By Rajan Hoole –
The presidential election result that ushered in new hope on 8th January 2015 came about because many in this country felt that we were in a hopeless rut and wanted change badly. The issues around which the change was mooted were centred on corruption, state accountability, and freedom of expression untrammelled by fear and intimidation. In the latter which, for Immanuel Kant, is the pivotal freedom under which democratic change could be pursued, there has been enormous relief. The main challenge is to consolidate the gains, which requires far-reaching institutional transformation.
What transpired on 8th January was an opportunity for change, not a revolution. We still have to contend with the same state structures, the same administration and practically the same MPs. The minorities, who are more sensitive and expected to see benign change towards efficiency and professionalism, frequently encounter the same obstacles. There is no revolutionary solution to such dilemmas. Lenin replaced the Tsarist administration with party functionaries, who became corrupt soon enough; the result was the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 which almost wrecked the Soviet regime. The post-apartheid government in South Africa showed considerable wisdom in trying slowly to transform the old regime’s institutions by putting in place committed persons who would act wisely without giving undue offence. That required a Nelson Mandela.
While the challenges confronting us are enormous, one does not see the necessary bold initiative to challenge institutional decadence that is only too evident. One instance is the shying away from a uniform standard for those under arms who committed crimes. It is a dangerous fallacy to divide them into heroes and terrorists, which is evident in the failure to find a way to release quickly, Tamil PTA detainees who have been languishing many years without charges.
Such disregard for the legal rights of others, or the common courtesy owed to them, are symptoms of a closed society mired in identity politics from before independence. The record we have of Lankan history is one of remarkable tolerance and a willingness to learn and benefit from others from the earliest times on record, in contrast to the religious violence against Jews in Europe at the onset of the Crusades. Lanka, if it is to become a great nation, needs to go much further than technical compliance with pledges made to the UN. It needs to be in earnest about uniting the country behind a common purpose, which requires the healing of past wrongs and complete openness.
Much of our conflict, and the mass murder it witnessed, has behind it the use of history to make claims to land, to mount religious edifices and to exclude others. The State set the precedent and the disease of claims and exclusions becomes an infectious game played by all comers. To cite a typical instance, once our scholars identified Fort Frederick in Trincomalee as the site of Gokanna Vihare in the Mahavamsa through absurdly flawed historical reasoning, based on occurrence of the generic name in contexts far apart in time; it provided the Army, other state institutions and assorted patriots the pretext to turn the area into a ‘historic’ Buddhist location. The contribution of such follies to the making of the ethnic war, and the tragedy of superfluous heroes on both sides, cannot be exaggerated. We have to heal ourselves by changing our attitudes. There is little the UN or a foreign government can do to help in this regard.
Ancient Greece gives us two precedents that have hugely influenced the course of history. One is Sparta, a highly militarised, xenophobic society using harsh measures to keep out new ideas. Soldiering was the main occupation of its males from a tender age, constantly to subjugate their neighbours who produced their material needs. A part of the training of young boys was secretly to exterminate those identified by their spy-masters as having dangerous ideas.
The other example is Athens with its democratic polity which took to the sea, traded and conquered; fair trade being the main objective, the conquered party was frequently invited to be part of a federation of internally self-governing states. The legacy of Athens comes to us from the memorable speech by its leader Pericles: “Not out of fear but out of a feeling of what is right should we abstain from doing wrong…Virtue is based most of all upon respecting the other man…We ought to do our utmost to help those who have suffered injustice…The wise man belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul is the whole world…Our administration favours the many instead of the few: this is why it is called a democracy. The laws afford equal justice to all alike…We are taught to respect the magistrates and the laws and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to obey those unwritten laws whose sanction lies in the universal feeling of what is right…Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner.”
These words spoken 2450 years ago contain the essence of what we need to know about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It gives considerable satisfaction to know that these noble words of Pericles were generously recorded by the historian Thucydides, whom, Plutarch informs us, was his political adversary and disliked Pericles’ democratic leanings. The legacy of Greek humanism is by no means alien to us. Writing 1500 years later, ample tribute was paid to it by the Persian-born Islamic scholar, mathematician and scientist, Al-Biruni, in his Tarikh Al-Hind (History of India), before its rediscovery by Renaissance Europe.
While Pericles’ is good and sound philosophy, it is rather the legacy of Sparta that appeals to the will to conquer and dominate, which, having become the anchor of Rousseau’s Social Contract, took the world by storm. Writing in 1946, Bertrand Russell tells us in his History of Western Philosophy, “Much of [the Social Contract’s] philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel in his defence of the Prussian autocracy. Its first fruits in practice were the reign of Robespierre [in the French Revolution’s Terror of 1793/4]; the dictatorships of [Soviet] Russia and [especially Nazi] Germany.”
Indeed, modern nationalism, not least in our land, has drawn heavily from the Spartan legacy. Lanka has seen enormous destruction of its potential with little to acclaim. The French Revolution after the Reign of Terror which ended when its leaders sent one another in turn to the Guillotine was followed in 1794-5 by the White Terror, where royalist remnants tried to reassert themselves; the revolution ended with Napoleon’s accession in 1799. No major event as a revolution ends without convulsions in its wake. Having observed the convulsions in France, Marx reflected, following the latest in 1848, “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The youth who launched the Tamil struggle in the 1970s espoused egalitarianism, secularism and ending caste exclusion. The Jaffna University whose staff I joined in 1985 breathed all this. We too had our reign of terror. Now we seem to be longing for a Napoleon to restore old privileges and exclusions. Important pointers are, we have suicidally antagonised the Muslims and rudely dismantled the secular spirit of Jaffna University. This is an extension of what has happened on a national scale: Our educational and university systems have become part of the decadence that has overtaken the nation. The failure of our guardians of intellectual integrity has been long standing. An important step towards making us a great nation is to look for bold correctives in education.
Our study of history – the story of humanity in its complexity, diversity and the challenges it faced – from our school days plays an important role in building a sound intellectual tradition as an alternative to closing minds. To teach history as propaganda that worships ‘national heroes’ and execrates others, is a sure means to numb our intellect and dull our humanity. It should rather be done with a critical mind as exemplified in Plutarch’s account of Lycurgus: “… although the history of these times is such a maze, I shall try, in presenting my narrative, to follow those authors who are least contradicted, or who have the most notable witnesses for what they have written about the man.” It is in school that students should have such scholarly exposure. This still happens in Britain, where a teacher collects A. Level students who want to offer Russian or French history and guides them through recent scholarly works.
I am aware that this critical attitude is largely not developed even in our universities. Matters become worse when one goes to Mathematics – the Queen of the Sciences. One could obtain a special degree with a class almost never having attempted independently a tutorial problem. It is these graduates who go to teach Mathematics in schools, where students are not exposed to a scholarly appreciation of a discipline that Plato’s Academy regarded as key to understanding the Universe. The West, Russia, Japan and China accord Mathematics a revered place that holds the sciences together. Such is the view of Mathematics here that after university entrants opt first for engineering and then several applied science courses stitched together under the job-oriented category (the task of polytechnics), Mathematics gets the left-overs.
Little wonder that our intellectual climate and universities have become marked by a lack of interest and even contempt for fundamentals. It is reflected in our public debate, and reflections on history and politics and general indifference to the wider world and its throbbing developments. It is journalists in Lanka and not academics who write the best articles on the wider issues. Taking a walk through a university library and looking at books on two decisive events affecting us, the French and Russian Revolutions, one finds mostly books donated by a generation long since retired; hardly any have been ordered by university staff using fairly generous library allocations. Few of the available books show evidence of use by staff or students. One could find similar neglect in other disciplines. In the vital areas of intellectual life, the Humanities and Sciences, we are sending out intellectually demotivated graduates into the world, frequently seeking to pass life doing banal government chores or in insipid teaching.
We were given a sharp jolt on our contempt for fundamentals and its consequences in the Z-score fiasco over university admissions in 2011 that had to be rectified by a Supreme Court decision. It has its origins in our university system having produced several experts in Statistics who are weak in their Mathematical fundamentals. One with a sound background in Advanced Level probability would not have made the blunder affecting the future of hundreds of students.
In 1971, a professor of electrical engineering (who fortunately is still active in the public domain) told our class, “If a problem stumps you, go back to your fundamentals and think it through.”
We are sending out graduates avoiding any real check on what we are producing. They will get into our public services and make decisions for us. The system is underwritten by the Government and works towards protecting itself by covering up glaring shortcomings. In Jaffna roads are being broadened at huge expense for high speed vehicles and trees are disappearing for ever, for the benefit of a tiny rich or privileged segment. There is no thought for the approaching depletion of oil that calls for an entirely new transport policy.
The present state of affairs signifies that we have lost our self-determination in relation to planning our future and have been reacting to economic pressures. The world economy would move on and would be happy to accommodate us as a purveyor of low-end outsourced services. Others use us as they find us and would happily lend us money for wasteful projects to protect their own banks and industries. Our running down of Mathematics, the Humanities and accomplishments of the intellect is our own fault. No self-respecting country would accept this and we could see its effects in the qualitative debilitation of our services. Developing a healthy economy would require that we protect and advance the accomplishments of the intellect. Lee Kuan Yew was careful about that.
Correction takes time, but fortunately we have many expatriates willing to help and have knocked on our door in vain. For a start, we could open up our university system by taking a strict view of abuses in recruitment that make us academically sterile and end restrictive practices that enable obviously good scholars to be kept out on silly technical grounds as a mismatch between the first degree and the postgraduate degree in closely related fields. Our current president is not the first to invite qualified expatriates to come and serve. When they do try, they soon find they are unwelcome in the universities and the UGC passes the buck when approached.
More important than our universities is to reform our school system so that students would have exposure to real scholars and have real experience of scholarship before they go to university. This would mean enabling academically well-grounded persons who go into school teaching, to earn what would be paid a university teacher.
On a related matter, national reconciliation and fair play call for change in the present admissions policy; for it entails that the academically best school leavers from the war-affected zone are sent to Jaffna, Eastern or South-Eastern universities which are stagnant, run down or conduct several important courses just in name. This becomes pressing given the indifference shown by the UGC and the Ministry in addressing appalling abuses in universities on the fictitious pretext of university autonomy. On present showing there is little prospect of improvement and the war-torn region would remain condemned to relative backwardness.