The Sunday Leader

Repeat Of History: As A Tragedy Or Farce?

By Gamini Weerakoon


A university should be a place of light, liberty and learning—Benjamin Disraeli, a British Prime Minister of renown.

Sri Lankan undergraduates in recent decades have had somewhat different interpretations to this Disraeli definition of a university

Their views down the years could make it a: place of light, liberty, burning or  (*revolting/ agitating/ demonstrating/ demanding/ ragging/ torturing/ opposing any government / being baton charged or tear gassed).

*Strike out whatever is inapplicable with the passing of time. Of course being a place of ‘light and learning’ is now mere rhetoric.

These observations may appear to be cynical but they were made by a student leader of sorts of many decades who has been keeping a close watch over what has been patronisingly termed as student unrest.


Longest March

At the time of writing the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) are on a ‘Long March from Peradeniya to the headquarters of the University Grants Commission at Ward Place Colombo. The IUSF have been staging many short ‘Long Marches’ recently (extending only a few miles) but this is the Longest March probably about 70 miles. Whether they are inspired by Mao Zedong’s Long March of 6000 miles from south west China to the north east  during the Chinese Revolution or  our own J.R. Jayewardene’s  aborted  ‘Long March’( in the mid- fifties) from Colombo to Kandy  which was terminated at Imbulgoda ( near Gampaha  by that cantankerous SLFPer S.D. Bandaranayake — Imbulgoda Weraya -sleeping across the Colombo-Kandy road.  We are unaware  but at the time of writing the march was on and scheduled to reach  Colombo on Friday.

The undergraduates want privatisation of higher education, as they allege, halted. Minister of Higher Education Lakshman Kiriella had wanted to hold discussions with students before the march commenced but the students jumped the gun before talks and the minister refused to talk with the protest march on.

Kiriella perhaps did not appreciate the urge of students to commence marching down the road with news hawks covering it all the way.


Making of history

It has been already declared a historic march by the media. We Sri Lankans of all ages and status have the irresistible desire to have our names etched in history.

That’s why we have our history making media pronouncing ‘a historic event’ on a daily basis. So, should students deprived of this historic honour if talks were held and the minister agreed to all their demands?

After all we keep regaling about our 2500 year-old-history ever so often.

And what of the likelihood of the student demand to abolish private education making inroads into the sacrosanct free education system particularly  the SAITM (South  Asian Institute of Technical and Medical Education) being rejected outright? SAITM, a private institution providing degrees in engineering, management. information technology and medicine? The medical faculty has an inbuilt state of the art teaching hospital. Rs 1200 million investments have gone into it. Can it be written off on a mere student demand?

Obviously student activists don’t give a damn. They are trying to bite much more than they can chew. Their demands on private education run contrary to the policies of an elected sovereign government but that is not the government of their choice. So students may have realised that even if a historic decision cannot be enforced with let the historic march go on.

Student activists are those in search of a just cause to create a rumpus not only in their campuses but around the country. Just a few weeks ago there was the Short Long March from Fort Railway Station to the UGC headquarters. It was a massive impressive demonstration and as students and many who do not like the Yasapalanaya government said it ended with a mass display of police brutality.

They blamed it all on the President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe much to the delight of the Rajapaksa cohorts who had walked on the sidelines.



But this supposedly heroic and historic demonstration was a comedy of errors. Minister Kiriella pointed out that the demands of the HNDT students had been granted by cabinet decision much before the celebrated demonstration! But the reverberations of that demonstration have still not died down.

With a new government in place and a part of it comprising the UNP .Their demands and demonstrations that have kicked- off gives a feeling of déjà vu.

Undergraduates are not the original and lone sources of these demands. They are being echoed and backed by those now roaming in the political wilderness.

Karl Marx, the forgotten prophet, said: History repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce.

Sri Lanka has had two tragedies; let’s hope the third will be a farce.

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