By Mahesan Niranjan –
Not even six months have passed since my last visit to the University of Jaffna, as a participant and keynote speaker at a conference they hosted on “Capacity Building in a Post-War Context”. It was an impressive two-day event with over 400 participants and covering a wide range of topics, very successfully organized under rather difficult conditions, for the industrial action by academics had just begun and the University had no prior experience in organizing an event on that large scale.
At the conference, there was clear realization of various topics in which capacity was lacking, both in the region and the country, and an overwhelming enthusiasm that something should be done about it, and quickly so, in order to offset the adverse effects of thirty years of war which isolated that region from the developments we have witnessed elsewhere. In my own subject of Computer Science, I was able to have fruitful discussions with academic staff and senior management of the University over dinner, and do a most enjoyable day trip to the Karainagar beach with students and staff. I returned to the UK with much hope that it is possible to interact closely with the University community and make positive contributions towards mitigating those opportunities denied to the surrounding community.
Sadly, all that optimism is being neutralized by the ugly scenes of the last few days of the politicization and violence played out on the campus.
I agree that everyone should have the right to grieve for a lost relative or friend – and just about everyone in that region has lost someone near and dear to them in the war — but I also believe that the exercise of this right should be a private one to be confined to the shrine in one’s home or temple. Using the University hostels for collective exhibition of grief sends a political message that naturally invites trouble. Similarly, sticking posters of those killed in the war on campus walls by students, is something the community should learn to condemn, for a critical appraisal of the track record of at least some of them does not necessarily portray them as heroes. Equally, the security services could also have acted with restraint. Often the best way to deal with some kinds of immature behaviour is just to ignore them. Both parties had a responsibility to act towards avoiding tension and diffusing it rather than aggravating it.
In the context of the 30 year war that ended three and a half years ago, the University of Jaffna has an important role to play. There is an urgent need for capacity development in the country and community. The staff, student and external stakeholders of the University cannot play this role if the University becomes the stage to test out political positions, be it from the security establishment wanting to prove a point about who the boss is, or by a few mischief makers in the local community whose irresponsible acts are designed to invite a backlash that enhances their short term political gains. Perpetuating such dramas brings memories of an ugly part of our history we Sri Lankans cannot afford to see repeated.
As I write this, I note that today (5 December 2012) is the 30th death anniversary of Professor K Kailasapathy, the founding president of the Jaffna Campus of the then University of Ceylon. What we witnessed in the last few days is certainly not what that great scholar – one of the finest products of Sri Lanka’s post-independence education system — would have had in mind.
*Mahesan Niranjan is Professor of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK