Colombo Telegraph

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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