Hope for the future: Putting the Jaffna University incident behind us
Posted on August 13th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

What appeared to have happened on the Jaffna University campus on July 16, 2016 (as judged from newspaper reports, electronic and social media, personal communication, etc) was an unprovoked attack by some racist Tamils (both students and outsiders representing perhaps a minority of hardcore separatist sympathizers) on a troupe of  Kandyan dancers who were performing, as part of a mixed cultural programme on the occasion of a ceremony organized to welcome first year students.  The aftermath which, according to the same sources, included apparent minimal police action taken where a more robust response would have been deemed warranted, a quick evacuation of all the Sinhalese students out of Jaffna the same night, their transport to Vavuniya where they were left stranded, unprotected, the surrender of the main attack suspect to law enforcement authorities through a lawyer (who happened to be a prominent TNA MP closely engaged in partisan politics), and the suspect’s bailing out despite the alleged offence being described as non-bailable according to informed legal opinion, led to a suspicion among the general public in the south that it was a carefully orchestrated incident with sinister political implications.

BUT, in the light of veteran, Canada-based journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s exemplary journalistic analysis of the Jaffna University incident in his column in The Daily Mirror (July 23) and the similarly authentic ‘record’ about the same subject by some responsible university teachers in The Island (July 28), both mentally juxtaposed with other information gathered from nondescript sources, a substantially modified, potentially constructive, reading of the events in Jaffna on that day took shape in my mind. The purpose of this article is to set it before the reader for what it is worth.

Of course, these commentators are not absolutely free some partiality for their own race. That is only human. It is enough if that partiality stops short of denying the other side their own humanity and human rights. In that respect they are commendable. The truth is that there has never been any racial conflict worth talking about between ordinary Tamils and ordinary Sinhalese. Over the past one hundred years, the Sinhalese leaders have been reaching out to the minorities even when they insisted on redressing the historic wrongs inflicted on the Sinhalese by the occupying European invaders. Most minority leaders have reciprocated this gesture. The university teachers and the journalist mentioned here display the same friendly reaching out attitude to the majority community in their reports of the Jaffna University scuffle.

D.B.S. Jeyaraj devotes his column in the Daily Mirror (July 23, 2016) for dealing with the Jaffna University incident and what followed. He says that he contacted various sources in Sri Lanka on the phone and through email with a cross section of Tamil and Sinhalese undergraduates of Jaffna University, members of its academic staff, law enforcement authorities, political leaders and informed residents of Jaffna. The information that he thus gathered is presented in his article with hints of his particular interpretation of the same. Jeyaraj’s approach is to take the clash as something between a factional strife and a racial conflict, which agrees with my own view.

Jeyaraj outlines the history of the University of Jaffna. It was inaugurated in 1974 by the United Front government of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike. When she came to Jaffna to open it, Jeyaraj writes, the ordinary people of Jaffna welcomed it, calling it ‘valavukkul valaaham’ ‘campus in the compound’; but the politicians of the Tamil United Front opposed it, hoisting black flags. Under the university reorganization scheme launched as part of the educational reforms introduced by that government, the five or six existing universities then existing in the country were combined into one University of Sri Lanka, and each of them became a campus of that single university. But the UNP government that succeeded it in 1977 restored the earlier separate universities system. The Jaffna Campus of the University of Sri Lanka became the University of Jaffna. Like other universities in the country, it admitted students from all ethnic communities and all regions.

However, not long after, there was a clash between some Sinhalese and Tamil students during which a Sinhalese student was stabbed. The attack left him permanently confined to a wheelchair bound life. That was also the end of Sinhalese presence in the Jaffna University, and it became a virtual Tamil university. This was something unusual, for to this day there hasn’t been a monolingual university in Sri Lanka. The civil conflict prevented Jaffna university from taking in Sinhalese students until 2009 when it again became multiracial, multi-religious, and multilingual. From 2010, the Sinhalese student intake also increased. Jeyaraj thinks that the incident should be viewed against this background. But it seems clear that most Tamil students and the staff apparently have no problem with this (though politicians seem to have a different idea).

Jeyaraj also draws attention to an alleged linguistic barrier that, according to him, divides Sinhalese and Tamils students. For one thing, university students are an educated lot; though they may have been monolingual in their own language at high school, they surely have some knowledge of English. In any case, they learn science at the university in the English medium. So, there cannot be a language problem that prevents verbal interaction between the two groups. The tradition in this country has been that in any province in Sri Lanka, the minority learns enough of the majority’s language for day to day communication. The Sinhalese speaking minority in the north and east learn Tamil, and the Tamil speaking minority in the other areas learn Sinhala, though there’s no compulsion to do so. Even within a province, this rule applies. Thus, on the tea estates in the Hill Country, Sinhalese workers naturally learn Tamil to speak with their fellow workers. Ordinary Sri Lankans don’t even think that there could be a language problem. The other commonsense factor is that the need for communication comes before the means or the mode of communication. So when monolinguals have to communicate in a multilingual context, they may use sign language, for example. Even uneducated people are not satisfied with that. So they learn the language that most of their neighbours use. In Sri Lanka, we have three languages to choose from. In the university context, the clear common alternative to Tamil and Sinhalese is English. So, what’s the problem?

A university is a big place that is usually isolated from its local neighbourhood, at least to some extent. It is the students, academic and administrative staff, and other workers who could get some idea of what sort of social interactions occur there. Traditional festivals like Sinhala Hindu New Year and Vesak, and other ceremonial events usually enhance social interactions among students. The day the clash occurred, they were having an event of triple significance: it was a welcoming ceremony for the freshers; it was also a farewell to Professor Srisatkunarajah, the outgoing Science Faculty dean; along with this, his successor, Professor R. Vigneshwaran was to assume duties in his new post.

It seems that it was purely a student organized event. The students had contributed Rs 2500 each to make the function a success. The request for the inclusion of the Kandyan dance item had been jointly made by the Sinhalese students and Tamil student office bearers. But the organizing students had refused it because the agenda had by then been finalized. Professor Srisatkunarajah had asked them whether they could accommodate it, but the students were adamant in their refusal; however, they said, the item could be accommodated next year.

It is obvious that the gracious senior academic Professor Srisatkunarajah was very sympathetic to the students’ request; he must have been aware of the undercurrent of ethnic politics that was introducing an element of tension into the request and its rejection on this occasion. His concern for the safety and welfare of the students of both races cannot be doubted. He did his utmost to prevent an untoward incident as much for his own sake as for theirs. As should be clear to anyone familiar with situations like the one they were facing, Professor Srisatkunarajah did not want to mar the last day of his official term in the university with violence and bloodshed.

Jeyaraj reports what a Tamil student told him on the phone about why they refused the Sinhalese students’ request: it was because they said that the item had to be accommodated because the Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the country. I find it difficult to believe that a university student said such a stupid thing, especially in that sensitive environment. My feeling is that it is a fabrication of that Tamil student.

Nothing like this incident has ever happened in any of the universities in the south, except in the three relatively new universities of Sabaragamuwa, Uva Wellassa, and Eastern as mentioned in the university teachers’ record (please see below) and reportedly invoked by MP Sampanthan (referred to in Jeyaraj’s article). From the early 1970s until not very long ago, student organizations in Sri Lankan universities were dominated by the JVP. Since that party as a principle prioritizes class over ethnic divisions, racial conflicts are not likely to occur in the Lankan universities. Absence of racism in campuses is not due to the influence of the JVP student politics alone. Other political parties too have their presence in the campuses. None subscribe to racism. There is no communalism among the Sinhalese in the South. It is some members of the minorities who show a tendency to communalism, often egged on by politicos. The first racial conflict in a university I ever heard of was the one at the University of Jaffna in the late 1970s or early 1980s touched on above. The next was an alleged attack on a Tamil student at Sabaragamuwa in 2014; except for that, I think I missed news about alleged similar incidents reported from Uva Wellassa and Batticaloa. However, these were highly unusual in our university system, and could be attributed to the lurking tensions in the aftermath of the civil war. They cannot be taken as manifestations of any existing or emerging racism in Lankan universities.

In the south, even during the worst of the civil conflict, Tamil cultural events were held in absolute safety and freedom usually with the participation of the Sinhalese, just like those held by the other communities according to their respective customs, and this has not changed to date. There is a lot of religious and cultural interaction between ordinary Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists. In fact, after 2009, these trends further improved. I know these things through personal experience. A friend of mine, a successful Sinhalese businessman, a fluent speaker of Tamil, in the multi ethnic Ampara town, met a group of young Tamil visitors from Jaffna at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy in 2010, who said they were surprised to see such a beautiful building where they expected to see a half destroyed  temple because it had been the target of a truck bomb attack in 1998 by the LTTE; they were truly impressed by the splendid surroundings with their green freshness and the friendly attitude of the people who, they had been earlier told, were real bad Tamil-haters. He told them that the place was their heritage as well. Those youngsters were surprised to learn that Tamils from Jaffna were big businessmen in Kandy.

The joint ‘record’ of the first year students  welcome event compiled from firsthand experiences of several members of the Science Faculty of the Jaffna University  published in The Island newspaper (July 28, 2016) by four dons of the university , Rajan Hoole, Prince Jeyaratnam, N. Sivapalan and S. Selvarajan, strikes me as a responsible eyewitness account of what actually  happened just before, during, and after the particular event. It is as rational, as factual, and as objective a record of events that could ever be expected in such an explosive and emotionally charged situation. My familiarity with previous writings of Professor Rajan Hoole about  subjects of this nature, which I have found to be  rational, factual, constructive, and humane, helps me to come to this conclusion. Though I don’t have any idea about the other three, there is no doubt in my mind that they too share the same attitudes and values.

According to them, the faculty members and the outgoing dean (Professor Srisatkunarajah mentioned by Jeyaraj) tried hard to prevent the incident which had been brewing for some time. That is how mature individuals working with restive young people usually behave in such situations in our country. The trouble seemed to have been initiated by a group of some non-science faculty students numbering about 20-30 who had no business to be there. The unrest apparently centred on the Sinhalese students having allegedly insisted, at the eleventh hour after the programme schedule had been finalized, on a Kandyan dance item being also included. There must have been some division of opinion about that before. At the instance of the faculty members, the student counselors and the marshals of the university almost succeeded in forestalling the untoward happening. When they thought that order should prevail as a result of their exertions, a group of students (probably the same 20-30 ‘loiterers’ as the faculty members describe them) came towards the Sinhalese students wearing helmets with visors down, ‘but  not lethally armed’. (Jeyaraj, in his account, mentions ‘poles and rods’ and ‘stones’, but he doesn’t talk about helmets.) The Sinhalese students also armed themselves with branches, etc  to face them, and a clash took place. Now, according to the university dons’ account, one of the attackers got trapped among the Sinhalese students who started beating him. A faculty member jumped into the melee and pulled him out and pushed him away allowing him to escape. The faculty officials have identified this student as the president of the University Students Union of Jaffna University this year, and he is from the Management Faculty. Then the fighting broke out among the Tamil and Sinhalese students scattered about the place. The student, thus rescued, was the one who surrendered to the court and was bailed out. He was Thankeshwaran Sisitharan (as mentioned by Jeyaraj in his report).

Four injured Sinhalese students were taken to hospital. Three of them needed stitches. One who had been struck on his head probably with a stone was warded in the ICU, and later transferred to Colombo for surgery. When the police arrived around 2:00 pm, they were allowed in by the outgoing dean, but by then the fighting had ended, and most Tamil students had withdrawn. The Sinhalese students  expressed a wish to be sent home. So the police arranged for the hire of some buses, and the Sinhalese students left in the night.

Obviously, the dons’ narrative cannot be expected to be a holistic version of the events. For one thing, these four or five individuals could not have been in several places at the same time. Their actions and words, however well meant, could have drawn conflicting responses from different students; and they had to think of their own survival in that naturally highly politicized place, like any other university is. But the ‘record’ – though it has left out many things that the available videos and eyewitness accounts of various students involved lead us to suspect – is a suitably toned down description of events, and a forward looking one.  For me, the dons’ initial comments embody the essential message they mean to convey, which I am quoting below:

‘The event is a warning when taken alongside sectarian violence in other Lankan universities, recently in Sabaragamuva, Uva Wellassa and Eastern, where the response of the authorities has been constrained by factors, which include local prejudices and peer pressures, bias in the university security services and local readings of wishes of the authorities in Colombo. The change in attitude of the authorities after the regime change of 8th January 2015 is reflected in their wanting as far as possible for the problems to be tackled on local initiative. The universities should use this opportunity to address, in their locality, causes that threaten the integrity of university values and education. These causes, if left to follow their course, would make peaceful coexistence and pluralism even harder to achieve’.

These wise teachers avoid using the adjective ‘ethnic’, and instead use the word ‘sectarian’ to describe the factional division. Clearly, there were Tamil students who wanted to accommodate their Sinhalese colleagues’ request, which the violent few baulked at. So, the clash was between two sects subscribing to two opposing ideologies, rather than two blindly opposed ethnic groups. We have known all along that the so-called ethnic problem is a matter of sectarianism, not of pure racial animosity.

According to the Jeyaraj version, the student leader on bail now is a Management faculty student, hailing from Kaluvaanchikkudi in Batticaloa. The bulk of his supporters were from the Arts. His getting isolated among the victims of the attack and his being in need of being pulled out and pushed to safety by a weak old retiring senior don is strangely funny. Jeyaraj says the Tamil attackers far outnumbered the Sinhalese students who found refuge in the science lab. But he also adds: ‘A very large number of students from both communities kept aloof from this confrontational environment’(which means that they were largely indifferent to the ethnic dimension).

A very important thing to remember is that these youngsters’ worldview is very different from ours. They do not have the poisonous baggage of artificial racial prejudice that we the older generation have been condemned by circumstances to carry in our minds to the end of our days. May this not be mere wishful thinking! Unless deliberately misled to believe otherwise by power hungry  politicos, the young people of the north will understand that the whole of this very beautiful island of ours belongs to them as much as it belongs to the young people of the south. Foreigners including Indians will be foreigners. They will not serve our interest.

My feeling is that the university authorities have managed the situation well. It was at the last minute that they invited the police to intervene. It is the duty of the government and Joint Opposition (because it can’t be ignored that true reconciliation was initiated under the previous regime) to build on this and ensure that the University of Jaffna return to normal soon. Of course, a couple of graceless, senile, surly old men with one foot in their grave who want to create an ethnically cleansed north and east for them to lord it over will not draw any comfort from this. May they take it easy and rest in peace.


4 Responses to “Hope for the future: Putting the Jaffna University incident behind us”

  1. Christie Says:

    Attacking Sinhala Students at the Jaffna University Students go back to the time it started .
    I remember one incident where a student was stabbed for sitting on a seat in a bus where women are supposed to sit. In Jaffna women sit separated from men in public transport.

  2. janakic Says:

    I wonder whether Mr. Wasala would send his own children to Jaffna University in this situation? Mr Wasala reports what a Tamil student has said to Mr. Jey raj as follows and he believes that it was only a fabrication. I wonder why he think so?
    “Jeyaraj reports what a Tamil student told him on the phone about why they refused the Sinhalese students’ request: it was because they said that the item had to be accommodated because the Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the country. I find it difficult to believe that a university student said such a stupid thing, especially in that sensitive environment. My feeling is that it is a fabrication of that Tamil student”.

    What the Sinhala student has said is a fact. One should be able to speak out the facts in any forum, particularly in a university. To have reconciliation, it is high time the Tamil students and Tamils understand that Sinhala Buddhists make 70% of the population. What kind of education is promoted in Jaffna?

  3. plumblossom Says:

    When looking at Sri Lanka’s history, it is extremely obvious that from 600BC to around 1400AD there were three kingdoms, all Sinhala Buddhist, Ruhuna, Pihiti or Rajarata and Maya or Malayarata. Rajarata encompassed today’s North Central, North Western, Northern and even the Central Province. Ruhunu rata encompassed today’s Uva, Eastern and Southern Provinces. The Kandyan Kingdom from 1400AD encompassed most of the island inclusive of today’s Northern and the Eastern Provinces except for the Jaffna Peninsula. Even the Jaffna Peninsula was invaded and occupied by force by Aryachakravarthi (Pandyan) and actually did belong to Rajarata earlier and later the Kandyan Kingdom.

    Today’s provincial boundaries were drawn up by the British colonialists as per their divide and rule policy and the Sinhala people were not consulted when drawing up these provincial boundaries. In the meantime, most Sri Lankan Tamils of today were actually brought over during Dutch and British times to the Jaffna Peninsula and elsewhere to work on tobacco and indigo plantations which were planted extensively in all the colonies since they were much sought after and made a lot of money for the colonialists. Therefore they are recent arrivals and cannot claim homelands or separate states whatsoever.

    The usual practice when a colonial power hands over their former colonies is to hand it over to its original owners. Therefore the British colonialists should hand over the Kandyan Kingdom to the Kandyan Sinhalese from whom they took it by force. Since the Kandyan Kingdom encompassed the North and the East, these provinces too should be handed over to the Kandyan Sinhalese who are its rightful owners. Even the Jaffna Peninsula should be handed over to the Kandyan Sinhalese since it was part of Rajarata and was forcefully occupied by Aryachakravarthi (Pandyan).

    Since this has now been done already, the TNA and other separatist terrorists or the US, UK EU, Canada, Norway, Sweden and India cannot demand that present day Northern or even the Eastern provinces be provided any more powers or be made into federal states since this is totally going against the history and archaeology of the island and totally going against the rights of the Sinhala people who also have fundamental rights to claim the entire island inclusive of the North and the East as their homeland first and foremost. Therefore, the TNA , the separatist terrorists, the US, UK, Norway, Sweden, Canada and India has to respect the history and archaeology of the island and accept that the present day provincial councils are more than sufficient to run the affairs of the provinces. Sri Lanka must be a unitary state and no more powers should be provided to the provincial councils. In fact, when talking about the 13th amendment, the concurrent list subjects must be included in the national list. The provision where two provinces can merge should be deleted. The bogus claim of the North and the East being the homeland of the Tamil speaking people should be deleted. The entire island should be declared the homeland of all its peoples.

    Sinhala people should be resettled in the North in quite a large number if there is to be peace and harmony within the island since Sinhala people have every historical right to live in the North as well as the East. It is only due to ethnic cleansing of the North of Sinhala people by the LTTE and the other separatists that Sinhala people are not at present living in the North. Many thousands of landless elsewhere in the island especially Sinhala people should be provided land in the North since most of the vacant land in the country is in the North and in the East since both these provinces encompass over 28% of the land area of the island. Then only will there be peace since when people mix, there is more harmony. This is the only way towards peace and development in the island.

  4. plumblossom Says:

    I would urge this writer to influence these yahapalanaya government idiots if he knows any of them personally, especially Sirisena, Ranil, CBK and Mangala traitors, please convey to them that the over 65,000 Sinhala people ethnically cleansed from the North in the 1980s by the LTTE and Prabhakaran be resettled in the North immediately.

    What is unfortunately happening today is that the TNA racists are threatening the 32,000 Sinhala people living in the North at present to leave. This is called ethnic cleansing and it should be condemned totally. Not only this, even university students who are studying at Jaffna University are being threatened. This is totally unacceptable. Sinhala villagers are threatened by racist TNA councillors not to complain to the media about being harassed by the TNA. Other Sinhala villagers are being coerced and threatened by the TNA to sell their land and leave.

    The only way that there would be lasting peace in Sri Lanka is if thousands of Sinhala people are settled in the North and even in the East. When people live side by side, by this I mean Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, there is much more harmony and peace and as a result development. This is the only way that peace and harmony will happen in Sri Lanka.

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