8 August, 2022


Jeevanantham: Eminent Teacher, Social Worker

By Devanesan Nesiah

Dr. Devanesan Nesiah

Dr. Devanesan Nesiah

The Principal of St. John’s College, Jaffna, in appealing for contributions to a memorial fund in the name of the late S. P. Jeevanantham, has described him as a great educationist and humanist who taught two generations of students under six principals over a period of thirty-two years. Mr. Jeevanantham has been closely linked to four generations of my family in diverse ways. I know him best as a social activist who had contributed significantly to my initiating a socio-economic programme that covered my three years as Government Agent and District Secretary, Jaffna which, in turn, was a source of inspiration in my selection of a theme for my doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, leading to my book titled Discrimination with Reason? The Policy of Reservations in the United States, India and Malaysia (Oxford University Press, 1984).



Shortly after I assumed duties in Jaffna in mid-1981, I received a delegation headed by Mr. Jeevanantham urging that the Jaffna District Development Council adopt a policy of quota reservation for the “Panchamar,” the five untouchable castes in Jaffna in the recruitment of staff. I advised the delegation that what they were asking for was neither possible nor even desirable and, in any case such a drastic policy was way beyond my authority even to initiate. Instead I would, subject to the approval of the District Minister and the Chairman of the Jaffna District Development Council, and with the help of some of my colleagues and others concerned, embark on a sequence of socio-economic projects with the objective of at least minimally raising the socio-economic status of sections of the “Panchamar” population of Jaffna. Hopefully, further positive developments would follow.

Accordingly, the first project was to benefit the section of the caste category ranked lowest, the Parayar. This Tamil word, unfortunately, has gained international currency. The members of the caste preferred to be referred as to “Valluvar” (weavers), which is a subsidiary occupation of that caste in addition to sanitary work, funeral drumming and related tasks. There were many cotton handloom weavers in the Valluvar community, but no silk weavers, of whom there were very few in all of Jaffna. I met Victor Santhiapillai, then Chairman, Export Development Secretariat, and he agreed to get down an expert silk handloom weaving from India. That expert, in consultation with the leaders of the Valluvar community of Jaffna, selected an exclusively Valluvar village, trained the weavers to shift from cotton to silk, purchased the required equipment, secured the yarn from the South since the climate of Jaffna was not suitable to produce silk yarn and got the project going. The scheme was an instant success since the silk cloth produced was of excellent quality and in high demand.

The second project was a medium scale mechanised Palmyrah Arrack Distillery, of which there were none in the Island and, perhaps, none anywhere. It was an urgent need because every year there was a glut of palmyrah toddy in the peak months of the season and the price of palmyrah toddy dropped so low that it was hardly worth tapping it. Since there were no blueprints for the kind of palmyrah arrack distillery we were seeking to establish, we met several Sinhalese coconut arrack distillers and they generously helped us with their blueprints and advice. In consultation with the leaders of the Nalavar (Toddy Tappers), a central site was selected and the distillery was constructed, modelled on coconut arrack distilleries of similar size. Since Palmyrah toddy is critically different in composition from coconut toddy, the palmyrah arrack produced was satisfactory but not optimal. However, there was an immediate demand for the produce and the project was very successful. The distillery has continued virtually uninterrupted over the decades and is yet functioning. Conditions are now favourable to upgrade the distillery and to improve and diversify the products to meet an international market. We may need help from the private sector that already produces coconut arrack products for export. This should be a priority for the planners.

The third project was to benefit a section of the “Pallar” (skinning and leather work, and related occupations). Again Victor Santhiapillai was helpful and involved in making arrangements to get down an expert on leather products from Italy to train local workers to produce first quality leather and a range of leather products to meet the local demand, and also designed to capture an international market. On account of the July 1983 pogrom this project was abandoned even before it started. Conditions are now right to re-initiate this project, whether as a state venture or a private sector initiative.

While acknowledging Mr. Jeevanantham’s indirect role in all three of these projects, my involvement in these projects also inspired my choice of theme for my doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. Mr. Jeevanantham was a modest man and may have not anticipated any of these developments when he led the deputation at the District Secretariat in mid-1981. I have referred only to what I have been involved in on account of the initiative of Mr. Jeevanantham’s. Much of what he did was when I was out of office. The memorial to Mr. Jeevanantham envisaged by the Principal of St. Johns College, Jaffna should reflect the full extent of his contribution, direct and indirect, to the many initiatives that he set in motion, even if he was not fully aware of or even anticipated all the consequences. His family has much to be proud of in respect of his achievements; in respect of the outcomes of what he set in motion. His passing away is a loss not only to the family but also to Jaffna’s civil society.

The account opened by the Principal of St. John’s College Jaffna,is titled S.P. Jeevanantham Memorial Fund, Commercial Bank Jaffna, Account No: 8060120141, Swift Code: CCEYLKLX.

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  • 2

    All projects mentioned as benefitting the five so-called ‘untouchable’
    low castes appear to have been designed to make them stagnant in the same cesspit of social ostracism by finding/establishing projects in which they will not come into contact with so-called high caste citizens.
    Would the church ever tolerate them worshipping alongside the ‘high castes’?

    Would Jeevanantham have approved?

    Is his family proud of this artificial segregation of ‘low castes’ in his name, in this day and age of emancipation of lowest segments of humanity?

    Why could not they have been offered avenues of education at least up to GCE O Level even in church schools so that they could compete for employment with ‘high castes’?

    This appears to a new form of ‘Christian charity’ modified to suit
    ‘high caste’ Jaffna citizens.

    • 3

      Justice is rather unjust. Jeevanantham Master himself was employed in a CMS School as Headmaster a the article shows. Did Justice read this article before commenting?

      His children are teachers, a bank manager, a dentist, etc. all trained at church schools. His nephew is the Rural Dean of the Church. St. James’ Church Nallur is controlled by his people.

      Some of these CT Comments are borne of pure and simple hatred for Christians.

  • 3

    @justice, let me answer your questions.
    Q: Would the church ever tolerate them worshipping alongside the ‘high castes?
    A: Yes, absolutely. The Church never prevented people of a lower caste from attending the church. Mr. Jeevanantham always attended the Wednesday service before St. John’s and Chundikkuli Girls High started the day. The high priest was of a lower caste. He gave the communion and we high caste accepted it. We had no issues with that and really did not care what they belonged to.

    Q: Would Jeevanantham have approved?
    A: Yes, there was nothing to approve as the church never prevented people from coming there. I am not sure what religion you belong to and I don’t want to assume. The Anglican church NEVER prevented anyone. Hindus, Muslims and all were welcome. There were Hindu friends of mine who attended church with me as they found it very peaceful. They loved the Hymns and the Chundikkuli girls who sat alongside with us.

    Q: Is his family proud of this artificial segregation of ‘low castes’ in his name, in this day and age of emancipation of lowest segments of humanity?
    A: Mr. Jeevanantham retired as a Middle School Head Master. He did not have a university degree and I believe he was the only teacher to have been promoted to that level by the great CE. Anantharajan, who was the Principal of the school and later assassinated by the LTTE bastards. You asked a silly question about the family’s approval. What family will approve such a degrading class system? You tell me!!

    Q: Why could not they have been offered avenues of education at least up to GCE O Level even in church schools so that they could compete for employment with ‘high castes’?
    A: Really? When Premadasa walked in for the first time into the parliament for the first time as President, Lalith Athulathmudali and the racist scoundrel Gamini Dissanayake refused to stand up. Why was that? How far did Premadasa go in his education?

    Q: This appears to a new form of ‘Christian charity’ modified to suit ‘high caste’ Jaffna citizens.
    A: This is a stupid question, I cannot even answer.

    justice, I think you are living in a different world. Most of the kids from rural areas belong to lower castes and many have gone onto Universities become professionals. Yes, the caste system is in full swing when it comes to marriage. I am also not sure where you extracted all these incorrect information? Are you from the north?

    • 3

      I enjoyed reading Dr Nesiah’s tribute on Jeevanantham master as well as your comment by tamil from north.

      I had the opportunity to learn under great teachers and Jeevanantham Master was natural leader with an eye on discipline.

      He will be missed by generations of Johnians all over the world.

      • 1

        With such leadership qualities, it is hard to understand why he jumped in the well.
        Isn’t it?

        • 3

          Real reason
          Please don’t be disrespect the dead because they can’t defend for themselves.

          I can counter your query regarding leadership. But I choose not to comment

        • 3

          The official death certificate says he fell accidentally in the well.

          Not nice to write like this.:(

        • 3

          @ Real Reason,you seem to be total moron to talk like that,please get your facts right

          Jeevanantham master was in his late 80’s and looking after his wife also in his 80’s and he was her carer since she was partialy blind and they lived alone

          People of that generation like to bathe in the well and and he was also not steady as such when he was at the well as he always does he had fallen accidently,do you moron know that on the day of the incident he had made tea for his wife around 6 am and then gone to the well when he fell

          Jeevanantham master was not coward to jump into the well infact he had seen the communal riots,SLA,IPKF,Several Terrorist groups,lost a son and daughter in law in the Tsunami in 2004 and stood with his head held high

          Please verify your facts before writing

        • 1

          Hey Real Reason, change your name to something else. You are talking through your hat friend. If one falls into a well, does that mean he committed suicide? Mr. J has passed away and have some respect instead of posting garbage.

      • 4

        Ken Robert, he was an amazing human. He drew all to him. His teachings were spot on and he was also funny as hell. We will miss him immensely and SJC shined because of teachers like him.

  • 3

    Jeevanantham master was the most popular teacher for many years. It was a privilege to be taught by him. I am proud to say that was I was his student. His classes were always interesting, never boring.He was a committed and dedicated teacher. I still remember how he explained the meaning of a famous song from a Tamil flim ” veduavrai urau, veethy varai manavey, kadu varai pillai, kadasivarai yaroo. He was very much concerned about what was happening (politically) around us but cautioned us not to get actively involved in politics but to focus on studies.

    He was also a true christian, I still remember during the height of the war he along with few youth cycled from Jaffna to Pallai to conduct the good Friday service.

    May his soul rest in peace.

    • 1

      Just the mention of his name was good enough for people to start a conversation. He was indeed a wonderful human, hilarious at times and a loyal servant of the college. He loved the college so much I hear, even after retirement he would visit the college and walk around for hours to make sure all was going well. SJC was a blessed college to have had him for such a long time as a teacher and later as a head master. We stand with our heads down hearing his passing.

  • 4

    I was privileged to have studied under him at St Johns and infact he was the first to cane me at St Johns too when he was the headmaster in the lower school -;)

    His classes were always interesting and I still remember the day he retired he gave a big treat at the lower school assembly and said he apologizes if he had caned students but he did it for our own good (which is damm true) and he was quite emotional too

    @ Dr Nesiah,while I certainly appreciate your article on Jeevanantham master it would have been better if you had talked of his leadership in school,mentoring students,or his work at St James Church Nallur

    Our dear master taught 2 generations of Johnians and many of his students are doing so well due to the foundation at SJC,many civil service personal (including the current Jaffna Judge Elancheliyan),many IT top shots,bankers,lawyers,Doctors and even 2 in the Sri Lankan army Brigadier E T Thanjarathnam (retired recently) and Capt Partheepan from the 1989 batch (who was injured in action and had to leave to injuries which were severe)

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