Incredible, as it may seem, the present SLPP Government has started stoning the same hornets’ nest lying in the Groves of Lanka’s Academe, not even three years after its predecessor, the Yahapalana Administration, was left bitterly stung trying to pelt the same. Undeterred by the Yahapalana experience in 2018, which left the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration thoroughly [...]


Protest against plan to place universities in military jacket

Govt. stones hornets’ nest in Lanka’s Groves of Academe


Incredible, as it may seem, the present SLPP Government has started stoning the same hornets’ nest lying in the Groves of Lanka’s Academe, not even three years after its predecessor, the Yahapalana Administration, was left bitterly stung trying to pelt the same.

Undeterred by the Yahapalana experience in 2018, which left the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration thoroughly sore after the presentation of a bill to extend the ambit of the Kotelawala Defence University stirred a vanguard of wasps to ferociously defend the free-university moat, the present government plans to shake the whole grove of hornet nests by attempting to set up a parallel stream of universities in the country under military command.

The controversial ‘Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Bill 2021’ to be presented in Parliament this Friday envisages extending the parameters of the military academy, enabling it to march into civilian fields of study, with the concomitant power to recruit anyone it pleases and award degrees which will be deemed equivalent to those awarded by the State-run free universities.

The roots of this military university lies 41 years ago when former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala decided, in the winter of his life, to donate his 48-acre Kandawela estate in Ratmalana to the Government to set up a defence academy.

The J.R. Jayewardene Government duly accepted this magnificent offer and, after Sir John’s death in the same year, honoured the benefactor by naming the academy as the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy by an act of Parliament in 1981. The original objective of the Academy was to train pre-officer cadets of the tri-forces. In 1988, the academy was upgraded, given university status, by the Kotelawala Defence Academy (Amendment) Act and renamed in 2007 as the Kotelawela Defence University.

Since then the Kotelawala Defence University has, according to Professor Harini Amarasuriya, entertained civilian students and had also established ‘study programmes in a range of fields, including law, engineering, medicine and management.’ But this seems to have been done so far in an ad hoc manner and one of the purposes of the present bill coming up before Parliament this week, may certainly be to give legal effect to the harboured aims of its governors.

The provisions of the bill certainly provide for it. Article 5 states that the university shall have the power to admit officer cadets and officers of the Armed Forces, public officers and other persons. The bill also empowers the university to provide for courses of study, training and instructions leading to the grant of degrees, diplomas, certificates and other academic distinctions in such branches of learning relating to defence and such other academic fields.

Thus the bill intends to turn the Kotelawala Defence University from being merely limited to providing for the educational needs of the armed forces, into a fully-fledged university, armed with untrammeled power to provide university courses for all in any field of discipline; and, except for a salutary bow to the University Grants Commission not to lower the standards of instructions below that prescribed by the Ordinance by the University Grants Commission, will stand independent on equal par with the University Grants Commission which presently governs the entire gamut of the State’s universities.

The attempt to establish a parallel stream of universities unbeholden to the existing governing authority of the nation’s 16 universities coming under the Universities Act of 1978 has provoked a storm of protests, giving rise to two main objections to the proposed KDU Bill.

The first is based on the blatant attempt to bundle the nation’s higher-educational muse and make her captive in a gilded military cage in military barracks, battle dressed  in the straightjacket of seemingly casual military fatigues.

The objection stems from the growing fear that Lanka has been placed by this government on the irreversible course to militarisation, at a time when no justifiable reasons exist, here or far, to mobilise her institutions against any foreseeable external or internal threat, save perhaps to be the final protector, the Praetorian Guard, of the government. Critics point to the KDU Bill as bearing the latest evidence of this disturbing trend.

They point to arming the Kotelawala Defence University with all the trappings of an independent authority, governed by the pervasive culture and ethics of the dominant military ethos; and parade as primary evidence the command structure wrapped in military purple of the envisaged Kotelawala Defence University.

Consider the Board of Governors. Under Article 18 of the bill, they shall be the governing authority of the University and shall exercise, perform and discharge all powers, duties and functions conferred or imposed or assigned upon the university.

And the composition of the Board? It shall consist of

1. The Secretary to the Ministry of Defence;

2. The Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Defence;

3. The Chief of Defence Staff;

4. The Commander of the Sri Lanka Army;

5. The Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy;

6. The Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force;

7. The Vice Chancellor of the University, a senior officer of one the Armed Forces;

8. A nominee of the University Grants Commission; and

9. A representative of the General Treasury nominated by the Secretary to the General Treasury.

Furthermore, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence shall be the Chairman of the Board who shall preside at every meeting of the Board. If he is unable to preside at any meeting then the Additional Defence Secretary shall preside. The article is silent on who will preside if both are absent. Presumably no meeting shall be held in the absence of both.

Article 18 also states that any two of the Forces’ Commanders must be present at every meeting. A Board meeting can be held whenever it is deemed necessary; and the quorum required for a valid meeting shall be five.

With a top heavy military presence on the Board of Governors, amounting to 5 out of 9 members — or 6 military officers, as the present case is with the Defence Secretary being a retired General in the army — critics assert that it can easily be seen how the military can ride roughshod over civilian members’ opinion at Board meetings; and worse, if need be, with the required quorum for a valid meeting only being 5, it can   altogether  dispense with the civilian presence, holding the meetings whenever it is deemed necessary amongst their own top brass.

Technically, the civilian governors had been included in the Governors list, it seems, to purely add a cosmetic touch and conceal the military nature of the entire operation.

Beyond the Governors’ round table, too, the military air pervades the atmosphere. The Kotelawala Defence Academy will be run like a military base. A visitor to the premises, considered not to be conducive to the welfare of the university or its student in the opinion of the Vice Chancellor, shall be issued with a warning letter banning the visitor from entering or remaining in the premises, and such notice shall remain in force until revoked by the Board.

It will also impose a questionable criminal liability on the offender. Article 47 (3) states: “Anyone violating the order shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction after summary trial by a Magistrate, be liable to a fine of ten thousand rupees in respect of each day or part thereof on which he has entered or during which he has remained.”

If that is the fate that awaits the unwary visitor who gets into the Vice Chancellor’s bad books and is held ‘persona non grata’, let the sauntering student beware, for Big Brother is watching every step he takes  in the 48-acre grove.

At its most pedestrian level, Rule 20 of the KDU’s ‘Day Scholar’s handbook’ states, “All students shall adhere to the road signs within university premises, and shall use sidewalks all the time when walking from one place to another.”

And at its most profound, “disobedience or disrespecting or arguing unnecessarily with lecturers” is viewed as a crime worthy of punishment in the Kotelawala Defence University rule book.  Neither are students allowed to join any clubs or societies that are not designated by the authorities but expected to breathe and imbibe the sterile air of clinical stagnate thought. What is expected is the complete surrender of one’s powers of reasoning to a higher absolute authority and, instead, meekly accepts what is handed down as proven truths.

KANDAWELA ESTATE: Home of the Kotelawela Defence University

No wonder the alarm is sounded when the muse of Lanka’s higher education is about to be taken captive and her wings of free thought awaiting the clippers to be denied free flight.

While denial of the right to challenge truths may be an indispensable tool in the arsenal of military training, what legitimate place does it have in the civilian groves of academe where  questioning, discussion, debate, argument, thesis, antithesis help distill reason and crystalise thought; and propel human evolution to a higher plane with each new generation of  thinkers?

Without free thought and expression, there will be a return to the age of darkness where flat earth is the centre of the universe and the sun revolves around the world.

Not for nothing did the Buddha bestow his followers with a licence in the Kalaama Suthra to question all dogma and warn them not to accept blindly statements professing to be self-evident truths merely because some great man or even the Buddha had declared it to be true but to accept it only if one is convinced of it, after first questioning its validity for oneself?

The second objection is the fear among the nation’s home-baked intelligentsia that the extension of powers along with widening the scope of this once defense academy, granted universality status in 1988, to offer courses, presently limited to officer cadets, officers and public officers, to any ‘other persons’ as well, will open the floodgates to fee paying universities which will threaten the survival of free university education and eventually lead to its demise. Many hold the country’s free education structure as the only climbing pole available to its seed and blossom to ascend to a better clime from the mire of poverty.

The Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) recently raised grave concerns about the bill, saying universities, and the higher education sector generally, will be ‘militarised’. In a media statement, FUTA said the bill threatens to fundamentally change the state-run higher education landscape by creating a ‘parallel space’ for fee-paying higher education, driven by a highly instrumentalist and military-style decision-making framework.

Two weeks ago, it said: “We are currently living through the deep and negative consequences of arbitrary decision making and the unnecessary encroachment of the military into areas of civilian governance. The Government’s hasty, non-consultative and ignorant attempts at university and higher education reform at this point, will simply lead to the creation of an education system and culture which will lack quality, rigour and will erode the fundamental values on which our education system is built.”

With the protests spreading throughout the teacher fraternity, the Government called for talks last week. But following failed talks held with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Monday, FUTA said that they will continue to implement their trade union action and boycott online teaching. FUTA Chairman Prof. Shama Banneheka said the decision was taken in protest of the proposed Kotelawala National Defence University Bill which will privatise free education.

As protests grow on many fronts unabated, the Government should do well to review its plans to set up a parallel stream of fee-paying universities under the tenacious hold of the Armed Forces and halt the slippery slide to the militarisation of this country which, along with India, can boast to be one of the few countries in the South Asian region, still free of the ever lengthening sinister shadow of a military jackboot cast upon the land, endlessly eclipsing — as Pakistan and Myanmar have found to their belated horror — its democratic way of life.


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