There was a Faculty Board Meeting once in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s. A brilliant Sinhalese scientist was praised for all the G.C.E. A. Level (AL) A-grades he got with admission to read engineering and for choosing instead to read science. A Tamil academic from the same batch as his openly disagreed, “All standardized A’s.” The allusion was to Sinhalese being given the grade of A with much lower than the customary 75 marks while Tamils were required to get much more; while Sinhalese passed with much lower than 40 marks while Tamils needed to score a lot more than 40 to pass. Another Sinhalese from the same batch vehemently denied that grades were meddled with. As tempers rose, Professor B.A. Abeywickrama (who headed the inquiry into allegations that Tamil examiners favoured Tamil students, and after inquiry dismissed those allegations) was fortunately present as the External Member of the Faculty Board. He said with his economic use of words, “Yes it happened.” The Board then moved on to other things.
That is human psychology. When a parent steals or commits some other wrong, the children have a way of believing otherwise. A father is always a loved hero. Likewise it is with communities. When a community advances at the expense of others, it always creates a false history to believe it acted honourably. That is the story of standardisation. That is why I find Dr. Siddeek’s narrative disturbing. The Faculty Board episode shows how divided we are on this subject with our own wishful histories.
My Personal Experience – Not Feeling Ceylonese
I sat the AL Exam in Dec. 1969 (with practical examinations in April 1970). Those were good days when education was a pleasant enterprise. I went for cricket and football in the neighbourhood during the first and third terms respectively. I borrowed a novel a day from the well-stocked Jaffna Public Library, especially during the second term when I had little interest in athletics. I did not go for a single tuition class because I knew some who had entered for engineering with IC 3S the previous year. I thought with upward standards, I could get 2C 2S and still make it. That seemed no problem. So I continued in my laidback lifestyle. I enjoyed life as any schoolboy should.
By June or so I got my admission with about 150 others to read engineering at Peradeniya. There were 103 Tamil medium students, 20 English medium students and 27 Sinhalese medium students. (My numbers may be slightly off since there were about 145 students at the cutoff mark, I recall, of 239, with 9 more at 238 taking whom would have broken the 150 limit for our only Engineering Faculty at Peradeniya then. So there was one list with 145 admissions and another with 154. The English medium would have contained all three communities, adding to the lack of exactness – Muslims, and third-shy Tamils and Sinhalese. Ours had the last batch of English medium students who were at their third and last shy for university admission. For the 1967 and previous ALs, since all science students sat in English, the question as to whether one was Tamil or Sinhalese never arose over admissions).
Previously Peradeniya’s engineering was split 50-50 between Sinhalese and Tamils. How can one community suddenly fare so much better, it was asked? There was a cry of foul. Tamil graders over-marked they alleged.
Mrs. Bandaranaike had just come in as Prime Minister in May 1970. She suspended our admissions and appointed a Royal Commission to go through the papers of us 154 who had been admitted. There was a nail biting wait. I feared the worst, thinking perhaps that Tamil examiners had indeed over-marked us! It was finally announced in the Daily News to my relief that there was no difference and if there was, Tamil examiners had been a little stricter.
That did not stop the allegations. The majority could not accept that they had not worked hard enough. If the examiners were fair, then Tamil lecturers at Peradeniya who routinely go home to Jaffna during the December vacation were alleged to have distributed questions to us. How else could Tamils fare better? Ratwatte, the PM’s brother, went on a protest march to Colombo. Posters appeared at Peradeniya saying that if we came there, the Mahaweli River would flow with our blood.
We were called cheats. It did not feel nice. I knew I did not get any questions before the exams. We did not feel Ceylonese with all these accusations. It rendered the nation into two.
There was silence from the government. September when we would have been asked to report at the university, came and went. The lists for the other faculties were not released. Then in December or so the bottom 44 of the 103 Tamils students – including myself – got a dirty-looking recycled piece of paper with a cyclostyled letter on which our names were written in ugly handwriting, asking us to report at the Ceylon College of Technology (CCT) in Katubedde to read for the “B.Sc. Eng. degree.”
The admission list had been redone adding 28 marks to the 4-subject aggregate of all Sinhalese students. Our places were taken by Sinhalese students allegedly because Sinhalese were disadvantaged vis-à-vis Tamils . A Sinhalese Permanent Secretary’s son from Colombo moved into Peradeniya because he was allegedly disadvantaged. A Tamil street sweeper’s son from Jaffna was moved out because he was allegedly advantaged!
Horrid Life at Katubedde
CCT had been the Institute of Practical Technology training post-OL Junior Technical Officers. It was upgraded to CCT with a post-AL 5-year “practical course” leading to a Diploma in Technology (DipTech) to produce “Engineers” who would not be science and design oriented like B.Sc. Engineers. The order of choice for students initially was: 1) Peradeniya Engineering 2) Physical Science and 3) DipTech (although the previous year choices 2 and 3 had switched). Among those of us who had been shifted, was one who had been offered DipTech, rejected it saying it was not good enough, got Peradeniya on his next shy and was shifted to DipTech with us!
My parents asked a Federal Party MP and relative, S. Kathiravelupillai, to file action under article 29(2) – no conferring on or derogating from a right or privilege without doing it to others. But it seemed that administrative action was out of the ambit of 29(2).
With trepidation therefore we reported to the CCT Registrar as asked. He was a jovial gentleman, Dharmarajah by name I think, out to have fun with us. We gave him our letter to report to him for reading for the B.Sc. Eng. Degree. He literally (but pleasantly, thankfully) threw the letters back at us saying “there is no B.Sc. Eng. Degree programme here.”
That is how our life began at Katubedde, a training ground for technicians who lacked the culture of a university. We alone had no identity card because no one knew what degree we were reading for. The hostel had room only for 2 of the 5 batches. The first DipTech batch was moving into its fifth year as we came into the first year. We studied the woefully inadequate DipTech syllabus. The lecturers lacked the qualifications expected of a university don. If anyone had the requisite qualifications, it was because he was senior and the one professorship in his department at Peradeniya was occupied and he could become a professor only by moving to CCT.
Katubedde was a badly developed town – we played on the Tamil version of the name, rendering it as kaattu (jungle) paththai (bush). The girls and even married women around were villagers who were so awed by university students that some (one too many) would willingly go to bed. Given their poverty, they would bathe by street pipes and, as we passed by, soap themselves vigorously, loosening their saris at the chest and giggling at us. Many a Tamil boy from a cultured home lost his head. A few were forced to marry women they had made pregnant.
Towards the end of our first year, CCT was absorbed into the University of Ceylon. The syllabi were upgraded. Staff not having the minimum qualifications required to teach at a university were given notice to move to government departments. The first batch got a B.Sc. Eng. Cey. Degree on a DipTech curriculum. Our first year courses were not rigorous, but the real engineering started in the second year and we had a full cohort of properly qualified lecturers by the third year.
We were now in a 5-year programme with one year’s industrial training. Our colleagues at Peradeniya would graduate a year earlier. We asked for the training to be done away with. The academic administration refused because “a practical degree” was the only thing it could claim over Peradeniya. We wanted an engineering science training. Finally the training was moved into our vacations. We who were in transition got out after four years and six months in June 1975.
But by then we had soured. It was a painful time. I took a week off every month and went home for nine days. The ticket by train each way was Rs. 9.90 which I made up from not having to eat in shops. Sympathetic instructors helped me make up my missed labs. A faithful friend made me a carbon copy of his notes. My parents did not object
Thank God that for us and for me it all ended well. Today Katubedde Campus, now University of Moratuwa, is rated higher and is the First Choice for AL mathematics stream students.
Personal Pain is Trivial
My pain made me feel really estranged from Sri Lanka. But I was fortunate enough to get a degree. Because Mrs. Bandaranaike stopped issuing passports to university graduates to make us all serve by compulsion for five years in exchange for our free education, I applied for my passport before graduation and left with bitterness as soon as I graduated. However, it was more than bitterness that made many of us leave. My younger brother with 2 As and pass grades in the other two subjects which I cannot remember, all on standardized marks, got nothing. With such brilliant grades he could not spend the rest of his life as a clerk or something. He needed admission to a university degree programme for which purpose my elder brother had already left the country. He and I together supported three bothers for their degrees in the UK. Despite Dr. Siddeek’s thinking, standardization kicked out of Sri Lanka many Tamils who would have contributed if we had been accepted as equal citizens.
As I said, we survived and still feel estranged. What then of the pain of the numerous others who were denied admission altogether? It cannot be trivialized as does Dr. Siddeek.
Dr. Siddeek says the Muslims also suffered. Many Muslims who were just short of the entry aggregate had sat in the English medium using the dispensation given to Muslims from the official languages Act. Badiuddin Mohammad was the Minister of Education. He was happily a tool of Sinhalese nationalism and in exchange was given a free hand to help his friends and relatives.
There was Muslim boy in our batch who had been admitted to read Physical Science even after meddling with our aggregates. No one knew exactly how Muslim aggregates were handled. He appeared at Peradeniya Engineering (which started months after we did) and was so discomfited by rumours about how he qualified, that he quickly appeared in our Katubedde class although he had missed a few months’ classes. We could not understand why he would turn down Peradeniya to be at Katubedde in the state it was in at the time.
Another student, a Muslim girl, was suddenly added to the National Diploma in Technology class as a person from a disadvantaged family. She came to class in a chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz. Sinhalese students who were justifying special places on grounds of disadvantage stoned her Mercedes Benz. I do not know whether she came after that.
1972 ALs Onwards: Double Barrelled Shots
The admissions for the 1970 AL too were done on a purely racial basis, but much more stringently. My batch in the list after meddling had some 64 engineering students out of the class of 150 at Peradeniya, and 44 Tamil students out of our class of 125 at Katubedde; the next batch had only 10 or so Tamils (my memory is failing me and I am really not sure if these 10 or so were at Peradeniya or Katubedde). This was racism pure and simple and had to be disguised in some form to save Sinhalese dignity.
By the 1972 AL the government got sophisticated through Secretary for Education Dr. Premadasa Udugama – an evil genius in the words of my uncle K. Nesiah who was Head of Education at Peradeniya. He explained to me that when students apply for admission in England to the same course of study having sat different subjects – say Arabic where the average is high and Latin where it is not – standardisation is used to scale the marks to make them comparable. The marks is scaled under standardisation using the mean and standard deviation SD to effect a fair comparison using the new standardized mark:
The result would make marks for both distributions have the same standard deviation and mean which the government set and wished to have. Udagama’s genius was in applying this legitimate scheme meant for comparing different subjects, illegitimately to the different media. Essentially his argument was that if Tamils and Sinhalese had different averages, it was because of errors in translation and grading, and this difference would be ironed out by standardisation. He ignored the Royal Commission Report and the different cultural values for education in the different communities. As a result, in subjects difficult to pass like physics in which the Sinhalese scored well below Tamils, for example, a Tamil A grade, that is a standardized mark of 75 or more, soon required a raw mark like 90 from Tamils. A pass taking a standardized mark of 40 needed a raw mark of 55 from Tamils. Sinhalese grades took raw marks of something like 60 and 25 for an A and D respectively (These example figures from physics in one year would have differed from year to year and from subject to subject).
The double-barrel shot was from media-wide standardisation and regional quotas.
Effect on Tamils: Elimination from University and Jobs Too
Regional quotas then helped a few people from backward regions to come in. That was positive and is used to defend the iniquitous scheme. Another excuse now for standarisation was that Tamil numbers in Arts degree programmes were increased because the Sinhalese did better. These arts programmes were in the local languages. Tamils have by and large seen these degrees as worthless. Thus the best Tamils did not do arts and the averages of those did would have been lower. As such Tamil arts students would have benefited when marks were standardized. It was a case of taking away something we prized and had earned, and giving us instead something we never wanted.
However, despite these excuses trotted out, it must be remembered that the purpose of meddling began with the 1970 admissions and was to keep Tamils out. After regional quotas, that meddling was given a human face but the original purpose – keeping Tamils out – was intact and still fulfilled.
Thus earlier, Tamils who lost their university places could go for jobs requiring only ALs or follow other studies like Accountancy with their AL certificates. But now, with the double-barrelled shot gun of standardisation and regional quotas, not only were they kept out of university but they were also robbed of their AL certificate when their raw pass mark got standardized into a fail mark. They could not go for jobs asking for ALs, or abroad for studies with their ALs. Nor could they make use of the new and expanding professional opportunities in studying Accountancy, Marketing and even CEI Engineering – all of which took ALs.
Is it any wonder that the Tamil youth were enraged? Even bad students who would never have entered the portals of our universities felt deprived.
Blackout and Ruination
K. Nesiah was a founder of the Tamil United Front (later the Tamil United Liberation Front, TUF/TULF). As their university teacher he could walk into any Director of Education’s Office at the Examinations Branch at Malay Street and get the shameful details of standardization for each year as Udagama fine tuned it. These details were then revealed in Parliament by FP MPs. To prevent the embarrassing leaks, a blackout was imposed on the Examinations Branch, especially on Nesiah. The result? Now officials could get anyone admitted to the universities by altering his or her marks while preventing an audit on the excuse of the blackout.
My father-in-law was an SLAS Officer working directly under Mrs. Bandaranaike as Deputy Director of Planning, working on the National Budget as an Economist. He was offered by friends to have my wife’s marks altered so she could enter for medicine. Through these sources she found out that her raw mark in Physics (giving her a pass) had after standardisation become just under 25. With the standardized mark, she had failed Physics. She was eligible for medical admission on the standardised marks aggregate, but was ineligible on the second requirement for those who had passed three subjects: that the score in the failed subject be at least 25. The offer to alter her marks was declined but the point is the fraud Mrs. Bandaranaike had unwittingly introduced into our previously sound and good system.
When the UNP would come back in 1977, we would be exposed to several newspaper reports of people who should never have been admitted (but had been through altered marks), graduated and gone abroad. Since they had passed the university exams after being improperly admitted, nothing could be done, especially when they could claim they had nothing to do with the mark alterations.
JR Jayewardene came into power promising human rights. As soon as he came into office he did sincerely abolish standardisation. In the interim Tamils had been targeting much higher marks because admissions policy for Tamils was so restrictive. When he removed standardisation, the Tamil share of admissions was far higher than ever before. There were street demonstrations by the Sinhalese. He quickly reversed policy and for that year said admissions would be done twice, by standardisation and by merit, and those on at least one of the lists would be admitted. Though better, it still meant that it was harder for a Tamil to get in. Thus began the practice of overcrowding our universities.
Deliberate Policy: A Broken People
Dr. Siddeek is right in saying that Tamils now (today) benefit from standardisation. Yes, it is true. We are a broken people. The war and migration, the loss of teachers and our own internecine killings have contributed to our downfall, aided by the government policy of making applied and pure mathematics in which we always did well into one subject. When standardisation was implemented, the marginalization of Tamils took effect to the point where we are completely fallen today. This has had long-term effects which make it difficult to climb up again. Academic standards at our universities are lax, and there are few faculty members who are able to lead the universities in research or uplift our students. This is the last nail in the Tamil coffin.
We have a new government claiming to practice Good Governance. We have an office of National Unity and Reconciliation. Will they do something or will they be happy to watch as we Tamils continue to wither?