By N. Sivapalan, S. Selvarajan, Rajan Hoole and Prince Jeyaratnam* –
Fallout From The Freshers Welcome Fiasco In Jaffna: Is Our University System Equal To The Challenge Of Sectarianism?
The following record of the welcome event is compiled from the experiences of several members of the Science Faculty in Jaffna who were present. The event is a warning when taken alongside sectarian violence in other Lankan universities, recently in Sabaragamuva, Uva Wellassa and Eastern, where the response of the authorities has been constrained by factors, which include local prejudices and peer pressures, bias in the university security services and local readings of wishes of the authorities in Colombo. The change in attitude of the authorities after the regime change of 8th January 2015 is reflected in their wanting as far as possible for the problems to be tackled on local initiative. The universities should use this opportunity to address, in their locality, causes that threaten the integrity of university values and education. These causes, if left to follow their course, would make peaceful coexistence and pluralism even harder to achieve.
Last year and the year before, as part of the freshers welcome in Jaffna, the Dean and the academic staff of the Faculty were garlanded by students at the faculty entrance from the main road. They were then led by a troupe of traditional drums and musicians in festive procession to the top floor of the Mathematics Block where the welcome ceremony was held. This time, for the welcome scheduled for Saturday 16th July 2016, the Sinhalese students put in a last minute request for Kandyan dancing, by students trained in it, to also be included in the procession. Kandyan dance has been performed as a stage event ever since Sinhalese students were admitted to the Faculty after the war ended. On Friday, the day before the incident, some science academic staff sensed that tension was brewing.
The tension persisted despite the conviviality at the morning’s session of the welcome, where the second years welcomed the freshers. Some active members of the science staff saw a group of non-science students numbering twenty to thirty, loitering near the Faculty. A faculty member questioned one of them wearing a BBA T-shirt on the reason for his presence. He moved away without responding. Sensing something unpleasant in the offing, some faculty members approached a Marshal and requested that he disperse the loitering students. The Marshal told them a little later that the students’ intentions were academic and would soon go away.
Two student counsellors from the Science Faculty then went to the Administration to meet the Senior Student Counsellor and a Marshal and requested them separately to ensure that students or members of the University Students Union (USU) belonging to other faculties do not interfere with the science freshers’ welcome and the Faculty staff would ensure that there is no trouble.
While the staff and students were waiting for the ceremony, the Outgoing Dean who was at the Council Meeting received a call at about 12.30 PM. He excused himself and went to the Science Faculty, and seeing the crowd of non-science students near the Faculty, asked them to go elsewhere; they moved a short distance towards the Students’ Centre and waited near the Old Library entrance. He told the Sinhalese students who wanted Kandyan dancing in the procession that the programme as already fixed would proceed as in earlier years with local traditional fare, and requested that they perform their Kandyan dance in the hall. He then went back to the Council meeting. About 1.30 PM, the Outgoing Dean was again summoned; he returned and wanted the ceremony to begin. He saw a Sinhalese student with a drum and asked him to take it away. He obliged, but neither side seemed ready to listen. He and the Incoming Dean felt that something need be done quickly, and ordered that the welcome should proceed without any procession involving Kandyan dancing or local fanfare. They asked all the students to enter the Mathematics Block and climb to the hall on the top floor for the ceremony. Staff members present gave an assurance to allay the concern of some Sinhalese students that Tamil students would start their music and drums from the gate once they went up. Several of the Sinhalese went upstairs.
While students were scattered about the faculty premises, a group of science students advanced from the direction of the science gate towards the Mathematics Block to the sound of the musical troupe and drums. The Sinhalese students, in particular those in the parking space outside the Mathematics lobby, some dressed to perform the Kandyan dance, became restive. While the staff urged the Sinhalese students to go inside quickly, the Outgoing Dean rushed towards the advancing musical procession and shouted at them to stop. When they met, the students lifted him as they would an idol at a religious festival, immobilised and garlanded him – a garland, he said, he promptly removed. He then told a student he knew to remove the musical troupe and go away. They went.
At this point, when order might have prevailed, a party comprising some management and perhaps arts students (likely the group of twenty to thirty loiterers seen earlier), rushed from the East through the cycle park towards the exterior of the Mathematics lobby, wearing helmets with visors down, but not lethally armed. The Sinhalese students too armed themselves as best they could with branches etc. and a fight ensued.
One of the attackers found himself isolated among the Sinhalese students, who proceeded to beat him. A faculty member mentioned earlier, sprang into the fracas and rescued the trapped attacker, pulled him out and pushed him away to escape. This person, as identified by faculty officials, was the USU President, this year from the Management Faculty.
At this time clashes broke out between some Tamil and Sinhalese students scattered about the premises. The Police arrived around 2.00 PM and the University security informed the Outgoing Dean that they were at the gate, and he invited them in. Most Tamil students withdrew and the fighting stopped. The Outgoing Dean summoned the Vice Chancellor about 2.30 PM. She arrived shortly and discussed measures with the outgoing and incoming deans, two senior staff members and the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP).
The Outgoing Dean went to the Hospital with four injured Sinhalese students, three of whom needed stitches. H.A.T. Maduranga, who was struck on his forehead by apparently a stone, was warded in the ICU and transferred to Colombo for surgery.
The Incoming Dean went with the ASP to the student hostels where the Sinhalese students together with others boarded outside had gathered with several Tamil students; they expressed a wish to be sent home. The Police arranged the hire of buses and the students left in the night.
Other Universities and local factors
On 3rd August 2014, after hate posters appeared on the campus, Tamil student Sudarshan of Sabaragamuva University was found grievously attacked with cut wounds, and was taken to Balangoda Hospital. He testified to the Police that he had been attacked by members of a security firm affiliated to the Defence Ministry that had been forced on most universities. He was then transferred to Ratnapura Hospital, and the Vice Chancellor made the astonishing claim that the JMO there found the student’s wounds to have been self-inflicted, on the basis of which he had been detained by the Terrorist Investigation Division.
On 30th March 2016, student sources at Uva Wellassa University said, some second year Tamil students were beaten just outside the premises by Sinhalese fellow second years after a non-political argument in the canteen. The Vice Chancellor, they said, helped to ward the injured Tamil students in Badulla Hospital but declined to take further action. However, the Watchdog Collective, hosted by Groundviews, reported that the eight students in hospital were visited by the Superintendent of Police who promised them protection and Assistant Registrar Student Welfare, but the students were in fear of identifying their assailants. A day or two later some third years clashed with second years after an argument, where the assault on Tamil students was one of the issues. This time the Vice Chancellor ordered an inquiry.
Eastern University has seen a series of clashes between Tamil and Sinhalese students and student counsellors were paralysed. On 24th May 2016, Tamil student Sumeshkanth was attacked by Sinhalese students, who accused him of having posted pictures of the Mullivaikkal tragedy, a few days after its seventh anniversary, on face book. On this occasion there was considerable local pressure to act and the university security helped to identify several Sinhalese students involved. According to an official two were suspended temporarily. The official indicated that their intention was not so much to punish as to use experienced lecturers, particularly from the Open University, to put in place reconciliation measures.
In the Jaffna incident of 16th July 2016, a Tamil student named as an attacker by the hospitalised Sinhalese student was presented in court by university officials on 20th July. A leading lawyer and TNA MP pleaded that there was no supporting evidence for the accusation while the accused was himself a victim of assault. The accused was bailed out by the university officials.
The Ideological Fallout
The morning’s session of the welcome, involving first and second years, went off cordially with photographs, the singing of Sinhalese and Tamil songs, followed by lunch. What subsequently happened was totally out of character with the morning’s events.
The TNA Leader Mr. R. Sampanthan struck a conciliatory note in regretting the violence and appealing to create conditions for the Sinhalese students to return and live in amity. He avoided straying into identity politics that has been the bane of this country. But regrettably the incident has also become a tool in the battle for supremacy within the Tamil nationalist camp for the faction backed by the newspaper Valampuri, whose editor is a functionary of the Tamil People’s Council. Its editorial of 19th July declared:
“Jaffna University is situated on land that is the bequest of the great Hindu philanthropist Sir Pon Ramanathan. Moreover because the campus encloses the temple dedicated to Lord Parameswara, it is Tamil traditions and culture alone that must be observed there.” To avoid similar clashes in future, the editor urges the university authorities to institute a rigidly puritanical behavioural code in dress and manners to be strictly observed by everyone who functions in the University.
Shocking as this may seem for what is in name a secular university, steps the university authorities have been taking over many years point in the direction prescribed by the editorial. Pointing to Sinhalese students courting their girlfriends or enjoying light banter between the sexes as the bringers of immorality is wholly hypocritical. The Council has found it hard enough to deal with persistent complaints of sexual abuse against several staff members. In a recent case where the Council acted against an offender, a dean read out the letter of a legal expert from Colombo University trying unsuccessfully to intimidate the Council from acting. What was rather needed was to counsel the students through wider contact, lectures on general topics and debates, to develop their English, communicate with one another and learn respect for each other’s culture. That alone would lead to lifelong friendships across divides.
Much of the blame for failing to uphold secular traditions in our universities and high standards in appointments rests with the education authorities and the UGC that is responsible for oversight. Reports of abuses in appointments compiled by the Jaffna University Science Teaches’ Association were ignored all the way down the line. The Higher Education Ministry and the UGC must at least take responsibility for the top administrators they appoint or support and pamper uncritically. These appointments, once politicised, prolong their mischief for many years in the appointments of heads of departments and indirectly that of deans. The appointment of senior student counsellors to perform the behest of those in authority is a recipe for the politicisation of student elections. Student leaders coming by this route effectively become pawns. But the system not governed by ethics or rules is destined to collapse in a crisis.
The recent incident at the freshers welcome was not a major tragedy, but was certainly a dire warning. Going by experience under the previous regime, any agitation like the recent one would have seen mass arrests, mistreatment and indefinite detention of students. The relative freedom we now have should be used to cultivate openness and pluralism and show that the University could conduct its affairs in a civilised manner worthy of being called one. Instead, it seems to be succumbing to destructive political pressures, narrowness and sectarianism. Ironically, on 26th December 2014, during the last fortnight of the old regime, the University hosted the JUICE research conference. On this occasion science students performed a fusion of Kandyan, Bharatha, and Low Country dances. Our paradoxical behaviour raises many interesting questions about what we really want.
*N. Sivapalan (Department of Chemistry, Jaffna), S. Selvarajan (Mathematics and Statistics), Rajan Hoole (Science Faculty Board), Prince Jeyaratnam (Chemistry)