The Needham Commission
With SWRD Bandaranaike’s 1956 language policies, the universities faced uncertainty. A Ceylon University Commission (a.k.a. the Needham Commission) was appointed by the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke in Feb. 1958 under Dr. Joseph Needham, FRS (Reader in Biochemistry, Cambridge and China expert), Professor Gyanesh C. Chatterji (Vice Chancellor, Rajastan a.k.a Rajputana) and Leopold James de Silva Seneviratne, CCS. Needham’s wife Dorothy assisted him – in 1924 when she was elected FRS, they became the first couple to be so honored.
Needham and Chatterji were university experts familiar with the East. They took the correct position that “the university was not bound to follow government policy because their loyalties are not to the government of the day but to the larger ideals of learning and education.” But the administrator Seneviratne was used to summoning Vice Chancellors to the ministry – a tradition that lingers on in Sri Lanka.
Undermining the Commission
The arch communalist Seneviratne was ab initio controversial but well connected. He was the son-in-law of Sir Francis Molamure, the first Speaker of both the State Council and Parliament. His mother, the Lady Adeline, was the first woman Senator and first woman Senate President. He had been trained at St. Thomas’ Mutwal with Bandaranaike and others who formed the Anglicized families empowered materially through the Church, which they later deserted.
Seneviratne had been Bandaranaike’s Treasury Secretary. With the name de Silva incongruously juxtaposed by his British-created Radala upcountry aristocratic status, Seneviratne had to prove he was more Sinhalese than any other. His advocacy of 6 Sinhalese to each Tamil in university admissions – partly justified by 2000 Tamils a year seeking Indian degrees when Peradeniya had only 2000 students – upset Tamils greatly. SJV Chelvanayagam and his MPs asked Bandaranaike on 10.03.1958 to remove him from the Commission. They were refused. Seneviratne got the signal thereby to go against Needham and Chatterji and undermine the Commission at every turn.
The Needham report was ready in Jan. 1959 but its release was delayed by Seneviratne till September (printed as a sessional paper in November). He deprecated his colleagues, calling Needham a Westerner and describing India’s Chatterji as one who “had acquired a Western outlook.” He wanted every graduate to be required to show proficiency in Sinhalese before graduating. He wanted a new Faculty of Buddhist Studies, dissatisfied with the Department of Buddhist Studies that the other two recommended on grounds of ethnic equity.
Ethnicity and Caste
Needham and Chatterji opposed the Pirivenas being given university status, calling them “bogus universities,” adding that giving them university status would cut across the principle “that the university must have no caste, creed and linguistic barriers and must be open to all citizens of whatever sex.” Without their knowledge Seneviratne appears to have worked on a Bill making Vidyodaya and Vidyalanakara Pirivenas full universities; his colleagues looked foolish discovering this after working on their recommendations.
Seneviratne accused “quite a number” of university academics of communally biased grading. This became his basis for admission quotas. Hindus writing “Oonaa Sivamayam” at the top of answer scripts were accused of signaling their ethnicity to Tamil examiners. This claim was absurd at a time when the majority of university teachers were non-Hindus (Buddhists and Christians). (Recently at the Open University although all students have the right to answer in their own language in their first year, Tamils rarely exercised this right for fear of letting their ethnicity be known).
Needham “resolutely opposed” quotas. He and Chatterji both feared a drop in standards if English was abandoned and mother-tongues used before these languages rose to a level where research was possible. They urged the retention of English for science and called it an indispensable medium for the study of law. They urged engineering and medicine be continued in English for “a considerable time.” For postgraduate studies they recommended a sound knowledge of English or an internationally used modern language.
Students and Discipline
Studying complaints on student life, ragging and politicized student groupings, the Commission suggested the assignment of Fellows (Teaching Officers) in each hall. They found complaints against ballroom dancing in halls undue as there was no compulsion. Likewise although amenities were provided for cutlery and fingers for dining, no compulsion was made for either. They found the “High Table” in dining halls necessary for when visitors come but the term unfortunate. (The term and the table are still there).
They found balance in views sympathetic to students – too many irksome regulations, meager amenities and boring life were identified as causes of indiscipline. The “features of a healthy residential university” had not developed at Peradeniya they said; adding there was little teacher-student contact during which “good manners often tend to be the chief factor” governing conversation. Strictures against students, they advised, must be passed “only after examining the situation sympathetically and making all due allowances.” Our ministry should read this.
The retirement age being pushed back is owed to the report’s position that an academic at age 55 “is often just maturing, establishing a school of research, engaging in the writing of a magnum opus.” Their model of a department head is one “actively engaged in research.” The teaching load suggested is no more than 8 hours a week without examination work during vacations to encourage research.
The commission’s report was comprehensive, accepting 228 memoranda and 72 personal interviews from the public. Seneviratne argued, however, that three persons being appointed meant all three had to agree. He refused to sign it or write a dissent and thereby took the position that the report was invalid without his signature! It is not clear if the government accepted the report, although many of its thoughtful features are seen in the current Universities Act.
In the shadow of the 1958 riots, says a document in the UK’s National Archives where Needham’s papers are, “The issues which led to the delay in publication of the report were directly related to the inter-communal hostility and hence the recommendations of the report assumed a wider political significance in Ceylon.”
Why a Tamil University?
Many have questioned the need for a Tamil University. Indeed Needham and Chatterji rejected caste and communalism in the university but the government had entertained it through recognizing Pirivenas as universities and backing Seneviratne.
The Tamil University Movement was begun and spearheaded by eminent cosmopolitan Tamils who normally would have eschewed a “Tamil University” as an oxymoron and the antithesis of a university. They wanted a Tamil university to encourage “the growth of self-respect and independence of mind” which was not possible in the atmosphere of “dependence and subservience to the Sinhalese” at Peradeniya.
The two cosmopolitan Commissioners recommended universities for Colombo and Jaffna because of Pirivenas admitting students on the basis of caste and ethnicity getting the status to teach the sciences and other non-religious subjects. They wrote, “Consistency of policy will then demand that the two additional campuses at Colombo and Jaffna proposed by us should also be given the status of independent universities.”
According to Seneviratne himself, Jaffna University was added to the Needham Report after the other two Commissioners concluded that the government was “prompted by communal bias when it gave University status to the Pirivenas.” They were right. The University of Jaffna, recommended in the 1959 report would come only in 1974 and be promptly undermined from 1979 onwards by driving academics out through state violence.
The Federalists never opposed forming Jaffna University. What they opposed is its formation without a single new building by taking over Parameswara College and Jaffna College’s undergraduate section, ransacking its library to redistribute its books in the South – in stark contrast to the lavish buildings for Ruhuna later. Similarly after giving Rs. 900 million in buildings alone to Ruhuna Engineering in 1999, Jaffna is getting engineering in temporary premises, diminishing Tamil children’s access to Peradeniya. The Muslims too have accepted engineering without realizing the trick of the government giving them low quality seats at the expense of seats at the established universities. At the South Eastern girls’ hostel, Muslim women are forced to shower in open bathrooms. And it is called a university.
The Needham Report must be read again by all.