Colombo, Education, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Youth

JVP and the emerging crisis in Sri Lankan universities

[Editors note: See map of campus and university student related violence over 2010 alone here.]

‘Youth groups, not yet settled in established adulthood, are traditional locus of high spirits, riot and disorder, as even medieval university rectors knew, and revolutionary passions are more common at eighteen than at thirty five…Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes,1914-1991,London, 1994, p.299).

The university has been the most dependable and organic reservoir of full time political as well as leading carders of the JVP throughout its history since its inception in the late the 1960s. With their youthful idealism, the JVP’s utopia of a ‘socialist state’ can be easily inculcated in their minds until the hard reality of their class character contributes to dissipate their determination and make a return to their normal life. The JVP profits from this short period of young people’s inexperienced and immature political journey and tries to make a political come back on their misery. The universities face an uncertain future for two fundamental reasons today. Firstly, the JVP continues to use the genuine issues within the university system to bolster their flagging political fortunes in the Sinhalese dominated South which has been their historical power base. Secondly it appears that the government has failed to understand or unwilling to acknowledge that there are issues in our universities that need to be resolved.

In order to understand the politics behind the current university crisis it has to be viewed in the context of the emphasis the JVP has given to the student politics in formulating their political line  and how  they can trap any government that does not pay any constructive attention to the issues of higher education. The JVP has been consistent with using the students in their politics to kick start the ‘revolutionary struggle’. This has been the strategy of the JVP since its inception. Rohana Wijeweera answering questions from his underground clarified this strategy exactly 22 years ago in the following words. ‘The students have given a good start to the struggle at a time when the working class and other sections of the society have not come forward due to fear of suppression on the one hand and bad leadership on the other…Our students are risking their lives in their struggle to win student rights, on the one hand, for the common rights of all the people on the other’. (Rohana Wijeweera, The Sunday Times, Sunday, November 13, 1988, P.10).The situation that Wijeweera explains is similar to the current situation. True to this strategy when Wijeweera and his top leadership was decimated effectively  signalling the end   of their second armed rebellion by the end of 1989 majority of the fallen leaders  had come   through the Sri Lankan universities. This very costly strategy in terms political and human cost has not been reviewed by the JVP. This is the political danger of the JVP’s political line that would present to the militant Sinhalese students at present in the South. The university students in the North and East will escape this danger as the JVP has no base in those areas due to its pro-Sinhala and anti -devolutionary political line throughout its historical existence. The JVP’s political ideology is attractive to students due to a number of reasons. The JVP offers some hope and radicalism to youthful idealism of political change and utopia as no other political party in the university politics could offer at present. The UNP or the party in government is no longer an attractive proposition. The traditional left parties are seen as opportunistic and have betrayed the course of the poor whom the bulk of the students in the university socially are belonged to. They are the sons and daughters of the rural poor and are devoid of any political experience. Many of whom originating from authoritarian family structures in the peasantry, they easily subscribe to totalitarian political ideologies. Their appetite for democratic politics is very limited or non existent. They are very often secretive and the JVP’s political utopia and their methods fit with their political ambition. They hardly get involved in open democratic politics. They are trained to practice aggressive and violent politics and many of them remain in sleeper cells.

The Sri Lankan universities are underfunded and they need modernising. Their quality of teaching and facilities for research need improvements. It will take more than a half a century to reach them to a world class standard even if the necessary funding is available. Under these conditions the establishment of private universities in Sri Lanka is not going to be a politically acceptable option and it would create a two tier system of higher education – one for the rural poor and other for the rich. If there are no well planned and well funded projects to upgrade state universities the introduction of private universities would make great disadvantage towards the students who are unable to enter private universities. This is where moral and political duty of the current struggle to protect the interests of the thousands of the rural students is placed. However, this genuine issue is being used by the JVP in order to make a political come-back. The issue is that the government should acknowledge that without developing and improving the existing universities the introduction of private universities will be discriminatory towards the students from poor families. When the government is introducing suppressive measures by suspending students in their hundreds it is not only counterproductive but also plays into the JVP’s hands. It appears that the government was trapped by the JVP as much as the JVP has trapped the students in luring them into a struggle against the government. The alleged lawlessness of the students and their occasional outbursts against the authority is nothing new. What is new is the government’s highhanded approach by suspending hundred of students and closing down the universities. This is the first time in its history such a high number of students have ever been suspended in Sri Lanka. It is highly explosive when a collective punishment has been meted out to hundreds of students when the law breakers are only a very few of them.

The JVP on its part has never practiced democratic politics in the universities. They have resorted to intimidation, aggression and physical attacks towards other groups and other political parties; therefore their approach to disagreements and different view points are not tolerance and discussion but aggression and coercion. How the JVP treated the Independent Student Union by killing its leader Daya Pathirana in December 1987 is an example of this kind of behaviour. Their aggressive behaviour has not changed even recent years. The recent alleged attack on Professor Susrith Mendis, VC of the Ruhuna University by university students shows that their difficulty of abandoning their violence in politics. The JVP cannot suppress their violent history and it is bound to come up whenever they have to deal with authorities and others with dissimilar political views. The JVP has no history in conducting democratic struggles that they are able to draw the lessons from either in the student movement or outside of it in social and political classes.

The government on its part has not demonstrated that they would like sit down and negotiate with student bodies. It is not hard for a minister of Higher Education who had gone through the experiences of leading a militant student movement during his student days to understand that he cannot receive student support simply by making threats. It is time the government review its approach to the students’ anxieties and concerns and should not take it as a defeat in negotiating with them. That is the decent and respectable way of dealing with the student community. They are our future and we need to place our faith in them. Arresting and sending them to jail  is extremely counter productive that sets in motion a process that risks radicalising them and joining their personal commitment to a larger political cause. When the students join protests and riots there is only a very thin line that separates them from their democratic protests and the JVP’s violent politics. When they go to jail and return to the university the JVP profits from their sacrifice and their activism then is taken beyond the confines of legality in pursuit of totalitarian political ends. When the current political upheaval ends there will be dozens of students who will opt to support the JVP more wholeheartedly. The government’s suppressive policies are indirectly responsibly for such a turn of events. This is how the universities become   periodic but abundant reservoir of the political activists for the JVP.

It may be legal for the government to arrest the militant students and send them to jail but it is difficult to legitimise such actions and the authorities should demonstrate that they are prepared to listen. If that is not happening the current chaos will continue in universities and that would engender the political stability. More suppression means more radicalised student movement.  The JVP and IUSF for its part had not taken the issues to the general public and making the students isolated and defeated.

It is interesting note that    that Rohana Wijeweera’s formulation prior to 1987-89 is being repeated with the launch of current university militancy. However during that time Indian troops were on the Sri Lankan soil and the JVP was able to manoeuvre other political parties and groups to rally around before they were defeated by the security forces. At this point such politically explosives issues are not visible in the terrain of politics to garner support in their attempt to capture the state power. The JVP should have a realistic assessment of the current regime’s ideological and political dominance and the regime’s ability to use the electoral base in the South to remain in governmental power has increased despite Sarath Fonseka’s incarceration. The student movement should demonstrate that they are not being manipulated by political agents who want to bolster their own political line and they are advancing their own interests. They need to show their unity and fraternity with the students in North and East incorporating their democratic political demands. Unless this happens the students movement in the South will remain narrow and chauvinistic and narrow nationalistic parties will be able to use their sacrifices.

The JVP will use the student movement to build their totalitarian project if the government continues to suppress the student movement. The government should understand it is war like strategy with university students is radicalising them and the outcome of it would be highly undesirable. At this stage it is harder for the government to win the political argument over the establishment of private universities unless it has a very strong and financially viable project to enhance the capacity of the state universities.

Sri Lanka’s  university education should remain free and the introduction of private universities cannot be justifiable as long as the state universities are under funded and under resourced.