Perversion of Tamil Aspirations
There was a time the Tamils prided themselves in contrast to the Sinhalese polity’s image as mired in religious and ethnic obscurantism. This image was highlighted in the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976. The Tamil militant struggle, whatever its internal divisions, was strictly secular and those with left leanings were agnostic or even atheistic.
After many years of war dominated by a totalitarian political culture that paralysed the Tamil Community, those who wanted to revive it, so as to become vibrant and creative, feel that the University could play a crucial role towards this end. But unfortunately our experience shows it to be failing the community. It is rather fostering very corrupt practices and feels too afraid and insecure to open up, which is essential to cultivate strong and independent voices that would make the University truly vigorous.
Post war, sectarianism has arrived with a vengeance. The sectarianism on the surface would suggest discrimination in favour of a religion, but that is very misleading. The reality however is rank favouritism and corruption covering behind an air of religious piety. What is even worse, Jaffna University appears to set the lead in this regard. This feature illustrates the trend with documentary references. The victims are usually persons with no social connections or influence, most frequently Hindus. It is with a sense of this reality that many concerned with the North’s educational future welcomed Prof. Saambasivamoorthy Thiagalingam, a Hindu alumnus of the University of Jaffna from Boston, USA contesting for the vice chancellor’s position in Jaffna as offering hope. The University badly needed a breath of fresh air, and an opening that would welcome scholars who left the country to come regularly and contribute to raise, the currently plummeting, academic standards in Jaffna; to encourage others and to focus on assisting the University to become a well-respected academic and research institution.
The need for this change was the content of resolutions by the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association, Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association, the Employees Union and the Jaffna University Students’ Union. Their demand was only to allow him to contest rather than to appoint him as Vice Chancellor. Even if he is not elected, it is important for the University to appreciate his willingness to serve and encourage him to contribute in whatever way he could support the University. That would have shown the University to be open to new ideas, expertise and talent, in service of the community.
However, the strength of the opposition to Thiagalingam, came from the core represented by those who have controlled the University for many years and had been leaders in the present culture that protects their power interests. They were clear about what was at stake. The Dean who later topped the VC election, who should have recused himself from the council discussion on the matter on 28th January because of his conflict of interest, was the only candidate to openly oppose Thiagalingam’s candidacy on account of the postal delay. Many well-wishers were thoroughly astounded that Thiagalingam’s application sent by registered post, as required, should be rejected because of an unforeseen postal delay of a day or two (See Colombo Telegraph Report I, Report II and Report III on these developments ).
Comedy of the UGC’s Advice and the Autonomous Council’s Erection of Non-existent Barriers
In line with the Council decision on 28th January, the Registrar had written to the University Grants Commission (UGC) for its advice on the status of Prof. Thiagalingam’s application and the VC’s objection that Thiagalingam had not applied through his head of department as required by the E-code.
UGC Secretary Dr. Priyantha Premakumara said in reply (see the attachment here*) merely that the University is not legally bound to accept applications that came after the closing date. That is to say, the Council is not legally liable if it refused to accept Thiagalingam’s application. Though the advice was wrong, because of the Postal Rule (see Prof. Tharmaratnam’s address on this matter here), his was meant to be a cautious reply. This opinion should have been printed out and shared with the council members in advance. It was only read out on 25th February, the day before the scheduled election, and was grossly misconstrued by councillors with help from the VC and Prof. S. Sivasegaram, who said that entertaining Thiagalingam’s application would be illegal.
Dr. Premakumara did not talk about illegality although several council members would have been confused when it was read out without some explanation. However, he clearly indicated that if the Council thought Thiagalingam an appropriate candidate, they were welcome to entertain his application, late or otherwise. Dr. Premakumara’s reference to the E-code was with regard to the objection that Thiagalingam did not apply through his head of department. He indicated that this objection is applicable mainly to persons employed in universities and higher educational institutions within the country and not to outsiders who applied to these.
The VC, who undoubtedly understood Premakumara, confused the issue by talking about strict deadlines for tenders for goods or works, adding that the University would face lots of problems if it deviates from the E –code, which was followed by Prof. Sivasegaram on the illegality of considering Thiagalingam. He said that the Council would get into trouble if it did. He interpreted Dr. Premakumara as rejecting Thiagalingam based on the E-code.
Enough confusion had been created, and several councillors began to believe and feel anxious that to include Prof. Thiagalingam as a candidate would be to defy the UGC’s directive. The Council wasted a lot of time discussing two points: the acceptability of Thiagalingam’s application and if he had followed correct procedure as given in our old E-code. The latter was ridiculous as Dr. Premakumara indicted. On the acceptability of the application, the UGC simply asked the Council to go ahead if they thought it in our interest. The last is what the Council should have discussed. If it thought we needed more participation from outsiders, they should have talked about measures to avoid a repetition of what happened to Thiagalingam, by replacing archaic ways of applying by the advantages of modern communications.
The VC’s election was finally held on the next day, 26th February. Three council members, Dr. S. Jeyakumaran, Prof. V. Tharmaratnam and Dr. D. Nesiah voted under protest after getting the Council to accept that they reserved the right to pursue legal recourse. Prof. Tharmaratnam had addressed the Council the previous day giving well-constructed legal reasons why Prof. Thiagalingam’s candidacy be recognised. While he spoke, Prof. S. Sivasegaram filibustered and interrupted the speaker at almost every sentence. On the day of the voting, the councillors who were anxious to avoid a division about holding the election, agreed that the three who dissented could pursue their action and that a record of what Prof. Tharmaratnam said would be sent to the Attorney General, and if the latter agreed with Prof. Tharmaratnam, the election would be cancelled. (See attachment on the minutes of the election. The record omitted the Council’s commitment to send Prof. Tharmaratnam’s speech to the Attorney General. Note also that the three candidates closest to the Vice Chancellor fared worst).
On 3rd April the VC called a special council meeting. Although the result of the election was sent to the UGC about 2nd March, nothing has been heard up to now (16th April). The first item on the agenda was about writing to the Attorney General about the VC’s election. She pretended not to be aware that the decision that the contents of Prof. Tharmaratnam’s address be conveyed to the AG was already taken by the Council on 25th February. The situation was rather humorous, as by mid-March, the President should normally have selected one among the three leading names for VC. Prof. Tharmaratnam asked if his legal arguments had been thrown into the waste paper basket. Prof. Sivasegaram suggested that the Council should draft the letter carefully. Prof. Tharmaratnam did not respond to this piece of inanity. The Council however agreed that the three dissidents could pursue their course of challenging the rejection of Prof. Thiagalingam.
Nevertheless, Dr. S. Jeyakumaran and Dr. Nesiah had already written to the President citing the points made by Prof. Tharmaratnam and asking for a fresh election to be held including Prof. Thiagalingam as a candidate. A written document containing the points made by Prof. Tharmaratnam was also sent to the President’s office (see document here). We may note that on 20th March, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah was among the ten on whom President Sirisena conferred the Deshamanya Award in recognition of his distinguished service of a highly meritorious nature to the nation.
After the VC Election
Had the election process been uncontroversial and the names of the candidates been untarnished by the roles some had earlier played, the President would normally have appointed the candidate with the highest votes as the VC. The controversy started at the very top. The Vice Chancellor recorded in the Council minutes of 28th January that the Council rejected Thiagalingam’s candidacy after quoting Prof. Sivasegaram, her own opinion and the purported legal advice of Miss. Abimannasingam. Prof. Sivasegaram had the previous day, as a member of the evaluation committee, been party to the scheduling of Thiagalingam as a candidate, apparently before the boss cracked the whip. (see our report)
The delay in the appointment after the purported election began a new round of canvassing by hopefuls spending time meeting politicians in Colombo and Jaffna. The canvassing itself was an indication of the partisan direction the University was taking.
An overseas guest of State Minister for Education V.S. Radhakrishnan was in the office of a leading politician, and happened to hear a top VC candidate expatiate on the desirability of his being installed. He insisted that a VC must be a Hindu. All three leading candidates being Hindu, he spelt out that he was an ardent devotee of Shiva. The listener wondered whether the speaker was trying to discount one of the three who faced ritual exclusion as a devotee of Shiva on account of his caste. It was then rumoured that the latter had found favour in the SLFP.
Hindu identity politics received a new boost in the University after a section of the Tamil students clashed with Sinhalese students on 16th July 2016 over the latter’s wish to perform Kandyan dance at a freshers’ welcome. The Valampuri newspaper, whose editor is one of the convenors of the Tamil People’s Council led by the Chief Minister of Northern Provincial Council and several educators then aggressively insisted that only Hindu culture and ritual should have a place in the premises by drawing on the Navalar-Ramanathan legacy. Suddenly it had become normal, particularly among staff, to say that this is a Hindu University.
In January 2017, the Hindu identity project took a further decisive step when the Senate and Council, without debate, approved a proposal for a Faculty of Hindu Studies in Jaffna, when even Kelaniya University has only a department of Pali and Buddhist studies. Jaffna University presently has only separate departments of Hindu and Christian Civilization for which the student demand is very low. The new faculty in Jaffna proposes also to award diplomas in Astrology (see minutes here).
Such developments are not dictated by student demand, but are rather dictated by university power politics, by a loosely knit group that controls the University’s ideological milieu. It decides whom to exclude and whom to embrace. Caste is a marginal, but not an absolute qualification. Persons on the margins of Hindu society could be coopted if they support and advance the ideology. By excluding most persons with intelligence and ability, who cannot stomach the narrowness demanded, it would drive the University and society towards mediocrity. By observing no rules or restraints it becomes oppressive.
How it perpetuates its hold is best illustrated by looking at some cases of academic recruitment.
Cases of Academic Recruitment
One feature that has become prominent in the desire to reinforce partisan ideology is rank favouritism. Candidates who apply and are marked as unwanted are simply ignored. Even if they happen to make it to an interview, selection committee reports are thoroughly doctored to justify exclusion (we will later deal with one that takes the cake).Many of the cases taken up for inquiry by the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association could be found in its report ‘Discriminating Against Excellence: Abuses in Recruitment Practices at the University of Jaffna’ (DAE), published on 27 July, 2014 and available here.
A prominent case of how the best oppressed caste students are offered a stark choice between cooptation or rejection, isolation and marginalisation is well-illustrated in the case of Mr. Thanges Paramsothy (see the attachment here). He was the outstanding candidate among those interviewed in 2010 for the position of Lecturer in Sociology. Being a first class from Peradeniya, active in field work and research, he shone significantly above candidates from Jaffna. His research topics include ‘Caste and Social Exclusion’, and ‘Casteless or Caste-Blind, Dynamics of concealed caste discrimination, social exclusion and protest?’ Some of these published in reputed Indian journals. Led by Prof. Shanmugalingam, who was then vice chancellor, he was questioned at length about his findings. Several members of the selection board objected to his findings on caste exclusion. He was not selected and is marked for exclusion in the academic community, unless the kind lady who is now the head of sociology finds the strength to assert herself. Mr. Thanges must suffer because he refused to be coopted to write fiction about his people.
Nearly all those adversely affected are struggling to make a living. When a powerful institution like the University and its leading administrators, employ lying and deceit to block persons who have worked hard and shown considerable merit in order to get favourites in, it is not just dishonouring the character of the University, but causing needless trauma to those whom the University should be proud of and whose goodwill it must retain.
Ms. Ravivathani (see the attachment here), a gold-medallist and all-rounder was on merit the only candidate selected as a temporary lecturer in 2012. There was no question that she was the leading candidate. But the selection board headed by the VC and the Dean of Management in 2014 selected Miss. T, whose experience in teaching and research were exaggerated in the schedule given to the Council and Selection Board. The VC endorsed the selection by her signature after not being present for the bulk of Ms. Ravivathani’s interview and presentation. The VC had in fact left the board room and gone for the opening ceremony of the refurbished Registrar’s office which was widely witnessed, and returned after Ms. Ravivathani’s interview ended. This shows arrogance and cocksureness in the use of power. Ms. Ravivathani in mid-2014 filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court. The extract (see the attachment here) from the VC’s submission to the Supreme Court dated 30th October shows that Ravivathani had indeed a strong case and adds considerably to the veracity of what she alleged.
It could be easily established that the Vice Chancellor lied under oath to the Supreme Court that she left the interview to talk to the UGC Chairman. She describes the exaggerated claims about the experience of the selected candidate as an oversight that was found at the interview, but fails to explain why it was not minuted and conveyed to the Council which is the final authority on selection. She clarified the exaggerated research claims as papers that were being worked on. The Council was not told any of these and had only the original schedules. Moreover the VC’s response to the Human Rights Commission (see the attachment here) earlier in June, claims to the contrary that all documents were checked at the interview for correctness of the information given.
The case seemed quite straightforward. If the Court ruled in Ravivathani’s favour, the University would have had to take her in as the reserve candidate. But the case has dragged on. It was fixed for hearing on 23rd September 2016 and we learn was postponed because the University’s counsel was not present and her counsel too was not there to press for an early date. The next date was 24th March 2017. Her Counsel came late this time and was not present again when the case was called. The next date is in October.
A hearing on 24th March would have been awkward for the Dean of Management, who is principally responsible for the favouritism, as he is one of the three names sent to the President for the VC’s appointment. What it shows is that vice chancellors and deans could lie through their teeth to cover their abuses and the UGC and the higher establishment in the way they function would protect the abusers rather than the victims. There is almost no room for justice. The University Services Appeals Board is usually too weak. So far the Vice Chancellor has not been obliged to face the victim in court.
Among several other cases recorded by JUSTA, the victims, wisely as would now seem to them, decided not to seek legal recourse. Nilani Kanesharatnam (GPA 372) (see the link here) was by far the best candidate for Zoology in 2013 She was active in research with Dr. Easwaramohan. The candidate selected on the VC’s insistence was a graduate from Peradeniya with GPA 344, with little evidence of research in interest. Such was the awe for the VC that neither the Dean of Science (one among the three names for VC) nor anyone else in the department who praised Nilani up to that point, stood up for her, (link) [F]. She became a virtual paraiyah after being rejected to please the VC, and was traumatised for a long time.
Miss. Jeevaki Gunesingam, with a first class from Jaffna and a GPA of 3.80 was the leading candidate for the lecturership in Computer Science in May 2012. However, the selection board ruled that, “No selection is made since the presentation skill, subject knowledge and overall performance of the candidates are not satisfactory”. (see attachment here) Such was the Computer Science Department’s low estimation of its own first classes. The candidates were given a strong hint not to apply again. Interviews were held in November 2013, and with the strong candidates having been shooed off, the selection committee selected a Second Upper from 2001 for the position meant for fresh graduates showing promise.
Engineering and shoots of the new culture
The University advertised a chair in Electrical Engineering about 2002 for the new Engineering Faculty. The Vice Chancellor then was Prof. Balasundarampillai who has championed in public for a Hindu Faculty for the University of Jaffna. The only applicant for the chair was a senior professor of electrical engineering from Peradeniya, who was also a Christian. The application was not processed. But Prof. Balasundarampillai on inquiry said that they had changed their mind and now wanted a professor of civil engineering to put up the buildings. He cancelled the advertisement despite a UGC ruling that an advertisement cannot be cancelled after applications had been received. The University then advertised a chair in civil engineering, for which there were no applicants. They then advertised for senior lecturer Grade I in Civil Engineering. The Only applicant was Dr. Sahayam, an Indian Tamil Christian. Dr. Sahayam said that he did not hear from the University (see the link here).
Doctors Sivakumar and Sahayam were almost contemporaries doing engineering at Peradeniya and Moratuwa respectively. Owing to the 1983 communal violence, Sahayam had to finish his degree in Madras (see DAE). Sivakumar was taken in as a coordinator for the faculty of engineering and was interviewed and absorbed into the new faculty in November 2012 as Senior Lecturer Grade I for which he was not qualified as it required 6 years of service after obtaining the qualifications for Senior Lecturer Grade II (Circular 721), the Ph.D. degree in this case. In 2012 when he was appointed, it was only 4 years after his doctorate in 2008. It appears doubtful that there was an open advertisement as Sahayam was looking out for it and did not see one. On the selection board the Dean of Engineering was represented by Prof. Kandasamy, Dean of Science, and Head Civil Engineering was represented by Prof. Srisatkunarajah, Head, Mathematics and Statistics.
The same selection board interviewed Sahayam in March 2013 and said ‘no selection made’ although they had given Sivakumar a higher position than he was entitled to. Sahayam was interviewed again on 5th May 2014, with Sivakumar also on the selection board, which sent Sahayam off with the observation ‘subject knowledge, teaching skill, research ability and overall performance are not satisfactory.’ It was virtually telling him not to come again. The reader could peruse the credentials of Sivakumar (see the attachment here) and Sahayam (see the attachmet here) that are annexed. It is evident (see DAE) that Sahayam, based on the certified record, commanded a significantly more robust body of civil engineering knowledge than Sivakumar. Sahayam has at least three papers in refereed journals (two foreign and one local) flowing mainly from his PhD research (‘Optimum Geometry for Naturally Armoring Breakwaters’ in the Journal of Coastal Research, USA, 1998, and ‘Stability of round heads of naturally armouring breakwaters’, in ‘Breakwaters, Coastal Structures and Coastlines’, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, 2001). By contrast, Sivakumar did not have a single paper in a refereed journal (as opposed to conference proceedings), none from his PhD research. This is a comment on the qualitative standing of the PhDs of the two engineers, one from Queen’s University, Canada, and the other from Moratuwa.
When the Engineering and Agriculture faculties were opened in Kilinochchi in January 2014, it symbolised how selections and administrative decisions were advancing the grip of the dominant ideology being imposed. Sivakumar is credited by his colleagues of having brought in Brahmin priests to perform devil-chasing the previous night, prior to the 90 minute Brahmanical opening ceremony. In the prevailing state of things, it gave his career a leg up. But in a fickle world of university preferment, more akin to a game of snakes and ladders, one is never sure.
The fun did not stop there. Prof. Jeevan Hoole, who was then a senior professor in electrical engineering at Peradeniya, Fellow of IEEE and a DSc London had been applying for a suitable position in Jaffna from about 2002, like Dr. Sahayam. Nearing 65 years, in September 2015, he applied for Senior Lecturer Grade I, to avoid the time delay involved in processing a professor application. Even though the faculty needed staff, he was interviewed nearly a year later just before the advertisement expired. The selection committee decided ‘no selection made’. In July2016, the Council was stupefied at the selection committee’s blatant manipulation and contempt for the trust placed on it to be fair and objective. The Council asked it to look at the matter again and give reasons for their decision.
Meanwhile Dr. Nesiah protested to the Council that Prof. Sivasegaram who was on the selection board had a long-running conflict with Hoole at Peradeniya, and in fairness he should have recused himself from the selection committee. This reasonable request was contemptuously ignored.
The selection committee took a good long five months to meet again and the Vice Chancellor announced that the selection committee justifies its reasons. The report was presented to the Council on 23rd December (see attachment 1 and 2)
The second paragraph of the report is downright silly, the same charge made against Prof. Thiagalingam that he had not applied through the Head of his institution was earlier made against Prof. Hoole and already ruled as inapplicable by the UGC Secretary to applicants from abroad.
The third paragraph claimed as a fact, contrary to what Hoole had said in his application and interview, that he would be unfit to teach in Jaffna as he had not taught common electrical engineering subjects for a long time, which is untrue (see attachment here). Leading from this the fourth para concluded that he is not needed in Jaffna. It would be a very poor scholar who would be found unfit to teach routine undergraduate subjects, and Prof. Hoole’s research record and steady stream of publications in prestigious fora show that he is not a poor scholar. If in doubt, the committee, out of courtesy and fairness could have asked Prof. Hoole what he taught. What it did suggests that they were conjuring up excuses to please themselves or someone who was cracking the whip.
What is even worse, four out of the six on the selection committee were in rank Hoole’s junior colleagues at Peradeniya. Dr. Atputharajah and Prof. Ekanayake were from the same department, Dr. Thiruvaran is one whom he helped to get a placement for his postgraduate studies. We need not speculate what is going on, but it is certainly something very nasty and offensive. The culture that has taken root will not allow the faculty to grow into a healthy institution unless the tendency revealed is quickly checked.
Finally, over the candidacy of Prof. Thiagalingam, the council members were very nervous about going against the UGC’s advice. One feature in that advice was that to charge Thiagalingam with an offence for not applying through his head, was rubbish.
Hoole was charged with the same thing in the selection committee report. It was presented to the Council, and it seems to be implicitly assumed that it was passed. If so would the Council, even if it is unconcerned with fairness, stir itself over having given offence by disregarding the UGC’s advice?
The University is spending several billions of rupees a year. But what kind of service are we giving the public and students who come to us when registrars and vice chancellors penalise talent by erecting non-existent barriers, by insisting on non-existent rules about outsiders having to apply through their heads?
How did the Registrar write that silly letter for the UGC’s opinion on two matters the University could easily have sorted out, and how did the VC allow it? One was about Thiagalingam’s application and the other, applying through the Head. The Postal Rule was known to at least two women administrators. Having been a law unto themselves, they are too lazy, and too insecure, to ask. Do we not have a law faculty, who should know?
No one is now answerable for how the prospect for our youth is blighted. As we emphasised, sectarianism and showy piety have become symbols to capture and assert power. If our administrators care more, Ms. Ravivathani need not spend several lakhs and waste years of her life hanging around court for justice that remains out of reach. JUSTA sent its documents to the Chairman, UGC. JUSTA was warned by a senior FUTA official that the Chairman had a poor opinion of JUSTA, and believed that its reports on abuses were a Christian conspiracy. No one looking at the cases with an open mind would form that impression.
It points to an effective campaign by the ideological lobby in Jaffna, for whom religion is merely a cover for abuse. The UGC Chairman is entitled to his opinion, but if it allows him to direct his actions, without an objective assessment of the reports of abuse, he is guilty of arrogance and incompetence and religious prejudice. That illustrates what is wrong with a country where justice remains out of reach to the poor and defenceless.
As a first step to set things right at the University of Jaffna, the President of the country should cancel the election for the post of Vice Chancellor held in February where an external candidate was denied entry and require the University Council to hold fresh elections where the external candidate should be allowed contest. That would give the Council an opportunity to themselves remove the rot that has set in and hardened, about which they plead helplessness in private.
*In response to requests by readers, we are making available a more complete account of the council discussion of the UGC’s advice at the corresponding link