In the past, I have used this space to voice concern over the governmental crackdown of agents who stand on behalf of National Education. The bulwark of these submissions, if not its entireity, was written during a UPFA government; and, there too, over the past decade where a haughty Rajapaksha was calling the ballast to guard his throne over any “traitor” to his cause. Rajapaksha’s broker in the field of education over the past five years was Minister S.B Dissanayake: a clever politician, but a disheartening minister at the subject under scrutiny. Collectively, the minister, the Rajapakshe long arm and other proxies within their political hold unleashed a strong implement against the sustainment of National Education, while decimating the spirit of University autonomy and the dissenter voices from within the educational establishment. A party that was treated like dirt by the aforementioned formation was the IUSF and its wider body, the “Students’ Movement” of Sri Lanka.
For any one who had been sensitive to the developments in the country’s education over the past decade, a gloss over of the destructive state interference would be unnecesary. In my opinion (and I am sure this is a shared view) it is the Rajapaksha-Dissanayake combo that dealt with the spine of Free Education quite decisively, dropping that already ailing structure to its knees. The Rajapaksha regime unequivocally put on signed paper the end to education welfare, while giving the green light for education to be commodified over the counter. A reoprt issued by the IUSF in 2014 speaks of the horror that is student repression carried out during the period through politicized puppet administraters and thugs.
This is the firrst entry I write on education following the election of President Maithreepala Sirisena. Sirisena’s chosen “caretakers” of Education includes Kabir Hashim, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Rajiva Wijesinha (who resigned shortly after being entrusted office). Sudarshani Fernandopulle was sworn in recently as a deputy Minister to the subject. These elections were largely made possible owing to a sizeable vote from the student population of Sri Lanka, as well as their associates and allies, who — I assume — outvoted Rajapaksha in favour of Sirisena and his promises of Good Governance. However, what we saw last 31st, when a desperate assault by the Police and the state militia was launched on a group of student protesters (led by the IUSF) was no different a level of state thuggery than what we so deplorably saw over the past decade. The difference here is that the high order came from a different signing pen.
The barricading of the student march at Kollupitiya was followed by an attempt by the latter to break through the makeshift iron wall. It led to the inevitable, predictable and fully well expected exchange of pleasantries between the Police and the students; which, inevitably, was followed by hosing and tear gassing. Rubber bullets were used to disperse the protesters, as well. Once dispersed, the Police — as it has been their prerogative over the past years — launched a mugging session, beating up and kicking students, dragging them along the roads. The official report stated that 5 students were taken into custody. Eyewitnesses reported an “unnecessary” spree of violance and baton usage. This was after 7 Policemen were injured in the clashes (as reported in “Ada Derana”).
I have never agreed with the taste and strategy of the IUSF. In previous submissions as this, I have taken time to discuss the reasons behind the IUSF’s failure as a representative body. However, in spite of differences of politics, I still agree that the IUSF and the “Students Movement” is the only body that can stand tall and speak on behalf of the national Education. But, the crucial question is, are they doing so with effect? And, as to what they can do if they are really to be taken as a force that should/could not be dispersed with a flimsy round of tear gas? (I would not ask the question as to whether the IUSF wants to genuinely resolve the issues they peddle around as national crises in education). I would, again, not address the issue here that the IUSF has failed to expand as a body and that it has failed to muster support from other alternative student groups and civil niches in strengthening their cause. Nor has it evolved from a tangibly outdated populist mode, even though a considerable terrain of the Student Movement is slanted in favour of the FSP over the past years.
More crucially, the question comes to fore whether the protest march on the 31st had, in its sinews, the need to create a conflict with the law keeping groups. The sudden change of direction of the protest to walk through Kollupitiya to the Prime Minister’s office has raised speculations with this regard. Of course, this fact doesn’t justify the mugging of students at the hands of the militia; but, a skeptic may well raise the issue as to how thin the ice would be for the protesters when they ad hoc change route, in encroaching on a politically important corridor. But, what other than sympathy for and mileage among the in-group can such an act result in? One cannot simply consider this march to be a booster of in group camaraderie, even if the major concentration among the party (as has been the IUSF deed over the years) were First Year students from a selection of universities.
If the IUSF is serious about their demands and diehard of their “struggle”, it is, as a body, decades past the expiry date where they should re-think their approach and strategy to battle. How to combat tear gas? How to withstand the inevitable torrent of high concentration hosing? How to resist the militant mug up? Why the press ganging of fresh and new students into marches that have no retreat or resistant mechanisms? Who would lead the lamb to the slaughter and invite militant onslaught: just, as an end? Again, while charging the political class for the repulsive baton-response, I am indeed amused as to why this repetitive farce by the IUSF — which they call “protest” — cannot actually get to the other side of the iron fence. It is of equal importance that President Sirisena and his ministers of Education assess the situation with tact.
When I saw footage of the assault on the students I felt extremely disgusted; and that disgust (momentary as it was) was not merely because I actively voted the President into power. It is chiefly owed to the realization that the same spree of anti-student violence — a violence that sheds a blind glance at the students’ actual problems — is still permitted by the very authors these students brought into power. The character flaw of the previous Head of State was his presumption and lack of vision. He allowed those twin follies to make him a tactless autocrat, blind to both society and to himself. In my view, the inner cartal of President Sirisena’s cabinet are made of shrewder stuff. But, politics is not a game of shrewdness alone. That last truth is relevant to the government as well as the IUSF.