By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –
The tone of the recent statement by the Federation of University Teachers (FUTA) bitterly castigating the government for chasing away militant university students who were squatting like street bums inside makeshift shanties in Lipton Circus and demonstrating there in defiance of a court ruling, suggests that like its disreputable counterpart GMOA, FUTA is also tending to be driven by a political agenda. The statement has seemingly been issued by the FUTA secretary. Unless it was foisted on him by raving left leaning anti establishment academic radicals and political activists in FUTA, one assumes the statement was drafted by the learned professor himself. More the pity. We all appreciate that being a reputable linguist he might enjoy playing with words to melodramatic effect. But there was no need to accentuate the fact, and risk forfeiting his intellectual authenticity with a paroxysmal burst of irrational hyperbole making hysterical references to “brutality” “intolerance of dissent” “contempt for democratic values” and “suppression of student activists”, when all that happened was the perfectly legal dispersion of a large bunch of arrogant obstinate student agitators who insisted on defying a court order notwithstanding seemingly deferential (even fatherly) pleas by the police as seen and heard on video replays of the incident.
Everybody knows that Lipton Circus which adjoins the National Hospital, Dental and Eye Hospitals, as well as Osu Sala and several large business establishments is one of the busiest intersections in the country. It is crowded even under normal conditions. Anything untoward in the viscinity can precipitate major traffic congestion within minutes disrupting the lives of a harassed public rushing to work, taking kids to school, struggling to return home after a hard day in the office, or desperately trying to get a patient into hospital. I wonder when FUTA academics last drove their own vehicle through this area during the rush hour. To allow raucous demonstrators canvassing some selfish cause to process through this area is in itself wholly unacceptable. For medical students enjoying the privilege of free education to boycott classes and set up vigils in their unsightly hovels by the roadside in defiance of the law – is outrageous.
In the present instance the student demonstrators must consider themselves lucky not to have been promptly kicked out for unlawful assembly and trespass on the basis of some existing municipal ordinance or by law. That they were allowed to remain pending a specific court order seems to have been a bonus. As for the use of water cannon to chase them out it was probably so much ‘water off the duck’s back’ of student activists. They have a tough hide developed in the brutalized culture of campus ragging where students torture each other while many academic staff ( no doubt all faithful members of FUTA ) usually acquiesce by their silent inaction devoid of moral outrage.
Moreover from a practical perspective the use of water cannon to disperse student militants though a benign and merciful expedient is surely a travesty considering the tragic waste of good water during a period of intense drought with hundreds of thousands of poor people in the Northern and North Central provinces alone suffering severe distress owing to a shortage of water. FUTA might whimper over pampered medical students who break the law and make a public nuisance of themselves being ‘pelted with water. However many people might feel that it would have been much fairer, more effective, and less wasteful if they had been dispersed in the old fashioned way using tear gas and baton charge instead of wasting precious water cannon.
The exaggerated FUTA reaction reflects a lack of objectivity, a tendency to political bias, and poor discernment. True, the present government may have disappointed and failed to meet the high expectations of its staunchest supporters on several counts. That the promise of good governance has been compromised by numerous shortcomings is undeniable. But the “inability to tolerate dissent” is not one of them, nor the “violent suppression of peaceful protest”, nor “ contempt for democratic values”.
For FUTA to accuse the government of such violations is fanciful nonsense. Indeed if such allegations were true FUTA would not have been able to support student activists with impunity and criticise the government as it has done without dire consequences. Nor would those of the previous regime who have committed high crimes and misdemeanors have managed to avoid retributive justice for so long. Nor could politically motivated medical students abusing taxpayer’s assistance have boycotted classes for 7 months without being expelled from the University – which is the least they deserved. Indeed far from censuring the government for suppressing dissent it is likely that most people would criticise it for being far too weak and lenient in its failure to maintain discipline, rigorously enforce the rule of law, bring political criminals to justice, crush disruptive strikes by doctors, and firmly prohibit strikes by students who not being ‘workers’ do not have the right to strike anyway.
So in the end one fears that the statement by FUTA might be indicative of a new class of academics who identify with rowdy radical students, descend to their level, and are manipulated by them rather than exercising enlightened influence over them. During 40 years teaching university students including several as Dean of a Faculty, I have known the best of students, witnessed the worst and meanest among them, and endured the dull mediocrity of the vast majority of them – since merit has long ceased to be the sole criterion for university admission. Coming from homes with poor parenting, schools where dedicated teachers are a rarity, their values and attitudes confused by the negative influences of a degenerate society devoid of inspiring role models, such students enter university immature, emotionally vulnerable, weak charactered and with no strong principles or durable moral foundation.
In such a campus milieu the highest duty of academic staff is to influence the character of students by pointing them to high ideals, and setting uncompromising standards of campus discipline, respect for authority, and submission to the rule of law. One would expect that FUTA and its membership would be committed to a campus culture that affirms non violence, tolerance, mutual respect and the rights of the individual, where students are required to focus narrowly on academic work culture and sports to the total exclusion of politics or else get out in terms of the well known dictum “disce aut discede’ ( Learn or Depart ).
The FUTA support for the medical students who occupied Lipton Circus represents the very antithesis of this attitude. Medical students are amongst the most fortunate young people in the country enjoying the privilege of medical training free of charge at taxpayers’ expense, with the imminent prospect of a good and affluent life as members of the most elite of all learned professions. Their arrogant audacity in taking all this for granted and boycotting classes continuously for 7 months in contempt of the poor public who are their benefactors – all over a matter of government policy which is no business of students – is a monstrous scandal. Taking turns doing vigils lurking inside the filthy little squalid huts daubed with unsightly posters which they have erected in every university they glory in their shame. If there was any justice in this country they should have been given 3 days notice ages ago to resume their studies, and if they failed to comply summarily expelled from the University. The public can be justly alarmed. If as medical students they can be so hard hearted and arrogant, what will they be like when they become doctors ?
Moreover while naively holding the hand of today’s militant medical student activists FUTA seems blind to history and the reality that behind such protests is the tendency to fearful violence when denied or thwarted that has been a pernicious feature of the student culture in almost every generation. To this historical propensity for violence when provoked must be added the regular sadistic violence of human torture in the ragging of new entrants involving violent abuse and unspeakable obscenities coupled with physical and sexual violence where historically there have even been cases of murder and suicide.
Any serious consideration of the sordid history of violence by university students is outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless the folly of FUTA trying to be popular with desperate student groups who have an inherent historical propensity for disruptive violence comes into focus when one recalls even a fraction of the student conflicts that have tormented and created turmoil in the universities from 1953 to the present. At different times they have included interminable disruptive hartals strikes satyagrahas and demonstrations, the humbug of fasts, and rioting, attempted sabotage, the attack on a police post and student clashes with the police and army, the harassment of a Prime Minister and assault of a lecturer in 1962, election related clashes, attacks on Tamil students and staff in 1983, storming of the administration, abduction of Deans and taking the vice Chancellor hostage, and violent resistance to police on campus on the basis that normal laws do not apply to university students who are a privileged class. More than anything else we can never forget the prominent involvement of university students in the 1971 and 1989 brutal JVP insurgencies which terrorized the nation, bad old days when they murdered Vice Chancellors and when academic staff lived in mortal fear of their students who ruled the campus until it was liberated by the military. Such are the ancestors of today’s rowdy medical students who storm the Ministry of Health with mob violence, have the presumption to boycott classes for 7 months, and were chased out of Lipton Circus with water cannon evoking the misplaced tears and foolish fury of FUTA !
Recently a well known political scientist with whom I was in friendly contention wrote warning that government policies were “radicalizing the large university student population as in the 1980s and they will soon rebel militantly”. He hoped with mock humour that when that happens they won’t lynch ‘reactionaries’ like me” ! If his ominous prediction ever came true I wonder on which side FUTA would be ? In 2010 the final monthly salary of a senior professor of the university at retirement was around Rs 93,000. Within a few years following a sustained campaign by FUTA it rose to around Rs. 250,000. Perhaps FUTA should stick to what it does best instead of dabbling in politics and sympathising with militant students pursuing their selfish radical agenda.
*Professor Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka – Emeritus Professor