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 it had 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. Giving prominence to the untruthful statements made by the students, the government of that time and Southern media claimed that the ethnic violence against the Tamils in the South had started in retaliation to the attacks on the Sinhala students at the University of Jaffna by the Tamils in Jaffna. Thereafter, the government ceased to send Sinhala students to Jaffna University.
In the months following the ethnic violence of 1977, with the rise in hostilities against the Tamils by the UNP government, many Leftist intellectuals from the Tamil community started to align themselves with the Tamil national cause and even contribute to the armed struggle. Thus Tamil nationalist politics at the University of Jaffna began to gather momentum in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet, in the mid-1980s, with the onset of internecine warfare among the different Tamil militant groups, the University became a place where dissenting academics and students courageously expressed their criticism of the armed struggle and the narrow-minded Tamil nationalist politics that the militants espoused. In 1988, taking into account the volatile political situation in the North-East after the Indo-Lanka Accord, 50 academics attached to the University of Jaffna issued a statement emphasizing the importance of the Tamils’ participation in the first election for the North-East Provincial Council. When the violence around the second JVP insurgency led to the creation of collectives called University Teachers for Human Rights at the universities in the South, a similar collective was formed at the University of Jaffna in 1988. Documenting the trials and tribulations of the people in the North under the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, Tamil militants, and the Sri Lankan state during this period, four leading members of this collective the late Rajani Thiranagama, Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram brought out The Broken Palmyrah in 1989.
With the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces from North-East, the LTTE emerged as a dominant player within the University. The post-IPKF period also saw the assassination and abduction of several progressive academics and students by the LTTE. Many other critics of the LTTE moved to the Southern parts of the country or sought refuge abroad fearing reprisals from the LTTE and its sympathizers among the staff and students. Student activism at the University of Jaffna thus came under the complete control of the LTTE in the 1990s. But one cannot write off the possibility of students silently keeping alive, from the margins in invisible ways, the activist tradition of dissidence that had emerged in the 1980s even during the heyday of the LTTE at the University. It is important that we search for the histories of these less visible alternative political actors and dissidents as well in our efforts to understand the contribution of the teachers and students of the University of Jaffna to the democratization of society. Bringing out and commemorating these histories and actors is essential to resist the attempts made by dominant and chauvinistic forces within the Tamil community today to associate the University of Jaffna exclusively with Tamils, Hindus, Tamil nationalism and LTTE-centered politics.
Since the end of the civil war, the University Grants Commission has started to send Sinhala students to some of the Faculties at the University of Jaffna where the medium of instruction is English. Some of those who commented on the recent clash accuse the UGC of sending a disproportionate number of Sinhala students to the University of Jaffna with the covert intention of stifling the University’s contribution to the Tamils’ struggle for self-determination. Such unfounded statements attributing political motives to a practice that the UGC is required follow and comparing the rise in the Sinhala students sent to the University of Jaffna to the state-sponsored colonization schemes in the North-East would only exacerbate the communal antipathies in the country. I hope what an academic attached to the Faculty of Science, University of Jaffna mentioned recently in his interview to Daily News would help demystify some of these groundless claims: “The Jaffna University Science Faculty with its seven departments, allows 300 students to be admitted every year. ‘When we have additional space, we inform the UGC and they lower the Z score to our Faculty and more students are sent here. With the majority population in our country being Sinhalese, we will automatically have more Sinhalese students coming in. This is not an issue,’ stressed Dr. Thabotharan.” Moreover, academics in the South hold in high esteem the undergraduate programs offered by the Faculty of Science at Jaffna University and the academic publications by its Faculty in locally and internationally acclaimed journals. This can also be a reason for Sinhala students to indicate the Faculty of Science at University of Jaffna as one of their top preferences when they seek university admission.
In order to prevent the kind of violence that we witnessed at the University of Jaffna in the future at any other university or any other place in the country, we must call into question the deep-rooted racism and nationalist chauvinism that we have naturalized among ourselves over the years in the name of heritage, cultural rights and national liberation. All universities in the country including the University of Jaffna should eradicate structures that produce discrimination against minorities within their student populations and indict forces within the university that induce intolerance and violence against these groups. The media in the South which gave prominence to the attacks on the Sinhala students at the University of Jaffna should publicize the attacks on Tamil and Muslim students that happen periodically at other universities as well. The administration of the universities and the UGC should investigate such attacks that happened in the past at Eastern University, Uva-Wellassa University and Sabaragamuwa University. The state should make it clear that there is no room for the involvement of military in any of the activities that happen inside any of the universities in the island. As writers and activists, we must shatter the myths and lies circulated by divisive forces about the ethnic composition of the undergraduates at the University of Jaffna and inform the public about the procedure that the UGC follows in admitting students to the different universities in the country. And finally, to challenge the hegemonic attempts made by chauvinistic groups to utilize the University of Jaffna and other universities to stoke ethno-religious passions, we should re-visit in our writings and conversations the inclusive traditions of resistance that our universities as places of dissent and creativity have nurtured historically against all odds.
*The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka