Like the Left in India, the Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), or the People's Liberation Front here has a strong student base in universities. Now, the government has accused it of trying to exploit that support – through the Inter University Students' Federation (IUSF) - to whip up a students' unrest, a wave of which has engulfed six of the 15 major universities.
Vice-chancellors were assaulted; students have fought among themselves; exams disrupted and campus property destroyed. Nearly 200 undergraduates were suspended.
Earlier in October, hundreds besieged the higher education ministry office, demanding the release of six students arrested earlier. Then the riot police took over and 18 more were detained.
The incidents assumed enough significance for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to summon a dinner meeting of 17 vice-chancellors and the higher education minister on Monday evening.
"The President said there cannot to be two sets of laws. If a student is found guilty of breaking a law, he will be punished. They are trying to topple the university system. The universities will be cleared," SJ Nawaratna, ministry secretary, told HT.
The university violence has brought back memories of the two JVP-led insurgencies in 1971 and the late 1980s. During the late '60s and early 70s, West Bengal saw the surge of Naxalism, where students from universities were often at its violent forefront.
The state-run Sunday Observer newspaper said in an editorial: "In 1971 and 1988/89, the JVP made unsuccessful bids to capture power through insurgencies. They exploited innocent students to achieve their petty political agendas on both occasions. Is the JVP hatching another insurgency?"
The JVP's propaganda secretary, V Herath, said the government was itself fomenting trouble to smoothen the path to privatise universities. Herath said defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's comment that international forces were trying to destabilise Lanka through students was a "joke. We are the most active opposition party and that's why the government is trying to attack us."
The reasons behind the violence could be less political. It could be more about the lack of specific facilities as Sunday Times pointed out – like lack of proper hostel and laboratory facilities – or a mix of both. But whatever the reasons, if the government doesn't deftly tackle them, what would be hurt is Sri Lanka's future.