Worries over a militarised Lankan society
In 1992, days after the Babri masjid was demolished, a temporary military camp was set up in my college, St Xavier’s, Kolkata. It was done so that army personnel could be swiftly deployed in neighbouring areas in case riots broke out. For a few days, my friends and I often chatted with the army personnel idling their time, waiting for the order to deploy. During one such conversation, a new Captain told us passionately how he wished military training was made mandatory for all students. We disagreed. A friend said it was a matter of choice.
Many Lankan students are likely to lose that choice. It’s not conscription but under a new scheme, beginning Sunday, all university entrants will now have to attend three weeks of training in military camps. They will be tutored by officials from the ministry of higher education under the guidance of senior military officers.
The decision sent waves of worry among those who feel that the Lankan society is far too militarised already. A few commentators I spoke to – they wanted me to protect their anonymity – said it was an attempt to brainwash students about discipline and how to be subservient to the state. It’s also an attempt to militarise universities, many of which had seen an upsurge of students’ unrest a few months ago.
“It is not only dangerous, it is possibly unconstitutional as well,’’ said a political commentator.
A students’ group filed a petition against the ministerial move in the Supreme Court. But the programme is set to take off Sunday after the Court simply asked the Attorney General’s office to “consider’’ postponing it by a week.
The camps will be held for both male and female students across 20 training facilities in the country.
According to an AFP report, the government said it was forced to introduce the “leadership training” in a bid to discourage rampant ragging — bullying of newcomers by older students — at Sri Lankan universities despite a 1998 law banning the phenomenon.
“Ragging has caused several deaths and many severe injuries among students.
Some 20,000 students a year qualify to enter Sri Lanka’s 19 universities and technical colleges run by the government,’’ the AFP report said.
Military spokesperson, Major General UAB Medawela was at pains to explain to me that the programme was more of a “finishing school’’ for university entrants. No physical training and no weapons-training will be done, he said.
“The students will be taught the importance of physical training, ethics and etiquettes in life and leadership skills,’’ he said. “They will be taught how to be pleasant…in everything they do – eating, drinking, walking, bathing.’’ If this wasn’t bizarre enough, what Medawela said next was ominous. “They will be taught how to follow instructions…discipline. They will be taught how to comply and respect,’’ he said.
Whether three weeks are enough to teach ethics to a late-teenager is anyone’s guess. But to force-feed students the virtues of “following instructions’’ could indeed be damaging.
The question also arises whether the government as usual has been insensitive to the feelings of Tamil students, especially those who are not from Colombo.
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