A clash erupted at the University of Jaffna’s Science Faculty between a group of Tamil-Sinhalese students, with the university’s Vice Chancellor Professor Vasanthi Arasaratnam ordering the Sinhalese students to leave Vavuniya, after the Faculty was closed indefinitely. Four buses were brought in to transport the students back to their hometowns in the South.
After the war, several Sinhalese students have been admitted to the university, especially the Faculty of Science where they number about a half of the student population. “This has given students a multiethnic, cosmopolitan experience which is now threatened,” said a Senior Lecturer alluding in part to the more extensive use of the English language now.
The background to this skirmish is a freshers’ welcome at the Science Faculty today (16 July). The organizing student committee of the Science Students Union (SSU) had planned a march with traditional Tamil welcome drums and music, garlanding and escorting the Dean and Academic Staff from the Science Faculty gates for the event in the mathematics department hall.
Last evening however, the Sinhalese students put in a request for Kandyan dancers too to join the procession. The committee-meeting considering the request went on for long, refusing to accept a suggestion at the last minute. The matter then was passed on to the University Students’ Union dominated by the arts/management students who insisted it should be only the Tamil welcome form.
Some senior science academics intervened and urged that the march from the gate be scrapped and that the music should be only inside the hall where both groups could offer their form of welcome at 1:00 p.m. when the staff would also be there.
Today, however, as the event began, musicians playing Tamil drums and music were seen at the gate. Seeing this, the Sinhalese students joined in with their Kandyan music escort. Primarily the arts/commerce students started pelting the Sinhalese students with stones. The Sinhalese students sheltered in the science building by the Physics Department signboard. The building had glass windows. As the panes broke and fell, some Sinhalese students sustained minor cuts, said a Senior Lecturer who was watching.
Matters got out of hand as the injured students posted close-ups of their cuts on their Face book pages. Worried parents urged their children to come home and called university authorities to check on their children’s safety.
The VC in a panic ordered the evacuation. At the time of writing, Saturday night, some senior staff are trying to stop the evacuation, saying “I fear a replay of 1977 when students exaggerated what happened to them and contributed to the events of that time. All our efforts at building up the university as a multiethnic community would be set back. The government and the VC should sort it out without effecting a virtual divorce between two university communities that have been good friends so far.”
Unfortunately, because the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Union (JUSTA) has issued stringent strictures against the Vice Chancellor over what they see as her brazen violation of recruitment procedures, the senior staff who decided that it is important to do peace building after recalling the buses, are unable to communicate with the VC. “We do not even have her hand-phone number,” said a staff member during a weekend when they are seeing a change of science deans which adds to the problems.
In the meantime, JUSTA has issued the following statement on the matter: “Some unwanted incidents related to the freshers’ welcome party led to violent clashes among the Students today. Some students were injured and are being treated in the hospital. As a result, the Science Faculty is closed to the students and all the students are returning to their homes.
“We strongly condemn the violent actions of some of the students. We urge all citizens of this country to do all they could to defuse the situation and help all students to resume their studies in the University at the earliest.”