By Carlo Fonseka –
“A remedy as dangerous as the malady” is the heading of an open letter in The Island of 17th November 2011. It is addressed by Jayantha Dhanapala to our university teachers.
Holding as he currently does the position adorned by Bertrand Russell, who founded the Pugwash Movement in 1957, JD commands the respectful attention of all serious- minded citizens in our country. In his judgment, “…what is needed as we face the current challenges of development in a post-conflict period is intellectual freedom in our universities…”. This judgment implies that the reason why our university teachers
do not teach, do not search for new knowledge and do not serve the public as well as they should and would is that they don’t have the intellectual freedom required to do so. Speaking from my own personal university experience of some forty-five years as a student and teacher, I have to report that the only threat to my freedom of speech and freedom from fear came from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and not from our university or political authorities.
JVP & LTTE
During the period from 1987 to 1989, the JVP called the shots and virtually ran the university administration or rather brought it to a standstill. In 1988 after a member of the JVP assassinated Vijaya Kumaratunga, I had reason to believe that they would target me and so I was driven into protective exile. It has been documented that during the period in question the brainless malignant violence of the JVP under the leadership of Rohana Wijeweera killed 5,677 people and destroyed 613 CTB buses. The quantity of murder and destruction wreaked by the LTTE under the leadership of the other malignantly aggressive megalomaniac Vellupillai Prabhakaran was even greater than that caused by the JVP. Wijeweera and Prabhakaran bring irresistibly to my mind Adolf Hitler. Eric Fromm, in his insightful analysis presented in his seminal work The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness has diagnosed Hitler as a case of necrophilia. Given the rage for murder Wijeweera and Prabhakaran demonstrated, they must also be identified as cases of necrophilia. Necrophilia is a morbid and even erotic attraction to dead bodies. (If my memory serves me, nekro is the Greek for corpse.) This digression on necrophilia is necessary for us to understand the malignant aggression of the Movements inspired by Wijeweera and Prabhakaran. University students were involved in perpetrating a significant part of the violence wreaked by the JVP and LTTE. Even after the summary extermination of RW and VP by the military (unlamented by me) their influence in the university system persists to a greater or lesser degree on our campuses. Thus even though the surface of university life went on at a tolerable level of livability over the decades, stylized forms of malignant violence persisted in different campuses mainly in the form of “raging” of students by JVP activists. By and large, the university staff turned a blind eye to the covert and occasionally overt endemic violence in our campuses. Thus the reality was that a non-statutory organisation under the name of Inter-University Students’ Federation continued to call the shots and interfere with the university administration by proxy especially in the Arts Faculties. For their part, many university teachers were busily minding their own business(es) and careers. The intensity of the dogfights and bitching observable on our campuses had to do with the meanness of the available stakes for which we academics were competing.
In my experience there were no restrictions on my intellectual freedom at all. In the 1970s, nobody prevented me from investigating the phenomenon of fire-walking and publicly announcing that divine aid from God Kataragama is not necessary to walk a fire-bed without sustaining burns. In fact I got a grant from the university to investigate the scientific basis of ritualistic fire-walking at Kataragama. Again, I enjoyed the freedom of criticizing the government from opposition platforms as a card -carrying member of the LSSP. I was free to investigate whatever subject I wished to. I openly opposed the government policy to award the MBBS (Colombo) degree to students of the North Colombo Medical College. It is true that for this I incurred the displeasure of the authorities of the Colombo University at that time, but I survived without harassment. To be specific, when I had to flee the country in the face of the threat from the JVP after VK’s assassination, and the university authorities were slow to grant me leave of absence, President J R Jayewardene on Mr. Bernard Soysa’s intervention gave me permission by phone to leave the country. I had been openly critical of President JRJ and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike but never have they attempted to restrict my academic freedom. President Chandrika Kumaratunga with her own experience of a liberal university education, was very tolerant of university teachers. (That did not prevent her, however, from appointing some vice-chancellors contrary to the UGC’s recommendation as required by law!)
I don’t know of any academic whose intellectual freedom has been curtailed by President Mahinda Rajapaksha. For many years I have concurred with the erudite political scientist Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s considered view that the implementation of the essence of the 13th amendment is a reasonable approach to granting legitimate political rights to our Tamil brethren. I know that this is not the official government view, but I have not incurred President Rajapaksha’s displeasure on this score. Therefore, JD to the contrary, I just cannot persuade myself that the main problem that prevents academic excellence in our universities is lack of intellectual freedom. It is true that occasionally a vice-chancellor may be guilty of trivial self-serving misdemeanor but university authorities do not penalise academics from thinking and writing on controversial issues. In this context as JD doubtless knows, in the UK which glorifies academic freedom, Cambridge dismissed Bertrand Russell from his lectureship in 1916, because the university authorities disliked his published views on World War 1.
So I am unable to agree with JD that what is most needed in our universities right now is intellectual freedom. I think that freedom from economic want is a greater current need; and I dare to think that a little more money will have a greater beneficial effect on academics than more intellectual freedom. Apart from freedom from want, freedom from the menace of the JVP and LTTE influence is a more relevant need for our university system. Why? Because for the JVP and LTTE violence including murder is a political strategy. They do not believe in democracy and tolerance. JD may remember a famous essay called “What is Freedom?” that BR wrote in 1952. In it he says: “…Throughout the western world, an acute question has arisen as to freedom for groups of which the purpose is to destroy freedom. Should democracy tolerate attempts to replace it by despotism? Should tolerance extend to those who advocate intolerance?…” JD admits that “it is undeniable that student politics through the activities of unions has often resulted in indiscipline, intimidation and violence perpetrated on campus”. All the methods that academics have tried so far to control such violence over the decades have failed dismally. JD is firmly of the opinion that “the recent leadership programme for new university students with the involvement of the military is … counter-productive.” I think it is salutary to remember that in the end it was the military which decisively eliminated the malignant violence of the JVP and the LTTE. Implementing the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978 as amended to the letter is certainly not the remedy for the current malady in the universities. Many academics profess to hate the military like poison. But as a medic who is now tired of being retired, let me remind readers of the aphorism of the great British pharmacologist William Withering propounded in 1789: “Poisons in small doses are the best medicines …”