By Students for Human Rights –
As we speak now, the students of University of Rajarata are facing the threat of brutal repression by the state using police violence, democracy is in crisis in Rajarata and students are risking their lives to fight a war against the state, to protect the people’s right to dissent. While the news about students’ sit-in at Rajarata has been on the news for the past few days, we do not believe that dimensions of democracy that is being repressed in Rajarata are being represented genuinely or accurately. As students’ who care about democracy, freedom and as students who understand and believe that we must stand in solidarity with anybody being oppressed anywhere to meaningfully protect democracy for everyone, everywhere we want the citizens of this country to know what is happening at Rajarata and what it means for democracy.
Students of University of Rajarata have been engaging in a sit-in action for the last 60 day to oppose the arbitrary suspensions given by the University administration to 27 student activists and because we believe that information and only complete information will make the people of this country understand the level of repression that they, along with us, are being subject to we would like to narrate what caused these suspensions.
Although it is a day like any other to most people in this country, 20th of June is a special day for all university students of the country because the Student Heroes’ Day that celebrates the students martyrs who paid with their lives for the protection of the supposed “free” education on behalf of all of us, fall on that particular date. While any government would want their people to forget the ordinary men and women who fight battles for us every day, we as university students want to remember them, not only to respect them and cherish them but also to remind ourselves, that the path has been difficult, the times have been harder and we are here today only because of those men and women who refused to give up. Inter University Students’ Federation organizes a commemorative event, every year on this day to celebrate the student heroes and this fact is not unknown to university administrations.
However, on 20th June 2013, University of Rajarata administration upon the instruction of the University Grants Commission organized a ‘New Year Festival’ on the same day, displaying their blatant disrespect and insensitivity to what is precious for the students. It should also be reminded that New Year in Sri Lanka is celebrated twice, once in December and again in April, as far as we are aware there is no New Year festival that is celebrated in the month of June. Nevertheless, as expected students opted to participate in the Student Heroes’ Day instead of the so called New Year festival of the administration. Any democratic institution or an individual should respect the students’ right to choice; however the administration instead accused 8 student leaders of sabotaging the New Year festival and suspended them for 6 months. The reasoning behind these suspensions then is that students have to obey the university administration as slaves and their social, cultural and political life is disciplined and controlled by the administration. Therefore the students are forced to attend events organized by the administration with the threat of possible suspension if they refuse to. This is a clear violation of the students’ right to make decisions as free adults.
On 27th and 29th of June, after the administration ignored a petition signed by all students who participated in the Heroes’ Day Celebrations that stated that their participation was in fact voluntary, the students resorted to a protest action that also highlighted other problems they face within the university. Following the repressive tendency the administration again suspended 13 students for organizing and participating in the protest action.
On 19th September 2013 Faculty of Management students distributed leaflets within the university against the privatization of their degree courses and the administration again suspended 5 student activists.
Freedom of expression is a right protected under the Constitution of the country and these suspensions are in clear violation of the students’ democratic right as human beings to engage in cultural, social and political activity and to express their opinions on matters that concern them. If a student cannot distribute a leaflet against privatization of university education, what does it say about the democracy within the leading educational institutions of the country? What kind of an education institution wants students to act as deaf and dumb robots, following the orders given to them by the administration? Human beings have the right to live and expressing that life socially, culturally and politically is a fundamental right of the people that is protected by the Constitution of the country.
The sit-in action was launched by the students against this stifling behaviour of the administration that uses arbitrary suspensions as a tool to silence any kind of dissent within the university. The students have been continuously engaging in the sit-in on the road side of Mihintale and the action has managed to win over the supports of democratic forces within the country. Trade Unions, Farmers’ Unions, Religious leaders, student activists from other universities and artists are coming forward to stand in solidarity with the University of Rajarata students who are at the moment fighting a difficult battle against the state to protect meaningful democracy.
Repression through the Courts
Exposing the real political nature of the repression that has been unleashed on Rajarata students, the government has now turned to courts to stop the sit-in action of the students, without even attempting to build dialogue with them .
On 5th February 2014, the Magistrate Court of Anuradhapura upon the request of the police made an order to evict the sit-in in front of the University of Rajarata and warned the students of arrest if it is not immediately evicted. The reasons given by the police are possible harm to public and private property and public nuisance. Sit-in actions were not invented by Rajarata students to fight their administration; sit-ins have been used for decades by democratic forces to exercise direct democracy, to express direct dissent. Sit-in actions became one of the the most popular arms of dissent during the Civil Liberties movement headed by Martin Luther King and the Anti-war movement against the Vietnam War. Any judge should be aware of this. However, the local judiciary has adopted a tactic of being amazed when giving orders against people’s democratic rights as if they are unaware of the history of democracy, the fact that it was never awarded to the people on a silver platter by the judiciary, that people always won the fights on the streets and nobody ever considers those wins to be public nuisance and the real harm to the public is that these orders have created a vicious trend of criminalizing legitimate democratic weapons of the people.
However, taking up the correct stance against injustice, the students refused to obey the order and another order was made on the 12th of February allowing the sit-in action to continue on a different venue under the condition that three students specifically mentioned and targeted by the courts do not participate in the action. The guardians of justice have adopted a very subjective approach to violate the rights of individuals using the very tools that are supposed to protect them in violation of the right to equality protected under the Constitution.
On 13th February, yesterday, the police attacked the students who were participating in the sit-in and arrested 8 students who were later released on bail. As we speak now today, the students are again facing the threat of police violence and possible arrest.
The crime of these students is that they refused to obey, not the values of democracy or rights of the people but the measures of the state that were being taken to repress those very rights and democracy. The suspensions, the court orders, arrests and police attacks all form a very efficient system of repression that stands in front of the students. They are fighting for the basic human rights, to live, to engage, to talk, to dissent and to enforce the will of the people. The institutions that are supposed to protect democratic values in the society, universities and the judiciary have become mere extensions of this system of repression due to their politicized nature.
We have the freedom to express our opinions, to dissent government policy and democracy is meaningless without people’s participation on things that concern them and we need to protect the students who are on a mission for democracy and freedom. University of Rajarata students have decided to continue with the sit-in for the 66th day, in spite of the threats to their lives and judicial and police repression. Please stand in solidarity with them, inform yourselves and free yourselves from state propaganda and join in our fight for democracy and freedom.
Students for Human Rights