Repression, Resistance and the University

By Ahilan Kadirgamar

Universities are meant to be open spaces for higher education and the production of knowledge, and in that sense, are considered to be the bastions of freedoms and democracy. However, the reality is that universities are institutions seeped in hierarchy, among and between academics and students alike. These dynamics even take violent forms such as reprehensible acts of sexual harassment or the despicable practice of ragging, and the reluctance of university communities, including the administration and student bodies, to address these cultures of oppression. However, such oppression is not without struggle as younger generations of teachers and students seek to bring about progressive change within university spaces. In this way, universities reflect the political and social dispensations of state and society, in its most conservative forms of repression and authoritarianism, and its radical forms of resistance and democratisation.

The university students and the student movement have been in the forefront of the struggle for system change in recent months. The university teachers and their trade union have backed the broader movement taking on the state and incumbent regimes in power. There is a great test now before the university communities as we confront tremendous waves of repression characterised by the arrest of the student leaders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and the moves to expand the draconian legal regime, including with the Rehabilitation Bill. The social and political role of university communities, during one of the most formidable times of crisis in our country, is the subject of this article.

State apparatuses

One may ask why university communities should be so concerned about the affairs of the state. Critics may argue that universities should simply stick to the business of teaching and preparing students for employment, that students and university teachers have no business challenging the state or seeking its change. However, in reality there is an inextricable relationship between the universities and the state.

Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser characterises schools and educational institutions more broadly, as Ideological State Apparatuses. In other words, universities play a major ideological role in furthering the activities and interests of the state, by instilling forms of discipline and allegiance to the state, and defining the role of education and “educated” people in society, both as students and graduates. However, for Althusser, this process of ideological reproduction of state-society relations is also subject to contestation: university communities are also constantly involved in ideological struggle, discussing, questioning, debating and protesting, the claims and assertions of the state. And such ideological struggle also leads to social and political change.

The question now is what happens during times when these ideological struggles confront violent repression. In other words, how do progressive actors within university communities respond to the Repressive Apparatuses of the State–to borrow again from Althusser–the police, the military and the criminal justice system, when they are unleashed on university spaces?

Intellectual responsibility

The last four years have been tumultuous. The naked use of state power and blatant ways of holding onto or claiming state power, have unmasked the state, revealing its true character to the people. The political coup that resulted in the appointment of an illegitimate Prime Minister in October 2018 and widespread resistance to it, the Easter Attacks in April 2019 and subsequent backlash against the Muslim community alongside intensified militarization, the pandemic and ensuing disruption of the economy, the struggle against the KNDU Bill in 2021 that signalled the loss of legitimacy of the ruling regime, and, this year, the great waves of protests that led to the resignations of the Prime Minister and then the President, and the appointment of a new President without legitimacy, are some events that have characterised these turbulent times.

Political and economic developments have some bearing on university spaces, and through their commissions and omissions, university communities are part of them. Authoritarian rule and politicisation of state institutions shape academic culture as evident from the erosion of academic autonomy in recent years. The anti-Muslim attacks backed by the state affects our Muslim students even as the universities succumbed to the security establishment’s “terrorism” discourse. Though late in entering the struggle, the role of University teachers in opposing the KNDU Bill had a significant impact on the struggle. In this context, the recent silence of academics in the face of brutal attacks by the state on student leaders and protestors is a shameful abdication of their intellectual responsibility.

Confrontational path

Modern states seek hegemony over society through coercion as well as consent, through brutal repression as much as through ideological capture. However, the current crisis has placed limits on the Sri Lankan state’s ability to do this. The rulers at its helm, limited by their neoliberal austerity policies, are unable to use state resources to expand their social base and win ideological battles; the state lacks resources to even ideologically engage society. In other words, the only option available to the regime is the dangerous trend of increasing repression. Indeed, this is what we are witnessing over the last three months since the culmination of the GotaGoGama (GGG) struggle on July 9th with the consecutive assaults on democracy.

The arrests of over three thousand five hundred youth who were part of the struggle and the use of the draconian PTA to arrest three leaders of the university student movement came first. These acts of repression to instil a climate of fear were followed by attempts to curtail further protests, by designating High Security Zones that was later hastily withdrawn, issuing directives mandating advanced notice prior to all protests and now a draconian bill to rehabilitate those who have been arrested on all kinds of charges. Lacking any credible vision to address the ongoing crisis of immense social, economic and political proportions, the ruling regime is falling back on ever-expanding tactics of repression against its citizenry, relying on the bloated security sector with its brutal practices and grave abuses reaching back to the long protracted civil war.

Since much of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime’s strategy is focused on trying to dismantle the student movement, university communities are increasingly set on a confrontational path with the state. The repression of past months forebode further attacks on the democratic space within the university system, and, in turn, free education through its targeting of the student movement. After all, if not for the valiant struggles of the student movement over the decades, earlier regimes may have dismantled free education. The major question before university communities at this critical juncture is which side they will take as these contradictions and conflicts escalate: Will the university teachers be silently complicit on the side of repression, or will they throw in their lot with the movements of resistance?