July and its cruelties


Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray visited H. A. T. Maduranga, an undergraduate wounded in last week’s attack now warded at the National Hospital (pic courtesy by Governor’s Office)

by Rajan Philips


It was not Sri Lanka that I was thinking of last week when I alluded to the months of April and July vying for mention in a universal cruelty context. But news after that from the Jaffna University that a gang of Tamil university students and outside thugs beat up on the Sinhalese students on campus, came as a rude reminder of the cruelties that July has come to be associated with in Sri Lanka. July 1983 has become a huge blot of blood in our history. Eerily, it was to this day 33 years ago that a pre-meditated ambush of Sinhalese soldiers in Jaffna by the LTTE provided the pre-text for the unleashing of no-less pre-meditated retaliatory violence in Colombo that quickly went out of control to become a massive pogrom against all Tamils. It was a UNP government that orchestrated the retaliation then until it blew in its face at home and abroad. The same government sent the Opposition TULF packing to India, and handed over the destinies of Tamil politics to the dictates of the LTTE.

Now a different UNP government with an SLFP appendage is acting with much greater circumspection than its all-powerful predecessor did at that time. The TNA Opposition has condemned the Jaffna campus attack on the Sinhalese students and is keen to get them back to Jaffna to resume their studies. If it was the worst of times only, in 1983, it seems to be both the best of times and the worst of times now. The government is under fire for doing both too much about reconciliation and too little about reconciliation. It is a government of good intentions and bad executions. It starts by wanting to do everything good, but ends up doing nothing well.

Sri Lanka has experienced ethnic violence dozens of times since 1956. But Sri Lankan governments have learnt nothing administratively about preventing violence, or anticipating and diffusing situations with potential for violence. Of course, half the problem will be solved if governments stop orchestrating violence. That is the difference between 1983 and now. But there is still the other half of the problem, which is the constant availability of socio-political situations that can flare into violence at the slightest provocation. The Jaffna University is the most recent of them, but it will not be the last unless the government puts its mind (if there is one) to identifying and pro-actively dealing with situations pregnant with violence. There has been all manner of writings about past incidents of ethnic violence, but no serious study of them to isolate and identify the trigger factors and the executors of violence with a view to anticipating and preventing them.

Anecdotally, at least, we know that the colonisation schemes in the eastern province became the epicentre of the 1956 riots. The Colombo suburbs with clusters of new houses built by Tamil government servants and their families were the main target of the 1958 riots. The nationalization of the plantations was a factor in the violence unleashed on the hapless estate Tamil workers in 1977. Government minor employees egged on by their political bosses were the chief miscreants in 1983. When the miscreants exceeded expectations, an exasperated government leader, Anandatissa de Alwis, ruefully remarked that they (the government) might have wanted their fellows to break a few Tamil teeth but they took apart whole jaws!

Every time communal emotions ran high, minorities in mixed-ethnic situations paid the price. On the first night of every riot, Tamil passengers on the Jaffna Mail Train were easy picks for every rascal. Tamil policemen were assaulted by their Sinhalese counterparts in mixed police quarters. Tamil students on university campuses were attacked by Sinhalese students. Even in the Ampitiya Catholic Seminary, Tamil Brothers were attacked by fellow seminarians. The upshot was the establishment of a new seminary in Jaffna.

The Jaffna University

The Jaffna University came to be established by the United Front government in the 1970s to counterbalance the Tamil Federal Party’s opposition to the 1972 Constitution. The establishment of a university campus, that too initially and annoyingly on the sequestered property of Jaffna College, was hardly a constitutional compensation. But once established, and later moved to its current location, the Jaffna University became a natural gathering place for all the vices and virtues of Jaffna. The late and much lamented (after his death in a freakish road accident in 1979) Geography Professor S. Selvanyagam used to say that it was difficult to know ‘where the market ends in Jaffna and where the university begins’. Things do not seem to have changed much insofar as the university administration goes. Successive governments in Colombo would also seem to prefer the status quo remaining in the Jaffna University rather than making positive changes.

The current university administration deserves much if not all of the blame for the outbreak of violence on its premises. By extension, the blame would involve those in Colombo who created this administration and left it unprepared for admitting a large number of Sinhalese students to the campus. They are the new minority in a mixed-ethnic situation. The way to prepare is not to rely on the military presence in Jaffna to ensure the safety of the Sinhalese students on campus.

That seems to have been the method and the madness of the previous government. That is one method, and the mindset that goes with it, that must be avoided. Beyond that, the way to proceed is to recognize the problem and involve everyone in Jaffna with political and administrative stakes in the matter to identify practical measures to address the problem. The overall direction may come from Colombo but specific measures, involving accommodation, relationship among students on and off campus, the relationship between students and the adjacent community, positive cultural exchanges, the role of community policing on and off-campus, must be identified and implemented on the ground in Jaffna. The Jaffna University must remain open to all Sri Lankan students for admission on merit and as a safe place to fulfill its primary purpose – education.

Since the 1960s, Jaffna has been outpost for transfers of Sinhalese policemen from the south.There is no question that the Jaffna University must be open to admitting Sinhalese and Muslim students just as universities in the south must be open to admitting Tamil students.


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...