29 January, 2022


Larger Questions And Peripheral Engagement: Trade Unionism At Jaffna University

By Ahilan Kadirgamar

Ahilan Kadirgamar

With the university teachers on strike for over two months, what has been most impressive about this struggle is its national character and independence from party politics. The public debate created by the breadth and commitment of this struggle provides great hope for rethinking our political culture and people’s participation in shaping post-war Sri Lanka. What began as a public debates on issues relating to universities and education are now resonating with larger political and economic questions. Yet each university is different and faces unique challenges based on the region and the communities it serves. In this context, what role has Jaffna University played in the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) strike action? And has the FUTA strike had an impact on Jaffna University as it recovers from decades of war and violence? What does the seemingly peripheral engagement of Jaffna University with FUTA tell us about the larger questions about our economy, democracy, trade union politics and post-war ethnic relations?

The University of Jaffna, soon after its formation in the 1970s, was a hotbed of political activism. While it was an important site for militant mobilisation, it also engendered debates on nationalism, Marxism and the political future of the Tamil community. As the war progressed, the University became the site of proxy conflicts of armed actors, undermining the openness of the university space. This was also the context in which the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) authored The Broken Palmyrah in the late-1980s, an exceptional work on the conflict, and a testament to efforts by university teachers to keep the university space open to dialogue and criticism even as rest of Jaffna society was eclipsed by militarisation. The escalating attacks on university teachers during the decades of war and the fear instilled by the LTTE and State-linked forces did not disappear with the end of the war. Rather, Jaffna and the University continue under the shadow of militarisation and a climate of fear. This fear, combined with the institutional deterioration of the University over the years, have also hindered trade union activism.

Political and Economic Questions

I would like to begin with an assessment of the university teachers struggle and its relevance for the country and Jaffna. The FUTA strike has created national-level recognition of the deep-seated crisis in education. FUTA has been able to win over public opinion by going beyond the salary demands of most trade unions. They have highlighted the worrying decline in state educational investment as well as the attacks on university autonomy through politicisation and militarisation. The call for 6% of GDP in state investment for education has become a slogan that broader sections of society are beginning to embrace. It has also become clear that the crisis in education cannot be resolved by the university teachers alone, but that it requires engagement by the broader citizenry who are affected by this crisis.

For me, this debate opens up four larger questions of political and economic importance. First, the 6% demand for state investment in education, raises significant questions about the Government’s approach to the economy, and how it might conflict with the people’s needs and vision of their economic future. It is only a particular kind of economy, one that privileges social welfare that can make such investments in education. If the Government is to agree to the 6% demand, it would have to eschew its neoliberal vision for the economy and possibly reject its plans to privatise education. In fact, the Government’s priorities of centralised infrastructure development would have to be redirected to education, health and social welfare.

Second, the FUTA struggle has also brought to the fore questions of politicisation and militarisation in the education sector. But these are larger questions about democracy and democratic political culture. In fact, even Kannangara and his Committee that drafted the recommendations for free education in the 1940s, were convinced that free education was essential for the newly emergent democracy. Free access to education, from basic literacy to engagement with critical ideas are essential to empower peoples participation in any democracy. So, the current debate on education needs to raise questions about democracy and challenge the Government’s reduction of democracy to elections. Rather, a democratic political culture would involve the people challenging the political elite, the politicisation of public institutions and the imposition of military discipline on society.

Third, as this article is being written, the Government is threatening forced arbitration, which in essence will be an attempt to crush the university teachers’ strike and a major attack on trade union rights. Indeed, after the General Strike of July 1980 was crushed by the Jayewardene Regime, the trade union movement in Sri Lanka has not fully recovered. While FUTA has been reenergising trade unionism, the defeat of this strike could become another major defeat for labour rights in the country. Furthermore, forced arbitration on such a national issue will be a worrying precedent for any future attempt to shape state policies through trade union agitation. Whether or not the Rajapaksa Regime actually moves on forced arbitration to attack this trade union strike, its consideration of this option itself is reflective of its neoliberal and authoritarian commitments.

Fourth, the public debate on state education is bound to have an impact on the minorities and particularly the war affected communities. Indeed, access to education has been an important political grievance of the Tamil, Muslim and Up-Country Tamil communities at different points in their history. Will the FUTA strike create greater democratic space by empowering the university space in places like Jaffna? How will a solution to the crisis in education affect the war-affected communities’ access to education and social welfare more broadly? Would the expansion and transformation of national institutions such as schools and universities significantly change the minorities’ relationship to those institutions? Would North-South solidarity, as with the university teachers struggle, create more space for the war-affected communities to air their grievances and help rebuild inter-ethnic relations?

Challenges in Jaffna

I posed these questions to a group of members of the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) recently. I was humbled by their responses. I doubt the FUTA leadership in the South and for that matter many of us who have been writing on the crisis in education are fully conscious of the situation in Jaffna. Yet, many of the insights about larger issues relating to the current crisis in education may lie in the periphery of the country.

The members of JUSTA I spoke to painted a dismal picture of Jaffna University, isolated from rest of Jaffna society, both by the security situation and decades of conflict. The prevailing apathy has crippled university teachers’ activism. The Jaffna-based newspapers were indifferent, if not ignorant, of the FUTA strike as they only peddled nationalist discourse, leading to university teachers being isolated from Jaffna society and the lower classes in particular. The university teachers are also confronted with longstanding concerns about the repeated disruption of the functioning of the schools and the University during the war, and the many years of schooling lost by youth in the Northern Province. Resorting to trade union action they worried means further delays for these youth. They claimed, a certain Jaffna exceptionalism is ideologically strong, that a community devastated by war should only think about moving on with minimal risks.

The brutal attacks on two university student leaders in recent months, and the lukewarm response to these incidents, has meant a reluctance to take the trade union struggle to the streets and seek the solidarity of school teachers on the scale it has happened in the South. The multiplicity of authorities controlling Jaffna including the military is a source of interference in the functioning of civil and public institutions. The result has been the stifling of the Jaffna University by an administration that has become more powerful by playing to the wishes of the powers that be against the academics. There is much dissension and cynicism in some sections of academics; they do not see the struggle succeeding or alternatively believe that even without their participation any salary increase won in the South will benefit them. With a conservative administrative order in place, academics involved in trade union mobilisation fear they will be labelled as “trouble-makers”.

Yet, they told me of the positive changes that were also emerging with trade union activism. In the past, Faculty Board and Senate meetings were merely rubber stamps for decisions made by senior professors and the administration, but now their Faculty Board was vociferously debating issues, symptomatic of an emerging democratic culture within the Jaffna University. While only one or two individuals attended meetings in Colombo during the trade union action last year, this year, bus loads of lecturers went to the major FUTA protest rally. They are now making moves to bring the FUTA leadership from the South to discussions with academics in the North. These steps, they recognise, are possible because they are able to build on their trade union work last year to augment their efforts now. Their fear is that the Government, having realised the consequences of the expansion of the trade union struggle, may now seek to crush the strike in order to keep a new political culture from taking hold. Their commitment to trade unionism, in fact, is democratising Jaffna University.

In recent weeks, I have been visiting and engaging university teachers and universities in Colombo and Peradeniya. However, the university teachers I met in Jaffna humbled me as I saw the odds against which they were struggling to instil a trade union culture and contribute to the national struggle to save state education. It is in Jaffna, that the consequences of centralised development policies excluding the immediate needs of a war-affected community, whether it be of education or social welfare are most apparent. Such a predicament challenges the reduction of development to economic growth and raises questions about a meaningful economy. It is also in places like Jaffna, where the full implications of politicisation and militarisation of our national institutions as attacks on democracy, and the role education can play in revitalising and democratising society, are most evident. Would FUTA and all of us who support FUTA’s important struggle engage the periphery seriously and act on such concerns, even as the national struggle to save state education moves forward?

FUTA has been energised by a new generation of academics with a vibrant vision of education. And in Jaffna too, a small group from that generation, thirsty for broader national and international exposure, embracing of diversity and pluralism, willing to self-critically examine problems and take up the mantle of dissent is emerging. That is a glimmer of hope for universities, trade unionism and democratisation in the post-war era.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Please stop lecturing others about Universities and their way forward.

    We have not forgotten the damage that you have done to the Tamil struggle for right to self-determination.

    Now you have started interfering the University affairs.

    You Kathirgamars are [Edited out]

    Can you write an article about any of POSITIVE thought in any affairs.

    [Edited out]

    You should be given novel (not nobel) prize for your negative thoughts.

    Intellectuals, academics and educationalists are not ready to accept you hidden agenda and hidden lobby.

    Do you who put you uncle Kathirgamar in most difficult situation. It was nobody else other than President Rajapaksa.

    Show us a single article written on any affairs directly pointing at Rajapaksa’s dirty games.

    Stop Stop us anymore with your hidden agenda.

    The Editor of CT doesnt know who you and why you are writing all these.

    Shame on you.

    • 0

      Great piece Ahilan – keep up the excellent work!
      The analysis about the wider issues that FUTA action raises is excellent.. and continue to build bridges across the communities while putting the issues of the northern community on the table for the south and FUTA to take note of..
      You do not mention Douglas Devanandan – the Rajapakse regimes Jaffna representative’s whose days are numbered and his role in the culture of fear and militarization of Jaffna University and the DESTRUCTION OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM. Dougie it the man who appoints the Board and has put all his uneducated henchmen and women in. The politicization of the university in Jaffna is part of its militarization by paramilitary outfits like EPDP and this must stop and respectable academics given a role.

      • 0

        Good stuff AK! Keep it coming.. As you suggest implicityly FUTA is doing a great job building up and providing moral leadership to trade unions that had become political party mouthpieces..
        FUTA must also broaden its struggle and relate it to other progressive concerns such as militarization, politicization of all public institutions, corruption, massive waste of public resources on white elephant infrastructure in Hambantota and the loans taken most of which go into the pockets of the Brothers and their cronies, and planting of Rajapassa’s uneducated and incompetent stooges in public institutions and the erosion of democracy.. TUs must ask of all the incompetent crooks and jokers in the Cabinet – SB disassaniaya, Banduala the clown, Susil the petrol thief, Nimal Siripala the drug mafia, Pathala Champika be fired and responsible educated Ministers with necessary TECHNICAL skills be appointed..
        Hope that the Dons who have been sleeping and under-performing on their duties and obligations as intellectuals to be a moral voice in Sri Lanka society will wake up from their slumbers speak TRUTH TO POWER and act like the PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS they are non doubt under-paid to be! Dons must told the regime and the corrupt politicians ACCOUNTABLE and be ACCOUNTABLE!

        • 0

          Indeed more power to you Keep up the excellent work AK!
          The FUTA is an must lead a moral and intellectual renaissance in lanka which has wallowed in Barbarism – war and post war Rajapakse dictatorship for too long.
          FUTA must become the MORAL VOICE OF THE NATION – and help chalk out a different path to social and human development — rather than the current path of the money mad corrupt Rajapakse dictatorship that has the most UNEDUCATED bunch of morons and thugs sitting in the cabinet than in all post-independence history in the island!

  • 0

    6% demand is myth. FUTA try to make fool the public from villages. FUTA wants only salary hike. Please ask one demand at one time. If government allow 6% FUTA members will also be indrectly benifited. There are other professionals who give better service to the country.

    • 0

      The Sri Lanka rupee has depreciated 30 percent this year and is crashing due to all the debt run up by the regime corrupt regime of Rajapakse crooks who are also manipulating SEC and stock market.
      FUTA should ask for 50 percent increase if they want to stop the brain drain from Lanka because most of those who leave will be paid in foreign currency.. and a 20 percent increase is less than the depreciation of the rupee… but I guess all of this is too complicated for the likes of Tharu

      • 0

        The real wealth of nations as the story of Singapore shows is investment in EDUCATION AND HUMAN RESOURCES!
        How come the corrupt Rajapakse regime have no money for education and to pay teaches and academics, but have lots for white elephant infrastructure in Hambantota and a swollen military that is cutting grass and doing dolphin tours.. to keep GOta the goon happy and Lanka militarized to prevent regime change?!
        Not to mention Swiss bank accounts and playing the stock market with EPF funds and Namal’s sports shows – night racing, drag racing, Rugby 7, bolly wood nights, SAARC beach games and the list goes on..
        The development priorities of the regime are so screwed up!

      • 0

        FUTA just needed salary hike. Please asked for higher investment in higher education. Sri Lankan universities need money for setup research centers (At least one research center for one faculty). Some people complains Sri Lankan profs. do not have research publications in high end journals such as Scopus, ISI. More than 60% university teachers don’t have PhD. It means their research skills not good enough for publishing papers in Scopus or ISI journals. They do only conference papers. Further, UGC does not encourage to recruit PhD holders with research publications. UGC regulation allow only to recruit 1st or 2nd class first degree holders. I feel university teachers pay double game. After, they get some salary increase, they will come to work and forget their 6% demand. Brain drain cannot prevent just only increasing university teachers’ salaries. There are lot of other factors such as recognition, love to the country, infrastructure. There are other professionals give better service than university teachers. They also get low salaries compared to developed countries and other fast growing economics. University teachers performance indicators are number of publications per year, value of research grant obtained past 3 years, number of key note speeches and number of teaching hours per year. When you see these details, I am sure more than 90% university teachers are failed.

  • 0

    Well done James Bond (akilan)

    You cannot justify the dirty work done by this akilan kathirgamar follower of his uncle Luxman K, on the right to self-determination of the Tamils.

    That was an arranged piece on Douglas and Rajapaksa’s regime by the [Edited out]

    akilan is neither leftist nor rightist nor socialist nor for anyone’s rights.

    [Edited out]

    also he is neither academina nor intellectual. He is just better educated than Douglas and Mahinda Rajapaksa. It doesnt mean that he is educated.

    Part of this comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy

    • 0

      Hey please make logical arguments or hold your crap babe! Your paymaster the Rajapakse brothers are the most uneducated and uncultured bunch of morons that Lanka has had the misfortune be as leader. None of the Rajapakse brothers have a university degree. They cannot speak 2 straight sentences in English language either, so they hate educated people who can see through their lies and corruption and looting..
      Rajapakse and particulalry the psychopath Gota the white van Goon who hates opposition want to militarise and kill education and educated people becase they hate free thinking and free speech. Being so uneducated the also they hate educated and cultured people.
      Gota has been militarizing the country preparing for the new war to protect him and his petrol pump brother’s fortunes. So let the new war against FUTA begin and lets see who wins this time!

  • 0

    China Doll or akilan’s doll.

    Do you think unqualified so called DR.??? Anton Balasingam likes educated people.

    This half education Anton Balasingam likes Rajapaksa’s hate educated and cultured people.

    This made him to be a political advisor for 20 years.

    Nobody else other than Anton Balasingam ruined the LTTE.

  • 0

    In short version of Tradeuniosm is imporved TIME AND PICE WORK OF LABOUR OF WORKING CLASS or SALARY MEN.Trade union struggle is vicious circular of struggle between capital and labour-power.It want change vicious system of capitalism or expoliation of man by man at all.
    FUTA struggle is even not only confined to refomist, demand it goes beyond that reached and slip into anarchist mode of opreandi. Handful of FUTA leadership are influance and infiltrated by petty-bourgeisios anarchist.Such movement in essance is quite impossible to turn into politcail movement even by mishap.

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