Tagore gave an apt aphorism for an ideal university: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Where knowledge is free…Where words come out from the depth of truth.” It demands expeditious action against unfairness and malpractice. In contrast, our university system permits sycophants to take control and confine power to protégés.
Jaffna University should have spearheaded the renewal of the North, opened its doors wide to fresh talent and advanced a bold reappraisal of the past. It demanded an objective history of the militant era, as in other societies that have found their way out of a hideous patch. Our scholars and intelligentsia have failed at home or have lost themselves overseas. By default ultranationalist ideology holds sway, to which dons and even vice chancellors pay lip service, as on Thileepan and Maveerar-Days. Academics pretend not to know the deceit and cynicism behind the heroic legends, nor do they care about the myriads of children and conscripts deceived into giving life and limb for the leaders’ treachery at Mullivaikkal.
While LTTE ideology gives the university a brittle nationalistic facade, university management follows the EPDP’s legacy. LTTE control was ambient; the EPDP relied on executive power delegated by the President to control appointments and elections. It was evident in the way the 2014 VC election was scripted and how the executive apparatus was used by the incumbent powers to block a promising overseas VC candidate in 2017. (Click here and here) It left in place a mafia of deans and top administrators, who shield one another’s abuses, particularly in keeping out quality recruits. The fault-lines of the system become palpable in the forest-cutting fiasco which misguided two angry deans, favourites of the former VC, to harass a minor employee Janatheepan, Supervisor-Maintenance.
The Council, administration and academics having rubber-stamped EPDP appointments, intensified corruption with registrars, academics and even the Vice Chancellor going to the EPDP office for instructions. EPDP’s favourites saw no limits to their authority.
We illustrate the cosy relationship between the EPDP and university administrators toeing its line: Tharmaseelan testified that on 30-7-2014 he was introduced to EPDP Secretary-Killinochchi by N. Sutharshan, Supervisor-Civil, Killinochchi Campus. The EPDP asked him to report the following day. He met the Deputy Registrar and Dean Engineering. They posted him to the Guest House at Paravipanjan and followed him there (Committee of Inquiry, 21-10-2017).
The Engineering Dean’s falling out with Janatheepan, the latter said, had to do with the Dean’s authoritarian bearing. The Dean for example ordered Janatheepan bypassing the Works Engineer: In late 2014, when he was sick, the Dean ordered him to go into the rain and deal with rising water in a ditch he opined would flood the administration. Janatheepan who disagreed, refused. On a later occasion the Dean ordered him to enter a trench under the Mechanical Lab where a cable was to be laid and look for snakes. These were problems for the Works Engineer to consult his team on a remedy. Continually harassed, Janatheepan took to excessive drink.
A memo was on 16/07/2016 surreptitiously introduced by the Registrar during the council meeting, alleging Janatheepan reported for ‘duty under the influence of liquor.’ In sacking him the Council acted on prejudice continually drummed in by the Deans of Engineering and Agriculture. That is how universities get away with gross injustice.
Prof. Tharmaratnam, an exceptionally meticulous councillor, spotted the minute and objected at the next meeting that the employee is owed a right of defence, got him reinstated and then interdicted subject to inquiry.
He agreed to Dr. Poongothai Selvarajan, Senior Lecturer, Management, Vavuniya Campus, as the inquirer. Poongothai’s report faults Dean/Engineering for exceeding his authority in harassing Janatheepan and a cooked-up written complaint to the VC bypassing the Registrar of Janatheepan’s absence, when in fact he was present.
A piece of alleged evidence on Janatheepan’s drunkenness was a letter by the Works Engineer of 3/6/2016 signed by several employees under him. An employee told me that he signed under duress from his superiors but would tell the truth at an inquiry. In fact Janatheepan was three days earlier taken to the Kilinochchi Hospital and the Police on the instruction of the Registrar. The Police and Hospital refused to test Janatheepan, who was neither drunken nor boisterous.
The Works Engineer denied writing the letter under pressure, despite its being unethical for an executive to importune subordinates to incriminate one another in the absence of disorder. He however agreed with Poongothai’s report that Janatheeepan is sincere, efficient and competent at work and it was at most on three occasions that he reported under a hangover. He was never drunken or offensive.
Poongothai cited Janatheepan on the cutting of trees: “It is observed that the allegations made by Mr. Janatheepan were correct in general”, as confirmed by ‘relevant officers’. VC Arasaratnam reportedly remarked at Council that the Pootham (Devil) has intruded. Although the deans involved were her protégés, tree robbery under the very noses of those who taught forest conservation was too scandalous to ignore.
S. Sivasegaram of the Council tried to minimise Poongothai’s report as having ‘a lot of shady areas.’ Engineering Dean Atputharajah was uncompromising. He said in Council that they have enough evidence to sack Janatheepan, and if the Council failed to act, it would be responsible for “any snake bite to students or staff…due to poor maintenance of land.”
With four months of her term left, Arasaratnam proved astute in accepting Poongothai’s recommendation to reinstate Janatheepan under medical supervision. According to two independent witnesses, a letter to the Works Engineer by Head Animal Science was backdated to 7th July 2015, asking him to cut and remove dead trees from her premises. In endorsing the irrelevant request, Dean/Agriculture inadvertently dated it March 2017. The one now in the file has no date after Dean/Agriculture’s endorsement. It has Sutharshan’s initials, no instruction from the Works Engineer. An unforeseen revelation in March 2017, made it clear that cutting went far beyond the ‘maximum of five dead trees’ Head/Animal Science stated to the committee of inquiry. The Council was kept in the dark and fed with monthly reports or rumours pointing to Janatheepan as the curse in Kilinochchi.
Mercantile Security had been contracted for the Kilinochchi Campus. On 1st August 2015 it recorded the entry into the forest area of Dean Agriculture and her husband, Dean Graduate Studies, ‘for the purpose of cleaning’. From the next day teams under Supervisor-Civil, Sutharshan, cut trees mainly on Saturdays in August and shaped them into beams, and door and window frames. They were shipped out pre-dawn during the first fortnight in September 2015. Security men, who had earlier lived under the LTTE, feared Sutharshan’s links to the EPDP and state security; he was also prying into their records and had threatened to remove Mercantile Security. Sensing high level complicity, the Security men kept an unofficial record of vehicle/personnel movements to do with tree thefts, countersigned by their Chief.
By late 2016, the conflict between Sutharshan and the Security over the tree theft came into the open. The Security told me that university vehicles regularly went into the forest area and cut tree parts were lying around for days before removal and there was no prospect of senior administrators not knowing.
Poongothai’s Report raised queries and Mercantile Security in March 2017 gave a copy of their unofficial record to the Deputy Registrar; Arasaratnam was still VC. The two deans directed their irrational rage at Janatheepan and continually urged the Council without evidence that he was drunk at work (e.g. Registrar’s letter, 19.07.2017). On 25 Jul.2017, the employees’ union prevailed on the new vice chancellor to investigate the tree cutting. A count by the Security and Works Engineer revealed nearly 36 Palai trees had been cut and three uprooted.
The Administration hampered the inquiry committee by the arbitrary restriction (of which I have authoritative testimony) that they cannot question the deans concerned. Nevertheless on 2/11/2017 the Committee interrupted its session with the Chief Security Officer to obtain clarification from Head/Animal Science and Dean/Agriculture on the back-dated letter to the Works Engineer. Later that afternoon Dean/Agriculture dispatched an angry note to the inquiry committee: that she came to know about the loss of trees only after the Poongothai report (17/12/2016). She directed her fury at Janatheepan, “I focussed the members to inquire Mr. Janatheeban [since he it was who alleged the theft].”
The mafia system in the administration works by each officer protecting the abusers. Just as minor employees felt it in their interest to sign a false petition about Janatheepan, the same happens on academic selection committees to keep out superior quality. Two or three decide and all others certify that the rejected applicant is unsuitable. Bringing in weak favourites with poor character and ethics to supervise the building of new faculties and universities cripples their administration and development at birth.
What is ultimately fatal to the system is the near inaccessibility of justice. Among councillors few care about justice. Many injustices result from indifferent council decisions. Their common reaction is that the aggrieved could go to the USAB or the courts and what should be resolved in five minutes could go on for years. Janatheepan would have found the USAB a nightmare.
At the USAB one would find the VC and the UGC on the same side with few inhibitions against lying. They use ‘Preliminary Objections’ to delay and throw up artificial barriers to justice. Repeatedly used is the silly claim that the VC is not a person and the appeal should be dismissed in limine. The Vice Chancellor signs contracts and that is the substance of a person in most legal dictionaries. The artificial barriers ensure the central issue is not faced by the USAB or courts after many sittings.
The presumption of impunity is evident in the way the Council dealt with the tree theft. It appointed two committees of inquiry. The first was sympathetic to Janatheepan. The second named two persons involved in the tree cutting. It made no strictures against Janatheepan and was sympathetic to Mercantile Security for making an informal record when the administration was suspect; some of their official records being stolen. The Council on 30-12-2017 decided totally contrary to the spirit and substance of the reports to interdict Janatheepan and to remove Mercantile Security. It is in effect a warning to their successor not to challenge criminal activity where powerful persons are complicit.
VC Vigneswaran’s letter (4.01.2018) interdicting Janatheepan, illogically cited the inquiry report and promised a charge sheet in due course, even though Janatheepan is patently innocent with regard to “Loss and Removal of Trees.” In the face of blind power, the weakest must starve and suffer in silence.
The Council decision is in keeping with what the deans of engineering and agriculture were driving at. The Mafia obliged. Having insulted the inquiry committee and misused its findings, the Council wants the same committee to produce a ‘complete and comprehensive’ report. The same course of dishonesty and deception followed in dropping an eminent applicant to engineering is currently being followed to keep out a promising woman applicant in financial management who was ranked ninth worldwide in the CIMA among over 4,800. She holds the prestigious Chartered Financial Analyst, USA, and works for a leading American firm. The head of department and two council members in the selection board want her. But the Dean of Management and the Vice Chancellor hold that her subject knowledge is poor! The Mafia will decide the outcome. This total contempt for honesty in the University plays out in the intellectual deforestation of the North and pervasive social injustice. (Compiled by Dr. Rajan Hoole)