Commodifying ‘Discipline’ and Militarising Education

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Disciplining society was a critical political drive behind the election campaigns of the incumbent Government. The majority of people voted for this Government with expectations for a ‘disciplined’ society. They voted in as President, a former military officer, a prominent actor in the victorious war-winning regime to ‘discipline’ and ‘protect’ the nation. The triumph of military masculinity then was not an accident but the will of the majority. Its consequences, including the militarisation of our institutions and society, are also not an accident.

Militarisation may be understood as the degree to which a society’s institutions, policies, behaviours and thoughts, and values are devoted to military power and shaped by war.1 The civil war of 30 years ended in 2009. The massive human cost of the war was compromised by the promise of post-war ‘peace’ and the government’s failure to provide leadership on post-war reconciliation. Most efforts at reconciliation did not originate from the state but were forcefully pushed by the international community. On the other hand, the state pushed a militarisation agenda, asserting control over economic, social, and civic life through heavy military deployment, especially in the North and East.

Militarization made inroads into the education sector soon after the end of the war. Education officials, including school principals, were commissioned as Brevet Colonels2. Then the Government commenced a military-led leadership training programme for the new entrants to state universities3. Now,12 years after the end of the war, the war-winning regime has returned and is rapidly expanding the military’s purview with new devices to sustain militarisation. An initial strategy was to appoint military officials to civilian institutions in the name of disciplining the public sector. Most recently, the KNDU Bill was proposed, reflecting the militarisation imperative again through the education apparatus.

Discipline meets commodification

The Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy was established in 1981 by Parliamentary Act No. 68 of 1981, By the recently proposed Bill, the Minister of Defence will appoint the KDU’s Board of Governors, which will consist of nine members; the Secretary and Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, one nominee each from the UGC and Treasury, the Chief of Defence Staff, the Commanders of Tri-Forces, and Vice-Chancellor of the University. The latter will also be a military commander. As per the proposed Bill, the KDU will be legally permitted to deliver higher education in any field of study and no longer be limited to military training. In other words, the KDU will function similarly to any other university, except that the military will administer it and, unlike other state universities, will be fully fee levying.

The proposed legislation feeds into the majoritarian psyche of a ‘militarised and disciplined nation’. Here, ‘discipline’ – demanded by the majority – will be sold or marketed through the strong state apparatus in the form of higher education. The government has fused two ingredients required by its electorate—discipline and education—to make a good sale. A section of the consumers will be citizens who pay taxes to sustain free education. The commodification of ‘discipline’ then will also commodify education in line with national policy. At the inauguration of the Fourth Session of the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka, the President stated that the education sector could be a significant foreign exchange earner.4

 What does this form of commodified and disciplining higher education mean for our state universities? According to a Ministry of Finance report, the authorities recently directed two state banks, the Bank of Ceylon (BOC) and the National Savings Bank (NSB), to inject Rs.36.54 billion into the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) under a Treasury guarantee5. The state pumping people’s money to KDU would necessarily compromise financial provisions for public universities.

The burden of privatising education in this manner would be placed on students. The students who have already paid for the country’s free education will be compelled to look for fee-levying options even as public universities are gradually weakened with less financial support from the state. On the other hand, students who cannot afford to pay will remain at under-resourced state universities. Either way, the gap between the social classes will widen further. This new form of education is in stark contrast to our (prior) vision of Free Education.

Free Education for democracy

A democratic nation is the right of the people, as is education. A primary goal of education should be to sustain democratic values in society. The education sector is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting democracy. To choose their leaders, people should be educated and informed. Education should prepare citizens to fight against injustice, retain and defend their rights, and prevent governments from usurping power and evolving into despotism. It is, therefore essential to maintain education as an autonomous entity, free from the influence of politically and economically driven forces. Independent education lays the democratic foundations of a country, which also means that it should be accessible to all. Instruction and access biased towards the wealthy, numerical majority, or powerful will lead to an unbalanced and deformed democracy, which cannot represent the oppressed.

The Kannangara report of 1943, which laid the foundation of the country’s free education system discusses ‘autonomy’ of education at length. The committee emphasised the importance of controlling education through an autonomous body, and proposed to keep education – from primary to tertiary level – free. They were acutely aware of the danger of placing education in the wrong hands and recognized the link between democracy and free education. This is why they proposed to keep education in the hands of the people. In contrast, today, the Government is not only trying to sell education to the people—the very owners of education—but also place it in the hands of the military.

The Future

Education in the post-war era should emphasise reconciliation. Our students should be encouraged to rewrite our untold histories. Instead of bringing society together to foster peace and harmony, education will be used as a mechanism of oppression. The militarisation agenda will seek to establish all forms of formal education within a military structure. As the colonisers justified colonisation by promising a ‘civilised’ society, the government justifying militarisation by promising a ‘disciplined’ society.

There will be consequences of militarising education. On the one hand, militarisation would undermine the value of other knowledge systems. On the other hand, military institutions will not promote critical thinking but rather produce militarised citizens who obey authority and power. Militarising education would lead to a society where injustice is not questioned, and human rights violations are rife. This is primarily a concern because education plays a significant role in creating a hegemonic ideology that submits to the military structures. Common-sense understanding would be conditioned through military values. The KNDU Bill, if passed, will be a significant step towards militarising and commodifying education. As citizens, by submitting to the KNDU Bill, we are buying the bullets of our death.