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Friday, July 15, 2011

Protesting with our Jaffna colleagues – a personal experience

Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura, A member of the Science Teachers Association, University of Peradeniya

I was not planning to go to Jaffna protest by the academics, not by choice, but circumstances effectively prevented it, but later I found a way.

Three busses from the University of Peradeniya were travelling to Jaffna, a distance of over 300 km. One of them starting from the Faculty of Engineering, second from the Faculty of Agriculture and the third from the Faculty of Arts. From all other universities, journeys were being planned. Enthusiasm to go to Jaffna was immense; to protest in Jaffna.

University teachers had protested vigorously over the last two months. They had held placards, walked in processions in sweltering heat, got covered in dust while breathing in noxious diesel fumes. They also held a series of public rallies, where prominent academics expressed their views, at last telling the people of this country the truth. The truth about the deterioration of our higher education, brain-drain, shifting of priorities, poor governance, degradation of the values we held dear and the total denigration of academic community. They are also told the masses about the truth about broken promises. Promises broken so blatantly and unashamedly that it has helped to galvanize even the group of gentle university teachers, into action.

Peradeniya Engineers as usual were taking the practical approach, to also gain a cultural experience, while supporting the protest, and they were leaving early morning a day before the day of the protest. Apart from Engineering folks, two Professors from the Science Faculty and two from the Dental Faculty were travelling with them. Agriculture bus was leaving mid day, together with some lecturers from the Vet and Medical faculties, the same day as the Engineers. Arts faculty bus was leaving at late night, planning to travel throughout the night, starting from the famous Arts Theater at 10.00 PM.

The call for the protest was so enticing that I effectively gave up on my commitment at 9.00 PM, “come what may, I am going to Jaffna”. This left me just one hour to catch the Arts faculty bus to Jaffna. I gave a call to Dr. Ananda Jayawickrema asking him if there was space in the bus; and he said, “lets go somehow”. I knew I was pushing his hand and that the buss was absolutely full, but I could not give up the idea of going to Jaffna, the place to protest.

When I reached the bus, young Arts Faculty lecturers were loading up the large 50 seater bus with large bundles. I found out that these were books containing a compilation of selected articles from the nearly 250 articles written in all three languages that were published on the issue of higher education reforms, within the last two months. This book was launched a couple of weeks ago in the protest rally held in Anuradhapura. These books were being taken to Jaffna, for sale.

The hope of getting some sleep was soon dashed, as soon as the bus started, a lively academic discussion ensued, literature of various sorts was flying all over the bus. Travelling with academics was fun, but one has to forget the word relaxing.

After several hours of travel through the night, the bus was stopped in Omanthe. A young soldier got into the bus to check our identities. The lectures were chatting friendlily to him and he was enjoying that while doing his duty. They probably knew of us, and the purpose of our travel, as several busses coming from Sri Jayawardenapura and other universities had already passed through the Omanthe checkpoint.

When we passed through the checkpoint at Omanthe. I gave a call to my comrade in arms, a call (he went to all previous protests, but could not go for this one as his wife was heavily and absolutely pregnant), but it was nearly 2.00 AM, and he was sleeping, I sent him a text message “Machan, I am in Omanthe”. This would later surprise him as he thought I was not going.

We had coffee at “Dawood”, a night-stall bordered by a 50 m clearing, bordered by a scrub forest. Coffee was saturated with sugar and it livened up the discussion, Dr. Amarakeerti Liyanage, Prof. Keerawella and I had a brief discussion on pseudo-nationalism, under the half-moon, by the shrub jungle, breathing in the dust unsettled by construction and passenger vehicles that came into get their sweet poison at the Dawood.

There was an amazing amount of traffic on A-9 highway even at 3.00 am. Clearly this depicted positive energy that had been dormant for a long time. This was not the dark energy that flowed through this very road, many years ago. The dark energy flowing with the intention of maiming, killing, and destructing, strangely however with the intention of freeing a group of people. The positive energy we welcomed, we were a small part of that, flowing towards Jaffna. We were ambassadors of liberal democracy and education, hoping to reform the higher education in all of Sri Lanka. Over the last several months, this positive energy trickled from Jaffna to Kandy, Matara, Colombo and Anauradhapura. Now it was flowing back, gushing, inundating Jaffna! It felt good, when we got back into the bus, to be hit by more of academic discussion.

Morning broke when we were plying through Elephant Pass, the strategically important bottleneck to Jaffna where bitter battles were fought, to gain meters of land at the expense of hundreds of human lives. The early morning sun that arose was blood red, fittingly giving a solemn color to the sacrifices that were made on the narrow stretch of land.

Before Jaffna, one of our lady lecturers from Jaffna arranged some tea for us, it consisted of Jaffna Hoppers and Coffee. Jaffna hoppers are basically two hoppers with their faces put together with some sweet some coconut milk in the middle, it was so good. Later we stopped for a full breakfast arranged by another one of our lecturers. It was just wow, and as an added bonus it was vegetarian too (!): Iggli, Indiappam, Dhosa, several curries infused with Jaffna spices, Mango and Jack fruit. Hospitality, was out of this world. Later I was told by other parties that travelled independently from the south, of similar experiences.

Then some of us left for the FUTA (Federation of University Teachers Association) executive committee meeting at the Green Grass Hotel, near the famous station road, in Jaffna. This went on for about two hours in which plans were horned to take our struggle forward. Lunch was organized by the University teachers of Jaffna University, and again, there was a vegetarian stand, well away from the “normal” stand; something that I am yet to witness anywhere else in Sri Lanka.

After lunch, we walked over to the famous Jaffna Railway station, the gathering point for all of us, the people who deeply cared about higher education in Sri Lanka. By proxy FUTA was also here, as now there is hope to reform education in Sri Lanka. About a thousand attendees observed the ruins of the Jaffna railway station, there was no roof, a blast had lifted one of the floors, making it into a dome like structure, when you walk out of the opening that says “first class only”, you come on to the platform, in the wide ditch beyond, there are no railway tracks or the sleepers. All of them had been exchanged between initially the LTTE and the Army several times over, to make bunkers. The nearest functional track is 135kms, that is nearly 3 hours away, in Omanthe. So it will be a while before Jaffna will see a train again, but before they see a train, they will hopefully see education reforms in Sri Lanka.

The protestors had placards, urging the government to attend to our demands, disparaging the higher education politicians and the political appointees (UGC, CVCD) for their lack of foresight (except perhaps a very few) and suppression of our TU action. The procession was important for several reasons. It was the one of the first protests done by University Academics in Jaffna; and it was one of the biggest.

The police and the army were present, not more than that was seen in Colombo or Anuradhapura. I would say at a similar strength. Our folks gave handouts to them also, and some of our more adventurous lecturers would ask them questions: “aren’t you going to arrest us?”, “why don’t you join us”, “EGB ekak bomuda?” ect. to which most of them smiled. They cleared up the road for us, to go from the station to the Weerasingham hall, through Jaffna city center.

Weerasingham hall was fabulous. I would say it was the largest and the best halls where we had our seminars. Its high ceilings, long fans, wide stage were reminiscent of a golden era in Jaffna, but there were also signs of huge air conditioners being put up, hopefully being the positive signs of another golden era, yet to come.

The speakers were at their best, and it inspired and motivated the listeners. All of them had a message specifically for the higher education in Jaffna. Many believed that a better higher education was would also facilitate liberal democracy in the region, and Sri Lanka.

Predictably, some of the folks got a bit nervous by about 6.00 and started leaving the hall in small groups, especially the ladies. They had to leave to get their busses back to their homes. This again depicted that everything was not really Oojah-Cum-spiff. There was still a bit of nervousness amongst the locals. It was time for us to leave too.

I made a jump from the Arts bus to the Engineering bus, just so that I could also get a feeling of their mood. There was young energy within the bus. They wanted to make the universities in Sri Lanka the best, but the problems we had to overcome were monumental. But talking to them, one can see that overcoming these are possible. There is hope, as they absolutely understand the problems, and have not just one, but several alternative answers to a problem. But would they get a chance to realize their true potential?

We were again moving through the night, having accomplished our mission, with two of my most respected Professors sitting by me, slowly nodding themselves into half-sleep. One of them, will retire soon, these salary revisions and the education reforms that we are asking for will not benefit them at all. They are truly in this struggle for the future generations, they need to make sure that education in Sri Lanka is in good hands, and that it will prosper, driving Sri Lanka back into a golden era.

The government must realize that it is the will and future of our nations potential do to constructive work for the nation that is being diffused and dissipated on the streets and seminar halls of Kandy, Matara, Colombo, Anuradhapura and Jaffna. We are not just fighting to increase our salary, we are fighting to enhance and sustain the university system in Sri Lanka. Hence we are fighting to make Sri Lanka better, nobody can blame us for that, I hope…