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Celebrating 185 Years of Education
The Liberal tradition at Jaffna College

(The Jaffna College Alumni in Colombo recently published the following article in the souvenir commemorating the 185th Anniversary of the Batticotta Seminary and its successor Jaffna College. The extract is from the HANDY PERINBANAYAGAM MEMORIAL VOLUME: first published in Jaffna 1980. A revised edition is due to be released soon, sponsored by the Indo-Sri Lanka Foundation.)

The Freedom to think and discuss

The Youth Congress, Jaffna, originally named the Students’ Congress. Jaffna, was born in the mid 1920s and had a great impact on Jaffna politics in the early 1930s. By 1920 under Gandhi’s leadership the Indian struggle for independence entered its militant phase. Students in India played an important role in the struggle. The political stirrings in India had their impact on Jaffna. The Gandhian movement in India captured the imagination of Jaffna’s youth. To many of these young men who were pioneers of the Youth Congress, "bliss it was in that dawn to be alive."

The impact of western ideas on the youth of Jaffna was another factor. Schools and colleges founded by American and other missionaries followed later by schools founded by Hindu patriots had a major influence in transmitting western liberal values, and democratic and nationalist ideas. The major centre for the flowering of these was of course Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.

Jaffna College (1872) and its precursor the Batticotta Seminary (1823), unlike many a missionary institution and state school in Ceylon, had stressed the study of Tamil literature. Students from this college were amongst the first graduates of the Madras University in the 1850s. The products of this institution were not culturally divorced from the people of the Peninsula, in contrast to the English educated elite that emerged in the Western Province, and in Colombo in particular. The very ‘Indianness’ of the Gandhian movement struck responsive chords amongst the English educated in Jaffna both young and old.

At this time in the 1920s the Principal of Jaffna College was the American missionary the Rev. John Bicknell known for his liberal views of freedom of thought, speech and action. "In the 1920s," said Handy Perinbanayagam, "the movement in India had a tremendous effect upon the youth of Jaffna. Probably because of the comparative freedom that prevailed at Vaddukoddai, this impact was more acute at Jaffna College." In fact Handy Perinbanayagam specifically traces the remote beginnings of the Students Congress to the debating and literary societies at Jaffna College, especially the ‘Brotherhood’, which was the Senior Literary Association in 1918—1919 when Handy was a student.

The freedom to think and discuss at Jaffna College is illustrated by the kind of subjects debated at the meetings of the literary societies. Beginning with subjects like "Home rule should be granted to Ireland," and "Labouring men have a right to strike," the students of Jaffna College went on to debate as early as 1920 subjects like "Territorial representation is better than racial"; "The headman system should be abolished ", and "The Ceylonese should not send their representatives to the Legislative Council according to the new reform scheme". By 1921-22 they were debating such radical subjects bordering on the treasonable, such as: "Gandhi was justified in burning foreign clothes ". "Self-government should be granted to Ceylon": "The Principal should be a native", and "Students should wear the national costume ". In 1923 the students had debated, "Mahatma Gandhi in prison is more dangerous than Mahatma Gandhi out of prison." In these school-boy debates, as Handy was to comment later, no subject except sex and probably denial of God was taboo. Abolition of corporal punishment, co-education, national independence, the dowry system, the caste system were debated not only with the callow cocksureness of adolescence but with the seriousness of philosophers who believed that vital consequences would follow from their debates and decisions.

Teacher patrons who exercised influence and authority had the right to attend meetings. The principal was the patron of the senior society, the Brotherhood. But the student chairman had the right to order and ask him to sit down. On one occasion the principal John Bicknell was indeed asked to sit down and he did so with a blushing face. The Jaffna College ethos at that time was one of freedom.

In 1919 a symposium was held on "An Up-To-Date Literature in Tamil". The Hon. Mr. K. Balasingam, the Rev. S. Gnanaprakasar, and Rev. G. G. Brown participated amongst others. Mr. Balasingam expressed the view that if Tamil was to become a progressive language it must become the language of government, and Fr. Gnanaprakasar stressed the need to educate our people to appreciate their own language. But the most radical proposal came from Rev. Brown who said, "Do not allow any boy to be promoted who fails to pass a worthy test in Tamil reading, grammar and composition. Create a sentiment in the country which will make a student feel ashamed to be able to speak and to write in English, while he cannot do equally well in Tamil." In the school curriculum in the teaching of history where European and British history enjoyed a monopoly changes were made whereby Ceylon history and Indian history were introduced in the lower forms in the early twenties. There was among the teachers and students a growing commitment to certain specific aims such as national independence, the abolition of caste and the removal of social disabilities. In 1922 some of these young men at Jaffna College, formed themselves into the Servants of Lanka Society. It was more of a study group. in which, papers were read and discussed on the country’s problems and the remedies for its ills.

From Jaffna College, Handy Perinbanayagam went to the University College in Colombo."While we were at the Union Hostel", he later reminisced, " Our warden Mr. C. Suntheralingam’s dictum was that within the four walls of the hostel we could talk the most rabid treason with impunity. Something similar was the atmosphere at Jaffna College also in the Bicknell days. In our debating societies and the classroom we were free to give unbridled expression to our convictions. The radicalism that spread at Vaddukoddai grew in strength at Guildford Crescent under Suntheralingam’s patronage. His name at that time was one to conjure with.

The Founding of the Jaffna Youth Congress

In June 1924 Handy Perinbanayagam sat the B. A. examination and thereafter returned to teach at Jaffna College. He began work for the setting up of an organisation for national independence." During holidays and weekends Handy would meet like-minded friends. These included S. Kulandran, C. Subramaniam, S. Nadesan, S. U. Somasegaram, Swami Vipulananda, M. Balasundram, S. Durai Raja Singam, P. Nagalingam, A. E. Tamber, S. Subramaniam, V. Thillainathan, S. Rajanayagam, K Navaratnam, V. Muthucumaru, J. C. Amerasingham, S. S. Sivapragasam, J. W. A. Kadirgamar, A. M. K. Cumaraswamy, V. K. Nathan, S. J. Gunasagaram, K. Nesiah, Sam Sabapathy, S. C. Chithamparanathan and several others. Some of them were senior students in the colleges in Jaffna. An exploratory meeting was held at the then Y. M. C. A. Jaffna on first November 1924. From its very beginnings the Students’ Congress had an all-island perspective and was committed to national unity and independence for Ceylon.

Handy Perinbanayagam set out the aims of the proposed Congress in a lengthy letter to the Daily News. He wrote of a new venture marshalling the forces of the students of this country, for solving the social, political, cultural, economic and political problems they faced and for the betterment of this land. He gave expression to the vision of a new Ceylon. Youth at this time, particularly in Jaffna were known for their docile acquiescence without question to the actions of their elders. This invitation to youth to form an organization for concerted action was by itself a radical venture in Jaffna in the 1920s. The movement was to embrace young people of all races, creeds and castes. This was a period when divisive forces were at work creating religious and racial animosity.

The first sessions of the Students Congress was held at the Ridgeway Hall, Jaffna in December 1924. About three hundred students together with recent graduates and undergraduates attended these inaugural sessions. The Morning Star reported that seating was in ‘national’ style on carpets and all present were in ‘national costume’.

Mr. J. V. Chelliah of Jaffna College was elected President of the Congress. In his presidential address he said that "all the greatest reforms effected in society were the work of young men. Jesus Christ when he started his mission had only just completed his twenties. Buddha’s renunciation took place when he was a very young man." He deplored the existence of communal jealousy between different communities in the island and appealed to them to make national unity one of their main planks of activity. He referred to the curse of untouchability and the evil effects of the dowry system and called on the youth to translate ideals into practical action. He emphasised the role of the youth in eradicating the social evils prevalent in the country."

Handy recalling J. V. Chelliah’s speech later said, " I remember the simile he had used to portray the unity he had in mind. It was the rainy season. The landscape from Vaddukoddai to Jaffna was for long stretches covered with paddy fields. To the passenger in the car the fields were like a spreading sea of emerald green but there were ridges marking boundaries. National unity was obvious. The differences however real should be played down".

Handy Perinbanayagam once related a memorable event in his life. He and Lyman Kulathungam were the first two students to pass the London Inter-Arts examination at Jaffna College. This was in 1922 when Jaffna College was celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Batticotta Seminary. The two successful students were to deliver orations at the Prize Day function, an honour that no student would forego. But Handy had made it known that he would go to the function in national dress. Principal Bicknell having heard about this, called young Handy and insisted that he should wear trousers and coat. The young idealist politely refused to do so. Bicknell then ruled that he would not have the honour of delivering the Prize Day oration. The honour went to Lyman Kulathungam. Handy later recalled that it was a painful incident to him. Bicknell had been like a foster father to him. Lyman Kulathungam, later vice-principal of the college, adopted the national dress and wore it for the rest of his life.

Boycott of the King’s birthday celebrations

Developments in India continued to have their impact on the students in Jaffna. It was the practice every year to celebrate the King’s birthday. In Jaffna the main event was an inter-school sports meet. The students of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, made a sudden decision not to participate in the sports meet and celebrations in June 1930.

The idea of a boycott of the celebrations occurred to some of the younger teachers at the college. Bonney Kanagathungam, A. S. Kanagaratnam and C. J. Eliyathamby were among those who canvassed support for a boycott among the athletes who responded favourably. In a country where there was hardly any kind of action against British rule, the students of Jaffna College at that time took legitimate pride in an action of this nature that had political overtones. There is no doubt that the students had been influenced by the activities of the Students’ Congress. The students spontaneously decided that so long as Mahatma Gandhi was in gaol and the ‘ mother country’’ was in travail for her Independence it was not possible for the people of Jaffna to partake of the festivities in honour of the King.


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