaughtering way in which the Students’ Movement is being throttled that makes me see some “fetish” in Dushmantha-likes and other SU-leaders of my day. Perhaps, they never envisioned the corrosion of the system as we face it today, though in their rhetoric we, “anti-raggers”, were retrogressive and corruptive agents all the same. However, it could be the lop-sided deal with which the National Education is being handed today that prompts me to see “purpose” and “grace” in those leaders of my days. It could well be that they were merely running their own counter-system, biding their own hierarchy; but, that is something I can forgive them for having done.

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