Sri Jayawardanapura University has been hitting headlines daily for the past week due to student unrest and demonstrations, which resulted in the closure of all faculties other than the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM) on Monday.
The explanation provided by the authorities is that the protests are a result of the Vice Chancellor suspending five students over a ragging charge and a petrol bomb being lodged at a statue commemorating student struggles at the university.
Some statements by the Inter University Student Federation allude to the possibility of the Government’s privatisation agenda in banning student unions. While this plays to popular sentiment, it may not be accurate and only serves to divert attention from the larger issue of suppression of political space. Further, this alone will not give the cause legitimacy.
While awareness and activism of university students in matters of politics is desirable to the democratic process, the right of university students to political activity and expression has been de-legitimised in the eyes of the public, largely due to the actions of the students themselves.
The rag (as it is nefariously known), student clashes and a history of insurrections linked to university student groups have all contributed to making student political activism anathema — a public sentiment that student unions will find hard to reject or reverse. At such a juncture, university student groups should engage in critical self-evaluation if they are to recover from a perception of moral bankruptcy vis-à-vis their cause, in what now seems to be a losing battle.
On the other hand, this might be yet another case of the Government attempting a quick fix of a socio-political symptom rather than addressing the root causes of violence on campuses. Just as the violent reactions to the ‘Grease Yaka’ incidents and civilian clashes with and attacks on the Police were born of frustration and loss of faith in law enforcement, violence in universities to some extent can be attributed to a feeling of frustration that there is no other recourse.
Attempts by the Government to control political discourse and increasingly politicise institutions under State purview have left individual citizens disenfranchised. The growing trend of violence can be seen as symptomatic of the reaction to the closure of legitimate forms of political expression. So where does this all lead? Can the Government continue to disregard the protests in the hope that if they are unacknowledged they will simply go away?
It is clear that this will not happen and while legitimate issues battle for space in the limelight, and with incidents such as ragging to undermine them. Not only should the student unions prioritise their concerns and lobby for the establishment of a fair, transparent, properly governed and well-regulated university system, they must also admit and remove issues like ragging from their activities. In an ideal world the Government would respond to this by listening to the concerns of the students and establishing reliable institutions rather than acting on the whims of powerful politicians.
This is a chicken and egg situation where, ideally, both parties need to admit their wrongs and work together to build the future of this country. But we are not living in an ideal world.