This country has long been a paradise for lawmakers and lawbreakers. They are more equal than others before the law. It is not only the Executive President who enjoys legal immunity. Even the ordinary lawmakers do. The ruling party politicians are no respecters of the law of the land, which they violate according to their whims and fancies with impunity. The guardians of law steer clear of them for fear of being stripped of their khaki coats and brass buttons . Opposition lawmakers facing legal action always pretend to be victims of a government witch-hunt. The lawbreakers are in league with politicians and the police and thus sharks of the underworld are also above the law. Unless they become too embarrassing to their political masters, they remain free from trouble.
The same is true of lawbreakers in universities where the culture of impunity seems to have taken root. Student thugs have rendered the seats of higher learning ungovernable. The latest incident is reported from the University of Kelaniya, where two student factions clashed on Saturday leaving over 40 undergrads injured. The JVP student wing, as is always the case, was a party to the bloody encounter which flared up following a shindig. The other party to the dispute was a group of students from the Faculty of Science. The clash had all the hallmarks of a battle for supremacy. The JVP has accused their rivals of being a pliable tool in the hands of the university administration. But, the non-JVP students insist that the JVP is unleashing violence to become the sole representative of students.
Campus violence is nothing new in this country. It has claimed several lives. Universities have come to be synonymous with violence, which has rendered the whole higher education system abominable. Parents would rather send their children to Baghdad than local universities where students main occupation is ragging. During their spare time they set upon one another. Is it surprising that the present-day university products are not fit for employment after graduation?
The JVP student wing is behind all incidents of university violence while its leaders in mainstream politics are posing as paragons of virtue and demanding that the northern terrorism be quelled. Ironically, it is they who are campaigning to protect free education. The biggest threat to free education, which must be protected at all cost, emanates not from external forces but from within. The JVP is making the greatest contribution to the ruination of free education at the university level by giving an impetus to the down-hill journey of the universities.
Universities have, as we have pointed out umpteen times in these columns, become an academic wasteland where new knowledge is neither generated nor imparted. They have become a mere extension of the school system. The JVP seems to be making an effort to keep them that way so that they will continue to be a hotbed of ultra radical politics which gives succour and strength to its political project.
The university authorities have erred badly by tolerating the violent elements in the garb of undergraduates. Those who attack one another with swords, knives, clubs and iron bars are no students. They are common criminals who must be dealt with by the police and brought to justice immediately. Whenever a clash occurs, the police must be given free rein to handle it and maintain order. The so-called university autonomy has stood the campus rowdies in good stead. University gates must be flung open and riot squads let in.
Why the university administrators hesitate to expel trouble makers is the question. They must be weeded out for the sake of the vast majority of innocent students desirous of pursuing their studies free from trouble. Their problems are different from those of the student thugs. But, their interests are never articulated. Who talks of the deteriorating academic standards in universities? Who fights for keeping libraries open longer? Who demands IT lessons for all undergraduates to prepare them for challenges in the job market after graduation? Who protests against the severe dearth of qualified teachers affecting the universities?
Free education doesn t mean hostel facilities and translocation of campuses. Its survival depends on a robust and healthy education system. Those who unleash violence on campuses, kill and maim fellow students, destroy university property and cause inordinate delays are only playing into the hands of those whom they accuse of striving to destroy free education.
Leniency on the part of the university administrators has proved to be counterproductive. The absence of deterrent punishment has only emboldened the campus thugs to be more violent and unruly. It is high time they were expelled en masse. Should other students join forces with them, they must also be thrown out. The government claims to have cleared the Eastern Province of terrorists and is on the offensive in the Wanni to liberate that part of the country from the clutches of the LTTE. But, surprisingly, a band of petty terrorists wielding swords and daggers are holding tens of thousands of university students to ransom.
The government is also playing politics with the issue. Does it lack the pluck to take on the JVP student unions because their senior comrades are propping up the government in Parliament? When a group of students of the Sabaragamuwa University led by the JVP staged a protest opposite the University Grants Commission during the budget debate last year, the government had them dispersed forcibly. But, towards the final budget vote, the government softened its stand and granted the students demand the shifting of the Applied Science Faculty currently located at Buttala to the main campus at Belihul Oya within months as it became dependent on the JVP to defeat the Opposition s move to shoot down the budget.
If the government has the political will to rid the universities of violence, keeping the violent element at bay is not a difficult task. University authorities must be given freedom to sack them after a free and fair inquiry and the police ordered to prevent them from gaining access to universities. If their confederates instigate trouble in support of the expelled rowdies, they too must be kicked out. It is not the universities that they belong to. They may be accommodated at the government boarding at Welikada or Bogambara.