On the 31st of March, a cordon of Sri Lankan Police – in full riot gear, truncheons and shields at the ready – stood on one corner of the Kollupitiya junction. One of them carried a gun that rained tear gas cartridges on the road ahead. In front of them was a short stretch of Galle Road, empty save for one young monk with a stick in his hands and a few university students, fleeing back into the army of protestors that all but blocked Galle Road. Towards the sea, where Marine Drive connects to Galle Road, stood a vast mob behind a cloud of white smoke.

The riot gun made a dull thumping sound.

I’m not sure you can see all of this in the video I captured. Maybe if you slow it down, look through it frame by frame, you can pick out the pieces.

(I tried sidling up to the action and getting a better shot, but stepping out of that bus was a fool’s errand – not only did I end up with my eyeballs set on fire, but the photos suffered horribly from camera shake. The police near Liberty Cinema also did not seem to appreciate a Lumia thrust into their faces. Perhaps they were Apple fans. )

Surprisingly, nobody knew this was happening, or why. People in Bambalapitiya, had no idea; neither did people at Colombo Fort; nor, for that matter, did people on Duplication Road. It was a bit surreal. News sites reporting later only said that the police had closed off a section of the Galle Road and fired tear gas at “a group of university students”.

That wasn’t a group, it was a bona fide battalion. The line stretched from Barefoot to Kollupitiya junction. At some points the crowd was four lanes wide. Here’s a video showing just how bad it was. So the question is, what the hell happened?

THE REASONS

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When on a protest, it is customary to bring along banners, with your vision and mission clearly stated – just in case everyone forgets why they’re here.  Going by the banners,  it was:

a) The Mahapola Scholarship

This country has something called the Mahapola Scholarship. Based on merit and need (determined by factors like annual income), a certain sum is given to select university undergraduates. Maithripala Sirisena’s 100 Day Manifesto promised to increase this sum. It wasn’t. We can assume that a portion of the students took to the streets because of this. The protest seems to have worked because two days ago the government announced that the Mahapola Scholarship would be upped to Rs 5,000 (from Rs 2,500) starting June 2015.

b) University Attendance

Then there’s the question of making 80% attendance compulsory for students. This is where opinion kicks in with a punch, so I’ll share my thoughts about it below.

c) Political motivation

Sri Lanka’s universities have a history of being hotbeds for political activity; in fact, many of our politicians were once student activists. Our ivory towers, it seems, are two stories high and made of wood. It’s easy for political manipulation to set in. This current protest can be seen as a ploy to undermine the current government just before the elections – people have suggested that even pushing it to the brink of tear-gassing might have been a deliberate act to make the government appear militaristic and brutal.

I wouldn’t be surprised. Sri Lankan universities protest for everything.  So much so that it’s like the boy who cried wolf; nobody really wants to believe in them anymore.  Protesting is practically a form of art. Or, should I say, Arts.

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Old photo. Used here only for visual relevance.

Either way, a university attendance is powered not by need, but by desire.

People need food, water, oxygen. People desire  a degree because it adds to their perceived social worth. There is a choice, then. Nobody’s being held hostage, so the choice is to take the good with the bad or walk away and make a living elsewhere. And if the desire persists, to earn enough money to get that degree.

I honestly believe protesting this is a fantastically stupid idea. Schools require a minimum attendance from students. Offices demand a minimum attendance from their employees. The whole purpose of this is to ensure that work is being done, and that students are not off marching or blocking traffic on Galle Road whenever it strikes their fancy.

Many local university students I’ve talked to pointed out that unlike “private university students”, their families need their help at home. So help; instead of rioting, go home. If your family is starving while you’re here rioting in the name of free education, then something’s very wrong here. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, but address them individually. If the lecturers are stupid, call for better lecturers. If what you are taught in University is easily accessible in Wikipedia, then you don’t need a degree; you need an Internet connection. Buy a dongle and a laptop and stay away from the riot police. But demanding the right to not attend something paid for by the people, something you’ve worked for 20 years, is like demanding the right to not show up to work while still collecting a salary.

Another friend, Chithru De Silva, stands on the other side of the fence. Taking the University of Sabaragamuwa as a case study, she points out that the way the system is setup makes 80% attendance needless torture for many students. There are those who must travel for 6 hours just to get to university, those that support their families by working while scraping through universities, and those that must go home for the harvest. The campus facilities are inadequate, there’s no clean water and the main hospital is nineteen kilometers away. Being less prejudiced than I am, she accepts that compulsory attendance is necessary, but suggests a figure in 60-70% ballpark.

This can go both ways.

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On one hand, it is taxpayer money. In an age when millions of people around the world must take on catastrophic debt just to pay for tuition, demanding more money (Mahapola) and more privileges on top of an already free degree sounds like the height of ungratefulness. The laws guarantee us free education, but in reality the world does not owe us anything.

On the other hand, part of it, especially the Mahapola scenario, is also about holding a government accountable. As my friend Senel Wanniarachchi pointed out, it’s easy to superimpose a beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude because these are  taxpayer handouts, but at the end of the day a democratic society has to offer the right to protest to everyone and anyone.  If it doesn’t, you might as well don the boots, bend the knee and ready the prayer beads.

“Hope,” says the Architect of the Matrix, referring to humanity. “The quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”

I disagree. Democracy, the law that states that every person has a voice: that is the source of our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. A system with checks and balances on the misuse of power also checks and balances the use of power.  Thus it has always been, and probably always will be, until someone pulls out the gun.

THE SAD TRUTH: FREE EDUCATION IS EXPENSIVE

The provision of education has always been tricky. On one extreme, you have America, where students bury themselves in so many student loans that they spend the next ten years paying them off; in Germany, you have tuition-free universities unable to afford more classrooms, more teachers, and more accommodation to deal with the demand. Free education is expensive. So is paid education. The only difference is who signs the cheque. Knowledge is power, and nobody’s giving it away free.

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Sri Lanka orbits an unhappy medium; a system of public universities accepting people through one metric (Z-score) and a system of private universities accepting people through another metric (cash). These systems hate each other. Most of the people in them are very similar, but private university students look over mountains of bank debt and recent public university students for “getting everything free”; public university students grudge private university students for their shiny classrooms, extravagant balls and parental money.

There are very rich people in both systems, very poor people in both systems (the private system punishes these people with heavy exam fees, often paid in Pounds Sterling) and a vast majority of average people everywhere. One group resents the time spent in study, the other resents the time spent in producing wealth.

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One group has certain standards guaranteed to it by the underlying mechanics of business and competition. If your university has bad toilets, you go sign up at the one across the street. Because your university wants your money, they’ll spend on good toilets rather than lose you. The other group doesn’t have that luxury and, therefore, has to go and protest.