22 May, 2022


Tamil University Part II: The Tamil University Movement

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

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.

Foundation Stone

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

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.

Reading between lines in Vythilingam’s book, the romantic relationship (while  wife Sellachchi Ammal was around) between Ramanthan and Harrison becomes evident.

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.

Related posts;

Tamil University Part I: Fr. XS Thani Nayagam And The Mannar University

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Latest comments

  • 0

    In Majority Sinhala Sri Lanka, Hoole is talking about TAMIL-ONLY UNIVERSITY.

    This is how Tribalism works. Probably, his children works only in English.

  • 0

    Dear Jimsofty: all you writings are negative. Your brain does not think positively and you are most racist on earth next to Hitler. There is no difference between you and Praba: if Praba is a Tamil Prabaharan you are Sinhala Praba: whenever who open your mouth you talk like Veada or As if SL belongs to your Father alone: Peopel like you are waiting pour more oil on burning fire. But remember there 74 millions Tamils are waiting in TN to jump on your head: if you are proud of 13 million Sinhala I think Tamils are 10 times more to crash you

    • 0

      “Your brain does not think positively and you are most racist on earth next to Hitler.”
      Major assumption…. Jim Softy has a functioning brain!

  • 0

    Hoole was just lucky to have free education in Sri Lanka and become somebody in the world stage.

    He is a Tamil – Christian and think what would be his fate if he were in Tamilnadu ?

    But he was in Sri Lanka and did he give that respect back to Sri Lanka ?

    • 0

      Jim Softy,

      Hoole has
      a) Left many lucrative tenured/permanent Professorships in the US to comeback and work in SL starting in the mid/late 90’s.
      b) Made sure his children were immersed in SL/Tamil culture, by sending them to SL at the height of the war.
      c) At least one of the children is involved with humanitarian efforts.

      I assume you know how difficult and coveted it is to have a tenured/permanent Professorship in the US.

      Its only a handful of Sinhalese or Tamils in prestigious positions who have paid their their dues to the extent of SRH Hoole.

      We may not agree with all his views, but give the man his due.

      • 0

        [Edited out]

        @ Gayathri k, Somebody already quoted Prof. Hoole saying the Tigers are the leaders of the Tamils. He has denied it. Can you please send us a copy of the original article? After he denied it, it may not be fair to repeat it without proof – CT

  • 0

    I have difficulty with the concept of a Tamil University. Is it one for the advancement of Tamil language and culture? Or is it one to educate only Tamil students? If the former, what it needs is a good Department for Tamil studies in any university; if the latter, it is a very negative step.

    • 0

      Agreed, why a Tamil University.

      Vidyalankara (Univ of Kelaniya) and Vidyodaya (University of Sri Jayewardenepura) were Pirivenas made into Universities. By the 80’s these were secular universities and renamed as such.

      A Tamil or Hindu university is a step back, Sri Lanka universities are no longer parochial.

      Have a Tamil or Hindu University and we will be having Evangelical Universities like Oral Roberts University which teaches Creationism.

  • 0

    The concept of a Tamil University first appeared after the Sinhala-Only act; when Tamil Govt servants had to pass qualifying exams in Sinhala and when there was discrimination at University Entrance level. The picture has changed. Prof Hoole is out of date and out of touch.

  • 0

    A “tamil university” should be an institution dedicated to the study of tamil language,culture and literature.
    Such an institution exists and is known as the Madurai Thamil Sangam,established in 1901 by Vallal Pandithurai Thevar and some other scholars.
    It offers tuition and research leading to the degree “Pandit” which has to be sat for in three stages.
    Mylvaganam Samithmby a.k.a Swami Vipulananda born 1892,qualified as a Pandit in addition to BSc (London) earlier.
    A conventional university solely for tamil researh called Annamalai University was later established and Vipulananda was appointed its very first Professor of Tamil in 1931.
    In 1943,he was also appointed the first Professor of Tamil of the University of Ceylon. Details of his life and scholarship are available in Wikipedia.
    He was a real tamil scholar and published many works. He was also fluent in many other anguages.

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