20 June, 2021


Obfuscation Of Tamil Grievances

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence– Part 5

A strong class interest in obfuscating the truth and shifting the blame for the July 1983 violence on the Left has persisted down the years. The following was written in 1988 by Sam Wijesingha, Parliamentary Commis- sioner for Administration (Ombudsman) and leading Anglican, in his foreword to Sinha Ratnatunga’s book referred to in the last chapter:

“At the end of chapters 1 & 2… he [the author] suggests that the July 1983 riots were the outcome of disgruntled soldiers and wounded Sinhalese pride. However in the concluding chapter he asks the pertinent question whether the widespread rioting was merely a result of a revengeful ambush in Jaffna or was the wholesale burning of human beings and industrial plant, a method of throwing a hammer and sickle in the capitalist works. Such questions remain unanswered.”

[Note: The hammer and sickle, together, form the symbol of the Communist Movement.]

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, the founder of the social service NGO Sarvodaya, who took pride in be- ing a much acclaimed Gandhian, in a statement published in early August 1983 expressed his revulsion in the words – “our spiritual and moral value system got killed by the carnage”. He then went onto identify the Tamils as being the root- cause of the violence through electing popular leaders like Chelvanayakam who wanted a fed- eral state:

“We know how the local and foreign anti-na- tionals voiced their demand in the cries of 50-50 in the 1940s and for federalism thereafter to be followed by a separate state. This reached a climax making use of parliamentary privilege within the legisla- ture and the democratic social environment outside. The final act of this drama was the Tamil terrorism that reared its ugly head in the North during the last few years….

“Now leaving it to his Excellency the President to safeguard the Unitary status of our state and the Defence Forces to tame the Tigers, the Sinhala Bud- dhists should take over the tremendous responsibil- ity for the rebuilding of our spiritual and moral value system from the very foundation itself…”

Dr. Ariyaratne, while being deferential to Jayewardene, appears to have lost track of his latest position on the matter – a Left conspiracy. By placing legitimate democratic protest along- side militant action, Ariyaratne had gone far in the direction of the Sinhalese extremist groups. Having termed Chelvanayakam an anti-na- tional, Ariyaratne in time tried to be in the van- guard for reconciliation with Prabhakaran. At the same time he was not backward in placing Sarvodaya resources at the service of military- backed Sinhalese settlement in Manal Aru (Weli Oya) and Trincomalee District (our Special Re- port No. 5 of 1993). Ariyaratne’s public relations with those wielding power, if deficient in prin- ciples, showed good business sense.

The stage was thus set for publicists and pub- lic opinion among Sinhalese to evade moral re- sponsibility for the momentous events of July and blame it all on the Tamils. The Tamil prob- lem would continue to remain a terrorist prob- lem. The Tamils had no genuine grievances, it came to be said, because they were equal before the law, and had it good anyway, and moreover, they maintained, the Tamil Homeland concept was a figment of sinister imaginations. State ter- ror and administrative marginalisation were to remain the principal approach to the Tamils. We may add that among the Sinhalese elite there was substantial consensus with regard to this. There was protest. But this largely had to do with situations that led to excesses, which came to public notice. The root causes were seldom ex- amined in any depth, and in time were overlaid by impressions created by careless writing and misrepresentation.

Every issue since independence on which the Tamils had protested along the road to alienation was made to look a non-issue. These include colonisation, language, citizenship of the Hill Country Tamils and standardisation of univer- sity admissions. The last has been obscured by muddling the facts and throwing around state- ments about Tamils being beneficiaries of Brit- ish divide and rule policy without any serious analysis. Such would require answers to ques- tions such as: How such a policy, if there was one, worked? When was it effective? Which Tamils benefited? and, Were there no Sinhalese groups that benefited? Ironically, the charge of unfair privilege against the Tamils has been regularly made by a highly privileged group of Sinhalese, as a pretext to further advance their privileges.

One consequence of July 1983 is that the Tamils largely lost interest in any serious politi- cal, historical or sociological discussion that is essential for democracy and for self-defence through non-violent and democratic means. This could be seen in the lively discussion in the Jaffna-based Saturday Review before July 1983 and the lack of it subsequently. While careless or deliberately propagandist writings prolifer- ated in the South, the feeling gained ground among the Tamils that only violence was going to work. The question who was going to pay for it, was seldom asked. They were on the road to total brutalisation within, particularly among the educated elite.

We now examine some of the writings in the South that casually pass as factual. We first take the ‘Standardisation’ issue of 1970 where the new government of Mrs. Bandaranaike introduced standardisation of marks for the different lan- guage media, requiring the Tamil students in practice to obtain significantly higher cut-off marks to enter university courses, especially the more prestigious science-based courses. The cri- terion was based purely on language and had nothing to do with social privilege or depriva- tion. This was preceded by allegations that Tamil examiners were cheating. A Royal Commission, headed by Vice Chancellor, Peradeniya, Prof. E.O.E. Pereira, which went into the matter de- clared the marking ‘above board’.

Following this, the Ministry of Education came out with patently facile reasons for arbi- trarily increasing Sinhalese admissions (press release of 10th December 1970). It was suggested that with the switch-over of science teaching from English to Sinhalese and Tamil, more sci- ence graduates were needed for science teach- ing in Sinhalese. In Engineering, the facilitation of teaching students in Sinhalese and Tamil was adduced as a reason for the new alignment of numbers, although Engineering education has continued to be in English. Despite repeated re- quests in Parliament, the scheme of ‘standardisation’ was never officially revealed.

After more than a year an unsigned pamphlet was placed before Parliament on 17.9.74. From 1974 to 1977, ‘standardisation’ of a kind not recognised in the civilised world was combined with a district quota system further sharply re- ducing Tamil entrants.

The new UNP government of 1977 attempted to restore admissions on merit in 1978. Potential Tamil admissions to the sciences on raw marks rose to levels similar to those in the 60s. When protests got loud, the UNP prepared 2 lists, one on merit and the other on standardisation. Those on either list were admitted. This was followed again by campaigns to the effect that Tamil ex- aminers were cheating. The cudgels were taken up in Parliament by Minister Cyril Mathew in the ‘mosquito affair’ (see below). Subsequently a system of admissions with 30% on merit, 55% on district quotas and 15% for backward areas was introduced.

T.D.S.A. Dissanayake in War or Peace in Sri Lanka (1995, p.17) refers to the system of ‘standardisation’ in the early 70s as one giving a lower weightage to students in Jaffna and Co- lombo while giving a higher weightage to stu- dents from rural areas. Wrong! It required a Sin- halese student from the best Colombo schools (e.g. Royal College) to score minimum 227 marks to enter engineering at Peradeniya in 1971 while requiring a Tamil from a poor rural school (e.g. in Mullaitivu) to score 250 marks for the same course.

V.P. Vittachi in his Sri Lanka, What Went Wrong? – J.R. Jayewardene’s free and righteous so- ciety (Navarang, New Delhi, 1995), which has the appearance of being better researched has this to say on the same subject (p.33):

“When the United Front government led by Mrs. Bandaranaike took office in May 1970 the Minister of Education Mr. Badiuddin Mahmud introduced a scheme of media-wise standardisation of marks in the university entrance examinations. Although standardisation of marks is an internationally ac- cepted device in evaluation procedures to make ad- justments for differences in “difficulty levels” in dif- ferent subjects, when the standardisation is media- wise it is not easy to avoid the implication of ethnic discrimination. The young student adversely affected naturally sees it as an intolerable outrage.

“The problem was not made any easier by the fact that there were several well-substantiated instances of collusion between examiners and Tamil students resulting in leakage of question papers, over-mark- ing of answer scripts etc. A Tamil lecturer who was

found guilty, after an inquiry by a retired District Judge, of leaking question papers was dismissed, and a Tamil professor resigned in connection with the same incident following strictures passed on him. Unfor- tunately, it was not an isolated case. But this kind of problem is hardly one that can be tackled by media- wise standardisation.”

As to ‘several well–substantiated instances of collusion’, there were two alleged instances that became public issues in the 1970s. One was the case of the Tamil lecturer (Dr. Dayanithy) whom Vittachi has referred to. The other was Cyril Mathew’s ‘mosquito affair.’ The writer is obvi- ously trying to offset the unfairness he first acknowledged by bringing in allusions to cheating.

Dr. Dayanithy, a rural youth from Jaffna, has been acknowledged as the most brilliant math- ematician this country’s university system ever produced. He joined the staff of the University of Colombo after completing his doctorate in the University of Cambridge in two years. Prof. Gangatharan, the head of the Mathematics Department, was faced with two difficult tasks. One was to modernise the syllabus that had not been touched for several decades. The other was the new obligation to provide lectures in English, Sinhalese and Tamil instead of in English alone. Since his return, Dayanithy had been a psychi- atric patient and was taking treatment from the University’s professor of psychiatry.

A point about Dayanithy that would have prejudiced many Sinhalese in particular, was his political allegiance to the South Indian Tamil na- tionalist leader C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the DMK. Dayanithy had been known to wear black on 4th February – Ceylon’s Independence Day. This should not have been a problem in any university worth its name.

In teaching the first years, he used to take the Tamil and English classes and leave the Sinhalese class to an instructor. Normally Dayanithy should have been left to do research and not assigned to teach particularly the first years, where the new syllabus had also raised some anxiety among students. In such circum- stances the English classes, having both Tamil and Sinhalese students who preferred to follow the course in English, tended to be the more de- manding, the students being from articulate middle-class backgrounds. Being a patient, Dayanithy was known to excuse himself in class, open a flask of tea, and gulp some down with tablets, and sometimes even cancel a class.

All this was widely known to the campus folk, from the President, Prof. Osmund Jayaratne, to those below in the Faculty of Sci- ence. It is normal for one or more examples to be worked in class prior to an examination as ‘exam hints’ to help the weaker students, with- out saying they would appear in the examina- tion. What was done in the Tamil class was not done in the English class and Dayanithy failed to notify the Sinhalese class instructor about the hint.

This was, after the examination, discovered by the non-Tamil medium students. They were justifiably annoyed. The President’s son was known to be among those who actively raised the issue. However, everyone who knew Dayanithy was also sure that it was not deliber- ate. The matter was blown up and went for an inquiry. At the preliminary inquiry Prof. Gangatharan told the board of senior university dons that Dayanithy deserved to be the Profes- sor of Mathematics, meaning that he was a prodigy. Prof. Gangatharan was told that the board was not interested in that. The inquiry proper was chaired by a retired district judge and was technically fair. Dayanithy was allowed representation by a senior lawyer – Mr. M. Tiruchelvam. But Dayanithy himself was unco- operative and indifferent. He was found guilty of the technical charge, which was hardly in dis- pute, but the truth was lost.

The matter which blew up about November 1972, was disposed of by early 1973. The University moved to sack Dayanithy. Prof. Tharmaratnam, another mathematician who was on sabbatical leave in Denmark, made a plea on Dayanithy’s behalf. He asked the authori- ties to allow him to resign rather than let the black mark of a dismissal stay on his record. This request was not granted. Prof. Gangatharan, whom the whole affair struck as an unfair per- sonal blow resigned from the University of Co- lombo subsequently. It is this that Vittachi re- fers to rather cryptically in a manner suggest- ing dishonesty on Gangatharan’s part and ex- tends one incident at a university to question the A. Level gradings on which university ad- missions are based. Prof. Tharmaratnam chal- lenged the University on connected issues on a strictly legal plane and made his point. He left a few years later. Prof. Gangatharan left the coun- try. Now this country is going into the 21st cen- tury without an active department of mathemat- ics in any one of its universities.

Now we take up Mathews’s ‘mosquito af- fair’, which he brought up after standardisation was abandoned in principle in 1978. On 7th No- vember 1978, Cyril Mathew, Minister for Indus- tries and Scientific Affairs, produced six Tamil medium answer scripts of the 1977 G. C. E., A/ L Zoology paper. Pointing to the awarding of marks to a question on metamorphosis in the life cycle of a mosquito, he contended that the Tamil examiner, contrary to instructions given by the controlling chief examiner, had given marks to an incomplete answer, where one stage was not drawn but mentioned. He contended that no marks should have been given whereas two marks had been given. He went on to call Tamil examiners cheats. He produced affidavits from some controlling chief examiners etc. to support this argument. He then tabled his own memorandum wherein he emphasised the ne- cessity for standardisation. The Tamil members in the Opposition called for a full-scale inquiry into the marking of answer scripts and wanted the wrongdoers suitably punished. They also asked if the Minister’s speech represented an inclination on the part of the Government to re- introduce standardisation.

It was argued that the examiners must be given a chance to explain themselves and that opportunity should be provided to examine whether there were similar instances of ‘aberrations’ in marking in Sinhalese medium answer scripts. Mr. M. Sivasithamparam on 11th Decem- ber 1978 countered Mathew by producing affi- davits to show that there were definite instruc- tions to award marks where the name of the stage is given but is not shown in the diagram. While urging a full-scale inquiry, he complained that in spite of his having written to the Com- missioner of Examinations for permission to examine the answer scripts, not even an acknowledgement was received. An appeal signed by university teachers, both Tamil and Sinhalese, too called for a full inquiry and pro- tested at the unbridled attack on university ex- aminers.

When pressure built up for an open inquiry, it was claimed, contrary to the rule that required answer scripts to be preserved for three years, that the scripts had been sent to Valaichchenai Paper Mills for destruction. Thus the possibility of any full inquiry was precluded. Instead of getting to the bottom of the matter, the Govern- ment allowed the deliberately cultivated stink to remain. It involved the connivance of leading officials and persons having no connection with Mathew’s ministry. Even an education minister would not be allowed to carry away answer scripts in this manner. Mathew’s speeches on university admissions appeared as a book in Sin- halese titled The Diabolical Danger, printed and distributed at state expense.

Mr. V.P. Vittachi has many Tamil friends whom he could have consulted rather than re- lying on hearsay.

Rather than the unfairness, what was more alienating and hurtful to the Tamils, was the manner in which the admissions issue was handled. Both, the State as well as civil society in the South, had acted with casual arrogance. On the one hand, there was vilification of Tamils from the highest reaches of political power and officialdom, backed by the whole state appara- tus. On the other, here was unilateral and dis- criminatory decision making without consulta- tion with the Tamil leadership. This in short has been the main element in the Tamil problem. The following patronising dismissal of the Tamil complaint on admissions policy occurs in Sam Wijesingha’s foreword referred to earlier: “These measures however well-intentioned can be misrepre- sented in Jaffna and Jaffna was waiting to misunderstand.”

This was written in 1988. It would also be well to remember, that the same elements which launched their campaign of vilification in 1978, launched in May 1983, a campaign of violence and intimidation to drive the Tamils out of Peradeniya University. That was hard to ‘mis- understand’.

Where university admissions were con- cerned, the problem was that in all the differ- ent communities the number of students who qualified for university admissions far ex- ceeded the number actually admitted to the universities. This was a common problem solv- able through discussion. It has been solved to some extent by expanding Open University courses and by the release of foreign exchange for foreign degree courses to be conducted here and for study in India. What was more dis- turbing about Vittachi’s book was that the Tamils were silent about these misrepresenta- tions as were the Sinhalese for whom these im- pressions have attained the status of historical truth. Cyril Mathew’s vituperations fell on fer- tile ground.

An interesting sequel to this episode more than six years later was reported in the Ceylon Daily News of 26.6.85 (Saturday Review 29.6.85). Examination Department officials stated at a Marga Institute seminar in Colombo, that they had established that there was no communally based cheating in A. Level marking. They said that they had done a cross-check on the mark- ing of Tamil examiners, and that similarly it was untrue that Sinhalese examiners favoured Sin- halese candidates. They also stated that the De- partment had sent Sinhalese officers to keep tabs on Tamil examination centres, and this was resented as discriminatory. Professor Stanley Kalpage, Chairman of the University Grants Commission, asked the officials why they had not made these findings public, as there are mis- understandings between the communities on account of this vexed subject. The Examination Department officials replied that they were “bound by an oath of secrecy”. As to the belated official interest in the subject, it may be noted that Cyril Mathew was removed from the Cabinet six months earlier.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here


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