Clearing the debris of communal strife from our education

Revisiting Tamil Self Determination Part VI:


by Rajan Hoole and

Kopalasingam Sritharan

The article by Laksiri Fernando this series started with, speaks of the importance of public awareness and education in reconciliation. But is our educational establishment anywhere near equal to this task?

Unfortunately the higher education intuitions lost their vitality in creating spaces for new ideas and social activism. They failed at leading the country towards social justice and ethnic peace. The first thing about education is respect for the nation’s young as architects of our future at their formative age and for the value of their time. Once, as in the case of the Jaffna Youth Congress, left politics inspired confidence and hope for social change in the youth. But the failure of socialist experiments in the USSR and China and those of the traditional left parities in Sri Lanka, led to emergence of youth movements with simplistic slogans. Their use of terror to supposedly advance social revolution, inevitably, caused violent upheavals across the country.

Fernando returns to the theme of education in his commendation of Harper Lee’s classic ‘To kill a mockingbird’ with a quotation from the book "The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience." Its hero was a man who took the responsibility of saving the life of a black man ‘at the risk of his professional standing (defined primarily by the white society) and personal safety under mob threats and protest.’

Jaffna University and the Politics of Memory

Dr. Rajani Thiranagama wrote in March 1989 (UTHR(J) Report No.2):

"On another but complementary direction we started a process of self-criticism through dialogue and discussion and tried to re-examine our past and look into the future – not directed by fear, but by fundamental principles of justice to the people. Thus we were critical of local militant groups, both with regard to their terror and murder as well as the actions that create conditions resulting in wanton, purposeless sacrifice of ordinary people."

When practically the entire community succumbed to the terror of Tamil militant movements, the task of creating space for dissent, debate, and critical reasoning was paramount for all those who worked with her at that critical juncture. Many students and staff were inspired by her work and slowly began to question the oppressive politics whose foundations lay in fear-mongering and the use of threat and violence. The LTTE murderedRajani before her task was complete. Its leaders feared her. More importantly, they feared the conscious awakening that she spearheaded. In killing Rajani the LTTE hoped to stifle any threat to its hegemony. What is now relevant to understand is how it was possible for the LTTE to take root in the Tamil community and drag it through a bloody, calamitous war. The rot was such that the Tamils were blind and passive to their own destruction. In the previous sections we traced the origins of the narrow nationalist political discourse and the ethnicisation of Lanka’s political landscape. These developments created a conducive environment for the rise of the LTTE. Even after its demise, we are confronted with attempts by those espousing various shades of political opinion throughout the country, left and right, to bury attempts at a serious re-evaluation of the past. It is a sad fact that the University of Jaffna continues to suppress the memory of Rajani Thiranagama. In doing so, the authorities continue to prevent the University from becominga vibrant community that values justice, truth, and human rights and boldly faces up to challenges, both old and new. This cripples the community at large.

Why at this time of healing should the memory of a woman who lived by her professions, and gave her life to the same end, be anathema in the very university she served? The observance of the 25th anniversary of Rajani’s death (21st September 2014) was marred by the university authorities working in tandem with the military (renowned for their misguided actions) in an attempt to stop the proceedings.

In 2011, the new dispensation announced itself at a university exhibition for which schools were invited. A University poster about Jaffna’s heritage described ArumugaNavalar as the leader of the Tamil renaissance and credited him with defending Hinduism against Christian missionaries; it proclaimed Ramanathan as Navalar’s heir in the political arena, and implicitly set out the criteria for exclusion demanded by the power politics of the new bosses. Such is the paucity of discussion that Donoughmore reforms which were mainly about universal adult franchise are referred to in teaching and research as ‘degradation of the minorities’. Hardly ever mentioned in the University and elite circles are Arunachalam, Ramanathan’s brother and champion of the oppressed; or the contribution of the Youth Congress and the Cooperative Movement towards secular egalitarianism and social justice, without which the ‘maximum devolution’ now favouredby the elite as the panacea for Tamil ills, threatens to become mafia-style exclusion.

The war, while eliminating or driving out the North’s socially concerned, gave opportunity for its reactionary segment to take over the reins of society. The essential element of this tendency’s power is patronage, in turn from the British, the new rulers in Colombo, the LTTE, the EPDP and whoever followed. Once in that position they cannot but fear anyone with a social conscience.

The health of Jaffna University is critical to the future of a region, which has over the last eighty years played, for better or for worse, a notable role in the Island’s history. The demand for swaraj (self-rule) by Jaffna’s Youth Congress in 1930 shook the nation’s complacency and prompted it to think about the meaning and responsibilities of independence. Jaffna was also the home of the ideal of secularism; the vision of whose Cooperative Movement flowered in the founding of quality schools and hospitals for those badly in need. The region’s gain would be Lanka’s gain as also would be its loss. It cannot be left an open sore.

Discrimination and Exclusion

in Education

Even after many years of varied struggles against caste oppression its ugly face still continues to dominate, adversely affect and humiliate many individuals and large segments of our society. There are countless instances of discrimination against educated individuals who are from the oppressed castes.

Miss Malar Sinniah, the oppressed caste principal of Kopay Training College was removed by the Government, without due process in March 2010, after a campaign directed by high caste interests and aided by the Northern provincial administration. Thanges Paramsothy from an oppressed caste background obtained afirst in Sociology from the University of Peradeniya. He had published a paper, "Casteless or Caste-blind:Dynamics of concealed caste discrimination, social exclusion and protest…" in 2009 following research work with the UN. The Vice Chancellor, a Sociologist, contradicted Paramsothy’s research conclusions about the prevalence of caste oppression during a job interview. No one was appointed that time. Paramsothy is now completing his PhD in Britain and his subsequent experience in applications to the University suggest that he is marked for exclusion – particularly because he challenged comfortable and popular myths of denial.

These cases are merely the

tip of the iceberg

Jaffna University has the potential to become first rate if it is prepared to take an open and generous attitude towards ably-qualified and experienced well-wishers locally and abroad who would readily serve the University if they are made to feel wanted. But when the place is dominated by those who treat dross as gold and gold as dross, as it suits them, people are turned off. When the politics of the place is narrow and repressive there can be no room for sustained excellence.

High officials from Colombo come to the North regularly, exchange pleasantries with local high ups whose power play wastes the region’s potential and announce donations for projects. The Colombo higher–ups have no interest (autonomy is a good excuse) in following up how things develop, whether academic norms are strictly followed,especially in matters such as recruitment of staff. That is the lazy way of doing a job.

One may be unrealistic to expect more from the Government, but then what of the marked indifference of our Tamil political leaders, who command considerable influence at this point, to the diminishing quality of our education? They would do well to remember past leaders who made great contributions to our education.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was a man with a large heart, devoid of any sectarianism, and was happy to encourage and see the downtrodden and oppressed advance through education. He wrote in his Census of 1901, "The Paraias of Tamil-land occupy a similar position in India to the Rodiyas of Ceylon. Yet, under the influence of education, thanks chiefly to Christian Missionary zeal, an appreciable number of them have raised themselves to honourable positions in life and earned the respect of castes who previously oppressed and trod on them."

Both Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Waitialingam Duraisamy made an enormous contribution to education through building and managing Hindu Board schools. At a more subaltern level, leaders of the Youth Congress and C. Ragunathan and V. Veerasingam, among others in the Cooperative Movement, opened up educational opportunities to the poorer sections.

Self-determination sans Self-reflection and Self-correction

The reason why the Tamils demanded devolution was because, as the result of communal politics, the polity in the South had exacerbated corruption and injustice in the name of Sinhalese supremacy. But we have seen that without the resolve for internal correction to give justice a primary place, the corruption and ethical laxity in the central and devolved units could join forces and close the door to justice for the oppressed altogether. By their marked failure of oversight the managers of our education and higher education evade difficult decisions that would demand a greater commitment.

At the same time, when we talk of self-determination and devolution without acknowledging what it demands from us, it becomes selfishness and self-indulgence. This is reflected in the obligatory two minutes silence at the beginning of every meeting for victims of the war we cared little for: we show no remorse for the role we played in their suffering. Our apathy coupled with our failure to hold our proclaimed liberators to account are at least as responsible as the Sri Lankan state for the carnage of the final war. We rot amidst meaningless rituals in complete indifference to our failings as a community.

We will not progress as a nation unless easy and quick recourse to justice is available in our systems to correct injustice as and when it occurs, especially whenit is eminently transparent where justice and right lie. The powerful remain complacent because they know that justice delayed is justice denied.

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