Clash at Jaffna University: Conversations on Culture and History


By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

The recent clash at the University of Jaffna has triggered discussions on the university as a multicultural space and the role it ought to play in building bridges between the communities in Sri Lanka. At one level, this clash mirrors the warring nationalisms in the country. Nationalisms in general hinge on an exclusivist logic where a particular territory despite its social, cultural and economic heterogeneities is identified exclusively with a particular community/nation, which in turn is associated exclusively with a particular state, one that exists or one that is yet to come.When humans and cultures move beyond the boundaries they are asked to stay within, a rupture occurs in the land-nation-state paradigm essential for the survival of nationalism. In order to overcome this rupture, nationalisms initiate a violent process of exclusion; they ferociously push some identities and cultural practices to the margins of the territory and sometimes even eject and annihilate them. A similar rupture and alienation culminated in violence at the University of Jaffna on the 16th of July 2016. In the larger political context of national contradictions and state-aided discrimination against minorities, partly as a result of being a mono-ethnic center of higher education for nearly 20 years and partly because of its location in the cultural heartland of Tamil nationalism, Jaffna University, for many of us, not just for the Tamils but also for a fragment of the Sinhala community, is and should be a Tamil university. It is in light of this deeply naturalized assumption prevalent among many that we need to understand the clash over the performance of Kandyan Dance during the welcome procession in the Science Faculty.

Conspiracy theories play a dominant role in shaping our response to the social and political happenings around us. When someone expresses her opinion, we first try to find out who she is spying for or what ulterior motive she has. We rarely evaluate people’s ideas at their face value. Even as we engage with the Sinhala students’ request to have Kandyan Dance at the welcome event, we tend to divert the focus of our discussion on proving for instance whether these students were manipulated by the military establishment in Jaffna or the ‘Joint Opposition’ in the South. Thus we have failed to evaluate the request on its own terms.

University and its Relationship to Culture and Communities

Because of the protracted ethnic conflict in the country,we should treat the articulations of culture taking place in shared spaces as highly sensitive subjects. The incident at the University of Jaffna reminds us of the importance of thinking carefully about what kinds of cultural practices and rituals are permissible in state-run universities where students of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds pursue their higher education together. The cultural environment inside a university should make all of its members feel that it is their university regardless of where they come from or what language they speak;it should create the conditions necessary for the students to participate in academic activities without fear or feelings of being a minority or alien.

As organic social institutions, universities must raise, examine and recommend ways of resolving social, economic and cultural issues that affect the communities around them. But such social engagement does not mean that the everyday activities of a university or the special events that happen there should represent the cultures and traditions that are prevalent among those communities to the exclusion of others. It is indeed welcome if the research conducted by the students and staff at the University of Jaffna gives prominence to not just the national question and how the Tamil populations in the North are marginalized by the state but also the caste question, the exploitation of laboring people, the challenges to the resettlement of the evicted Muslims and environmental issues confronting the region. It would be even more desirable if the University fosters an intellectual climate that would encourage non-Tamil students and students from non-Northern regions too to study these issues with a sense of social responsibility that goes beyond the narrow walls of nationalism. An example of this radical intellectual culture that is both organic and cosmopolitan at the same time is the highly-acclaimed Tamil film Ponmani directed by Dharmasena Pathirajah when he was teaching in the Department of Sinhala at the University of Jaffna. Ponmani released in 1977 is a film about caste discrimination and the dowry system in Jaffna. Challenging ethnic essentialisms, the cultural labor that went into the making of Pathirajah’s film represents the kind of relationship that should exist between the researchers of a university and the region where it is located.

Imagining Pluralism at Different Levels

The ethnic conflict in the country has encouraged us to pay attention to ethnic pluralism at the national level especially in relation to the state. But unfortunately our ideas about territory stemming from the solutions proposed to the national question have made us succumb to a stale pluralism at the micro-level in spaces like universities, schools, hospitals, government offices, etc.The national question in Sri Lanka in the present historical conjuncture requires a political solution that includes the devolution of maximum irretrievable self-governing powers to the Provincial Councils (one should also be aware of the debates on whether the Northern and Eastern Provinces should be merged and whether there should be a non-contiguous self-governing unit in the North-East which would include all the Muslim majority areas in the region). But this proposed solution to the conflict has been misinterpreted by chauvinistic forces on both sides as a movethat aims at recognizing the North or North-East as belonging to the Tamils and the rest of the country as belonging to the Sinhalese exclusively. A debilitating pluralist logic of this kind is present in the opinion made by some with regard to the non-inclusion of Kandyan Dance at the welcome procession at the University of Jaffna:The Sinhala students at the University of Jaffna should not have insisted the inclusion of Kandyan Dance because the Tamil students who study in the South never find the absence of Tamil cultural events on important occasions like graduation ceremonies at Southern universities objectionable. This sloppy argument indicates the importance of moving our conversations on cultural pluralism and co-existence beyond the statist approaches that figure prominently in our debates on the national question in the country.

In order to avoid a crisis between the Sinhala and Tamil student groups at Jaffna University, some academics attached to the Faculty of Science suggested to scrap the welcome procession.Some who wrote about the clash later find this suggestion unacceptable. They argue that just because there was resistance to the inclusion of a new cultural event (Kandyan Dance), the administrators of the university should not cancel the longstanding traditions of the university. They see this suggestion as one that unwittingly strengthens the state’s attempt to destroy the time-honored (Tamil) traditions of the University of Jaffna and the Northern region. But one should pay attention to the limitations in this line of thinking too.The practice of holding an opening procession with the accompaniment of auspicious Tamil music as part of the annual welcome event was started in the Faculty of Science only three or four years ago. Thus one wonders whether this welcome procession could be considered a longstanding tradition of the Faculty of Science. Even if we consider it so, why was it not possible for these critics to detect parallels between the teachers’ suggestion to stop the welcome procession and the demand that we, Tamils and others, make for the abrogation of the thirty four-year old constitutional clause which gives Buddhism the foremost place in Sri Lanka? As a way of challenging divisive nationalisms, it is important that we initiate processes of conscious dis-identification not just in the state and its constitution but also in public institutions and multi-cultural spaces like our universities.

At a time when A. R. Rahman is revolutionizing Tamil music by introducing musical forms and musical instruments originating from the West, the assertion that Nadhaswaram and Thavil represent authentic Tamil music and Kandyan Dance represents Sinhala culture indicates that it is high time we undertook a critical assessment of whatwe mean by culture and how culture relates to us and the world around us at the contemporary moment. While it is important that we critique the divisive role these deeply politicized art forms play in today’s ethno-nationalist context in Sri Lanka, we should also be wary of the essentialist and foundationalist ways in which they are associated with particular communities. Therefore, alongside our conversations on dis-identification, we should also discuss the heterogeneities within our cultures and artsand how they change over time.

Challenging Chauvinism: Alternative Accounts of Political Activism at Jaffna University

In the aftermath of the clash at the University of Jaffna, as a way of justifying the Tamil students’ refusal to have Kandyan Dance at the opening procession, some nationalist commentators are busy crafting distorted accounts of the history of political activism within the campus that favors Tamil nationalism and the LTTE over other ideologies and actors.The history of the University of Jaffna is as complex as the history of any other place. It was driven by various forces that held divergent political views. When it was started in the 1970s, the University housed students from different ethnic communities. It was a center where notable Leftist and progressive intellectuals from various communities and various parts of the island such as Kailasapathy, Indrapala, A. J. Canagaratna, Silan Kadirgamar, M. Nithyanandan, Nirmala Rajasingam, Dayapala Thiranagama, Harsha Gunawaradena, M. A. Nuhman and Sitralega Maunaguru taught. The attacks on the hill country Tamil students in 1976 by a group of students with political links to the Tamil United Liberation Front show that Tamil chauvinism had its presence at the University even in its early days (for an extended commentary on this incident, read Rajan Hoole’s latest book Palmyrah Fallen). A notable aspect of the University of Jaffna in the 1970s was that ithad arguably the most progressive Sinhala Department in the country at the time. Sucharitha Gamlath and Dharmasena Pathirajah were on the faculty of this department. When ethnic violence erupted in the South in 1977, the teachers, Tamil students and Tamil families in the neighborhood gave protection to the Sinhala students at the University of Jaffna and took every necessary step to send them safely to their homes in the South. But a section of the Sinhala students, upon reaching the Southern parts of the country, deliberately misinformed the public that they had been assaulted by the Tamils in Jaffna.

Continued tomorrow

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