The Tamil University Movement (TUM)
The World of Learning, covering education worldwide, announced that “Navalar Hall Colombo was founded in 1957 as the first Tamil University in Ceylon” (1960 issue). In that felicitous announcement, the memories of universities by Christians in the Pearl Fishery and Batticotta were suppressed.
In backdrop, a 1951 Official Language Commission under Justice Arthur Wijewardena on how Sinhalese and Tamil could be introduced, mooted the replacement of English with only one language. Wijewardene’s 1953 commission, reporting in July 1956 (with minority commissioners dissenting), assumed that Sinhalese would be the sole official language and recommended six Sinhalese admissions to each Tamil (i.e., 86% of seats for Sinhalese numbering 69%), that Peradeniya and Colombo become Sinhalese universities with another in Galle, and that a Tamil University be established in Jaffna or Batticaloa. But the then Prime Minister reaffirmed Tamil and Sinhalese enjoy parity.
Enter SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956, advocating Sinhalese only in 24 hours and Sinhalese instruction in universities, with 6:1 advocate LJ deS Seneviratne in tow. Responding to “this perfidy” the TUM was inaugurated (29.06.1956). Former Speaker Sir Vaithilingam Duraisamy was President; his committee had 30 eminent Tamils. TUM declared that events have proved “there can be no national university” and that the atmosphere at Peradeniya does not encourage the growth of self-respect among Tamil speaking students, but gives them a feeling of inferiority as an unwanted racial group, encouraging subservience to the Sinhalese majority. Headquartered in Batticaloa, the proposed university’s engineering, medicine and agriculture (including Veterinary Science) would be in Trincomalee, Jaffna and Vavuniya, respectively. Unlike today, the TUM could say teachers were available among Tamils “to man all faculties.”
The TUM obtained approval from London for a Tamil University College. Navalar Hall was opened on rented premises by India’s Sir KS Krishnan, FRS (14.05.1958). Money was raised for a university while seeking partial government financing. TUM and trusts were registered. Accounts were audited by Sambamurthy &Co.
By the Tamil University’s foundation stone ceremony with cultural pageantry on 10.05.1959, the venue had shifted to Inner Harbour Road, Trincomalee. A further 200 acres would be purchased in Uppuveli. But engineering would be in Colombo after Prof. R.H. Paul objected to Trincomalee, calling it premature because engineering needs industry closeby for support. Peradeniya’s Prof. S. Mahalingam told me that Paul’s were the best brains then because without supervision he published a paper in London’s IEE Proceedings. People listened to him.
The 10,000-invitee ceremony procession was led by Prof. AW Mailvaganam, followed by SJV Chelvanayagam, C. Suntharalingam and wife, S. Thondaman (to shouts of “Long live upcountry Tamils”), several MPs including Janab Mohamad Ali, and Emmanuel Crowther, SJ (Rector St. Michael’s College).
E.B. Anketell, Director of Public Health, a Johnian who read engineering in Glasgow and wrote research papers at the Institution of Engineers (IESL), accepted to be Principal, Tamil University (22.08.1959). Bandaranaike’s Health Minister Wimala Wijewardene (Ranil Wickremasinghe’s aunt, the sixth accused in Bandaranaike’s murder trial), was Anketell’s boss. Books and Time of May 19, 1961 record her affair with Buddharakkitha Thero who masterminded Bandaranaike’s assassination.
Moving against Tamils in high positions, Wijewardene gave impossible orders like building 200 public toilets in 2 weeks, and charge sheeted Anketell. As Anketell told me, he sat through the night, wrote his response and proffered it with his resignation. He reminisced how as tennis champion at Glasgow, he received tickets to a hotel where he was told “Whites Only.” But Ceylon was his country. In time he would be Director, Back to the Bible Broadcasting and Wijewardene, by then a Christian, would offer what Anketell considered an apology: “I gave you a lot of trouble, didn’t I?” His loyalties were such that his last words to me were that I come home to Sri Lanka to marry.
A Dream Killed: Natesan and Ponnambalam
Bandaranaike had promised a Tamil university when Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara opened. But politics intervened. It is not widely admitted that the Ponnambalam Ramanathan household was dysfunctional. At Presidency College Ramanathan and brother Coomaraswamy indulged in “youthful excesses,” cheated at exams, and were expelled to the embarrassment of their guardian, my ancestor C.W. Thamotharampillai, the university’s first graduate and Chairman, Tamil Studies.
Ramanathan’s youthful lifestyle lingered. With wife Sellachchi Ammal living, he toured the world with Australian Ms. Harrison as “companion.” Sellachchi, say Jaffna University historians, mysteriously drowned in their well, spawning allegations of murder and suicide. Marrying his mistress Ramanathan had a daughter Sivagamisundhari who, it is said, never came of age. Ramanathan then bought S. Natesan (aka Natesapillai and Natesan Pillai), an Indian lawyer without a brief, gave him a job and had him marry Sivagamisundhari. [See footnote]
Natesan, after position and money, joined Parameswara College and challenged Chelvanayagam for the KKS seat on the UNP ticket sloganeering “cross-or-spear?” (kurusaa-velaa?). He lost in 1947 but beat Chelvanayagam in 1952 after Chelvanayagam broke with GG Ponnambalam on the citizenship issue. For Jaffna Tamils did not yet care for the estate workers. When the language issue arose, Chelvanayagam roared back with his electoral successes of 1956; Natesan did not dare stand against him.
Ever the spoilsport, Natesan played the communal card. Backed by the Hindu Educational Society, he offered Parameswara and Ramanathan Colleges to be a Hindu University. W. Dahanayake as PM said he was positive but “the difficulty” was the TUM wanting a secular university. The TUM countered that Parameswara Trust provided only for “teaching Hinduism for Saiva students.” Chelvanayagam backed the TUM. Ponnambalam, by then rejected by Tamils and wanting to score against Chelvanayagam, supported Natesan. (The Ponnambalams still play the same game. In Dec. 2010 Ponnambalam’s daughter-in-law Yogaluckshmi untruthfully campaigned among Sinhalese that Ramanathan Trust required Jaffna’s Vice Chancellor to be Hindu). The government used Tamil divisions to avoid its responsibilities. The TUM denounced Natesan as “a discredited politician” and his associates as “a handful of Principals and Members of a few defunct and non-functioning Hindu societies, resuscitated or formed for the occasion.”
On 13.12.1961 Mrs Bandaranaike refused a Tamil university saying SWRD promised only “a cultural university” like Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara. C. Balasingham, CCS, sought a compromise through a Ramanathan University for Tamils. Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva’s amendment would change the Tamil University to a university for all people from the North and East. This created much division. In time the Mahadevas supplied, it is said, the Tamil member of a committee endorsing standardization.
With ALs switching to mother-tongue, Navalar Hall’s fortunes revived as non-Tamils applied to study London exams in English. But a new Education Bill banned foreign exams. By 1967 TUM assets, once at 5 lakhs, were decimated by high expenses – Navalar Hall alone cost Rs. 30,000 a year. Remaining funds were to be endowed to the government for a Tamil university. Mailvaganam resigned from the TUM. Navalar Hall was closed and the leased premises returned.
Dreams shattered, an exodus of Tamil academics began from about 1959; e.g., just to Malaysia, including Singapore then: Thani Nayagam (Dean Arts), S. Arasaratnam (History Professor), C.J. Eliezer (Dean Science), and others. Anketell’s double brother-in-law, George D. Somasundaram (IESL’s Secretary 1945-49, President 1971-73) who had resigned as Head, Mechanical Engineering after difficulties with Nicholas Attygalle, went to Singapore Polytechnic to start engineering and steered a part into the University of Singapore. He too a Johnian, had come first in the island’s BSc London exams thereby winning the 1929 Government University Scholarship to read engineering at Imperial College.
Wither Tamil Education?
Our academic endeavours continue to suffer. Jaffna’s long delayed engineering is finally moving under Coordinator Dr. Sivakumar Subramaniam, admitting 50 students in October from the 2012 ALs. At Kilinochchi, it is not according to Paul’s or my vision. But it is our last hope. Everyone must support him.
The UGC conference “Role of Higher Education in Reconciliation” was supposedly jointly organized with Jaffna University (13-14.06.2013) but was boycotted by Jaffna’s University Teachers’ Association because they were given no part in the planning. Omens for our managing education through genuine representatives are horrible. The army no longer even pretends to be neutral. For the upcoming elections Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe has reportedly interviewed aspiring UPFA candidates. Can this same Hathurusinghe neutrally ensure peace during voting?
Footnote on Sir Ponnambalam Ramanthan:
Arumuka Navalar in endorsing Ramanathan for the Legislative Council deliberately lied to the public saying he was “educated at Presidency College” – The Observer of May 29, 1879 – whereas his name had been removed from the rolls as stated above. Ramanathan biographer M. Vythilingam is generally honest. He admits the noncompletion of studies (but puts it on Coomaraswamy’s youthful excesses). He adds that Ramanathan’s return from Madras without a degree ended his “academic career;” for thereafter his so called legal training was merely as an apprentice to a lawyer and involved no university. Vythiling am in fact says Ramanathan failed to display any brilliance in or enthusiasm for studies.
But like the Navalar biographies, most of Ramanathan’s too should be suspect – for example the popular story about how he told off an English judge that he would have been a pauper in his country without a carriage, if it really happened, would have landed him in jail for contempt. Ramanathan’s entry to the Legislative Council was by appointment by the Governor not by election as implied by V. Muttu Cumara Swamy who uses the word “returned” (Founders of Modern Ceylon, Uma Siva Pathippakam, Jaffna, 1973, Vol. II, p. 3). Other biographies by writing of public meetings to support Ramanthan have imputed the idea of an election.
But there is a lot more to this appointment of Ramanthan by the Governor that Tamils do not speak of. Kumari Jayawardena suggests that the Ponnambalam Ramanthan family had bought its way into power, improperly lending large sums of money to British Governors and Colonial Secretaries for which they were sent back to the UK in punishment – Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, , Zed Books, London, 2002, p. 219. But by then Ramanathan had been appointed.