| by Shanie
(October 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) “The Ministry of Higher Education has issued a directive that all state universities should hire the services of Rakna Lanka Ltd for provision of security services. The undersigned of the University academic community considers that directive to be in complete contravention of the norms and conventions by which universities are expected to function.
The letter issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education seeks to bypass standard procedures that are followed in the university system in the hiring and outsourcing of services. That process requires tenders to be called for and for a suitable company to be selected in a transparent and independent manner. The Secretary’s instruction therefore is in violation of established processes and is contrary to the underpinning principles of governance and the autonomy of academic institutions.”
Earlier this month, over fifty courageous academics, from senior professors to junior lecturers and drawn from several of our universities, issued a statement, the opening two paragraphs of which are quoted above. The academics were protesting at the directive to all Universities from the Ministry of Higher Education to outsource their security to a named company, Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd. Rakna was a company floated recently as a commercial venture and its Board of Directors, according to its organisational structure on its website, report directly to the Secretary, Defence. The security personnel employed by it are also reported to be ex-servicemen. It is also reported that many other state institutions have been so directed to employ Rakna. The academics were rightly protesting against this blatant infringement of the academic freedom and independence of the universities.
The Universities Act provides for the Vice Chancellor and the Council of each University to deal with the general administration of the University. The University Grants Commission provides guidance to the Universities on academic matters, student admissions, salaries etc. A healthy convention that has been developed the world over is that universities are autonomous within their limits and the UGC is autonomous within its ‘terms of reference’. Many years ago, a Commission on higher education in India headed by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan stated: ‘We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process. Higher education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State but State aid is not to be confused with State control over academic policies and practices…. Our Universities should be released from the control of politics.’
The hiring or outsourcing of security services is a matter that should be left to each University as has happened with satisfactory results over the years. The Universities have been following a practice of inviting tenders, evaluating each tender and hiring the most appropriate company to provide the security services according to its needs. By directing the Universities to hire a particular company, bypassing all tender procedures, the Ministry has set a dangerous precedent and opened up avenues of corruption. But a still more pernicious development is the increasing militarisation of civil administration and higher education under the Defence Ministry.
‘Leadership Training’ Programme
The academics in their statement go on to state: “We are also concerned about the increasing infringement of university autonomy in matters pertaining to academic programmes and in decision making by the state. We are especially concerned about the role the military establishment is increasingly playing in the administrative and academic spheres of the universities, which are a place of free exchange of ideas, critical thinking, and innovation. We of course have in mind the leadership training programme conducted by the Military to university entrants, which, arbitrarily imposed on all concerned, reduced the authority of the academic community within its own area of purview. This last development of encroachment via hiring procedure by the Ministry of Defence is seen as a further elaboration of this trend of increasing militarization of the universities. As an academic community we are willing and able to cooperate effectively with the authorities in these and other issues facing university administration and academic quality. We urge the government to respect its obligations toward the academic community and the universities with respect to its written and unwritten contract with the university system.”
The ‘leadership training’ programme given to all university entrants this year that these academics refer to has not only been resisted by the university community, both teachers and students, but has raised problematic issues in respect of the curriculum adopted. Whoever designed it (apparently the cover of the study booklet has a picture of the Secretary, Defence on it), does not believe that pluralism and a respect for all communities and all religions should be encouraged and promoted among the new university entrants. It is reported that the topics on the module on history and national heritage are, in order: the arrival of the Aryans, foreign invasions, and the development of Sinhalese kingdoms. The curriculum on “National heritage” reportedly focused exclusively on prominent cultural symbols of the majority Sinhala community such as Sigiriya, the Temple of the Tooth and the Aukana Buddha statue with none from other communities. Subjecting new university entrants, who may well become future leaders of this country, a respected civil society is quotes as saying, to a course which focuses exclusively on the majority community, undermines all the official statements on national reconciliation after three decades of civil strife. If this is an officially sanctioned method of national reconciliation what hopes do we have for a peaceful conflict-free future in this country?”
Militarisation of civil administration
The militarization is not confined to brain-washing of university students and having security personnel keep a watchful eye on student, and indeed teacher, union activities. Military personnel are being increasingly used in civil administration and sometimes even to take over policing functions. The military were used in the eviction of the urban poor (one hopes that the government will keep its election promise of not continuing with these evictions, even though they lost the election.) Although it is necessary to resist increasing militarization, it will perhaps be wrong to blame the military personnel for this. They are more probably being used by politicians to serve the politician’s ends. Like the Police, when matters do not go the way the politician wants, they will be made the scapegoats.
The recent turf warfare in Mulleriyawa which resulted in the death of a long-standing SLFPer showed the dangers of playing politics. Each side had different underworld gangs behind them. From all available reports, each side had the backing of a different sets of politicians. The politician who wields greater power will be expected to shield his side, irrespective of who is being arrested by the Police. This is why the Bharatha Premachandra siblings are expressing concern that justice will not be meted out to the killers of their brother. A government spokesperson is already on record as saying that one of the persons named by a witness is not being treated aa suspect. If the investigations into this crime were to be transparent and fair, we should expect the Police investigators and not government spokespersons to let the public know the progress of the investigations, and as to who is being treated as suspects. Pre-empting statements from the police investigators smacks of political interference.
The same goes for the recent incident in Negombo where the residential premises of a ruling party politician was searched by the Police Special Task Force. The search revealed nothing but the STF went there on information they had received and which they felt was credible. There was no indication that they had finished their investigation on the information received. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a mistaken act of solidarity, visited this local politician at his home in Negombo. As the Island editorialist quite rightly stated, that visit was totally inappropriate. It would have stalled any further follow-up the Police may have carried in respect of the information they had received; and would further have demoralized the investigators.
The Police have been at the receiving end of a lot of flak in recent times. And rightly so too! There have been far too many instances of deaths in police custody, of suspects being beaten up and tortured and of innocent people being harassed at the behest of the rich and the powerful. But we have a new IGP. He, and the seniors who wish to restore the professional image of the Police, must be allowed to do so. It is time for the public, the civil society groups in particular, to denounce political interference in law enforcement and to support any genuine attempt at re-building within the Police.
In the oft-quoted words of the late Martin Luther King, ‘we shall have to repent in this generation not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.’