By Ranjan Abayasekara –
We have all heard of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. We have not heard of ‘the ton of bricks that crushed the camel’. The book, The Story of Standardisation, has in its subtitle the words, ‘the Decapitation of the Tamil People’! These words clearly indicate to the reader the thesis presented in the book, which has been awaiting publication for about forty years. The Story it details is of government policies which grievously harmed the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka’s populace.
The book is quite unusual in many ways. There is no author – it only has an editor, Professor S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole. The articles comprising nine chapters by unnamed writers have been penned some decades ago. The editor has written what is labelled a Preface, but this is no ordinary preface. It comprises about 30 pages, the single longest section of the book. The nine chapters take up just over 100 pages and the eleven appendices about 100 pages. It is a pity that the authorship of the chapters cannot be disclosed even after all these years – many contributors are probably deceased by now; most would have feared to put name to their writing.
Taken together they make up a document which presents how the policy & practice of Standardisation affected Tamil students unfairly leading rapidly to their alienation. Protest marches followed soon after, eventually leading to calls for a separate state, and great tragedy lay in wait for the community. As we know, greater tragedy for the whole country was to follow, due to a separatist war that lasted about 30 years, and the entire nation paid a heavy price.
The main proposition is expressed in the Preface. The supporting writings are in the chapters and further documentation in the appendices. Throughout the text footnotes are provided, usually quoting references such as Hansard & scholarly articles. A few footnotes are personal comments by the editor. Some of these could be considered inappropriate.
The editor has stated that he was adversely affected by standardisation of examination marks first carried out on the 1969 GCE Advanced Level results. This barred his 1970 admission to the University of Ceylon’s Faculty of Engineering in Peradeniya. Featured are anecdotes of his experiences describing issues faced by the Tamil population. Reading the preface one can sense the feelings of injustice and discrimination that have shadowed him along life’s road. The standardisation he experienced would have been ‘a ton of bricks’ in comparison with other slights. He does not attribute all negative outcomes to Sinhalese people holding power, but names Tamil persons in authority who, in his eyes, served the interests of the majority.
In attempting to present the issue and policy which caused harm to a group which included himself, personal feelings have at times invaded the writing to its detriment. There is relevant and also some irrelevant information. One can feel the writer’s angst, recording various experiences which created a sense of alienation from the country of his birth. Descriptions of the effects of discriminatory actions and how they impacted individuals add poignancy even after many years. The rupture of friendships due to myths circulated against one community by the other is portrayed.
The overall impression that the book is based on verifiable documents, many of them included in the book, is somewhat tarnished when occasionally reference is made to facts/figures ‘from memory’. Figures quoted from unreliable memory could likely have been verified/corrected by sourcing archival material. Factual errors also can creep in to the text. For example, Peradeniya’s Engineering Faculty commenced for first year students in December 1970 and not April 1971.
It was not standardisation of marks alone, but the originally gained grade being lowered that added to the injustice. Some personal examples illustrate the trauma for a student who did his best, obtained very good results and could not obtain university admission due to his ethnicity. Other personal episodes shockingly imply that once the secretive system was taken inside the Ministry of Education offices, alteration of marks probably was happening and ‘help’ given to those with the right contacts, to have their children admitted to university, or even record higher grades in the GCE O/L examination.
The chapters and appendices take the reader back in time. The writings talk of conditions that prevailed in 1980s Sri Lanka and earlier. They portray a country not long emerged from Colonial rule and not yet having developed its own institutions. They highlight some of the very unequal realities that prevailed in the country’s education system. These contributed to the emergence of an ‘unfair’ cry by the majority, which led to the remedial action of standardisation, which led to the ‘unfair’ cry by a minority.
The release of 1969 GCE Advanced Level results in 1970 occurred shortly before a newly elected government took office. This was the starting point for the “standardisation issue” which was to run its tortuous course in following years, affecting many students who were due to get a place in university. Chapter 7 gives details of the system which was put in place to find a political solution to the problem of minority numbers being higher than majority numbers. Different ‘cut out’ marks were used to admit students of the two language streams based on an unusual application of the word standardisation.
The nexus between politics and university admissions is illustrated by the fact that changes implemented in the 1970-76 period were overturned after the change of government in 1977. The promised changes were implemented but soon changed again due to political imperatives. The variations in university admission guidelines tried out by different higher education bodies, set up by successive governments are detailed. Reports by committees appointed to investigate allegations, study and report on best policy are also featured.
Is this book relevant now? Would it reopen old wounds and cause more anguish? Is communal populism and ethnic distrust too established in our land that no civilised dialogue is possible? Are there no intellectuals to debate & analyse the moral & ethical bases of such policies? Hopefully there are those who can digest the facts portrayed and, in modern times where discrimination is recognised clearer than in decades past, be able to distil the essence of what sadly happened.
The details how the Standardisation system was formulated & implemented, and a few years later the District Quota system, will be an eye opener to most readers. In fact many, like myself who lived through those years, and even had the system applied to our own marks, did not know details of these systems. District Quotas were supposed to help the poorer areas. Using District Population as the basis for allocating places – not actual numbers of students appearing from each district for exams – created lop sided admission quotas. Some districts got allocations which could not be filled. All this left room for undesirable practices, and of course grievous injustice towards students who had qualified from one district left out while their places were distributed elsewhere. Jaffna District suffered even more by District Quotas – as shown by the tables.
One must remember that it was in April 1971 that the first JVP uprising occurred mainly due to lack of opportunities for the larger mass of Sinhala youth in the South. The majority community youth too had grievances that also led to national tragedy. Hopefully the book will enable people of goodwill of both communities, who love the country, to take a step back from confrontation and a step forward in sober contemplation.
Many tables and figures of University admissions are contained in the text. They would be useful for those using this book, and referenced original sources, for scholarly analysis. The selection of writings featured in the chapters show the chronologically changing scene in the field of education in the nation. The conditions – historical, geographical, socio-economic – contributed to the pattern of advantage/disadvantage. Good American Missionary Schools were concentrated in the North and other well equipped schools in the West. Hence, the inequalities were glaring when it came to University admission numbers.
The conditions that existed at independence had English as the lingua franca of the country. The University admission system with raw marks as basis for entry may be considered the ideal system. It was ideal certainly for those who’d had an English education. With emergence of the national languages and large numbers completing secondary education in Sinhala & Tamil, the picture changed. Thousands now hoped to gain entry to university. The wide disparity in the standard of education at schools spread around the country exacerbated the situation.
The editor, having held important positions in the Sri Lankan public sector, knows about the workings of government. The expressions of distaste for unsavoury practices reveal his love for motherland, and the determination to have this book published must be viewed in this light. The impulse he feels to end unethical practices in Sri Lanka is commendable. He could with his qualifications live a comfortable life overseas, but has chosen to live in his birthplace and express aspirations for better days. He does not see his own ethnic group through rose tinted glasses and mentions its own discriminatory practices.
Ultimately, the book outlines a tragedy of a country that promised much when it obtained independence in 1948. It is even more tragic that the very institution, the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya which was created in the centre of the country to be a place where the nation’s most intellectually gifted could be brought together from all its corners, to form lifelong friendships and forge a multi-ethnic, united & blessed nation, was the place whose basis for admission became a confrontational issue, which led to catastrophic outcomes.
Higher education in SriLanka has changed much since the era featured in the book. Large numbers, even from non urban areas, now find means to study abroad. The war for a separate state and the violence/instability of the JVP era led to a diaspora of all ethnic groups. Sri Lanka now has fifteen universities, not a mere four. In addition there are private institutions affiliated to overseas universities, technical colleges & foreign professional bodies.
The whole sad saga of standardisation would have tarnished Sri Lanka’s image in the worldwide University fraternity. However products of our universities have prior to 1970 and since, filled many foreign universities’ academic staff ranks with distinction. The use of English also has grown and hopefully with communication lines open between the intelligentsia of both communities, lessons learnt will help prevent such debacles.