On June 21, 2021, police violently clashed with students during a protest over proposed legislation concerning the management of General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU).
The Kotelawala University Bill would transfer management of KNDU from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to the Ministry of Defense. Students and academics have expressed fears that, if passed, the bill will accelerate the privatization and militarization of higher education institutions. The bill was previously advanced in 2018, but it was quashed after significant opposition. Students and academics now claim that the Ministry of Defense is attempting to rush the bill through parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when public gatherings and protests are prohibited and resistance will be less visible.
On June 21, the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) held a protest in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, to demand the withdrawal of the bill. Police reportedly confiscated an effigy of the president that students were planning to burn, and police and students then engaged in physical altercations.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violence during a student protest. Though state authorities have a responsibility to maintain order and security, they also have an obligation to ensure that their actions are proportionate, do not endanger protesters, and are not undertaken to restrict nonviolent expressive activity. Students likewise have a responsibility to carry out expressive activities peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of violence during protests undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.