27 October 2015

Will pro-JVP students ever learn?

This was first published in the ‘Daily News’ on October 26, 2009.  A related article was published, coincidentally, exactly a year later, i.e on October 27, 2010 titled 'Student politics, anomalies and responsibilities'. Still relevant, I believe. 

The other day Ruhunu University Vice Chancellor Prof Susirith Mendis was assaulted. The JVP-led Inter University Students Federation will bend over backwards to claim non-involvement, but no one will buy their story

About 15 years ago, the Students’ Council of the Peradeniya Arts Faculty lodged a protest outside the office of the Arts Faculty Dean. They were objecting to the suspension of some students. The suspended students had been found guilt of ragging freshers. The key student leaders were members of the JVP by way of their membership in that party’s student wing, the Socialist Students Union. The Dean and his staff were virtually held hostage.

A young lecturer, then on probation, raised what I thought was the most pertinent question in terms of student agitation: ‘If a suspension warranted holding someone hostage what kind of ‘action’ would a far more serious ‘offence’ provoke?’ He had just then summed up the thinking of pro-JVP students: an abysmal appreciation of the concept called ‘sense of proportion’.

In the eighties, I remember, the JVP leaders in the Arts Faculty came up with a novel idea. They recommended that every batch where at least one student had been arrested should boycott classes. Prabath Sahabandu, now the editor of The Island, observed then that we will come to a point where roommates would boycott classes protesting the arrest of fellow-roommates. Still, one must appreciate the logic of JVP-thinking.

If the objective was to destabilize then anything and everything that unsettles balance and causes disruption was fair game. Of course they could not openly say that the purpose of the exercise was to disrupt the university system. They had to conjure up some other kind of justification. Their will prevailed not on account of superior logic and the power of reason but the force of threat.

I am not an adherent of the ends-justify-means school of politics but even if this were the case it is still mind-boggling that the JVP could not (and still cannot) understand that chosen strategy has little chance of taking them to objective. The other day Ruhunu University Vice Chancellor Prof Susirith Mendis was assaulted. The JVP-led Inter University Students Federation will bend over backwards to claim non-involvement, but no one will buy their story. There is a reason.

The JVP has for decades played the role of Local Thug in the universities. Back in the eighties when the JVP student leaders, armed to their teeth with ignorance of world history and too confused to engage in even the most simple of ideological debates, referred to UNP supporters as junto (derived from junta). An objector observed, umbala thamai campus eke junto (you are the junto of the university). They could never see that they were the mirror image of their main detractors. It never struck them and I don’t think they would have been too worried even if it had.

The political problem for the JVP is that people notice. They discern pattern. They extrapolate. They are not convinced. However legitimate the grievance, however righteous the cause, the political outcome of their actions is severely compromised by this long history of violence, the utterly uncivilized modes of operation (which makes it impossible for them to object to similarly uncivilized actions on the part of their opponents) and a manifest talent to inflate things to proportions they just don’t have the wisdom to manage.

The students claim that Prof Susirith Mendis had ‘started the fight’. I was not there so let me not pass judgment on the claim. One thing is certain. No one will believe students belonging to the JVP faction on campus and its members can thank all their loku aiya sahodarayaas starting with Rohana Wijeweera for this.

Regardless of who did what to whom, the students have essentially shot themselves in their collective foot by assaulting the top administrator in the university whatever the justification (and I am hard pressed to believe there was any, knowing the JVP and knowing of Prof Mendis). They never held the moral high ground and by this act made it many times harder to ascend those heights.

The Inter University Students Federation has a lot of energy. It has very little humility. It doesn’t seem to understand the notion of ‘self-criticism’.

What is amusing is that the student leaders feel wronged after all this and are at a loss to understand why their battles are not championed by the ordinary people, especially those whose interests they sometimes claim to represent.

The bottom line is that the people are decent and are not ready to stand with thugs even when they articulate their concerns. This is something that Udul Premaratne and his trigger-happy merry men and women should think about and worry about. Sooner, rather than later.