25 May, 2022


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

By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Mahendran Thiruvarangan

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.

JaffnaIn 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

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

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Latest comments

  • 1

    The recent clash at Jaffna University is a miniature presentation of the calamity the country is saturated with. Look at the sequence of events and developments. It is apparent that there was a deliberate attempt to provoke the organisers, to cause friction and to create tension, over an event scheduled in accordance with university tradition. The narrators do not seem to have the courage to tell it as it is. Feeding readers with egocentric versions and creating distorted impressions of the events is a travesty. Where is the need for politics in this discussion.

    • 0

      Mahendran Thiruvarangan

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

      “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.”

      //”as a way of justifying the Tamil students’ refusal to have Kandyan Dance at the o’pening procession,..”//

      //”With the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces from North-East, the LTTE emerged as a dominant player within the University”//

      Thank you for a clear write up.

      So what are we seeing here? The Tamils do not want diversity? Is there additional support for this hypothesis? Some events.

      1. The Veddllahalas Discriminate against the non-Vellahala Tamils, even though they are Tamil speaking.

      2. The Vellahalas and other Tamils discriminate against Tamil speaking Muslims, because in theit eye they are Tamils, even though their religion is Islam.

      3. The Tamils do not like diversity. So they Ethnically cleanse the Sinhala and the Tamil speaking Muslims from the North.

      4. Now the Tamils, or those Tamils fractions who do not want diversity, they only want their Para-Tamil culture that is still evolving, just like the Para-Sinhala culture that is still evolving excluded.

      This is Castism and Racism all mixed up in the Para Nationalism, in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

      • 0

        Amarasiri, You habit of attaching your comment to another already in place – irrespective of any relevance to the point made therein – is vulgar.

  • 2

    Moriori are the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu in Moriori, Wharekauri in Māori), east of the New Zealand archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. These people lived by a code of non-violence and passive resistance (see Nunuku-whenua), which made it easier for Taranaki Māori invaders to nearly exterminate them in the 1830s.–Wikipedia

  • 1

    Let the students find a way .they always know the beauty of the ideals of harmony and co existence. No outside element shall have a say within the university.students are masters of keeping the tiny fringe groups at bay.its these cells in the fringe which gets spun by the forces of divisiveness which needs tension and conflict to survive .let the students have the way.

  • 5


    Thank you. We need to defeat the self-serving ultra-nationalists from both groups. Keep writing and advocating, especially in Tamil, and hopefully in Sinhala as well.


    • 2

      Mahendran T has given a true picture of the problems at the Jaffna University. I have no hesitation in agreeing with the view expressed by another commentator in this forum that the calamity at the university which occurred is a miniature representation of what is going on in the country at large.

  • 0

    Thanks for your analytical article on the Jaffna University student clash investigating some key underlying issues. Quite refreshing is your analysis of ‘pluralism’ and necessary ‘multiculturalism’ in the university space and also in society at large.

    ‘Exclusivity,’ in my opinion however, might not be the only ideological trait of warring nationalisms, both Sinhalese and Tamil. ‘Superiority’ based on ‘religion’ and/or ‘birth’ seems to be playing a role when nationalism turns racism. Some of the roots are ancient.

    I would not underestimate possible outside organizational links on the part of some key people (of both groups) while I completely appreciate your look beyond a conspiracy theory.

    I also note with appreciation your tracing of the history of the UTHR. It might be opportune now to resurrect it as University Teachers for Human Rights & Reconciliation (UTHR&R) both in the North and the South, as a broad based organization.

  • 0

    Even this author does not exclude his tribalist – biases as a Tamil lieing about Tamils.

    Tamils students studying in southern universities are not harmed this way. How many times they had been attacked. Some times, Those Tamils living in hostals had engaged in LTTE activities. But, it is not the same with Jaffna university. Since the day it started Sinhala students had been harmed. You need to remember, how in the past, a Sinhala student was stabbed and made him paralyzed for life.

    Tamils who ever they are, they try to hide all about them and talk another dimension. Probably, because, it is to escape the aggression by Tamils themselves for becoming a traitor by being honest or simply tribalism which can not go away from Tamils.

    Excellent reconciliation from Tamilside.IT is Tamil only every thing from one side, Another side reconciliation.

    what kind of reconciliation you people are talking about.

  • 0

    Tamil TRibalism against fishermen Tamils.

    ” Saiva priests protest against Colombo constructing fishing jetty near Nakulesvaram temple
    [TamilNet, Sunday, 24 July 2016, 23:00 GMT]
    While keeping 70% of the lands seized from the people of Valikaamam North, the occupying Navy of genocidal Sri Lanka is trying to deceive a section of uprooted Tamils from Mayiliddi with a fishing jetty at Keerimalai, considered as a sacred site by all the Saivites in the country of Eezham Tamils. Saiva priests from Keerimalai and Thellippazhai, former divisional councillors from Valikaamam North and TNA Parliamentarian Tharmalingam Siththarthan joined the protesters extending their political support.

    Keerimalai protest
    SL Navy deployed to create a fishing jetty at Keerimalai

    SL Navy has schemed a fishing jetty 200 meters close to Nakuleasvaram temple, one of the main sacred sites with temples and Samadhi sites.

    The creation of a fishing jetty at the site is considered as a desecration of the holy site, the priests said.

    Keerimalai continues as the foremost shrine for Aadi Amaavaasai. The Saivites from the entire island use to perform religious rituals to their ancestors in the temple pond as well as dissolving the ashes of their cremated relatives in Keerimalai seas around the historically famous Nakuleasvaram temple.

  • 0


    Thanks for what you have written. Nice work. Keep it up!

    “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.”

    Unfortunately I have heard the opposite and don’t know what to believe. There should be an independent study to explain why so many Sinhalese and Muslims have started to study in Jaffna during the last years.

    Where are the Tamils? If less Tamils study science and medicine the shortage of doctors and science teachers in the North will become worse in the future.

    Should we not consider all students and other citizens as human beings and Sri Lankans instead of giving them an ethnic or religious identity? The Muslims are already counted. Why not the Christians? Too confusing with Tamil, Sinhalese and Burger Christians?

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