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Colombo University as a revolutionary 'liberated zone'

Colombo University as a revolutionary 'liberated zone'

2013 Jun 10

The uncertainty that prevailed for quite a while over the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor for the University of Colombo, was ended several days ago with the appointment of Dr Kumara Hirimburegama to the post. Probably never before has the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor taken so long and generated so much controversy. What followed the appointment was even more unprecedented.  The Federation of University Teachers’ Unions (FUTA) issued a two week ultimatum to the newly appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo Dr Kumara Hirimburegama to resign and they threatened to go on strike unless the new VC resigns. So the question is are we going to see the commencement of another university teacher’s strike this week? This attempt by FUTA to force the resignation of a duly appointed Vice Chancellor is unprecedented.

The new VC was appointed according to the long established procedure. The Council of the University of Colombo nominated three names, Professor Lakshman Dissanayake, and Drs Kumara Hirimburegama and Pratiba Mahanamahewa to be sent to the president. Out of these three nominees, the president chose Hirimburegama. Instead of welcoming the new VC who was appointed according to the established procedure, FUTA has tried to force his resignation and have their own nominee appointed to their post. If this attempt succeeds, from this point onwards the VCs of all other universities as well, will be appointed not by the president but by FUTA.  The appointment of Hirimburegama led to the charge that the university is being politicized. There are basically three grounds on which FUTA objects to the choice of Hirimburegama.

The first charge is that he is not the most qualified of the three candidates, the second is that it was not he who got the most number of votes in the University Council and the third is that there is a conflict of interest in that his wife Kshanika Hirimburegama is the present head of the University Grants Commission. How justified are these criticisms? What FUTA means when they say that Hirimburegama is not the most qualified candidate is that Lakshman Dissanayake is a Professor while Hirimburegama is not.  Anybody who listens to FUTA may get the impression that the president has appointed a candidate with nothing more than a Post Graduate Diploma to his credit. But that’s not the case. All three candidates nominated by the University of Colombo Council had PhDs and all of them had served in the university for long periods of time.  All of them are well qualified. For several years before she became UGC Chairperson, Kshanika Hirimburegama was the VC of Colombo University and her husband could have been made a Professor if they so wished but obviously they did not want it to appear that the wife has conferred a professorship on the husband.

Despite the charge by FUTA that Kumara Hirimburegama is not qualified, his academic profile is more than adequate to hold the position of VC. A professorship is not an academic qualification, its a university position. There are many university professors who do not have PhDs. Then there is the charge that Hirimburegama did not get the highest number of votes in the University Council. Once again, this charge would convey the impression that Lakshman Dissanayake got 100 votes while Hirimburegama got only 20 votes. FUTA is deliberately misleading the public by not stating the number of votes that each one of the three nominees got in the University Council. On the day that the three individuals were nominated for the position of VC, the University Council was attended by 23 members. Each member could nominate three names for the position of VC. Prof Lakshman Dissanayake got 15 votes, Kumara Hirimburegama got 13 votes and Pratiba Mahanamahewa got 8 votes. The difference between Dissanayake and Hirimburegama was only two votes but FUTA makes it look like 200 votes.

The president’s discretion

In any case, the bottom line is that when three names are sent up by the University Council to the president, the president can at his discretion choose any one of them. The president is under no obligation to appoint the most qualified person or the person who got the most number of votes in the council. As far as the president is concerned all three candidates have been nominated by the university council for the president to make the final choice. Nobody should try to usurp the president’s right to select the right candidate, but FUTA is trying to do exactly that. The third argument put forward by FUTA against the appointment of Hirimburegama is that of a conflict of interest with the wife being University Grants Commission Chairperson while the husband becomes VC of a university. The conflict of interest is a subject that featured prominently in this column in the recent past. It is interesting to compare the conflict of interest issues arising from the Hirimburegama affair with that of the conflict of interest matters that arose with regard to the former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

FUTA never saw any conflict of interest with regard to the former CJ whereas they see an irreconcilable conflict of interest with regard to the Hirimburegamas. Thus we see that FUTA uses the issue of conflict of interest selectively, when it suits their purpose. The conflict of interest with regard to the Hirimburegama couple is that of the husband holding a position in an institution functioning under the wife. If this was transposed to the Bandaranayake couple, it would be equivalent to Pradeep Kariyawasam being a judge on the appeal court bench while his wife was the CJ. But in the case of the former CJ, the conflict of interest issues were much more serious. The first issue was that she bought a property in a project belonging to the Ceylinco Group in her sister’s name and then took over a case relating to the same project from another judge and proceeded to hear it. The second was that the former CJ continued to be the CJ and ex officio chairperson of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) while a case was being heard in a magistrate’s court against her husband.  The JSC had complete control over both the magistrate and the affairs of the court that was hearing the case against the husband of the CJ.

The third conflict of interest issue in relation to the former CJ was that she continued to hear cases relating to the devolution of power when the majority of a seven member Supreme Court bench had determined back in 1997 that it would be inappropriate for her to hear cases relating to the devolution of power. However the leaders of FUTA refused to see any conflict of interest with regard to the former CJ’s conduct. But now when it suits them, they talk of the conflict of interest with regard to the Hirimburegama couple. In Shirani Bandaranayake’s case, if the issue she had to face was just a case of her husband serving as a judge in the appeal court while she was CJ, nobody would have made a fuss over that. In the case of the Hirimburegamas Kumara Hirimburegama worked in the same university as his wife. The wife became VC and he continued to serve under her. The husband can’t be sacked just because the wife becomes head of the institution. Even if he didn’t become VC, he would still have continued to be a senior academic at the Colombo University while his wife was the UGC chairperson.

Nobody said that there was a conflict of interest in his remaining on the staff of the Colombo University while his wife was the UGC chairperson. Problems have arisen only because he was appointed VC. But then it is not the UGC that appoints VCs but the president and Kumara Hirimburegama’s name was duly nominated by the University Council. Then why is FUTA threatening to strike over the appointment? There is very clearly a political agenda behind all this. The radicals who have taken over FUTA want to assume control over the appointment of VC and turn the universities into ‘liberated areas’ like the Sierra Maestra hills in pre-revolutionary Cuba from where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara launched their successful revolution. Last week, the students of the Sabaragamuwa University blocked the Badulla-Colombo road for several hours protesting against the suspension of four students. This was in total disregard of the terrible inconvenience caused to long distance travellers on this route.  Was the suspension of four students sufficient justification for harassing the general public in that manner? What we saw the next day was even worse. The president of FUTA called a press conference and spoke in support of the students. The nexus that is forming is very clear.


The Govt. as a doormat

During the last university lecturers’ strike, the student organizations joined the demonstrations of university teachers. When university teachers and students demonstrate together on the streets, how are the university teachers’ to maintain discipline and order among students? Teacher’s are adults and should guide students on the correct path. But that’s not the emphasis here. The leaders of FUTA seem to have got it into their head that they should lead the Sri Lankan revolution and for that they need students as cannon fodder which is why they are encouraging the disruption of public life by students. The government should be very vigilant about what is going on. The blocking of the Badulla-Colombo road was obviously a rehearsal for what they have in mind. They are testing the resolve of the government. For several hours, the government did nothing to clear the road.

A few months ago, the same student organization brought the students of the Sri Jayawardenapura University out onto the road once again over the trivial excuse that some minor damage had been done to a statue in the university premises. The damage did not exceed Rs 2,000 at the most but students of the university marched all the way from the Sri Jayawardenapura University to Colombo and surrounded Temple Trees causing an unprecedented traffic jam lasting several hours in Colombo. In that instance too the government did nothing and allowed the students to bring the whole of Colombo to a standstill. In both these instances, there was a clear mismatch between the reasons for the protest and the magnitude of the action taken. Experienced agitators know that students provide good cannon fodder.

The actor Jackson Anthony once told the present writer that in 1976, when he was in the A/L class in a school in Kandy, some university students had come to their school and told them to come out and protest. Jackson who was a natural leader had led the students of his school out on to the streets and shouted slogans against the government and the police for hours and after everything was over, he had asked the university students who told them to come out, what they were protesting against. It was only then that he had come to know that a student called Weerasuriya had been killed in a police shooting at the Peradeniya University. At that age, you are not really aware of what you are doing and this is what agitators exploit. The Sri Jayawardenapura incident of several months ago and last week’s Sabaragamuwa University incident are in the present columnists view, dry runs for the big thing.

The keen observer will note that the two demonstrations organized by student agitators, the earlier mentioned Sri Jayawardenepura university protest and the recent Sabaragamuwa university student’s protest was far more successful in bringing things to a standstill than any so called general strike called by anti-government groups in recent years. It is inevitable that in the future anti-government agitators will rely more and more on using university students to engage in disruption than calling for general strikes which elicit no response from the public.

If the government errs on the side of liberality in meeting this threat, that will turn the public against a government that cannot maintain public order. Earlier on, the present government experienced a similar situation after the Kebithigollewa claymore mine attack. While it was the terrorists who were responsible for the deaths, the people turned hostile towards a government which was unable to ensure their physical safety. This is precisely what the agitators also want, to make the people turn against a government which is unable to ensure public law and order. In this respect, the government has been sending out all the wrong signals in recent times. They took no action to stop the Sri Jayawardenapura students causing a gridlock in Colombo last year and in the past few months they took no action against the Buddhist extremist mobs on the street. Then last week, they took no action to clear the Badulla-Colombo road for several hours. If things go on like this, agitators are going to use this government as a doormat. Because the government is not taking action against agitators even ordinary people have begun to block roads and railway tracks to attract attention. Things cannot go on like this.

If the government does not take steps to curb this trend, they are going to be faced with a big problem in the not too distant future. The Prevention of Terrorism Act should be amended to function as an Internal Security Act and action should be taken against these agitators whether they be Buddhist extremists on the street or student agitators disrupting public life, under an Internal Security Act.  


Destroying the Sinhalese through agitation

There is another aspect to this, which needs to be brought to the public notice. This agitation in the universities in particular is bringing ruin upon only one segment of the population, the Sinhalese. D.P.Sivaram was the foremost Tamil political analyst in this country. When he came to Colombo in the 1980s, he was anti-LTTE. In the late 80s, Sivaram was instrumental in facilitating the transfer of landmine technology from PLOTE to the JVP. This gave him an opportunity to observe Sinhala radicals at close quarters. Later after everything was over, Siva told the present writer that he is amazed at the attitude of the JVP towards education. He said that the LTTE would never disrupt education the way the JVP did because to the LTTE, education was an asset. They needed cadres with technical know how to fight the war. Those who did not fight could be planted in strategic jobs to help the LTTE and those who did neither could be sent abroad to earn money and support the cause.

So even though the LTTE fought the war, schools and universities in the north and east functioned normally. The JVP however kept the universities closed for nearly four years without a second thought. Throughout the JVP’s second insurrection the Jaffna University functioned normally. It is after observing the difference between Sinhala radicals and Tamil radicals that Sivaram who was originally anti-LTTE gradually became pro-LTTE because he began to feel that in comparison to the JVP, the LTTE was genuinely fighting to uplift their people.  This experience also undoubtedly convinced Sivaram that the Sinhalese were not fit to rule over the Tamils. The last time I met Siva was about 48 hours before he was abducted and killed. He spoke like a Tamil supremacist. What made him that was his close observation of Sinhala radicalism. This is why this country needs an Internal Security Act modeled on the PTA. This is why all these street agitators who disrupt public life need to be locked up for three months at a time. These agitators are destroying the Sinhalese, and with that the whole country.

When we were in university, even final year students were in their early twenties. It was very seldom that one came across a student even in his mid twenties. Today however many students, are between the ages of 25 to 30. Men and women who should be working and married are still students. Despite all this, University lecturers struck work for four months demanding among other things that government expenditure on education should be increased to 6% of the GDP. This in a situation where even countries like Britain, USA and Australia where education is a huge foreign exchange earning industry, the sector accounts for much less than 5% of the GDP. So how is a developing nation like Sri Lanka to do what even the most developed nations have failed to do? These were impossible demands designed to provide an excuse for agitation and nothing else. Thus radical university teachers managed to disrupt education for four months and now at the time of writing, there is the threat of more disruption in the University of Colombo.

Moneyed Sinhala parents will send their children abroad. Tamil academics will ensure that there is minimal disruption at the University of Jaffna no matter what.  It is the universities in the south which are affected by student or academic activism. Ordinary Sinhala parents who do not have the means to educate their children abroad, have to make do with local universities and it is this segment of the population that is most seriously affected by this breakdown in the universities. There has to be an internal backlash from within the Sinhala community against this ruination of Sinhala youth.


Govt.’s Amendment to The 13A

Last week, an important development that took place was the tabling in cabinet of the government’s proposals for amending the 13th Amendment. The rumour that was floating around in the past several weeks was that the government had come to some sort of an understanding with India that the Indians will insist that the CHoGM will be held in Sri Lanka and in exchange, Sri Lanka will hold the Northern PC election under the 13th Amendment. The idea was that the government was now in a bind, unable to amend the 13th Amendment but also unable to resist the pressure coming from allies like the JNP and the JHU to either scrap the 13A or to take away the land and police powers of PCs. But last week with the proposal that Prof G.L.Peiris put forward, the government seems to have broken out of the bind that they were in.

The proposal was to repeal paragraph 154G(3) of the constitution which stipulated that a bill to alter the powers devolved to the provincial councils will have to have either the assent of ALL the provincial councils or a two thirds majority in parliament to become law. If it has the assent of each and every PC in this country, a simple majority in parliament would suffice to make alterations in the list of powers devolved to the provinces. The proposal that Peiris put forward at the cabinet last week was to remove the requirement that each and every provincial council has to give its assent to alter the powers on the provincial councils list. Under the proposed Amendment, it would suffice if a MAJORITY of the provincial councils gives its assent to any change in the powers of the PCs. If the majority of PCs agrees to changes in the powers wielded by PCs, only a simple majority in parliament would be necessary to make the necessary changes.  

Even India can say nothing about this amendment because according to Article 368 of the Indian constitution, only a little more than one half of the Indian states needs to give their assent to any change in the powers of the states for parliament to be able to pass the necessary legislation which will then be binding upon all states. In that respect, this proposed amendment to the 13A brings things into line with the Indian constitution.  In Sri Lanka, it will ensure that the majority of PCs give their assent to any proposed changes in the powers wielded by the PCs will be the political party system and the link between the political party in power at the centre and in the provinces. After this proposed amendment is passed, the police and land powers of the PCs can be removed with a simple majority in parliament with the assent of the majority of the PCs. Many chief ministers have already said that they do not want police or land powers.

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