Colombo Telegraph reliably learns that under reporting in the English media of the protests held by the students, parents and the alumni of Uduvil Girls’ College, Jaffna over the retirement of the school Principal Mrs. Shiranee Mills and the attacks on the protesting students by the clergy of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI) and some teachers of the school last week has caused some disappointment and anger among the students, parents, alumni and well-wishers of the school. This commentary is offered with a view to addressing this gap.
Uduvil Girls’ College is a private school that comes under the purview of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI). The school has a well-established tradition of principals who lead the school for long periods. The most recent predecessor Dr. C.V. Selliah retired at the age of 68. There was a groundswell of opinion recently among the students, parents and the alumni of the school that the tenure of the current Principal Mrs. Shiranee Mills, who recently turned 60, should be extended for five years in view of the achievements the school produced under her leadership in education and extra-curricular activities at the district, provincial and national levels and to give her a chance to complete the remarkable process of transformation that she has initiated at the school. As per the statements issued by the Alumni Associations of Uduvil Girls’ College, Jaffna College, its partner school, the Church of the American Ceylon Mission (which claims itself as a significant stakeholder of Uduvil Girls’ College as descendant and legal heir of The American Ceylon Mission which founded the school, and because it is the conduit through whom 70% of the school’s annual funds are sent to it by its shared partners, the Jaffna College Trust), the students of the school and their parents who were interviewed by the media during the protests held at the school last week, Mrs. Mills is regarded by many as one of the most outstanding and democratic educationists to serve a school in Jaffna in the recent past.
The past pupils’ associations of the school in a joint statement issued recently after the announcement of the appointment of the new Principal say that the Executive Committee of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India has imposed a forced retirement on Mrs. Shiranee Mills when she turned 60 on the 7th of September 2016. The students of the school launched continuous protests and hunger strikes for nearly seven days against the decision made by the Executive Committee of the JDCSI. The students complain that the JDCSI has prevented them from meeting their Principal and say a proper good bye to her by postponing the re-opening of the school from the 5th of September to the 8th of September, a day after the 60th Birthday of Shiranee Mills. And Shiranee Mills was asked on the 16th of August, when the school was on vacation, to vacate her official residence on or before the 6th of September. She was given only 20 days to vacate the Mission House located inside compounds of the school.
In June, the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India had advertised a vacancy for the post of Principal of Uduvil Girls’ College on their website and in a newspaper published from Colombo. Shiranee Mills and three other applicants (the new Principal who was then the Vice Principal of the school, the new Vice Principal who was a teacher at Uduvil Girls’ College and a teacher from Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai) were shortlisted for the interviews held in Colombo in August. All candidates except Shiranee Mills were interviewed on the 14th of August and Shiranee Mills was interviewed separately the following day. On both days, the interview panel comprised the following members:
1. Mrs. Savitri Sumanthiran, wife of TNA’s Jaffna District Parliamentarian Mr. MA Sumanthiran + member of the Uduvil GC Board representing the wider Christian community in the country
2. Ms. Vijula Arulanantham, a close legal associate of Mr. MA Sumanthiran + member of the Uduvil GC Board representing the wider Christian community in the country + a prominent member of the Anglican Church
3. Dr. Mrs. Thayalini Thiagarajah, the manager of the school and the Bishop’s wife (Bishop Thiyagarajah is the chairperson of the school)
4. Mrs. Suganthy Vyrasinghe, a retired teacher of Jaffna College + member of the Uduvil GC Board representing the Old Girls. (As per the constitution of the school Board, the representative of theOld Girls should be a member of the JDCSI elected by the Diocesan Council)
5. Dr. Alexander Jesuthasan, Principal, Madras Christian College, India – External Member to the Selection Board
The minutes of the School Board dated 6 February 2016 states that the first four persons listed above along with the Bishop would serve on the “Search Committee” for the appointment of the new Principal.
TNA Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran represented the Bishop on several occasions in the past in legal disputes against Mrs. Shiranee Mills. One of these cases was dismissed by the Supreme Court. Shiranee Mills was interviewed by a team comprising Mrs. Savitri Sumanthiran and Ms. Vijula Arulanantham, two people who are closely connected to Mr. Sumanthiran who according to Shiranee Mills (as reported by Dharisha Bastians in the Daily Financial Times of 10 September 2016) has a ‘natural animosity’ towards her. One cannot ignore these key facts when looking at the allegations made by the students, parents and the alumni during the protests that Mr. Sumanthiran and his wife were either directly or indirectly responsible for ‘the forced retirement’ of Mrs. Shiranee Mills or that the selection committee was biased against Mrs. Mills.
The students who demanded the reinstatement of Mrs. Shiranee Mills as Principal of the school were verbally and physically attacked by some members of the clergy of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India and the teachers of the school. There is plenty of video evidence available online of the protests and the attacks on the students by the clergy and the teachers. The police stood watching as the attackers went on the rampage. In some instances, the Police videographed students who were leaving the school to meet the District Judge to lodge a complaint against the attackers despite repeated pleas by the parents of the school girls not to videograph their children. Students and parents argue that Police apathy shows there were attempts by politicians close to the Church to sabotage the protests by the students. In a hard-hitting statement signed by its General Secretary Jospeh Stalin, the Ceylon Teachers’ Association has vehemently condemned the attacks on the students. The statement also says that the absence of action against the perpetrators of this violence reminds the people of the totalitarian culture that existed in the country under the previous regime.
The teachers who carried out these attacks were returning to the school following the service of induction for Mrs. Patricia Suneetha Jebaratnam as the new Principal of the school held at the Cathedral church of the JDCSI located in Vaddukoddai. Previously the teachers were informed that what was to take place at the Cathedral was a retreat. But to their surprise the new Principal was inducted at this service by the Bishop even as protests were underway inside and outside of the premises of Uduvil Girls’ College by the students of the school.
As a longstanding tradition of the school, induction services for new Principals are always announced to the public let alone the teachers and students of the school in advance. Local newspapers would even carry the invitation. No such procedure was followed during this induction service probably because there was a lot of pressure on the JDCSI to call off their decision to appoint a new Principal and allow Shiranee Mills to continue. This pressure came not just from the students, parents and the alumni who were protesting in Uduvil and online but also the Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Global Ministries in the USA. While Bishop Thiagarajah’s supporters claim that this is an illegal foreign interference and a form of imperialism, the students and the alumni who were protesting asserted that this intervention, whether legal or not, was extremely important to liberate the school from the totalitarian grips of the JDCSI given the nepotism and corruption within the Church and its impact on the institutions that some powerful members of the Church treated as if they were their private property. Besides the teachers of Uduvil Girls’ College and some members of the Board of Directors, the only others who were seen present at the induction service at Vaddukoddai were the administrators of Jaffna College.
In June, in his response to requests made by two old students of the school on Facebook, Bishop Thiagarajah posted that according to the government regulations it was not possible to extend the tenure of Mrs. Mills beyond her 60th birthday. When the old girls pointed out that the Principal of a private school did not need to retire at the age of 60 citing the retirement age of two of Uduvil’s previous principals as examples, he responded: “I simply want a circular from Department of Education that extension is possible”. In another comment, he noted that extension was not possible under new government regulations and that the authorities are now very strict about the age of retirement for everyone unlike in the past. But Colombo Telegraph is fully aware of the fact that there is no such law followed in Sri Lanka, new or old, that makes it mandatory for principals of private schools to retire at the age of 60.
From the joint statement issued by the alumni of the school, it is evident that Past Pupils’ Associations in Sri Lanka, the UK, Australia and Canada had also sent formal letters to the Bishop and the Board requesting them to extend the tenure of Shiranee Mills. The joint statement says that the Bishop neither responded to their letters nor acknowledged receipt of them even though they requested him to do so within seven days. According to the statement, the PPAs sent follow-up letters to the school Board and to the Bishop after three weeks of sending the initial letters, to which they, yet again, received no response or acknowledgement.
After placing the advertisement online and in the media, the Bishop according to Shiranee Mills had requested her to apply for extension stating that he was satisfied with her services to the school. Now some of the old students and the well-wishers of the school think that this request was in fact a trap designed by the Board for everyone in Sri Lanka and abroad who wanted Mills’ extension. As the Board kept receiving several letters from the alumni all over the world requesting him to extend her tenure for five more years, they argue that the Bishop and his group would have felt that if they created the impression that Shiranee Mills’ tenure would be extended, students and the alumni would not start protesting against the moves to appoint a new Principal initiated by the Board following the publication of the advertisement. They say that perhaps this ‘masterplan’ by the Bishop made everyone who wanted Shiranee Mills’ extension as Principal wait quietly with hope through the months of June and July when the school was in session. In August, the students, parents and the alumni found the Board’s decision to inform Shiranee Mills about her retirement just 20 days ahead of it not only unjust but also humiliating. By late August, updated profiles of the students and alumni across the world began to appear on Facebook with pictures of Shiranee Mills with the captions “WORLD’S BEST PRINCIPALS” and “We need you back.” One picture had an evocative line from the Bible: “O let there be no end to your loving mercy to those who have knowledge of you, or of your righteousness to the upright in heart” (Psalm: 36: 10)
In a statement issued to a Tamil newspaper, Shiranee Mills says that she accepted the request made by the third Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South Rt. Rev. Dr. S. Jebanesan in 2004 to lead the school. She also states that her passion to serve her people and the community made her accept the Bishop’s request. She was installed as the Principal of the school at a service held at the church next to the school. At the welcome event followed by Shiranee Mills’ installation as Principal, Dr. Chelvi Selliah, the outgoing Principal, said in her address that she always wanted Shiranee Mills to be the Principal of the school but as per the traditions of the school she thought it would be more appropriate if Mrs. Mills assumed duties on the 1st of January 2005. Even in her one-line greeting published in the Uthayan newspaper around Shiranee Mills’ appointment as Principal, she made it a point to say that Mrs. Mills would take up the Principalship of the school on the 1st of January 2005. When Shiranee Mills’ retirement was announced, some in Jaffna wondered what Dr. Selliah, a member of the Executive Committee of the JDCSI and known as a close supporter of the Bishop, would have told him and the Executive Committee when they decided in her presence that the new Principal should assume duties on the 7th of September 2016.
Though some say that the protests that took place after the announcement of the decision to appoint a new Principal were instigated by Shiranee Mills and people who are loyal to her, Shiranee Mills has denied this allegation. Several well-wishers and the alumni of Uduvil Girls’ College and Jaffna College note that this struggle by the students, parents, the alumni and the larger community based in Sri Lanka and abroad is not just about the retirement of Mrs. Shiranee Mills but also against the rampant malpractices by the JDCSI including in the appointment of administrative, teaching and non-academic appointments at Uduvil Girls’ College and other institutions that come under the Church’s purview.
As recorded in the Minutes of the school Board dated 6 February 2016, there were already moves to insist the historical practice of staff contributions towards Christian activities are entirely sent to JDCSI even though the school has had many other needs for its activities.
Staff contribution to the church: It was insisted that the school should send all contributions deducted from the staff for the church to the diocese. Any expenditure involved for the maintenance of the chapel may be covered from the general funds of the school.
Furthermore, there are fears that in the future many of the assets of the school including its Fixed Deposits may be usurped by the Bishop and JDCSI, rather than be used to benefit the school.
Having witnessed the attacks on the protesting female students by the male and female teachers of the school loyal to the JDCSI last Wednesday, some parents of the children who actively participated in the protests in support of Shiranee Mills have genuine fears about sending their children who supported Shiranee Mills back to school. They fear retaliation by the teachers and the Church. The turn-out was very low on both Thursday (Sept 8) and Friday (Sept 9).
Reflecting on Mrs. Mills’ tenure as Principal of the school, the alumni and parents who participated in the protests see in her a strong personality who was able to withstand the intimidation and bullying, including a string of legal cases in Jaffna and Colombo by JDCSI and its powerful legal team. They also fear that under the new leadership which they think is inept and vulnerable to the manipulations of the JDCSI, this 192-year-old institution which pioneered women’s education in Asia in the early nineteenth-century may rapidly deteriorate.
Joint statement by the Past Pupils’ Associations of Uduvil Girls’ College in the UK, Australia, Canada and Sri Lanka:
Statement by the alumni of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai (in Tamil)
Statement by the Jaffna College Alumni Association (Colombo Branch) (in Tamil)
Statement by the Church of the American Ceylon Mission
Statement by the Ceylon Teachers’ Union (in Tamil)
Dharisha Bastians’ report on the crisis at Uduvil Girls’ College:
Links to videos of the protests and violence: