20 May, 2022


Jaffna University: Swirled In The Eddies Of Lanka’s Contest For Hegemonic Spaces

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

The crisis arising from the Sinhala-Tamil student conflict at Jaffna University is a part of the Sinhalese establishment’s absence of conviction on the cardinal importance of secularism and the drift of the Tamil elite towards religious obscurantism.

Conflicting nationalist narratives – as adaptations of received history to explain the present and direct the future – have, for each community, its inner logic. This is evident in how the Sri Lankan media has treated the Jaffna University’s first clash between Tamil and Sinhalese students.

In this regard, the university has the opportunity of playing a constructive role in winning over its Sinhalese students through mutual understanding and respect, and thereby creating a base for demanding that other universities do likewise. That calls for courage, foresight and empathy.

Unfortunately, following the mores of its Sinhalese counterparts, today the Tamil cause is being presented by extremists and is mired in meaningless symbols, purposeless rituals and the exclusion of ‘others’ from particular spaces.

To understand the transition, we go back to the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 – the definitive statement of Tamil separatism. The essential grievance in it is that the Sri Lankan constitution of 1972 gave the foremost place to Buddhism and obliged the state to foster it. These provisions were protected in the second republican constitution of 1978 as well.

Whatever may be said in mitigation – for example, that the constitution also guarantees religious freedom to others – in effect, it is inequality and the denial of secularism. This, invariably, leads to the other principal grievance in the resolution: ‘Denying the Tamils equality of opportunity in the spheres of education, land alienation and economic life in general’.

Sri Lanka’s security forces have erected Buddhist monuments in minority-dominated and war-devastated areas as symbols of possession. This, it would seem, is their skewed interpretation of the constitutional call to ‘foster Buddhism’. In 2005, under the cover of darkness and the backing of a hardline Sinhalese-Buddhist political party, the navy planted a massive Buddha statue in the Trincomalee bus stand.

When the attorney general sought court action for its removal, the country’s chief justice arm-twisted him and the case was withdrawn. The events did nothing to ease the climate of the eastern city which was already seething with ethnic tension. Hardly any Sinhalese leader would dare to oppose such unlawful actions by the security forces that assumes the colour of patriotism.

The proposed new constitution is almost certain to uphold the primacy of Buddhism and there is no consensus over the nature of the state – whether unitary or otherwise. As such, the content and language of the Vaddukottai Resolution, would continue to resonate with the Tamils.

The grievances stated in the resolution are essentially about rights and inequality, and separatism follows largely on the premise that the Sri Lankan government is incapable of a just settlement. Devolution under provincial councils, that was offered grudgingly under the Indian pressure in 1988, has proved to be a futile counter to entrenched inequality.

One would, on this reading, conclude that the most rational and painless first step for the government is to zealously enforce secularism and its counterpart, equality. It must be kept in mind that the Tamils long felt strongly about these grievances. Their nonviolent protests were violently quenched.

As a community, they have been through a ruinous armed struggle in the last thirty years, whatever its rights, brutalities and follies. To ask them to accept the primacy of Buddhism in the new constitution, the effects of which are far more than symbolic, would make it rankle as a counterfeit made from base metal.

Imitating oppressive mores

Once culturally rooted, sectarian ideological claims become politically embedded and are extremely hard to reverse. The disease extends divisively. What the Sinhalese did with Buddhism, to their detriment, the Tamils are repeating. The Tamil nationalists who passed the Vaddukoddai Resolution prided themselves as being secular, and in word at least, tried to make common ground with the Muslims, whose language is also Tamil.

Post war, this need was more urgent, given the shattered state of the Tamil society, economy and education. An articulate segment in Tamil politics has, however, taken on an adventurist course through building on the aggressive Hindu mobilisation by a section of the elites. This mobilisation was made possible by the political and moral displacement of Tamil society accompanying the LTTE’s rise, which finally left it naked at its precipitate demise, taking away even the opium of bravado.

Hindu nationalism, already a festering phenomenon in Tamil run institutions, particularly in Jaffna University, attained a more open manifestation in the form of the northern province chief minister, C.V. Wigneswaran. His rise to power in 2013 signified a deep rot and was a sign of things to come.

In November 2014, Wigneswaran attended a conference organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in New Delhi. There, he highlighted the immense loss of life and property that the Tamil Hindus had suffered in the war and called upon Bharat, the ‘motherland of the Hindus’, to succour the Hindus in the neighbouring countries.

His sole focus on Tamil Hindus was particularly disturbing since Tamil Christians were as much under attack. Where this Wigneswaran’s plea takes the Tamils in Sri Lanka, is clear when it is placed alongside the VHP leader Sadhvi Prachi’s genocidal call to make India – a country home to 178 million Muslims, Muslim-free.

Muslims living in the northern province, in what is starkly reflective of the Tamil experience under the Sinhalese administration, continue to complain about discrimination in areas of education and health. These are devolved matters which fall under the purview of the chief minister Wigneswaran’s provincial administration. They have spoken out strongly at the official consultations for transitional justice, while impressing others as trying to be scrupulously fair. Muslim civil societies have complained that in spite of having written several letters seeking an appointment with the chief minister to discuss their concerns, they have been ignored.

Mullaitivu is one of the districts worst affected by war. Before the war came to the district in the mid-1980s and when the state forcibly moved to plant a large Sinhalese settlement, the Muslims had been allocated land in Koththiyakumpan in Murippu. However, they were forcibly expelled by the LTTE in 1990, before they received titles for their allocated land.

The partial and transitory displacements that the Tamils suffered during the war became complete during the state’s final military thrust in 2009. When Muslims started returning with the Tamils in 2011, they all had to clear forests to establish their homes, often without permits from the forest department.

We were told by the concerned senior government officials that the chief minister had urged a court action to evict Muslims who had cleared land without permits, but at the same time, to regularise holdings similarly cleared by Tamils.

The location is near Kokkilai where the army has been trying to put up a Buddhist settlement on a private land owned by a displaced Tamil. The result is the anarchy of diverse authorities trying to carve out hegemonic spaces and fatally straining the unity of Sri Lanka.

Jaffna University was started in 1974 by a financially strained government by taking over Parameswara College, a Hindu board school. The university was then multi-ethnic and its political colouring was determined by a strong core of Marxist academics.

Political discussion cut across communal and religious boundaries and no one doubted or challenged its secular credentials. This was not affected by the Sinhalese students being moved out in 1977 consequent to the communal violence executed by the newly elected Jayawardene government.

The change began when the LTTE in 1986 moved to eliminate all voices of dissent by terror and murder. By the end of 1991, most academics and students known for open dissent had been killed or had fled. By 1996, a successful military thrust had enabled the army to establish its presence in Jaffna even as the LTTE’s terror network remained active.

The university itself came to be dominated by a group of conservative academics who detested the university’s earlier liberating legacy and a new form of conformity was imposed. This meant genuflecting before the LTTE locally and giving assurances of fidelity to the fickle administration in Colombo.

Previously when the university was a school for Hindu boys, it had a very modest and non-descript temple at the end of the sports field. The school’s priority was a modern western education. The group that took over the university in the 1990s began refurbishing and expanded the temple ritually and ideologically at the centre of the university.

Devil chasing and Brahmanical ceremonies were incorporated into the opening of the new faculties in 2014. In filling academic vacancies, applicants with excellent credentials were turned down or suppressed if they appeared to be a threat to the new bosses. On some occasions, the applications received were deliberately ignored until the validity of the advertisements lapsed.

A crisis began when Sinhalese students were admitted in increasing numbers from 2012 to fill vacant slots, especially in Science courses and where the instruction was in English. Two years prior to that and in conformity with the university’s new outlook, those in charge at the Science faculty adopted a new ‘traditional’ welcome ritual for freshers, where students garlanded the dean and teachers with flowers at the entrance and walked them in a procession led by drums and wind instruments like gods, both major and minor, are led in temple ceremonies.

For this year’s welcome on July 16, 2016, some Sinhalese students wanted Kandyan dancing from Lanka’s central hills to be included in the procession. Many Tamils saw this proposed intrusion into the ‘traditional’ function as highly offensive. Academics who sensed trouble brewing informed a marshal and the senior student counsellor of their fear of an attack on the Sinhalese students by non-science students.

An attack did take place two hours later, which was led by a group that was led by the president of the University Students Union, who was well-known to those in authority and whose actions, being forewarned, should have been prevented by them.

Except for by one Sinhalese student, the injuries sustained during the clash were light. With the help from the police, the university authorities evacuated the science faculty Sinhalese students and sent them to their homes in the South.

The greater damage was in the minds of people, done by things imprinted at that watershed moment, like the pre-eminence of Buddhism being written into the constitution in 1972.

The editor of the local newspaper Valampuri, who closely identified with the chief minister’s faction in the power struggle for leadership of the Tamil nationalist camp, wrote on July 19, “Jaffna University is situated on land that is the bequest of the great Hindu philanthropist sir Pon Ramanathan. Moreover, because the campus encloses the temple dedicated to lord Parameswara, it is Tamil (sic) traditions and culture alone that must be observed there.”

To avoid similar clashes in the future, the editor urges the university authorities to institute a rigidly puritanical behavioural code in dress and manners, which is to be strictly observed by everyone who functions in the university. These sentiments captured the way a large number of people responded to the event and, expressed in print, carried the ability to give intolerance, hypocrisy and anger, a new impulse and direction. It is about laying claim to the university as a hegemonic space.

The closed atmosphere of wartime Jaffna has brought to the fore a new generation of academics, only some of whom have worked hard to read books and take in the best of the world’s heritage. What startled my older colleagues is that many of the younger academics, after this incident, angrily reject the suggestion that the university is a secular space and affirm its Hindu identity.

The crisis is a part of the Sinhalese establishment’s absence of conviction on the cardinal importance of secularism and the drift of the Tamil elite towards religious obscurantism. The Sinhalese students must come back to Jaffna, but will the university put its house in order by radical re-education of those in authority?

Indeed, there would have been no pretext for the incident had the university observed secular ethics. It is retaining Buddhist pre-eminence in the constitution, and its vividly demonstrated potential to kindle conflagration, that forces the state into greasy compromises with others intent on their own hegemonic projects. The rejection of equality and secularism condemns Lanka to pervasive instability.

A version of this article appeared on The Wire

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Following the overnight installation of a a large Buddha statue near the fish market in Trincomalee, I wrote the following article concluding that, ‘May a thousand statues bloom, if they will make us better people’.


    Languages and religions evolved as man- more a erect beast- evolved and transformed from a hunter-gatherer nomad to a settled human. They represent the civilization of man. Unfortunately, beast is yet lurking within us. As I heard someone say recently, ” we dropped our tail” in evolutionary terms, too soon.

    The Education system, including the universities have the primary obligation to humanize our youth.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 2

    Tamils have built Kovils. Muslims are building mosques every where. christians/Cathllics build churches have built and are building churches every where.

    It is OK Tamils to have homeland ambitions and beat the Sinhala Students to have prologoned medical problems.

    Now sinhala buddhist population have gone to less than 70% and it is supposed to go down more.

    Yet, Sinhala Buddhist civilizatuion should not feel insecure, no one should think about their future. Instead mke minorities feel the majority.

    With respect to Tamil minority, they do not feel home even in their motherland Tamilnadu.

    There are no secular countries in the world.

    Rajan hoole says, that the crisis began when the sinhala students were admitted in large numbers. In otherwords, you are asking start racial discrimination from the university itself by admitting mostly Tamil Students to the Jaffna university. How about important faculties have 50% of Jaffna students in other universities. Should that be cut down ?. How about you guys complaining about propoertional system of university admission. Even in Tamil Nadu, Dalits have a proportion admissions, I suppose.

    Some Tribalists are blaming that there was a second force behind the sinhala students. How did sinhala students get beaten badly even when a second force was behind. Why In sinhale, any university should not incllde Kandyan dances when the students request it ?

    Here, this article says that the University Students’ Union president was behind or, instigated, this battle. But, Sumanthiran highlighted that the Tamil student president was not involved in physically beating the sinhala students.

    Rajan Hoole complains about the presence of Sinhala administration in the North. He should get population Statistics in the Island and prove why only a fraction of Tamils have this problem. Tamils living every where in the world, work in majority language. Only in Sri lanka, they have the problem. May be it is So many illegal mige=rents from Tamilnadu frequensting there. Why Rajan Hoole does not talk the nuisance of Tamils to the country. Because of that, how much money and resrocues are wasted. That makes Tamils a burden to the country.

    • 5

      Kovils Mosques and Churches are built legally on legally purchased lands and with permits obtained legally/ Many of them have been there for hundreds of years. However all these Budda statues and Buddhist temples in the north and east of sprouting up illegally overnight on ethnically cleansed Tamil lands or the sites of Hindu shrines and Christian churches or in some cases Mosques that were deliberately bombed or later destroyed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. This is the huge difference Jimmy soft on the head. Tamils know that these Budda statues and Buddhist temples that are built by the Sinhalese armed forces and Extremist Sinhalese Buddhist elements now sprouting up everywhere in the north and east are the prelude for further illegal settlement of hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese from the south, as they excuse will be that they need a Sinhalese Buddhist population to maintain all these temples and statues. This is why the armed forces are illegally acquiring hundreds of thousands of private Tamil homes and lands and also public land in the north east, that should be used for the benefit of the local population. on the pretext of high security zones, as the plan is to settle Sinhalese in these so called high security zones.

      • 0

        Mahavamsa Mind set Let people live. Because of that, they are forgetful.

        Tamils are only seen and not heard anywhere in the world. They are silent even in Tamilnad even in front of North Indian Tamil Brahmins.

        Only in Sri lanka they are the most vocal people fighting for democracy at the expense of the sinhala people.

        So, do are other minorities.

    • 0

      “But, Sumanthiran highlighted that the Tamil student president was not involved in physically beating the sinhala students.”

      Come on! You are quoting the University Students’ Union president’s defense lawyer to prove his innocene?

  • 2

    There was no justification for the violence: it was gross misconduct by a handful of hooligans.
    I have heard enough of the lame excuses from those who idly watched the events and then blamed all and sundry for what happened.
    The Science Faculty was closed after violence which led to serious injury. It is not a numbers game.
    And there was also serious damage to property.
    The University acted wisely to avert risk of escalation or recurrence of violence.
    Had the step had not been taken and a few incidents followed, we will have the pundits howling about the negligence of the authorities.

    It does not seem to be the interest of the university or the students that is behind this write-up.
    From day one there has been mischief in reporting the event.

  • 1

    Prof has written, “There was no justification for the violence: it was gross misconduct by a handful of hooligans. I have heard enough of the lame excuses from those who idly watched the events and then blamed all and sundry for what happened.”

    Prof, you were on campus at the Council meeting. Dean Srisatkunarajah knew of the tensions the previous day itself. He went out on that fateful day during Council lunch time to speak to the students and came back. You did not budge. The VC did not budge. Dean Srisatkunarajah probably made some report to the VC. If he did not, it would be a phenomenal breakdown in management communication.

    Now, who are these people who you say idly watched the events? What are their lame excuses? Who is making them? I have heard people being blamed but not excuses.

    You say the University acted wisely to avert risk of escalation or recurrence of violence. I would agree with you if something had been done as soon as the demand was made for the Kandyan dance. With a caring university, the problem would have been discussed at the highest levels in a forum of students to defuse the tension. We have not gained anything, obviously, from the millions spent at our univerity for social harmony. There was no discussion in a forum. Having shipped out the students, it will now be difficult to persuade the freshers especially to pick up the courage to return.

    Now, Prof, please treat us to your lame excuses as a progressive member of the Council.

    • 1

      Dear Lingam,
      Agree Srisatkunarajah was good. Unless I am mistaken, he can actually be seen in some of the videos, trying to break up the scuffles. But I still think sekara is right that (a) there was no justification for violence; (b) only a handful engaged in violence; and (c) they are hooligans.
      Which of the above do you have difficulty agreeing with? And why?

      • 2

        Fully agree with a, b, and c.

        I have difficulties only with Prof’s statement
        “I have heard enough of the lame excuses from those who idly watched the events and then blamed all and sundry for what happened.”

        Prof himself was having a sumptuous lunch while the pressure was building up and is giving lame excuses for evacuating the students and creating an almost permnent breach.

        I have seen no lame excuses from anyone other than those in the adminitration.

        The President can promise protection. It is something he has to say. However, if I am a fresher and this is what hppened to me on my first day and the VC herself felt it was unsafe for me and shipped me out, no promises even from the President can ever make me feel safe again.

        The VC and her Deans should have brought in all the lessons they learnt and taught under their social harmony training the moment there was a communal dispute and should have foreseen the violence when they sat back dong nothing except enjoying a Council lunch.

        • 1

          Thank you Lingam.
          If as we agree this is a small number of hooligans, then Council members cannot really intervene. It is way outside their brief. Sekara’s charge that the staff stood idle when violent clashes took place is something I find hard to agree with. I myself would have run a mile when people around are armed with stones and sticks ready for a fight (unless an immediate family member of close friend is in danger).

          But why are these students inventing traditions and why do university staff go along with these? Have you come across any leading university where staff are garlanded and paraded on the first day? Staff in those places will be busy in the lab doing research or working from their offices on preparing better lectures. In SL universities, tradition is an overkill. I was at a research day a couple of months ago at an SL university and, my God, the whole thing was about dressing up well and lighting the holy lamp. By the time everyone of any importance had finished lighting the bloody lamp, there was a bit of time to read some really low quality research papers. Indeed some of the papers were so embarrassing to sit and listen to. So, Lingam, hope you are someone who can help take the lead in setting the priorities right.

    • 1

      I can only talk of things that I am sure of; and, BTW, I am not in the habit of making excuses, and have made none.

      My first point was about inciting violence. It was uncalled for and I insist that it is a disgrace to make excuses for it.

      The second was about the ‘holier than thou’ critics who attack all and sundry who stood idly by.
      More could have been done by academics to deescalate tension; and any who acted should be commended. (I have seen worse student violence where I worked some years ago, and there were then academics who dared to step in successfully, and there are still many who would.)

      I believe that the University was right and responsible in closing the Science Faculty to avert escalation of violence and tension.
      I can assure you that the very critics of the closure would be among the first to denounce the University of apathy had it not closed the Faculty and matters went out of hand.

      As for the request for Kandyan Dancing, I think that it is legitimate. The central issue is about the way a request from fellow students should be dealt with— certainly not the style of the 1980’s I trust.
      I am against any form of Freshers Welcome in any university until the Rag has been eliminated there.

      “I myself would have run a mile when people around are armed with stones and sticks ready for a fight (unless an immediate family member of close friend is in danger).”
      True, and you have every right to run. But there is a problem if you resort to attacks on others for not acting.
      I fully endorse your point on “invention of traditions”. As I said above: No Freshers Welcome until the Rag is eliminated.

    • 0

      A Correction:

      The second was about the ‘holier than thou’ critics who attack all and sundry who stood idly by.

      It should read as
      The second was about the ‘holier than thou’ critics who attack all and sundry, but who stood idly by.

    • 0

      Mr Lingam
      I do not know where you get your stories from.
      I can assure you that the Council Meeting was over early that day.
      I did not see Professor Satkunaraja in the afternoon, and I learned about the incident only the next morning in Colombo.
      The only hint that I could have had about anything while in Jaffna was that one Science Faculty academic who was taking to me and other colleagues while I was awaiting transport suddenly dashed off without a word after a phone call.

      I do not know when anyone reported anything to the VC or the Administration. But action seems to have been as prompt as possible.

      It will help if you are sure of the correctness of your story before you repeat it, and point your finger at people based on it.

      • 1


        No point in arguing. True, the Council meeting was over early in the sense that usually meetings are on till 5 in the evening. That day it finished early as you say but only after the problems had begun around 1 pm. You are obviously bluffing with your clever play of words. Dean Srisatkunarajah had already made one trip and returned to the meeting. You yourself admit now that there was a call and somebody went off while you were at the university. Although Council members were present, it seems from what you say that they were neither informed nor consulted. Does that not indicate a serious problem in the style of management?

        Readers can judge the honesty of your claims or make their own inquiries. As a Council member you had better do something to save our university and its good name, instead of saving the reputations of the individuals responsible for the neglect.

        • 2

          You are clutching at straws.

          You accused me of knowledge of the event. In the same breath, you also accuse Prof Srisatkunarajah of knowledge of trouble brewing.:

          “Prof, you were on campus at the Council meeting. Dean Srisatkunarajah knew of the tensions the previous day itself. He went out on that fateful day during Council lunch time to speak to the students and came back. You did not budge. The VC did not budge.”

          Kindly reserve your cheap digs like “Prof himself was having a sumptuous lunch while the pressure was building… ” for a more frivolous occasion.
          Now you add: “You are obviously bluffing with your clever play of words.”

          I only stated what I knew and stand by every word of it. Please check with Prof Srisatkunarajah before you proceed further. I did not hear anything from him.

          I fully agree that there is “No point in arguing”.

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