By Suren Rāghavan –
The Greeks had no single term to express what we mean by the word ‘life.’ They used two terms that, although traceable to a common etymological root, are semantically and morphologically distinct: zoē, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group” – (Gerogoi Agamban 1998)
The news that a section of the faculty of University of Colombo had decided to stop their academic engagements to bring an end to the on-going rather inhuman ragging within their university (and other higher education institutions) is disturbing and welcoming.
Disturbing because ragging of such cruel nature should still exist, welcoming as the faculty members have decided to address this seriously.
Universities are not only about earning a degree or helping towards that. They are centers of societal citations and (re)form process within the context of knowledge gaining and transferring. Passing exams and achieving a degree is considered a core element of that process aimed at the discipline of systemic thought analysis. Yet the full objective of university education is severely undermined if the advancement of essential nonacademic person building sphere is non-existing or deliberately dismantled. In such definitions, Sri Lanka universities have a checked history of individual and collective violence. I am not certain if a thorough going research has been ever undertaken to examine the culture of (physical, sexual and social) violence within the universities of Sri Lanka. If not, it appears an urgent necessity.
The nexus of violence
When we explore the issue of university violence, it robotically gravitates around the question as if the epicenter of such phenomena is correlated to the waves of political power struggles outside of these universities. As all universities in Lanka are still state funded and operate under the political sub structure, such cross fertilization of state power politics and normativity of violence cannot be separated. Lanka’s postcolonial history is fractured with junctures of direct body politics of violence. 1971 JVP armed struggle showed that by then Lankan universities had become the ideological cradle of legitimization of collective violence. Such process and their historical weight crushes the thin layer of social fabric within universities. In a Foucauldian sense, Lankan university politics quintessentially submerges with the biopolitcal dynamics outside. For Foucault (1997) “biopolitics is a new technology of power for violence [that] exists at a different level, on a different scale, and has different bearing areas, and makes use of very different instruments within the state governing structure”. In Lanka, indeed such biopolitics and sovereign exceptionalism often constructs the primary filed of politics. Under biopolitics, life, society and power become indistinct. Violence against the new comers by the seniors -who ironically were ragged by their seniors when entering university, then becomes the recurrent dynamic connected to the nature of politics at large.
The idea of positions – ascribed or achieved – as an instrument of oppressive power- is an intrinsic feature of Lankan politics. Over four centuries of colonial oppression and the historical feudal and monastic control over the peasant citizenry that is romantically memorialized as ‘ideal’ type of governance in the popular discourse have moralized a power game of violence. The struggle for control is deeply dichotomized and sharply projected as elitist versus non-elites or the peripheral rural versus the urban center. On the foundation of such mindset, a violence political culture is normalized by structural political operation. Such illiberal undemocratic behave had become the norm of elected politicians in the recent history. When the state concretizes such patterns as privilege of rule, while a wider civic society became willing spectators, violence for power and particular display of power over the layer immediately below is inevitable. It is a fact the J R Jawawardane , Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickramasinghe are representative of such elitist power circles in Lanka. For the same reason in a comparative sense, the level personal corruption of the above three are marginal as witnessed in Premadasa and Rajapakse eras. Both Premadasa and Rajapaksa are still considered as representatives of the oppressed class, who in my analyses in turn became super oppressors. What operates within the universities also travels on a parallel trajectory. It is safe to suspect that the culture of violence on campus attracts students from rural background. It is for this reason from Daya Pathirana to Sanjeewa Bandara are either victims and/or part of that violent political process. It appears that all university of Lanka from Jaffna to Ruhuna has an equal level of potentiality to produce such violence. Demographical, socioeconomic and pre university experience of violence of the leaders of this ragging culture may shed some valuable sociological keys to unlock this paradigmatic process of internal /external violence.
A challenged academia
As I have argued elsewhere it will be an imperative moral example when the academia can first lead the campaign against such ill democracies within them. This will then earn the right to be heard when they moralize their demands before the wider society and then finally with the state. Lankan academics are a special group of individuals working under absolutely challenging conditions. Lack of reward or recognition, lack of physical and monitory resources for desired researches, constant party politicization, and the looming fear of extremely unionized students who carry an instant capacity for violence are some constant reality they are called to deal with. Nevertheless academic integrity does not stop at ethics of paper marking and moral relationship with students. That is the minimum currency. In fact the by-laws. Constant example of personal development for intellectual assentation and to play the role of an agent provocateur for positive changes within the campus are a part of the ‘internal social contract’ that faculty members of universities can aspire to. While most certainly such practices may prevail, they are mostly based on individual worldviews. What is needed now is to make such a part of the overarching academic faculty culture.
Three decade of LTTE terror politics and equally or deeper state terror have only legitimized the acceptance of direct biopolitics on campuses as normal. Ragging that humiliates and seeks to control the newcomers is homophobic and stems from a subterranean heteronormativity mindset. Ragging also displays deep crisis of understanding of individual and collective power and the politics behind them. The majority of the present regime – have become the monopoly of such oppressive power mobilization. Such has become the popular culture. The idea of militarizing the universities has only future deepen the crisis.
We all wish Lanka achieves its full academic potentiality which is no doubt world class. We can demand the state to make higher education an independent but interdependent zone of democracy and intellectual free thinking. For this end, constant vigilant to safe guard the free education system and its democratic influence on the wider society is fundamental and not negotiable. However, what is a pure summation of such freedom and democracy if the first population of the university- the students don’t not appreciate and conduct themselves as representatives of such aspirations. Humiliating ragging and physical violence against the newcomers diminishes all such ethos. Ragging of all forms must be stopped. Immediately and without apology. The collective action of the faculty members is a positive first step in that direction
Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press pp 1
Foucault, Michel (1997). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. p. 242
*Dr. Suren Rāghavan is a Sri Lankan academic- currently visiting professor at University of St Paul – Ottawa and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford. firstname.lastname@example.org