26 July, 2017

Clash At Jaffna University: Conversations On Culture & History – Part I

By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Mahendran Thiruvarangan

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 move that 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 what we 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 arts and how they change over time.

*To be continued..

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Latest comments

  • 6
    3

    Mahendran,

    You are an invaluable gem among the younger generation of Tamils and one among a handful of young men and women of the same ilk in this country. In those like you I find hope for this country. You have not lost the panoramic view of the forest in search for the nettles! This is not easy, given the prevailing low grade ‘CULTURE’ and its ramifications.

    A great article. I am looking forward to reading the second part. I have referred to this article in my response to young Muthu’s article in a parallel thread.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 4
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      Mahendran Thiruvarangan

      RE: Clash At Jaffna University: Conversations On Culture & History – Part I

      “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.”

      Thanks. Succinctly stated. It is refreshing to know that there are intelligent Sri Lankans with common sense who can see through this idiocy of the the other Sri Lankans.

      The biggest question is how to educate them to see through intelligently, when the average IQ is 79?

      While this is self-interest, they are hurting all.

      That is how one defines, fools, idiots, modayas and mootals.

      It appears that there are plenty at the university as well. Exposing their idiocy may help.

      Also exposing for what they are, Para-Sinhala, Para-Tamils and other Paras, with still evolving Para-cultures and Para-Religions may also help to grill into their Para idiotic brains, that they are Paras in the Land of native Veddah Aethho.

      Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations.

      Journal of Human Genetics (2014) 59, 28–36; doi:10.1038/jhg.2013.112; published online 7 November 2013

      Through a comparison with the mtDNA HVS-1 and part of HVS-2 of Indian database, both Tamils and Sinhalese clusters were affiliated with Indian subcontinent populations than Vedda people who are believed to be the native population of the island of Sri Lanka.

      http://www.nature.com/jhg/journal/v59/n1/full/jhg2013112a.html

    • 7
      3

      It is nice to be thrilled at how well Mahendran Thiruvarangan thinks. However, it is wrong to overlook how insidious the arguments are.

      For him Nationalism is synonymous with identifying a particular territory with a particular community/nation. One should dissociate oneself from thinking on nationalistic lines, he argues. Such parochial thinking is unsuited to our modern day life, he insists. He wants us to look beyond.

      Looking beyond is what we all should do. Should it lead to looking dumb.

      Pure idealism in a practical world is plain stupid. Where is pragmatism. Idealism is just not risky, it is extremely dangerous.

  • 3
    0

    Finally..finally…oh..
    F…ing finally a brilliant piece of writing…De-identification. Nice bloody term.
    Please continue…

  • 3
    2

    It is a worthy article for consideration and discussion.However, what impact this will have on the future clashes? Will there be any improvement or change in the future? The answer is :No. Becuase this is not the first clash or it is not going to be the last clash between Tamils and Sinhalese since 1948. The real problem is majority and minority. For Srilankans majority means Sinhalese, Sinhala & Buddhists!It is not about, Justice/injustice, lawful/unlawful, humanity/ inhumanity, Good/Bad!
    The problem is not in Jaffna University.

    • 3
      2

      The article is not worth for consumption as it argues the pros and cons of the dispute and generalities. Ajith is right that the clash is not the end or the beginning. It is a continuation and will go on for ever until such time both communities live together. The majority minority complex is already instilled in the minds of both the races. Therefore the only solution is for the Tamil nation is to secede from the Sinhala nation. There will be peace in Sri Lanka. A referendum in the North and East is the way forward which the Tamil politicians should think.

      • 0
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        There will never be peace in a two state solution. Remember Eelsm may find super duper politicians and become a super nation. But the same politicians will run the South. Whenever they favor they will go on war mongering against the neighbor. Conflicts will ripe. Border crossing. Revenge against half the Tamils living in Colombo. The list goes on.

  • 2
    3

    The clash at the Jaffna University is only a small incident incited deliberately by the Sinhala students with third party involvement, when we think of the clashes and riots over the last decade between the two races. So this will go on and Mahendran is not going to solve it. He sees in a different angle of the clash between the Sinhala students and the Tamil students. The Tamils have lived in this country long enough to understand the complicity of the situation and undergone death destruction and now annihilation. So they have to find a real solution for them to live in Sri Lanka with dignity, self respect and carry on their affairs on their own.

    • 0
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      There you go…no regrets. That means all traditional thinking. Nothing out of the box. Sad.

  • 2
    0

    “In the larger political context… 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.”

    That was not the spirit in which the Jaffna Campus of the University of Sri Lanka was established. An inclusive approach by the then President of the Campus and Dean/Arts led to a healthy environment and a people-friendly campus. The FP hated the idea and did its best to wreck the project. But mass political work frustrated its efforts.

    It was in the wake of the UNP victory in 1977 that the university suffered communal backlash.

    What the Jaffna Tamil community should remember is that it is Sinhalese academics who are helping to set up and run new faculties and that the Teaching Hospital depend very much on Sinhalese doctors.

    The faculties in Kilinochchi are lucky to be far from the Tamil nationalist madness running amok in Jaffna.

  • 0
    1

    Read my solution to this conflict.
    Jaffna University was originally established by the late prime minister Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranayake to appease the Jaffna Thamils.Similarly the Eastern University was established on the initiative by the Late Minister K.W.Devanayagam.The Southern University on the initiative by the late Minister Ashrof.Jaffna university is unique from the other two universities because it is in the midst of the Thamil heartland and very far away from a Sinhala area.Most of the Thamil students who enter this university are from the Jaffna peninsula and a few from Vanni. All of them have been born and bread in Jaffna and Vanni so they have no clue about the Sinhale culture like wise the Sinhale students who enter this university too.So I think this is a clash between two extremist student groups.Jaffna Thamils are world reknown for their orthodox values,Egoism and the dominance over the other Srilankan Thamils,Cast consciousness etc.The present Jaffna is no any better.It is often said A youth born to Jaffna Thamil parents in Colombo and grown up in Colombo and who had studied in a leading school in Colombo will be a different youth in his attidtudes line of thinking lifestyle etc compared to his counterpart who was born in Jaffna and grownup in Jaffna and who had attended a leading school in Jaffna town and who is a typical Jaffna kind intoxicated with Thamil nationalism.Like wise is his Sinhale counter part.I think both cannot communicate with each other when they meet each other for the first time!So such clashes are natural.So the best solution is to shift the Jaffna university to Vavuniya.Let the Medical Faculty and the post graduate study units remain in Jaffna.So that this new university will be immune from the Thamil nationalistic madness up North.

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