On July 16 the Colombo Telegraph reported on the clash between Tamil and Sinhalese Science Faculty students of the University of Jaffna over whether to allow Kandyan dancing in addition to the Tamil drums and trumpets as freshers were welcomed and escorted from the Science Faculty gates to the Mathematics Department Lecture Hall. The request to include the Kandyan dance act had come only the day before the event which was scheduled for Saturday 16th at 1:00 PM and hence was turned down by the Science Students’ Union. However, academics from the faculty informally intervened and decided there would be no dance or procession, and both dances may be held but only at the lecture hall.
When this ruling was violated by the Tamil students at the start of the event who brought in the Tamil musicians to be part of the procession, then the Sinhalese students also brought their Kandyan dancers to partake in the procession which followed by a ruckus with students from the arts and management faculty assaulting the Sinhalese students. The Vice Chancellor (VC) then ordered that the Sinhalese students be evacuated immediately on Saturday night itself. This is how Colombo Telegraph reported the matter and stands by it.
The newspapers on Sunday announced that the university was closed for 2 weeks. That afternoon, however, the VC Prof. Vasanthi Arasaratnam met with selected Council Members and decided to close the university indefinitely. Under heavy pressure because of her alleged violation of rules and demands for her ouster, she was taking no chances in case the matter got out of hand, said a Council Member sympathetic to her, while a retired academic added, “That Saturday morning itself the Council had rejected a unanimous negative Selection Committee decision she had signed because it was so brazen in it’s malice towards the candidate.” However, despite her abundance of caution, she was already being criticized within the university community for shutting down far away campus-sites like those in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Kaithady and Marudanamadam where there had been no problems.
The removal of Sinhalese students also caused an uproar in the South. Those who worked for the election of the current government and for peace and reconciliationwere are upset. “Thing are much better, but not as good as they could be,” said a senior Sinhalese lawyer. A cynical Sinhalese SLAS officer added, “How can Sinhalese students get Kandyan dancers in Jaffna? The army must have offered the dancers and instigated all this.”(This very matter, as seen below, would have the VC and Dean Mikunthan being argued over in the Senate.) Former FUTA President Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri urged the government to take swift action to effect reconciliation.
On the other hand, the JHU’s Nishantha Warnasinghe thundered that Tamil students should not be treated in any special way and called for stern action against those responsible. Minister Champika Ranawaka also expressed similar views although the two comrades seem far apart nowadays
Unfortunately, the emerging videos tend to support the view that the Tamil students began the violence. As if to counter this, a lot of misinformation is being put out. For example, a senior retired professor told Colombo Telegraph that he had seen the new science Dean, Prof. Vigneswaran, being attacked by Sinhalese students but Prof. Vigneswaran himself, when queried denied it. Another story claimed that a Tamil academic had been hit. It turns out that when one student was hitting another, this academic had tried to stop that and the stick had hit his hand.
A member of the Council who participated in the meeting held with selected members of the Council said, “This tradition of garlanding the Dean is new, unnecessary and only to inflate the Dean’s ego. If the VC had only asked for the programme and been as vigilant as required prior to all student functions, she would have seen the dangers and would have been able to avert this unnecessary damage to our good name.”
The government and the TNA’s R. Sampanthan were quick to grasp how harmful this violence can be to the peace process and the rebuilding of the North. Emissaries of the President and Prime Minister, namely Ministers D.M. Swaminathan and Yapa Abeyawardena and Deputy Minister Karunaratne Paranawithana were sent to Jaffna and they had a special meeting with the Senate on July 19. Some Council Members and students were also present. Many people spoke. It was decided to reopen all faculties but science, arts and commerce on the main campus on July 20. The medical faculty is already back at work because of patient needs. The Sinhalese students may be brought back in a week to a reopened main campus if the university will assume responsibility for their security.
An inquiry committee was appointed before the ministers. GA Jaffna proposed CEB DGM (North) Chief Engineer Piyaratne Gunatilleke to head a three-person inquiry committee. Gunatilleke also serves as an outside member of the Engineering Faculty Board and is believed to be a decent chap. The VC and one of her friendly Deans quickly proposed two young Senior Lecturers from her own medical faculty, Dr. Muhunthan and Dr. Thiyahini Navaratnarajah as the other two members. There is still a lot of back and forth as to why two junior medical faculty people sympathetic to the VC were selected. In their defence they both speak Sinhalese and can understand the testimonies of the Sinhalese students, however then the question arises if the Committee Chairman Gunatilleke can speak Tamil.
There is fear that the testimonies will be a whitewash because when the VC told the ministers that the dancers were hired from outside, a Dean, Prof. Mikunthan, contradicted her saying they have always been all science faculty students and the VC responded curtly to him that they were outsiders. Mikunthan bowed down to authority by keeping quiet. But Colombo Telegraph’s enquiries show Prof. Mikunthan to be right and not the VC. When a senior hand like Prof. Mikunthan is so easily shut down, one has no choice but to question about the impartiality of such a situation, and will the process also allow any testimonies that will go against the approval of the VC.
“The general feeling is that the VC is very weak. She wants to protect herself by showing that outsiders are the provocateurs. There is a widespread feeling that the students should not have been sent back and immediate action taken to offer a safe and comforting environment to the Sinhalese students to help them feel they are among friends. For example, there is a person receiving the VC’s protection. He was appointed as Senior Student Counsellor and Department Head by this VC. He was a Mahendrarajah Mahathaya man and was appointed to the staff on his orders. Having come as Mahathaya’s agent, he is now the VC’s. He is very weak academically and strictly monolingual although claiming to teach in English. He keeps himself safe by waiving attendance requirements and giving A-grades to most students. This man has been promoting that the Kandyan dance act be disallowed, and openly says this is a university for Tamils. Science academics told him that they would handle the freshers’ event if only he would keep out the arts and management students who were inciting trouble. He could have done that, but he did not,” a professor said.
Many academics agree with a former Council member’s view, “The TNA unfortunately has no clue about the university and its ills. They were oblivious as Jaffna’s most important institution, the University, was being destroyed by Dougals Devananda as his Council conducted pre-council meetings chaired by Devananda at Sridhar Theatre where the day before each council meeting every decision on the agenda was taken and then accordingly decided at the token council meeting. Even VC Arasaratnam has gone to Sridhar Theatre to participate in this charade. Right or wrong, Devananda would get on to the phone and get done what he wanted. The TNA on the other hand is totally ineffective. It only makes hot speeches and does not even recognize reality as our house, this university, is being burnt to the ground.”
At least in this matter, that Council member is wrong. Sampanthan for the first time issued a statement yesterday giving attention to the university. He called on the Sinhalese students to return and for all students to work together creating the right conditions for those from different backgrounds to live and study together at the university. “Mr. Sampanthan, Thank you! Please continue to give this matter your long overdue attention. Show us that you can get things done better than Douglas Devananda. Breathe new life into this university of ours,” the formal Council Member said. ( By Our Jaffna correspondent)