By Rev. T.S. Premarjah –
The ‘underhand manoeuvring’ of Former and Current Principals – Mr Kathir Balasundaram and Mr T Varathan of Union College, Tellippalai – along with Provincial Education Ministry officials, Mr L. Ilaangovan and Co., has come to light over the last few years, using a cooked up ‘Survey Plan – No: 2270’ to suit their fraudulent claim on the American Ceylon Mission’s (ACM) Mission House (Lot- 5), knowing full-well ‘the historic significance of the property and the Building, always known as “Tellippalai Mission House.”
Tellippalai Mission Station (TMS), since 1816 was one block of land under the care of the American missionaries of the ‘American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ (ABCFM) based in Massachusetts, USA. The said property was first registered in the Land Division of the Government of British Ceylon in the year 1908 in the name of American Ceylon Mission, an incorporated body of the Church – Jaffna Congregational Church Council, which later joined with the ‘South India United Church’ (SIUC) to become “The Jaffna Church Council of the SIUC” in 1908, and later in 1947 “Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India” (JDCSI). Since 2007, a Church branched off from the JDCSI, namely, Church of the American Ceylon Mission (CACM) and to this day is the recognised successor of the ACM.
The above ‘Mission Station’ also served as the ‘central location’ of the ACM over many years, in the administration of all the missionary activities – educational, medical, and developmental, and the church’s ministry and mission. It was also the ‘Home’ for all the new missionaries arriving in Jaffna. The ACM administration of all the vernacular schools in villages in the Jaffna peninsula had English schools at Tellippalai, Vaddukoddai, Uduvil, Uduppiddi, and Chavakachcheri, and a bilingual school in Tellippalai. The Medical mission was supported by Green Memorial and McLeod Mission Hospitals at Manipay and Inuvil respectively, and Mission Dispensaries in Pandateruppu, Tellippalai, Karaitivu (Karainagar) and elsewhere. An Industrial School at Tellippalai, Teacher-training College at Tellippalai; and Seminary-training at Tellippalai, Vaddukoddai and Uduvil, were all administered from this Tellippalai Mission Station.
Since church lands are being unlawfully claimed, I produce the Survey Preliminary Plan of 1908 which shows a simple Tellippalai Mission Station of the ACM including Union College. I also give Survey Plan 892 of 1973/74 and description showing us exactly what belongs to the Church and what belongs to Union College. Relevant here is that the Mission House and its premises belong to the Church.,
First National Church Lay Leader
It was in 1935 that Mr A A Ward, the last missionary-in-Charge of the TMS, left for America due to his ill-health. Mr I P Thurairatnam, a national Church leader was appointed to manage all the mission-institutions at Tellippalai. Hence, he and his family occupied the Mission House. When two of the schools (English and Bilingual) located there were amalgamated in the year, 1939, other mission institutions gradually moved out to various locations, e.g., the Teacher-training College moved to Kopay, and the Printing Press to Manipay, while the Industrial school and ACM Book shop remained in Tellippalai under Mr Thurairatnam.
Take-Over in 1961/62: ‘Divesting Mission House’ to the ACM in 1968
In 1961/62, by an Act of Parliament, Union College Property was ‘Vested’ with the Government, including the said ‘Mission House’ as the principal of Union College was then residing there. At his retirement in1964, the Mission House became vacant, and after long negotiation between ACM officials and NP Ministry of Education officials, the ‘Mission House’ was returned to the ACM, while in exchange ACM gave its property at the corner of Tellippalai junction, which was used as ‘Parsonage’, to the Govt. (i.e., to Union College) in 1968. This is shown in the letter by The Rt. Rev. D.J Ambalavanar, Bishop of the JDCSI, to the Secretary, MoE.
Mission House Occupation by Priest-in-Charge
Hence, ACM clergy and families took possession of the ‘Mission House’ in 1969. The first national priest-in-charge, Rev S T Asirvatham, and family moved in from the ‘Old Parsonage’ to the renovated ‘Mission House.’ Since 1969, the Mission House been occupied till today, except during the period of ‘Displacement’ (Dec. 1990 – August 2012). Among all the damaged buildings of the College and the Church, the ACM Church building was first chosen for restoration with funds from past members and their descendants living overseas, and it was re-dedicated in August, 2016. The Bi-Centenary celebration of the ACM was celebrated on a grand scale with overseas partner Church representatives in October, 2016 at Tellippalai.
Sneaky Encroachment on Mission House
When the displaced Tellippalai-Church community intermittently returning to their own lands, clearing the bushes, and slowly renovating the damaged homes, they were holding Sunday worship services on the Verandah of the damaged-Mission House, with accompanying ministries such as Sunday school, women’s fellowship and prayer meetings. This arrangement went on without interruption until the completion of the renovation of the Church building and rededication of it in August 2016. The Church spent Rs. 800,000/= in 2017 to renovate the two rooms with a new attached bathroom and toilet for the clergy to reside. Subsequent to this, the Principal of Union College asked the President of the ACM then, Rev Enoch Punitharajah, permission to use the premises for cycle and motorbike parking and occasional dance classes on the verandah. Late Rev Punitharajah gave his consent out of goodwill and it continued for some time until one day, the Church decided to restore the whole damaged building, and wanted to commence the work with a loan and church funds.
When church members and later the workmen went into the premises, they were prevented by the order of the principal, Mr T Varathan, who lodged a police entry, claiming that the Mission House premises was the property of Union College, and the Church had no right to enter and even proceed with the work.
ACM officials’ Appeal to the NP Governor
It was at this stage of helplessness, that the matter was referred to Hon. Governor Mrs P S M Charles on two occasions at a personal interview by the ACM representatives. She instructed the Government Agent to search for the relevant documents pertaining to the property, and gave permission to proceed with the partial restoration that the church had started. Furthermore, it was said by the MoE officials and UC principal, that there was a ‘dispute’ between both parties which needed a resolution.
Meeting’ at MoE in Nallur, and Aggressive Prinipal T. Varathan
Correspondence was initiated by the Secretary of the MoE in Nallur, Mr L. Ilaangovan to the ACM office-bearers, Rev T Thevanesan, Rev Antony Suthakar, and Rev A Jeyakumaran, for a meeting at the ME office on the 7th December, 2020. The ACM delegation was surprised to see a large delegation of Education officials, including the Union College Principal, Mr T Varathan. An untruthful report of this meeting was circulated widely as if the ACM officers were open to part with this property to Union College. It became a tug-of-war between the Tellippalai Church Representatives and past members living overseas versus ACM officers.
Faced with ‘harassment’ on the one hand by education officials, and resistance from the ACM officers, those of us trying to seek ways of restoring the Mission House were deeply agonised over the series of events, which prompted me, knowing the mission history as a former priest at Tellippalai, to write for the Colombo Telegraph, dated 10th February, 2021. On the 10th of March, 2021, a news item appeared in the Tamil Daily, ‘Uthayan’ saying that Mr Ilaangovan is declaring that the Mission House belongs to Union College, based on a Survey Plan, presumably, that of 2002, Plan no: 2270. It is seen to be fraudulent based on the older plans I have produced above.
The next day, a letter was sent by the Union College principal, Mr T Varathan, on his College Letter Head, saying that Union College is going to occupy the ‘Mission House’ as it has been officially declared by the Secretary of NP-MoE, addressed to the ACM President, Rev T Thevanesan. Furthermore, he took a group of people of the College to the Mission House, in preparation for its occupation, they have gone to clean up the place on Saturday, the 13th of March, 2021. Mrs Gnanatheepan Rajakanthan, a Church member responsible for the Church and Restoration work, was present at the site, conversing with a journalist present there to collect information on the so-called “dispute.” Seeing all these, they seemed to have left the premises for the day! As I write Varathan has threatened to return on 15 March 2021.
The Survey Plan of 2002 (No: 2270): Hiding ‘Mission House Premises’
This Survey Plan (2270) of 2002 was prepared when the Church and College premises were occupied by the Army in its High Security Zone (HSZ) from 1992-2010. It was told that this survey plan was called upon to include a ‘portion of land’ near the score board of the play-ground to be annexed with Union College. The map and the description pages not only reflect the correct extent of the ‘Mission House’ premises, but also described that a certain portion of land of the mission house premises indicated in the map as if it belongs to Union College.
Furthermore, the numbering of Lots- 1, 2, 3, 4 seemed altogether strange in the description. The surveyor who signed on this survey plan was one Mr S K Sivananthan. The ownership of the mission house premises was as if it was that of Union College! The accuracy of this survey plan regarding the ownership of ACM, raises many questions. It was prepared to suit the scheming of the mastermind of a former principal and education officials. The surveyor did not take into account the Survey Plan (892) of 1973/74, which was clearly marked. It is assumed by the writer that it was a deliberate attempt of the schemers, when the whole community – including the Church and College – was in great agony and danger during the ‘displacement period’ functioning elsewhere in Maruthanarmadam and unable to see hoax being imposed on us all..
Comparing the two Survey Plans- (2270) of 2002, and (892) of 1973/74
For the purpose of comparing the earlier ‘Survey Plan of 1973,’ (No: 892), which they have conveniently ignored was in my view a deliberate attempt to hide the truth about the “Mission House,” of which a scanned copy has een given above (Plan No: 892 with annotation).
It has been well-recorded in the ‘mission and church history documents’ that the work of missionaries and nationals of the Church faced all kinds of opposition from time to time. The superstitions and ignorance of the people, in addition to the age-long “caste system” that was prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries were challenged, not only by the sacrificial lives and services of the missionaries and national church leaders in the wider community, but also by the transforming power of the Good News they preached and demonstrated in action in the fields of education, medical, developmental and social work. The contribution of the American Ceylon Mission and that of the Church has been well recorded in many well-researched theses, in particular, by persons who do not belong to the Christian community. There is appreciation for the mission and church’s contribution to the country and in particular to Jaffna society.
The takeover Act stipulates preserving the character of schools and their return if they are not used or the same purpose. In the south many such schools have been returned when the student population dropped. Jaffna is another matter. The Wesleyans’ Vembadi who did not even like a cross, looks like a Hindu museum. People like Ilaankovan are maintaining schools with under 30 students and almost as many teachers because to them giving the Church its due is anathema to their psyche.
The Church of the ACM demonstrated its faith, courage and dedication in the way they served the suffering Tamils of the North and East without any partiality during the war years of 1983-2009. The massive work done in supplying ‘Emergency Relief’ in camps, clergy living with the displaced people under the dangerous ground and aerial attacks, spoke for the voiceless, working for justice and peace at different levels. All these acts of both humanitarian and spiritual support have become a ‘past, forgotten service of the Church’ in the minds of the current generation in the Tamil region. It is an unfortunate situation in the past 14 years that the same Church is in some form of disarray due to a ‘division’ again based on ‘injustice within the Church’. Now is a time to rise up from the ashes and build up our wounded hurting community, without fear or favour. It is sad and frustrating to go through such experiences of ‘exploitation, injustice, hatred towards one another, betrayal, self-promotion and self-centeredness of so called Govt. officials. It is disheartening for those of us who once belonged to this religious heritage in which we take pride, to find our identity in the context of the heightening racial, religious divisions prevalent in the country. It is even increasing our frustration and anger, us moving towards such aggressive, violent personalities in positions of authority. “How long, O Lord? How Long?” The Divine Power rests upon every citizen of the country and Diaspora, as the displaced community across the globe dreams to see the return of ‘peace with justice’ in Sri Lanka.
*Rev T S Premarajah, BD Serampore, Th.M. Princeton – Former member of the ACM, and Priest at Tellippalai, 1983-1987