Note: This post was contributed by a foreign student enrolled in a BA degree programme in a Sri Lankan university who wishes to remain anonymous. Because of frequent student protests and repeated university closures, she was set back by a year. She was ragged as well. Earlier this year, after continuous psychological distress she decided to abandon the degree she was pursing.
I recently came across an article about the growing number of protests in Sri Lankan state run universities. As a foreign student who studied at once such university, the issue of protests is neither new to me nor was it surprising. In fact, for the past one and half years, I have witnessed student protests, almost on a daily basis.
I have read articles about how the protests are politically motivated and how blame is laid on student bodies and unions for the constant commotion in the universities. In my opinion, it isn’t the commotion that we should be concerned about, rather the silence on the many issues that prevail in the current system.
Logically, commotion exists when there is an authoritarian control, and no means for redress within the system. So what is it in the system that has caused students to go on streets and carry out protests on such a frequent basis?
One of the very first protests I could recall was regarding some threats issued to the Tamil and Muslim students. Following the threats, a student was found beaten up and that had ignited tension and fear among all students. I remember being scared to go out of the house even, as I wear the hijab and could easily be identified as Muslim. A large protest was held which was followed by a police investigation which as I later read, ended up in many questionable circumstances.
Then came a case of a warden beating up a student in a girls’ hostel. The issue of the safety of girls’ hostels also came up as a result, and this led to continuous protests which ended up in classes being cancelled for over a month.
I cannot remember a single week where students didn’t walk in the sun and rain, protesting for their rights or against what they considered as injustices. It was evident that protests were prioritized over studies, which was very frustrating for someone who had left home and travelled to Sri Lanka in hope of a good education.
The question is, are the protests unnecessary? From what I have seen and experienced, I believe that the protests are in fact very necessary; to bring justice to what happens in the universities. What worries me however, is the reaction towards the issue by the authorities.
I have seen my batch mates protest for days, camping out on the road, and eventually the protests being broken down by the police. I’ve seen confrontations between the police and my batch mates. In fact, the university had been closed down for days, due to their protests.
Sadly, instead of initiating a discussion with the student leaders, the police decided to use brute force against the students, until they gave in. What we see today is merely the consequences of those many demands and rights, which were never fulfilled.
Apart from the protests, the ragging that I witnessed and experienced added to the list of bad experiences. Although, I have heard remarks by our Vice Chancellor that ragging has been successfully wiped out on the campus, I have personally experienced it and also witnessed it happen.
From seemingly minor rules such as walking in lines and strict dress codes, to being given vulgar nicknames and physical ragging such as “the bucket” (where students were asked to pour a bucket of foul smelling water over each other) , I have seen it all.
However, these things are so cleverly institutionalized that the student themselves accept it readily, which gives the management and authorities the chance to turn a blind eye towards the issues. During the many conversations I’ve had with my batch mates, I noticed how they justify ragging by reasoning that since it is a free education system; they need to “pay a price”.
I found the whole concept of loyalty towards the batch by continuing the ragging rituals both fascinating as well as disturbing. At the end of the day, the ones who refuse to take part in the process are left severely marginalized — which is probably why the majority decides to oblige, despite the stress and humiliation involved.
As a foreign student, the university politics proved to be too much for me to handle. The pressure of ragging and the constant commotion and protests were very confusing and unsettling. I eventually quit my degree half way through, simply because I felt that the price I had to pay for the “free education” was simply not worth it.