Dr. A. M. A. Azeez Oration - 2009

A. M. A. Azeez was born in Jaffna in 1911 and died in Colombo in 1973. His comparatively short life of 62 years forms a captivating swathe in modern Sri Lankan history. Viewed as a whole, perhaps its greatest lesson is as a metaphor for Nation Building. Juxtaposing Azeez’s lifework besides the needlepoint in time that we are poised today, we thought it appropriate to explicate this theme for our collective reeducation. Azeez is a superb role model at a time when authentic Nation Builders are rare. It is here that Azeez emerges as an Iconic Nation Builder. He merits the studious attention of every single Sri Lankan.

There is a difference between this analysis of Azeez and the numerous appreciations of his life and work written by many hands over the years. We find that since Azeez’s achievement is so diverse and multi-faceted, there is quite an understandable propensity for writings about him to selectively deal with one or two prominent aspects of his vast achievement. While paying homage to this great son of Sri Lanka, such an approach seems to miss out on a unique quality of his significance. That is to approach his lifework as one tightly interwoven narrative. Azeez brought an integrated moral and spiritual integrity, a rigorous intellectual acuity and a total commitment to every single phase of his career. The metaphor of Nation Building lies in this sum total viewed in its holism.

History placed Azeez’s career in the most strategic of times. The first thirty six years of his life, were deeply entrenched in the first four decades before Independence, when Sri Lanka was negotiating the first phase of its Nation Building trajectory from fully-fledged colonialism through modem nationalism to independence. As we shall see later, he was caught in its tension as a colonial Civil Servant. The last twenty five years were spent after Independence. Both these phases may be said to have posed ‘cruel’ challenges to him in the sense that he was called upon to make decisions that either furthered or undermined Nation Building. This is where he excelled - every single decision he made, eloquently underwrote the pre-eminent Nation Building compulsion.

Further, there is an unenviable symmetry to his career. It seamlessly divides itself into four phases which facilitate critical evaluation. Phase one, from birth to 1933, is a period of growth and preparation for national service. The second phase from 1935 to 1948 is in the Ceylon Civil Service. The next thirteen years from 1948 to 1961, involves two parallel roles as Principal of Zahira College, Colombo, as well as a member of the Senate. The last years or fourth phase was as a member of the then prestigious Public Service Commission from 1963 to 1970 and the period of his greatest literary output in Tamil and English during 1962 and 1973. The spirit and substance of Nation Building runs through all phases. Each phase marks a deepening and consolidation of the phase before. Symmetry is indeed the right word for such a trajectory.

The Journey of the Self

Azeez’s life is one of continuously scaling heights. How did he do it? It is that method and process that we refer to in the title, The Journey of the Self. His growth into adulthood was marked by a process of inner growth. The term Self, connotes this particular experience of personhood which is a holistic concept. It works through a process of critical dialogue with one’s Self. The benefit is in internalizing particular capacities. It is a process of psychological maturing. He acquired these capacities throughout his childhood, and later, through family and human relationships. The result was enrichment in intellectual perspicacity and self-confidence.

Also The Journey of the Self applies in two complementary senses. The first is the journey of the Self in the early years of childhood, boyhood, university and adulthood. The second sense is larger and bigger. It refers to the journey of enhancing the inner person and its capacities, throughout his life. It is this second process which enables him to successfully address newer and bigger challenges as he plays multiple roles in complex circumstances.

Marina Ismail recreates for us this touching early period of childhood and boyhood.1 "He wished to impress on us that the simple way of life with love, affection and understanding among the family members which he had experienced, was far superior to all the wealth in the world. He also wanted to emphasise that life was not all a bed-of-roses for him and that he had to work hard to achieve his ideals which made his life meaningful" He lost his mother when he was seven, but this loss was compensated in ample measure by the love showered on him by his maternal grandparents and aunt who really brought him up. There is absolutely no doubt that he enjoyed a childhood with an abundance of emotional bonding. Azeez "would study late into the night with the aid of a flickering oil lamp, while Ummamma (The grandmother) feeling concerned about him and wishing to keep company, sat nodding away in a corner". Again she says "The children who lived down Mohideen Mosque Lane played, learnt their lessons and prayed at the nearby mosque. The boys regularly attended prayers dressed in checked sarongs, white shirts and distinctive white skull-caps. Much time was spent in religious instruction at the Allapichai Madrasa which later became Muhammadiya Mixed School, and it was at this early stage that my father began to have a deep respect for religion, a respect he instilled in us." Or "The lane was their playground". Though the grandfather could have afforded to send him to school in a buggy cart "my father had to walk the one-and-a-half miles to and from school every day. This was indeed an enjoyable trip, for all the boys walked together laughing and chatting". The boys were Muslim and Hindu. Not even a whiff of present day segregation.

As Prof. Ryhana Raheem perceptively observes, When he returned to his boyhood school in 1963 for its Golden Jubilee Address, he did not talk about Cambridge or University College but about his first school. "I now feel thrice-blessed that I did go to Vaidyeshwara Vidyalaya and nowhere else. My period of stay, February 1921 to June 1923, though pretty short quantitatively was extremely long qualitatively. It was at Vidyalaya that I became first acquainted with the devotional hymns of exquisite beauty and exceeding piety for which Tamil is so famed through the ages and throughout the world." After Vaidyeshwara, he went to Jaffna Hindu College. He often quoted Prophet Muhammad’s "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave and Francis Bacon who said "Knowledge is Power".

Azeez’s was a modern mind. His attitude to women’s education is significant. He believed that girls must receive modern education upto the highest levels. He strongly advocated his daughter going to Peradeniya University and on the eve of her departure told her: "I should be happy with my studies: should not think of material benefits, but read the subjects one liked and try to do one’s best." Enlightenment rings through these words. He set further examples with girls in his extended family. He did not believe in Purdah, though he stood for modesty in women’s dress. He disapproved of the conventional dowry system for girls.

Azeez was an Exhibitioner in the University College in Colombo, having entered it in 1929. He did History Honours and passed out with an Upper Second class. In his homage to his dear friend and colleague, C. Vanniasingam, he reveals that the intention while at university was to become a lawyer. Additionally, he won that year’s (1933) one and only Government Arts Scholarship to continue his studies in England, where he proceeded to St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge in 1934. However before sailing for England, he had sat for his Ceylon Civil Service examination. Within a month of being at Cambridge, he heard that he had passed the Ceylon Civil Service and decided to take up that appointment and immediately returned to the island. He was the first Muslim to enter that Service.

In tracking his personal journey, we should be mindful of the nature of these times. These were the inter-war years when revolutionary change was reverberating in the world at large, especially in the colonial societies. The Russian Revolution and its inspiration, the Great Depression and the conflicts in Germany, the awakening in China and Japan and the Indian Independence Struggle were all revolutionary events. Within Sri Lanka too, there were historic changes happening. Particularly the effects of the Donoughmore Commission and the granting of universal franchise, with the consequential election of the first and second State Councils. This period of the two Councils, from 1932 to 1947, saw the determined unfolding of a process of countrywide change in all aspects of governance and development However, there was one very significant gap - a structural gap - in these propitious change processes, and that was Nation Building. That was missed out and submerged in the rhetoric and realpolitik of the lead-up to Independence. We have analysed this elsewhere in detail and called it "the absent fundamental" in our polity. This is what makes Azeez’s achievement, together with a few other exceptional persons ahead of his times, very special. Azeez, who was very much in the mainstream of intellectual and policy making in his society, due to the strength and tenacity of his vision for Sri Lanka, succeeded in manoeuvring his way in the polity, consciously and deftly avoiding the pitfalls in the path of Nation Building. In fact that is the narrative that we are celebrating today.

This is where Azeez’s intellect towers above the mainstream. It is facile to say that his study of history had armed him against these dangers. It was, as we are striving to show, something much larger and more whole. His whole make-up was different and composed to produce a very different kind of outlook. To put it simply, he saw Sri Lanka - and himself -in a very different way. It is that we have to understand. Let us now move to the next important transition, which will reveal a lot more.

Touching the Base (1935 to 1948)

Touching The Base is our metaphor for the second highly formative period in Azeez’s career. The metaphor connotes his permanent engagement with the base of Sri Lankan society, especially with the base of Muslim society. But clearly it was not limited to a single community. It was a much larger and countrywide engagement. It coincides with his thirteen years in the Ceylon Civil Service. Basically its highlights are twofold. A term of duty in Kalmunai, which has been called one of his greatest achievements. The other is another key experience in the Ministry of Health.

Azeez went through a two and a half year period as a Civil Service Cadet and thereafter was attached to a number of shorter and longer assignments in the Service as was the pattern. His attachment to Kandy Kachcheri as a cadet in Matale during 1935-37, was an important interlude. That was the time of the Malaria Epidemic. Azeez had to travel to the affected Kandyan villages and make payments to destitute rural families. That brought home to him in all its tragedy and pathos the wretched conditions of the rural poor. The highly sensitive and ethical Azeez would have begun to feel strongly about the pro poor role of the elite public servant. We may note this sentence about Civil Servants. "New Entrant Civil Servants in particular would regard their offices as avenues to serve the people of Ceylon and not as steps to climb the ladder of success."

The Kalmunai sojourn was necessitated by a food crisis. The Second World War was on and food ships to Sri Lanka were blocked by the Japanese. Therefore an Emergency Food Drive was declared and high potential areas were identified for intense food production. The person in charge was none other than D. S. Senanayake the Minister of Agriculture. When Kalmunai was identified under this programme, D. S. Senanayake handpicked Azeez to go immediately to Kalmunai as Assistant Government Agent and open an Emergency Kachcheri. Azeez arrived there in April 1942 and stayed till January 1944.

During this short period Azeez literally transformed the agriculture of the whole area comprising Karavahupattu, Sammanthuraipattu, Akkaraipattu, Panamapattu and Wewagampattu (comprising the entirety of the present Ampara district from Paddirippu to Kumana), through a massive and rapid programme of farmer mobilization, land distribution of both highland and paddy land, special seed and livestock production farms, and most importantly, organizing an effective support system to meet all the varied input and output needs of the farmers. The motivation resulting from his intense labours resulted in Kalmunai registering massive increases in food production and becoming the cynosure in the eyes of the whole country. This we know when it was celebrated in a famous Harvest Festival in 1943, attended personally by D. S. Senanayake and State Councillors with a large team of the top officials from the Ministry. One upshot of this success story was a unique gesture by the grateful farmers of Akkaraipattu of naming a stretch of 500 acres of paddy land at Sagamam as Azeez Thurai Kandam.

Azeez could not rest content with only a transformation in the economic sphere. He had to tackle another root cause of underdevelopment, which was ignorance and the culture of silence. He moved strategically on the educational front too. "The Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund" was inaugurated by Azeez in 1945. This Fund was in one way the culmination of a process that he started while serving as AGA in Kalmunai. Azeez was convinced that a community which suffered due to poverty and illiteracy could only be uplifted through providing educational opportunities backed by financial assistance. With this in view he formed the Kalmunai Muslim Educational Society in 1942."4 Azeez continued to nurse and support these initiatives throughout his life. He cleverly made linking arrangements to improve their viability and sustainability.

This enduring bond with Kalmunai was deepened hundredfold by the myriads of long lasting and inspiring human relationships he formed with the people of Kalmunai and Batticaloa. They varied from the poorest of farmer families to others in the bureaucracy and to distinguished individuals like poet Abdul Cader Lebbe of Kattankuddy and Swami Vipulananda, once again documented in Mr Jameel’s essay.

The other success case was in the field of Health, where he functioned under Dr W. A. de Silva, the Minister of Health, as his Secretary. Once again Azeez got the opportunity to found a countrywide scheme of rural health for primary health needs with the distinctive political commitment and acuity of Dr de Silva. Dr de Silva had a great passion and a clear understanding of rural health problems professionally and as a humane person. Azeez found that the opening for him to make a breakthrough and innovate must be used to its maximum. This is exactly what he did. The improvement of primary health care and quality of life of which we are very proud today, derive from the groundwork initiated under this programme.

Practical Idealist (1948 to 1961)

The change from top level Civil Servant to becoming the Principal of Zahira College, Colombo, came somewhat suddenly. The negotiations for the transfer of power and Independence was on in full motion and D. S. Senanayake was in the process of forming his Cabinet. He chose T. B. Jayah to be one of his Ministers. At the time, Jayah had been Principal of Zahira for 26 years and had built up the school. It was then that Jayah chose Azeez as his obvious choice and Azeez had no regrets about responding to the call. It was directly complementary to his vision of service to his community at a historic juncture in the modern history of the country. Additionally education was a subject he was deeply interested and committed to. It has been also said, that he welcomed the greater freedom the new post offered, as he would be his own boss. Further, for the Nation Builder in Azeez, what better opportunity than that of directly fashioning young men, imbued with idealism to achieve great things.

The new role meant that he could play a more impactful intellectual role to raise the sights and consciousness of both the elite and the citizenry. His new position gave him the eminence to invite statespersons from all sources, domestic and foreign, to add lustre and dignity to the school. In other words, his access to both intellectuals and policy makers increased significantly. The large panel of distinguished visitors to Zahira has everyone from Gandhi, Nehru and Sarojini Naidu to all of Sri Lanka’s Prime Ministers and more of his life.

His vision for Zahira was most exceptional. It was a complex structure of several interconnected institutions. First there was the school or college. If Jayah had laid the foundation of the school, Azeez consolidated it manifold. He transformed and upgraded the kind of product that came out of it. They were all potential professionals, who enriched by extra- curricular and sports activities, invariably after university joined the professions. Thus he linked the school to the mainstream of the national working environment. That is how the Azeez era came to be known as the Golden Era of Zahira.

The second layer was the Muslim Cultural Centre, which was conceived as a multi-faceted research centre with a library and archives, an exhibition hall, an audio-visual lecture hall and a Saracenic garden. It would have provision for the study of Arabic-Tamil which was a unique branch of Islamic studies originating in Sri Lanka and South India.

Some of the other pieces of the edifice were the Muslim Scholarship Fund and the YMMAs. Azeez was the Chairman of the Muslim Scholarship Fund and there were regular annual reviews with all the donors and well wishers at which the Chairman’s detailed report was read out. He practiced transparency and accountability fully. The All Ceylon YMMA Conference started in 1950 by bringing the disparate independent YMMAs under its umbrella. Now it has grown to over one hundred branches. They have been providing vital Vocational training for youth and, equipping them for employment. How wonderfully holistic Azeez’s vision for Zahira was!

He saw Zahira as a microcosm of Ceylon. "We the Muslims of Ceylon best serve Sri Lanka not by the abandonment, dethronement or dilution of our culture but by its protection, preservation and promotion and on Zahira devolves this sacred obligation to foster the distinctive culture that is ours".5 Indeed this is idealism of a rare order!

While playing the role of intellectual at large as Principal of Zahira, let us not forget the other complementary role he was playing within the chambers of the Senate. He was addressing issues of national policy directly. Hence he was in the centre of the storm in the newly independent Sri Lanka. Every challenge, big and small, found Azeez to be most receptive to. The book of his Senate Speeches proves that.

The intellectual, thinker and writer in Azeez is what we have to savour here. Let us not forget that he created two parallel intellectual discourses in English and Tamil. They are yet waiting to be researched in depth. Here was a person who had done, and was doing, his intellectual homework. Many are his close associates who talk of his impressive private library. The sweep of his intellectual range is impressive. While he clarified the policy and societal options for the country in the Senate, he was implementing them on a daily basis in the school as well as his multiple roles in civil society. We cannot but see the historian and historiographer in Azeez in his writings. At one point, talking of the so called White Man’s Burden, he speaks of how Swami Vivekananda had to disillusion Indians who had mistaken the "iron collar of domination, intended to throttle the gold chain of civilization".6

He had fully analysed the historical mission of modern Muslim education from both its Islamic legacy as well as more recent history. For example of Siddi Lebbe he says "Having deftly diagnosed the dreadfully debilitating disease, he prescribed the sovereign remedy of Modern Education in a Muslim environment." We need to note the gravitas in the language. Once again "of this, the educational aspect is the most significant. In this sphere there was during the closing quarter of the nineteenth century a clear awakening among the Muslims of Ceylon brought about by the cumulative influences traceable to sources Islamic, Indian and Indigenous - the Aligarh Movement started by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the religious and educational renaissance resulting from the efforts of the Buddhist Theosophical Society, the Hindu Counter reformation headed by Sri La Sri Arumuga Navalar and the stay in Ceylon for nearly two decades, of Arabi Pasha, the father of the Egyptian Independence Movement, officially a rebel and exile, but dearly beloved of the local Muslims. From the activities and writings of M. C. Siddi Lebbe, the then leader among the Muslims of Ceylon, it is clear that the Aligarh Movement made a substantial contribution to this reawakening."7

Azeez is credited with having introduced Muhammad Iqbal into the Sri Lankan horizon. Iqbal was a powerful force, dubbed the poet-philosopher. This is how Azeez comments on him. "Iqbal thus belongs to our century; he has a special message for our time and a solution for the cultural conflicts of our period. He asks us to achieve a synthesis of the cultures of the east and the west, gaining new vitality from the healthy sources of our past culture. He has given us a glimpse of Islam, pristine and pure and has exhorted us to go in quest of it, trusting in the Almighty and placing reliance on ourselves and without being oppressed or overwhelmed by the extremes of either scholasticism or Sufism. Iqbal thus becomes our modern guide of Islam, who has shown us the old path, having himself cleared it of the dead leaves and fallen trees that were impeding the progress of the travelers. And to Humanity in general Iqbal has given a dynamic message of a life of striving and courage motivated by the fear of God with dread of Nought."8

We would like to assert that Azeez had raised himself to the level of being a sub- continental level thinker and visionary in Islamic culture. Hence his inclusion in the book 100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century.

There is a hauntingly resonant mention in Professor Sivathamby’s essay on the folklore of Azeez. That is what people, especially Muslims from all over, used to say when they met and discussed matters. "After all the boy is studying under Azeez - what better do you need". Doesn’t that simple heartfelt statement say it all. What public trust! How rare the fund of trust he had accumulated through his labours. It is not only Muslims who felt like that. Everyone, irrespective of ethnicity, felt like that. What an invaluable acknowledgement and endorsement of the Nation Building value frame of Azeez this single expression marks! No wonder Professor Sivathamby expresses another profound truth: "Azeez was more than a man, he was an institution." He simply astounds.

THE LAST PHASE (1963 to 1973)

The last phase of his career was a further scaling of heights. For example, this was his most distinctive period as far as serious writing went. In 1963, he was appointed to the prestigious Public Service Commission. He served in the Commission till 1970. What he did there was to sustain the high moral standards of enlightened social justice in the deliberations of this high appellate and grievance hearing body.

But his real achievement was in the writing that he did. For once, he had the luxury of more leisure than in his busy life before. He was also more detached from the fray and trivia of day to day affairs. He could be reflective and spend time on his literary tasks. In this attempt the lucid thinker, the writer with conceptualization skills and the rooted visionary who transcended all the divisions and exclusions in a subtly divided society, was able to give us a distilled wisdom which this society has yet to come to terms with. For one, Azeez has never been situated as an individual of the highest order.

Hence he has not been in the public eye, except by a small segment ‘of his admirers and loyalists. But this is not Azeez’s real place in Sri Lankan society. His place is right up in the heights.

In 1964 he produced the only small English paperback he published under the Saman Press label, called The West Reappraised. Its 172 pages is fascinating reading. The range is interesting. The essays had their origins as addresses or articles. The theme of the book is the metamorphosing interface of Eastern and Western culture in the context of a decolonizing South Asia. He distinguishes between the old epoch or the "age of Dazzlement" and the new, "the Age - of Discernment." He often refers to the corrosive Macaulean educational order and its more liberative counter-order. A recurring word in this book is ‘awakening and reawakening’.

(Continued next week)

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